What qualifies a building to be listed as a landmark?
That was the central question that the Town of Hempstead’s Landmark Preservation Commission considered at a Nov. 19 public hearing on an application to grant the former F.W. Woolworth store on Hempstead Turnpike historic status. The decision would determine whether the Town Board would also consider the application.
Much of the discussion focused on the Woolworth’s sign that is painted on the side of the building, which now houses a Synergy Fitness. Margaret Kelly, president of the Community League of Garden City South, who submitted the landmark application last year, argued that the sign itself should qualify the former department store for historic status. It was first painted on the structure in 1951.
Kelly also argued that the building — like other Woolworth department stores from the 1950s — still has the wide window frames it was built with. The stores used the windows to advertise everything they were selling on their floors, she explained, and as a result, passersby can now see patrons exercising at the gym.
And while the structure may have just a plain brick façade, she said, “There was no specific architecture to that era. It was basically just to promote corporate America.”
But Wayne Edwards, an attorney representing property owner Nauman Hussain — who submitted plans to the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals last year to build a three-story storage facility at the site — argued that there is no basis on which to grant the building historic status. He pointed to the town code, which defines a landmark as “any place, structure or building of historic value or aesthetic interest by reason of its antiquity or uniqueness of architectural design or as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristics of the town, county, state or nation.”
There is “nothing special about this façade” and “nothing ever important happened at this Woolworth’s,” Edwards said. He further argued that the storefront has undergone several changes since it was first built in 1951, and the sign is only a remnant of a store that failed.
“I think your recommendation would be flawed if you base it on a faded sign,” Edwards told the four members of the commission, adding that Hussain would be willing to take down the sign “brick by brick” if they consider it historically significant, and either re-hang it in the proposed storage facility or donate it to the local historical society.
He also called the application an attempt by local residents to stop development, and said the commission would set a bad precedent for development in the Town of Hempstead if the commission recommended the application to the Town Board. Under town code, buildings that have been granted historic landmark status cannot have their exteriors changed.
In preparing for the hearing, Kelly created an online petition to save the building, which had more than 830 signatures and had been shared on social media more than 360 times by Nov. 19. Many of those who signed, she said, either lived in the Franklin Square area or had grown up there. And in the comments, she said, they all shared stories of visiting the Woolworth on Hempstead Turnpike when they were children. The number one memory, according to Kelly, was popping balloons for a free sundae or soda, which was a “Franklin Square exclusive.”
“This is a staple in our town,” Kelly said, adding that its demolition would lead to the fall of the hamlet’s “historic feeling,” and saying that she does not want the sign removed because “it’s part of our town.”
The commission decided to hold a third hearing in January, so as not to slow Hussain’s construction schedule, which is set to begin in the next few months. Paul van Wie, chairman of the commission, said everyone who is interested should testify about the building’s historic, cultural and architectural significance, saying that would help the commission reach its decision.