Roslyn Grist Mill restoration promises to revive a main street destination

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Roslyn Landmark Society President Howard Kroplick inside the Roslyn Grist Mill. (Photo by Teri West)

It looks like the kind of structure kids instinctively draw to depict a house – a rectangle with a triangle slammed on as the roof.

An ordinary looking building like that stands out in Roslyn where many are tall and ornamented.

Right now, however, the grist mill looks sunken. The base of the roof is nearly at street level, and the construction signs on the light brown wood out front could trick one into thinking the building is just another new structure being built.

It’s not.

The grist mill has known Roslyn since before the United States was independent. It has seen the village evolve over the course of 45 presidencies and the main street rise with development.

Soon, as the next step in what is planned to be a three-year restoration project, the grist mill will be raised to be at street level once again. In years to come, it will welcome visitors.

“This is one of the jewels,” said Howard Kroplick, president of the Roslyn Landmark Society, which is leading the restoration project. “This is a real treasure here.”

Wooden beams traverse the length of the structure, bolstered by diagonal pieces and connected by pegs. The existing timber frames are the original ones from when the grist mill was built, sometime between 1715 and 1741.

“People who love grist mills just go crazy when they see this,” Kroplick, in a hard hat, said as he gestured toward the Dutch frames. “This is like a dinosaur.”

The hardest part about the grist mill restoration was starting it, he said.

For decades, there was a sign out front promising a coming restoration that never happened, Kroplick said.

The Nassau County-owned building required millions of dollars worth of grants to be completed. They have flowed in. To date, the state has contributed $1 million, the county has given $440,000 and an additional $820,000 has come from donations, trusts and foundations.

That $2.26 million is 40 percent of what the Roslyn Landmark Society estimates the project  will require.

“In terms of being a museum, I think that it will be an attractive option for all surrounding communities and eventually word will spread throughout Long Island and also Westchester and Manhattan,” said Roslyn Landmark Society Trustee Jordan Fensterman. “I think that people will be very interested in coming and seeing an area that is really a time capsule for how America was.”

In August, it successfully began the first phase of restoration, having hazardous materials abated, beams stabilized and the roof repaired.

In coming weeks, a company from Pennsylvania will come to raise it. The grist mill had been at street level until around 1900, when the parking lot across the street was built, Kroplick said. 

“The lake used to come right to the road,” said Roslyn Landmark Society Secretary Jay Corn. “That parking lot is all filled, so to bring it back to grade level is really bringing it back to its original location, and that’s exciting.”

The building served as an industrial water-powered mill for more than 150 years, according to the Roslyn Landmark Society. As of 2017, it was one of 21 wind and water mills still standing on Long Island, according to Kroplick.

“The mill was the center of the economy when it was built,” Corn said. “The farmers used to bring their grain there. That mill probably supplied half of Manhattan with flour.”

One of the Roslyn Grist Mill’s most renowned visitors was America’s first president.

George Washington wrote about a stop at the owner Hendrick Onderdonck’s house, which was next to the grist mill, in his diary, according to the Roslyn Landmark Society.

“Breakfasted at a Mr. Underduncks at the head of a little bay; where we were kindly received and well entertained,” Washington wrote. “This Gentleman works a Grist & two Paper Mills, the last of which he seems to carry on with Spirit, and to profit-distc. from. Oyster bay 12 Miles. From hence to Flushing where we dined.”

After retiring from its original purpose, the grist mill was converted into a teahouse in 1920. It remained so for 54 years, garnering tourist attention.

For years after that, it had a sign out front proclaiming restoration would begin soon, Kroplick said. He moved to East Hills in 1984, and remembers it being one of the first things he noticed.

“That was always the question, when are they going to do anything?” he said. “The only thing that you saw being changed for like 30 years was the sign in front when new politicians came in.”

The Roslyn Landmark Society was founded in 1961. Roger Gerry sought to restore homes in the area and have it designated as historic.

“Roslyn eventually got on board and said run with it,” Corn, who knew Gerry, said. “He really was responsible for saving what was there and creating this little bucolic village that is a trip back in time.”

The grist mill project has momentum now, Kroplick said. The mayor of the Village of Roslyn is supportive, the state and county are supportive and the Roslyn Landmark Society has recently invested in other restoration projects.

It even has an Instagram page devoted to the grist mill.

“We eat and walk in the area around the pond all the time and see the grist mill in a state of disrepair,” Fensterman said. “My children have asked about it, and I’m excited that it has progressed to the point where it’s going to be a community resource.”

A recent accomplishment was having a historic marker sign placed out front. Despite its location on the village’s main street, people who’ve lived in Roslyn for years had never known where the grist mill actually was, Kroplick said.

Standing inside the grist mill, he spotted a family peering at the sign from across the street.

“That’s what’s great,” Kroplick said. “Here you’ve got people who’ve been ignoring this building forever now see that something’s being done.”

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