By Ronald E. Roel
(Originally published in Newsday on June 15, 2000)
EACH YEAR around Father's Day, as the heat thickens and the mountain laurel burst into bloom, my mind floods with memories of my father, gone seven years now. Like every generation of sons—especially as they become fathers themselves—I wander back through the collection of family stories, the images and emotions, the smells of childhood, reinvoking what it was that made these men special. And what strikes me most is the special love my Dad had for the land he carved out of Long Island 50 years ago, the home and the community he built as a self-styled “modern pioneer” in the shadow of Levittown.
With a small group of engineers from Sperry Gyroscope Co. in Great Neck, where he worked for 24 years, my father, Edmund L. Roel, forged a communal project he named “Bonnie Downs,” the Good Hills. Twelve engineers formed a non-commercial corporation that bought a hilltop in rural Woodbury, divided it up, put in the roads, brought in water and electricity, negotiated with a maze of local governments, and finally, built their own houses.
“We were a group of amateurs, with no previous experience—just guts,” my father would write years later. Where there had been scrub forests and rock-filled terrain, they would create a sense of place.
It was a distinctive venture, by most accounts.
In the post World War II-era, there were two kinds of building phenomena on Long Island—the large-tract developers and the do-it-yourselfers—says Lee Koppelman, executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board. Custom developers of one or two houses were common, and in Suffolk County, especially, where land was cheap and zoning and building codes weaker than Nassau, there were lots of individuals trying to plunk down houses.
But a project like Bonnie Downs? “That was very rare,” Koppelman says. There also have been various “intentional communities” over the course of Long Island's history, including religious communities and cooperative housing built or bought by related families, adds Barbara Kelly, curator of Long Island Studies at Hofstra University. Occasionally, short-lived utopian communities have sprung up, such as Modern Times, the 19th-Century anarchist village that was eventually renamed Brentwood. And many informal small communities emerged naturally among developments like Levittown, the result of “age cohorts”—new homeowners around the same age starting up families and leading similar lives.
Still, a project like Bonnie Downs consisting of unrelated people coming together for social and economic reasons—“doing the whole package, from planning to building—that's quite unique,” Kelly says.
The seeds of my father's place began in 1949, when he first thought of buying a house “set in a wooded area of Long Island,” according to a 1953 account in the Sperry News, the company's house organ at the time. Much of the Island was still open, verdant territory. A promotional pamphlet published by the Long Island Association in the early 1950s to attract businesses to Nassau County described Nassau “as more than a county—a way of life.”
“Thinking is clearer, living is happier and the tempo of business routine is less wearing than in the constant turmoil of the big city,” the pamphlet trumpeted. “Suburban Nassau County is in the chips these days, and they're not confined to Long Island's famed potato variety.”
It went on to tout: “NO SALES TAX. EQUITABLE ASSESSED EVALUATION. STABILIZED TAX RATE. NO PRIVILEGE TAXES.”
Even so, when my father priced the land and houses, they were both too steep; he temporarily dropped his plans. Dad was in his early 30s, married to a young Cuban woman named Leslie Adele Gonzalez, with one young son, my older brother. For the moment, they would continue living with his family in a large house on East 21st Street in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.
Then one day, Dad, an electronics engineer, was having lunch with a Sperry colleague, George Frost, who was in a similar situation. At the time, Sperry Gyroscope and its parent, Sperry Corp., which had produced key navigational instruments for the war effort, were growing rapidly as they expanded into electronics technologies.
Dad and George figured there must be other young engineers like them at Sperry who might be interested in pooling resources in a community project that could dramatically cut costs.
“George took hold of the idea right away,” recalled Mary Frost, George's widow, now living in Littleton, Colo. Her husband was among all those “young marrieds who wanted to build a home for themselves. That's the way it worked.”
Still, “it was pretty tough going, right from the beginning,” Dad told the Sperry News. “The first thing we did was poll several engineers. We asked them how far from Sperry they would like to locate, the size of a suitable plot, what they would like to spend, and what they thought of a communal project.”
The result was that everybody liked the project idea and all the answers were pretty much in agreement: They wanted land within a 30-mile radius of Sperry, beaches, boating facilities, good schools, reasonable taxes and “a fair price for the parcel.”
But not everyone was willing to work to make it a success. Dad and several other Sperryites decided to visit a project in Connecticut they had heard about, formed by engineers from American Cyanamid and Perkin-Elmer, called “Boulder Ridge” in New Canaan, composed of about 25 plots. They conferred with the president of the project, who told them about how they had made Boulder Ridge an ongoing enterprise.
“We thought that was sound advice,” Dad reported to the Sperry News. So they decided to make Bonnie Downs a corporation with stock, officers and bylaws to “get financial commitments so that people would stick.” By most accounts, it was Dad who remained the driving force behind the project.
“Ed was the pivot, the key,” recalled Grant Schleich, a Sperry colleague who came to Bonnie Downs from a Levitt home.
Eventually, they settled on a 30-acre parcel in Woodbury, near Cold Spring Harbor but just inside Nassau County. It was not on the water but was still near the Sound and close to the railroad station. Mom recalls Dad taking her to the spot along Woodbury Road, an old Indian trail, and saying, “We're going to build on the top of that hill.”
Her initial reaction: She cried.
It was raw, isolated land, not something my young mother, who was raised in Havana and lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before marrying my father, was prepared for. There were about 85 families sprinkled around a few grand North Shore estates in the area.
When you looked out from the hill at night, “it was black,” said Schleich. In time, my mother would come to call Bonnie Downs her “terrestrial paradise.” But at that point, she was not the only one who viewed the venture with consternation.
“Papa Lo had a fit,” recalled Carl Royer, who had married Dad's younger sister, Dorie.“Papa Lo” was Lorenzo J. Roel, Dad's father, who emigrated from Monterrey, Mexico, to practice Mexican law in New York City, and married Ilma Liska, one of five Hungarian sisters. A story in one of the city's many newspapers, the Evening Mail, in 1922 profiled “Mamma” Liska, the matriarch of the “Family League of Nations,” whose daughters each married a man of a different nationality-”five stalwart chaps-a Mexican, an Italian, a German, a Hungarian and a Belgian (but all determined to be Americans to the very marrow of their international bones).”
Papa Lo loved New York; it became his place. My aunt, Tía Dorie, as we call her, remembers having lunch with her father outside his downtown Manhattan office and watching the construction workers building the Battery Tunnel."
He acted as if the city was his!” she said.
Dad, too, had found his place, although he never abandoned Brooklyn. Our many trips to the old neighborhood to visit Papa Lo and Nana and the Royer family were filled with warmth and high adventure. The block buzzed with a communal feeling that my father embraced; he just wanted a bigger block.
“Ed had a dream and he made it come true,” said Carl Royer. “He wanted space-and he didn't want the trees cut down.”
When the time came for Dad and his Bonnie Downsmen to distribute their 13 two-acre lots, not surprisingly they used “an engineering approach,” said Bob Wendt, another of the original Sperryites. “We assigned values to the lots, knowing how much we needed to break even” to pay for the land and the road,” he said. Then they set up a priority list, with each person listing the lot they wanted with the price they wanted to pay. If there was a lot several people wanted, the price was raised for that lot and lowered for another lot.
“The third time around everyone got a lot they wanted at the price they wanted to pay,” Wendt said. “It was remarkable. Nobody griped.”
After that came handling all the red tape: approvals from the Nassau County Planning Commission, the county department of public works, the county health department, tax commission, county treasurer and superintendent of highways, among others.
That was just to get started. Then they had to bulldoze through the hill to put a road in, curbing, drainage, slope, surfacing, all to specification.
“We had contractors do most of the tough work, but we had our share of sore feet and aching backs,” Dad said at the time. “Eventually, we were able to make arrangements for water and electricity, and after many disappointments, defeats and changed plans, we were able to start building.”
Actually, half of the original 12 members sold their plots to other Sperryites or outsiders before building anything. But my father and mother started a roughly two-year-long process that meant driving out from Brooklyn most weekends.
Mom remembers those days vividly, first coming early each Saturday with cooked chickens, and then, when the stone fireplace was completed, cooking meals over the fire. They hired carpenters, electricians, roofers and other contractors but also pitched in themselves.
“It's incredible how much work we did,” Schleich said. And they frequently did things together, he added, pointing to the time “five or six guys came down to help Ed set the cement on his garage floor.”
One neighbor cut wooden street signs for Uphill and Hillcrest Lanes, which my mother designed and painted with rustic settings. My father cleared the grounds for a lawn, in front and back of the house, but as Carl Royer—and just about everyone else—noted, he cut down trees with pained reluctance. For Dad, trees called for our respect if not our reverence, and there was nothing worse than clear-cutting an area for the sake of expedience.
Several families, including ours, jointly owned a jeep with a plow attachment-it was a time you really could have used an SUV to get around Long Island. Mom remembers the summer of '51, when, pregnant with me, she would ride up the hill standing up, so she wouldn't bounce me inside.
Dorie and Carl occasionally joined my parents on their weekend project. The tasks could be daunting, Carl recalled: “You'd work all Saturday, and sometimes you could hardly see what you'd done.”
Mom still winces when she talks of Dad spending hours cutting the sheet metal to form the furnace duct work, leaving his hands bloodied from handling the sharp edges. At the end of long summer days, my mother remembers listening for the sounds of the katydids—a sign it was time to go back to Brooklyn. When I recounted the whole process recently to Wayne Marnell, the president of the Long Island Builders Institute, the local trade group, he said, “It sounds like a herculean effort.”
On the one hand, it was a different era, when kinship and community and reliance on others followed the spirit of the war effort. Still, “to go at thirteen homes requires good planning, engineering and budgeting,” Marnell said. “It's a very risky venture for anyone not familiar with Long Island. I tip my hat to them.”
In the end, even Papa Lo was impressed, said Royer.
When Mom and Dad were done, they ended up with a two-floor, 1,300-square-foot brick house, nine rooms two baths, a basement and big back yard. Dad added some touches that were innovative at the time, including a fish tank that was built into the wall and was visible from both the kitchen and dining room, and a bathroom divided into three separate areas, so one person could be showering while another was using the toilet or grooming before the mirror-powder room area.
We moved in on Dec. 5, 1953. During our first Christmas the living room walls were still unfinished, my mother said, so we covered them with pine branches and the walls became the Christmas tree.
A week later, Grant and Miriam Schleich moved into their house across from us. It was actually the last lot taken, No. 13, but the Frosts, who had the first house just on the crest of the hill, chose 5 Uphill Lane as his family's address, instead of 1 Hillcrest, which they had the option to do. That left 12 numbers for the remaining 12 houses on the hilltop. “George took it so we wouldn't be No. 13,” said Grant Schleich. “He never said anything to me. That's the kind of guy he was.”
The lots cost between $ 2,300 and $3,500, factoring in not only the cost for the land but the development of the roads and infrastructure. Mom and Dad's house ended up costing $17,000, and most of the others were within a few thousand dollars of that. By comparison, a basic Levittown house, a 2-bedroom, 1-bath expandable Cape was going for about $10,000. Dad told the editors of Sperry News: “We're well on our way to having just what we'd hoped for in our 'Prospectus on Membership in Bonnie Downs'-a community of gracious living for those who believe in self-help through mutual cooperation.”
For many years, Bonnie Downs was, in fact, the community its founders envisioned. There was a “passel of kids,” as Grant Schleich says, about 20 in the early neighborhood, including me and my brothers, Larry, Ray and Dan.
“Your mom was so strong in that community feeling. She just collected kids,” recalled Mary Frost. There were plenty of woodland barriers separating properties but like much of America at the time, no fences, no locked doors. “The unofficial rule was that when a child turned three years old, they could walk over to the neighbor's and nobody thought anything about it,” she said. “Children were always welcome in those houses.”
The parents—all “aunts” and “uncles” to us—relied on my older brother, Larry, now an ophthalmologist in South Carolina, to help keep order among the kids, Frost said. When the neighborhood played baseball in the area my father cleared on one part of our property, she said, it was Larry who would change the rules to adapt to the child at bat.
“We all knew things that were happening to each other,” said Ruth Wendt, Bob's wife, as we sat last week in their living room, recalling the hilltop's social life. For most of my childhood, there were community picnics in the summer and progressive dinners on New Year's Eve, when the grownups would walk from house to house, starting with appetizers at one home, moving onto the main course at another home and ending with dessert at still another—not having to worry about drinking and driving.
Several of the engineers, including my father, were volunteers in the Woodbury fire company. For a dozen years, Dad even co-owned a 1931 Model A fire truck with Dave Pardoe, a fellow volunteer and a Syosset social studies teacher for many years, now retired in Massachusetts.
“It was one of the best things we ever did as an investment in joy and fun and neighborhood feeling,” Pardoe told me earlier this week. We'd often ride the truck around the hilltop, at church fairs, Model-A rallies and parades. The time most of us remember best was the hard-fought Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign of 1960.
Dad, who shared the same birthdate as Kennedy—May 29, 1917—was stalwart Republican, while Pardoe was an active Democrat. The truck was used by both campaigns, depending on which co-owner had free time, racing and clanging bells through the same neighborhoods after a chameleon-like change of signs. Pardoe recalled, with a chuckle, one sly sign-changing incident when he added to the Nixon campaign sign—“Vice President Nixon Can't Stand Pat”—with a Democratic rejoinder: “We Can't Either, We Like Jackie Better.”
Despite their political differences, Dad and Pardoe remained fast friends, a testament, I think, to my father's view of the community as an integral part of the spirit that created Bonnie Downs. That vision still seems to provoke us today, amid the vast, virtual connectedness of the Internet.
“It's almost as if there's something in our collective psyche,” says Kelly, Hofstra's curator of Long Island Studies. “We are all looking for something that is manageable and communal, without necessarily having the blood ties.” Over the years, my Dad took leadership roles in practically everything around us-the Joint Civic Council, the Woodbury Methodist Church, the Boy Scouts, the Syosset Senior Center.
At my 30th high school reunion two years ago, a classmate, Stu Horn, now a dentist in Connecticut, rushed up to me and said, “When I heard you were going to be here, I had to find you to tell you how much your father meant to me when I was in the Scouts.” It was my Dad's patience he appreciated, and “the time he spent every Friday night with a bunch of kids running around a gym when he could have been home with his feet up, having a beer.”
Dad adapted to the wild swings and layoffs in the aerospace industry in the '60s and early '70s, shifting to Grumman, then finally leaving the industry entirely to found Roel Chemical, a Huntington-based distributor of plastics and chemical products, in 1973.
In his later years, Dad began the outline of a book he called, “A Guide for the Modern Pioneer” He broke it into two parts, “Developing Your Own Community” and “Building Your Personally Designed Home,” and summarized it this way: “A how-to-do-it book by a latter-day pioneer, who served as a catalyst for setting up a group of amateurs, with no previous experience-just guts-who established their own homes, at whopping savings.”
He never finished.
One early June morning in 1993, I was awakened by a telephone call from my brother Dan. “Ron, the mighty oak has fallen,” he said. “Dad is gone.” He died of a heart attack at 76, about a week after Father's Day.
Of the 13 families I grew up with at Bonnie Downs, there are five owners remaining, including the Schleichs, the Wendts and my mother. The American diaspora has scattered the children nationwide-literally, in the case of the two Frost daughters, one of whom settled in Alaska, the other in Maine. Bonnie Downs, the corporation, no longer functions, and the old familiarity among neighbors is not the same. But it's not gone entirely. “It's still a special place,” said Miriam Schleich one recent afternoon as we sat on The Point, the edge of her property, watching red-tailed hawks glide over the ridge.
While Sperry has dissolved into Unisys, Woodbury—once a quiet hamlet I would describe to newcomers as “between Syosset and Huntington”—has emerged as a hot community of more than 8,000 residents, with tony shops, gourmet food stores and a few gated housing developments.
On Memorial Day—Dad's birthday this year—I took my twin 3 ½ -year-old sons, Jimmy and Tommy, to see the old fire truck again, now grandly restored by the Syosset Fire Department and leading their fire engines in the parade. Most of Dad's beloved trees are still there, now thick-trunked and tall.
“What a sweet, lovable man he was—and, it seemed to me, always reasonable, looking for answers, trying to figure things out,” Pardoe wrote of my father in a letter to Mom two years ago.” Thank you, Ed, for a life well-led.”