This Memorial Day, A Lost World at Cedar Grove Beach

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The beach club opened in the summer of 1911 along a half-mile crescent of sand a few miles south of the Narrows. Named for a stand of trees near its inland boundary, Cedar Grove started out as a modest affair. Those campsites soon gave way to single-story bungalows with screened-in porches facing the sea.

Photo by: Anthony Butera

The beach club opened in the summer of 1911 along a half-mile crescent of sand a few miles south of the Narrows. Named for a stand of trees near its inland boundary, Cedar Grove started out as a modest affair. Those campsites soon gave way to single-story bungalows with screened-in porches facing the sea.

For the first time in 100 years, the Cedar Grove Beach Club will not open for business this summer. The enclave’s 41 beachfront cottages on the south-east shore of Staten Island still stand, but they’ve been shuttered by the City of New York. The families who lived in them, many for generations, will not raise the stars and stripes on their patio flagpoles this Memorial Day; they won’t grill the season’s first burgers and franks, or drink Budweiser and Guinness late into the night, making conversation over the distant, repetitive pounding of the surf. Instead, they will lament the demise of this, the last of a string of seasonal bungalow colonies that once adorned the beaches of outer-borough New York. With its passing, a world is lost forever.

The beach club opened in the summer of 1911 along a half-mile crescent of sand a few miles south of the Narrows. Named for a stand of trees near its inland boundary, Cedar Grove started out as a modest affair. That first year, it comprised a row of campsites where families slept inside army-style canvas tents, cooled by the easterly breezes off the Lower Bay.

Those campsites soon gave way to single-story bungalows with screened-in porches facing the sea. Most of the wood-frame buildings sat on brick pilings, raised a few feet above the sand in case of a hurricane or storm surge. Their airy interiors were laid out shotgun-style beneath exposed beams and roof rafters.

The inevitable Robert Moses

My grandfather, a captain on the Staten Island Ferry, bought one of the Cedar Grove bungalows in the 1920s, and our extended family spent every summer there for nearly 40 years. Some of my earliest memories are from that tidy little cream-and-green house with its outdoor cold-water shower and perpetually sandy floral carpets. We left in 1963, when I was five.

By then, the city had seized the Cedar Grove property by eminent domain to make way for a shorefront parkway envisioned by Robert Moses – an inevitable presence in New York stories of this kind. After the parkway project fell through, the bungalows were leased back to their former owners, but the city reserved the right to retake the land for public use. City Hall finally exercised that option last year, saying the cottages would be torn down to make way for a municipal park.

The Cedar Grove families spent the summer of 2010 fighting the closure. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful. On October 1, the deadline imposed by the city, they had to leave.

For the moment, the now-vacant cottages are caged inside a rugged chain-link fence that the parks department has installed. Their demolition is on hold. Predictably, the planned Cedar Grove park is mired in bureaucratic wrangling and budget shortfalls.

Meanwhile, in a final indignity to the evicted residents, HBO has been granted a license to shoot scenes for Boardwalk Empire in the picturesque seaside ghost town. But it may be a challenge for the producers to capture the early 20th century look they’re going for. While a handful of the bungalows are well preserved in their original Arts and Crafts details, many were substantially altered over the years. Aluminum and vinyl siding predominate, though some of the cottages still wear their weather-beaten cedar shakes like a badge of honor.

Strong ties with summer neighbors

In conversations with longtime beach dwellers, it quickly becomes clear that architectural integrity was never the club’s defining quality. For them, friends and family were at the center of Cedar Grove life.

“You knew everybody,” recalls Eleanor Dugan, a lawyer and former teacher who arrived at the beach in 1970. Her husband had just been discharged from the Navy, and the couple needed a place to stay while hunting for a year-round home. They ended up coming back every year and establishing strong ties with their summer neighbors.

“We were friends become family,” says Dugan, “a whole village living together and sharing the joys and tears of life together.”

A few years ago, one of the Dugans’ grown sons moved into the bungalow next door, reflecting another fact of Cedar Grove life: It wasn’t just about family but, rather, extended family. A membership roster tracking bungalow occupancy over the decades reads like an interlocking genealogical chart, as new generations from the same group of families branch off into different cottages. Intermarriage among the branches solidified community bonds. So did organized activities, including communal pig roasts on the beach and dinner-dances at the barn-like clubhouse not far from the colony’s entrance gate.

‘Everybody was related’

Edith Holterman, now in her eighties, met her late husband at the club, which her family joined in 1938. “Everybody got to know each other,” she says. “There were a lot of us who met at the beach and got married.”

Holterman raised five children at Cedar Grove – along with asparagus, rhubarb, lettuce and herbs in a bounteous garden she maintained there for decades. When her children grew up, they came back to visit each summer with their own offspring. The grandchildren, in turn, bonded with the latest crop of barefoot kids prowling the beach at will.

“It was one of the last places in New York City where kids could run free,” says Todd Etlinger, a retired engineer who was baptized in the kitchen sink of his parents’ Cedar Grove bungalow. Although the roaming packs of young ones appeared to be unsupervised, Etlinger explains, they were under the watchful gaze of the community at large, where adults trusted each other with their children’s safety.

“After a while, everybody was related,” he adds. “These were people you had history with, people you knew your whole life.”

End of an anachronism

Of course, such strong bonds tend to exclude outsiders, and the beach club was not immune from accusations of clannishness. Indeed, its 1911 charter featured a racial exclusion clause that was highlighted as a selling point in early advertisements for the club. That exclusivity remained in place, de facto, until Cedar Grove’s final days. Most of the members were Irish- and German-American – old Staten Island stock from the days before the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connected the borough to the rest of the city and the diverse world beyond.

In the end, Cedar Grove was an anachronism, a slice of insular white ethnicity situated, by an accident of history, on a prime tract of publicly owned land.

And yet, a certain enchantment lingers. Eleanor Dugan compares it to the 1950s Lerner and Leowe musical about a Scottish Highlands town that springs to life once every 100 years. “It’s like Brigadoon,” she says. “This little community closes down in October or November, and it starts up again the next May.”

But the close-knit village by the bay will not reawaken this year. A century after it was cast, the spell has been broken at Cedar Grove Beach.