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Vanderbilt Parkway granted historic status

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The world’s first road built specifically for daily automobile use — a “hidden jewel” in the heart of eastern Queens — will finally receive the historic recognition it deserves, state Assemblyman Mark Weprin (D-Bayside) announced.

Weprin said Monday The Long Island Motor Parkway, known locally as the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway, has earned a place on the New York State Register of Historic Places. Weprin said the listing adds “an important distinction to an already special place.”

“The parkway has never gotten the fame that it deserves,” said Robert Miller, an aficionado of the motor parkway for more than 33 years. “This is the world’s first road designed and built for the daily use of the automobile ... there was nothing like it before.”

The parkway, commissioned by William Vanderbilt Jr. in 1908, once wound approximately 48 miles from Peck Avenue in Fresh Meadows to Rosevale Avenue in Ronkonkoma, L.I., Miller said. Today only scattered segments of the concrete parkway remain except for an extensive section that curves its way through Cunningham and Alley Pond parks to just outside the Queens/Nassau border. Closed to vehicle traffic, the parkway now provides a well-used trail for joggers, walkers, cyclists and nature enthusiasts.

“It’s just very tranquil and very serene, and you kind of feel like you’re not in the city limits any more,” said Martha Taylor, founding chairwoman of Friends of Cunningham Park, the organization responsible for the push for historic recognition. “Not many people know about it, and of course we’d like more people to be aware.”

According to Miller, a tragic race car accident that killed one spectator and injured four in 1906 inspired Vanderbilt with the idea of a private motor speedway. Vanderbilt officially broke ground for a 12-mile stretch of road in the fall of 1908, and by 1911 the parkway stretched from Long Island to Queens.

Vanderbilt early on dropped plans to limit the parkway to racing, opening the road as a public “pleasure” tollway that cost $2 each way. He held three Vanderbilt Cup motor races during the parkway’s first years, but gave up on hosting races when four spectators were killed in a racing accident in 1910.

The parkway officially closed in 1938. Owing more than $80,000 in back taxes on the parkway, Vanderbilt handed over the road’s right-of-way deeds to county governments in exchange for forgiveness of his tax debts. He never profited from the venture, Miller said.

“He never made a nickel,” Miller said. “It was one of the few money losing ventures the Vanderbilt family actually had.”

The Friends of Cunningham Park received a matching grant of $3,000 from the Preservation League of New York State that enabled it to research and evaluate the parkway and make a successful application to the State Register of Historic Places.

Although the historic designation does not provide the same level of protection as city Landmark status, Weprin said this is the first step in preserving the parkway and celebrating its historical value.

“It gets a spot of notoriety as being an important place in New York state,” Weprin said. “The protection it gets is that once it gets enough publicity and people find out about it, it holds a much more dear place in their hearts.”

The parkway is now under review for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, based in Washington, D.C. Weprin and the Friends of Cunningham Park believe the parkway will be successful in receiving national recognition, after which they hope to secure a City Landmarks Preservation designation.

Reach reporter Patricia Demchak by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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