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I woke today trying to fathom a Nyack without George Bryant.  George Bernard Bryant, Jr. passed away at home last evening at the age of 77. George was one of those parts of life that you consider a “constant”, he was so faithfully, quietly, graciously THERE for so long, it seemed to many that he always WOULD be there.  This musician extraordinaire touched so many lives all over our area both as musician and passionate advocate for peace, mutual understanding, fellowship and ecumenism.

For those who don’t know, “Mr. Bryant” as he was frequently known, was the Organist, Liturgical Music Director, and Choir Director of Saint Ann’s in Nyack from 1966 to his retirement in 2014, as well as Organist for Temple Beth Torah in Upper Nyack from 1978 to 2014.  His reputation as both instrumentalist and instructor was not only national, but international, and yet this quiet self-effacing man chose to never leave his beloved Nyack for more than a few weeks at a time despite numerous offers over the course of his long musical career.

He was born June 17th, 1939 to Margaret Beirne Bryant and George Bernard Bryant, Sr and grew up on First Avenue around the corner from St. Ann’s.  George was a musical prodigy and despite his shyness, his talent was apparent at Nyack High School and the church, and his facility with keyboards, both piano and pipe organ, brought him to study at the prestigious Julliard School of Music.  In 1962, at the age of ONLY 22 (just barely, his birthday was only weeks away) George Bernard Bryant, Jr. received his Masters of Science degree from Julliard. Please note, a Master’s Degree at 22, and also note, not a Masters of Arts, but of SCIENCE a more difficult degree in Music.  He was truly both a passionate artist AND a brilliant technician.  He would go on to play recitals here and abroad but his heart and soul and life were in his little village “up the river” from Julliard.  George became musical director at St. Ann’s church a few years later, and despite many offers, including invitations to become organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, George stayed put in the house he grew up in on First Avenue, only venturing out of Nyack for the occasional master class, recital performance, international choir tour, or music festival and convention. It seemed he was quite content, first living with his parents, then inheriting the house and living with his dog for many years – though I never could tell if the poor thing was a really big beagle or a less woebegone basset hound…

Along with the two choirs, Catholic and Jewish, George had many private students and many of them would go on to great success in the competitive music world.  He was Vice President of the New York State Association of Music Teachers from 1986 to 2014, on the Board of Directors of the Rockland County Music Teachers from 1962 to his passing, a member of the National Pastoral Musicians, and several time recipient of Rockland Executive Arts Award from the County of Rockland, and in 1997 the George Bryant Organ Scholarship was established in his honor.  He helped found and guide the Rockland County Catholic Choir, and worked with many other Rockland Music groups and schools.

George was passionate about helping youth discover the magic of music – and not just classical or sacred music – but music of all kinds, all periods, all ethnicities.  When I joined the St. Ann’s Youth Choir at the age of 16 in 1979, it would be to join a group that sang not only old church dirges, but vibrant jazz, rock, broadway, creole, american spirituals, gospel and more. It was a multiethnic group, and of the teenagers that were members when I joined, George’s “kids” would go on – as I did – to a number of prestigious music schools and programs and follow with professional musical careers.  Alumni of that group inspired by “Mr. Bryant” would record hit albums (imagine a trance-dance track with a house beat and an operatic soprano soaring over the top… yeah, the album “Aria” for any former club kids featured a lead singer who was in St. Ann’s Youth Choir), others, careers in Musical Theater or Cabaret or Jazz, along with Classical Singers and Instrumentalists, and even a Jazz Vocalist who sang at the White House. Others would become Music Teachers themselves, as well as several who are also now Musical Directors at both St. Ann’s and other churches, Musical Therapists and even the head of People to People here in Rockland.

And somehow, we would all always come BACK to this man… for guidance, for practice, for a task master when needed, and a sympathetic ear if that was required. And we’d all do anything for him.  He wasn’t just a superb musician… he was also a superb human being.

Justice, Fellowship, Peace, Understanding, Civil Rights – these all meant so much to George Bryant. He was instrumental in many music programs – whether here in Nyack, or Rockland as a whole, or even in New York City – music programs that fostered interaction and understanding between different religions, different denominations, different races or different ethnicities all in a search for commonalities while celebrating each groups unique gifts and culture. He was extremely involved with the B’Nai B’rith’s “Brotherhood Thru Music” concerts back in the ’80s and the ’90s, where groups from different churches, synagogues and mosques as well as cultural groups, got together and entertained each other in rousing concerts of wildly different musical styles all celebrating our common humanity and always culminating with several pieces where all the groups performed as one whole.  Any fight for Human Dignity and Human Rights attracted his attention, and George’s most fervent, if innocent-sounding, wish was that we would all somehow learn not only to get along, but to appreciate and rejoice in our minor differences.

Heck, I learned a good amount of Hebrew during the many occasions where St. Ann’s Choir and Temple Beth Torah’s choir would come together for mixed performance and worship services!  To George Bryant, the “music” only got better as the “orchestra of life” added more and more instruments of all kinds, and voices of all kinds.

George was such an understated and constant part of our community that I think in some ways – completely without malice – his absolute genius got overlooked.  There were many times when I was cantor on the altar at St. Ann’s (especially once I actually became a seasoned performer myself) when George would be playing something and I would look out at the congregation wondering “since they hear him all the time, do they realize just HOW good he is? And how NOT normal a musician of this quality is in a suburban Catholic Church?”  The man could play a Fantasy on any given church hymn at the drop of a hat (a Fantasy is taking the basic melody and enhancing and embellishing it, especially with extremely fast and precise keyboard fingering).  He could look at a piece of sheet music he’d never seen before from any given Broadway Show and play every note on the page his first time through flawlessly and I’d even watched in awe when during one of the aforementioned “Brotherhood Thru Music” concerts, a Baptist Choir scheduled to close the show was late and was still robing when all the other performers had finished, so George Bryant, without sheet music, from memory only, proceeded to play several Chopin Nocturnes for the audience… and play them with delicacy, gentleness and sensitivity that could only be described as astonishing.

George Bernard Bryant - Facebook Photo

George Bernard Bryant – Facebook Photo

For many of us, Nyack’s George Bernard Bryant, Jr. was teacher, mentor, coach, therapist, motivator, occasional drill sergeant, and very much FRIEND.

He will be missed.

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It’s after midnight, and one hour into December 24, 2011. For me, Christmas Eve has begun and I’ll be singing my heart out at two concerts and two masses later today at St. Ann’s on Jefferson, culminating in Midnight Mass 23 hours from now. Other local friends have been steeped in Latkes and Apple Sauce (even a bit of Sour Cream now and then – which is sacrilege I know, but some just don’t know what’s right and proper!) while lighting candles and spinning dredles for a few evenings now. A Pagan friend seriously lucked out this year as her annual sprint below the solstice moon with ‘nothin’ but the radio on’ had to have been relatively balmy this year compared to last, and I’m sure the Yule Log is now merrily crackling in her hearth. All over the village and the companion areas, old traditions are celebrated and new ones born… because it’s Nyack, and so we somehow manage to be over-the-top traditional and cutting-edgy all at the same time!  Though our individual traditions can occasionally bruise the toes of another’s traditions, for the most part they co-exist side-by-side relatively well and even find new and innovative ways to celebrate together or even combined… and always in our own unique, and frankly, quirky ways.

I’ve tried to explain to friends and colleagues who’ve never been here, that even in the worst of times, Nyack at Christmastide through the Nights of Chanukah and the Festivities of the Yule and the Principle Seeking of Kwanzaa still has a *suspicion*, a little frosting as it were, of pure unadulterated magic. All through the Season we light our homes and even the sky on New Year’s Eve with joy, with fellowship and with fun. Give Nyackers yet another reason to celebrate through the dark days and they’ll take it. Which is why you’ll find Haitians celebrating Sint Niklaus Day and Irishmen munching Latkes while a Russian Jewish lady puts ornaments on her friends’ Christmas Tree and an Italian Teen hangs with his bros at the Nyack Center listening to the Principals and a Catholic Nun joins her friend at a Sacred Oak.  Cause it’s Nyack. And we truly LIKE to share some of our fun with our neighbors who celebrate something else… and because we’ve never EVER done things the way any other place does. And that’s why only Nyack could have had these folks pictured below come by to help us celebrate the Winter Holydays for so many years… who knows, maybe some future December, Santa’s sleigh will once again be drawn by Elephants in the Snow…

Photo from the Bernard Collection, Hudson River Valley Heritage

Mom, Juno and Babe out for a frolic in the snow!

photo from Bernard Collection; Hudson River Valley Heritage

Back home for some Cocoa… by the gallon!
 
And so to all of you – in my tradition – a Very Merry, Very Nyack Christmas! May you have a Bright and Blessed Season no matter what you celebrate! Hold close to your friends and your family and remember THEY are the true gifts of the season… cherish them and it, and may all your holidays be Nyack-y! 

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Well, it’s October again, and time for some more local ghost stories – this one is perhaps among the saddest of them all, a whole village that became a wraith of its former existence. The recent fast-tracking of the new Tappan Zee Bridge has brought back fears – well-founded – of homeowners forced to move because of state and federal projects. In Nyack, we mostly discuss the bi-section and gutting of the Village of South Nyack but South Nyack amazingly survived that amputation, other communities in the same time period did not do nearly so well. Not only did the New York State Thruway and the Tappan Zee Bridge project cut a wide swath across the middle portion of the county, but the state conservation movement decided, in the name of “open space” to condemn and forcibly move a good number of Rockland’s villages and hamlets. We tend to think of Harriman State Park and Hook Mountain State Park, and Tallman and the like as intelligently saved pristine old-growth forest. They are not.  Most of the area now in our State Parks was taken from Rockland residents whose families had lived there for centuries. At the bottom of Lake Welch resides the former village of Sandyfield, settled in 1760, condemned in 1928 with the last residents REMOVED from their homes in 1939. Or how about Doodletown? Settled by French Huguenots in 1762, their descendents would be the last to leave more than 200 years later when the state used the power of eminent domain  to seize their homes, church, school, business district and two cemeteries. The remains of the late 1790’s village of Johnsontown – still occupied when Harriman and Bear Mountain State Parks were created, lies beneath Lake Sebego and Lake Kanawauke.  The hamlet founded in 1724 by the Conklin family on Pine Meadow Lake was bulldozed in the 1960s for a series of 35 camps for urban children that have yet to be built in 2011. Sterlington was also wiped from the maps, St. John’s in the Wilderness no longer has a village around it and caters to a congregation of memories and regrets. In all cases, despite some propaganda from the state, the residents did NOT want to go, and were certainly not compensated properly for loss of property.

Wasn’t this supposed to be about Rockland Lake and the Nyack area?

Yes, it was – I was just filling in a bit about the approximately 13 villages and hamlets Rockland surrendered to the State.  One of the most egregious cases was that of Rockland Lake.  John Slaughter settled the area on the Hudson below Rockland Lake in 1711 (the piers and docking area were called “Slaughter’s Landing”).  Harvesting of ice for storage purposes and meal enhancement at restaurants began commercially in the USA in 1805 and demand skyrocketed as “modern” convenience and the middle class both expanded to become part of the everyday life of the young USA.  The Knickerbocker Ice Company incorporated at Rockland Lake in 1831 (changing the name officially from Quaspeck Lake). Rockland Lake was known to have had the cleanest and purest ice in the area. The stored ice was placed on inclined railroad cars, transported down the mountainside, placed on barges on the Hudson River, and shipped to New York City. So much ice was shipped that Rockland Lake became known as the “Icehouse of New York City”. The nearby Knickerbocker Fire House was established 1862. The Knickerbocker Ice Company closed in 1924 as commercial refrigeration and freezers took the place of Ice Harvesting.

photo: J.P. Schutz

 
Wikipedia would have us believe that Rockland Lake Village as it was then called, died by 1926 when it claims that while demolishing one of the old ice houses, the residents themselves caused a fire that “destroyed the majority of the Village of Rockland Lake” effectively ending its’ existence.  Really? In reality, less than a dozen buildings caught fire in a village of well over a thousand people.  Though the glory days of fast clipper ships and later crack steamers carrying Rockland Lake Ice literally all over the world had ended, Rockland Lake Village survived the change. There was still work in the trap rock quarries and also in the hospitality industry.
 
After the Ice, Rockland Lake became known as a resort area for folks from New York City and the rest of the metropolitan area. I owe my own residency in Rockland County to that time period. My grandparents, lifelong New York City residents, maintained a summer and weekend bungalow cottage at Rockland Lake from pre-WWII until they were forced to leave it in the 1960s. My grandma and my mom and uncle would spend most of the summer weeks up here while my grampy joined them on weekends. At the end of the summer, my grandma would return to her manager position at Lord & Taylor and they’d come for weekends whenever possible except for the coldest weeks of January and February.  My Mom learned to drive here and took her drivers test in Nyack. The family would attend church at St Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in Rockland Lake on Sundays, bringing 4 welcome musical voices to the congregation. They saw movies in Nyack, had sodas at Woolworth’s, got prescriptions at Koblins and shoes at Glynns. And fell in love with the area – when my Mom and my Uncle married, each brought their family here to the area around Rockland Lake. In the early 1950s when they were looking, they realized that Nyack and even Rockland Lake were too much for their newlywed finances, taking my Mom and Dad just next door in Blauvelt, and my Uncle and Aunt to the edge of the area in West Nyack.  My grandparents would continue to come weekends and summers to their Rockland Lake bungalow and considered Rockland County their second home.  Through the 1950s and into the early 1960s the area of Rockland Lake Village still had many thriving vacation cottage and bungalow communities, local shops, a number of restaurants, cafes and lunch counters, tradespeople’s businesses, along with Gethsemane cemetery, the Rockland Lake Post Office, and the church, along with over a thousand year-round residents and several thousand seasonal residents.  By 1965, it was almost all gone. The beautiful mission church St. Michael’s established in 1901, would be demolished by the state in 1963 – 6 years before any serious park service work was done in its area.  The post office closed its doors in 1965, effectively ending Rockland Lake’s existence as a “place”.
The firehouse still bravely struggles on, even to this day, and a few homes remain.  As for the rest, taking a walk from the Firehouse over the ridge and down to the Hudson along what was the main road of the old village brought me to a ghost town where I found ruins, lots of ruins: of houses, of the old inclined railway, of the shipping piers, and even of the grand hotel that used to be right on the Hudson shore.

photo: JP Schutz

I found myself very sad, and oddly, a bit angry. Why destroy a living, breathing village, or 13 of them in the case of Rockland County’s full total? Greenspace is a wonderful thing, but at such a price? And sadly, so much of what had been inhabited is almost unreachable anyway – it’s never been utilized or even properly cleaned and returned to wilderness. It was just taken away. Some will say for the benefit of all, and they may very well be correct – on the great ledger of society, it may be that Rockland County’s loss of the Mountain Hamlets for Harriman State Park, the heart of the Village of South Nyack for the Thruway and the Bridge, and the Village of Rockland Lake for Rockland Lake State Park is a “net gain”.  But I must submit that the gain does not come without sorrow or bitterness… after all these years, my mother has NEVER returned to the spot that was the source of so much of her early happiness – despite having lived just a few miles away in the ensuing 45 years. (She has promised she will come – with me – so I can give a more first hand tale from one of the old “summer people”).  Before the park, Rockland Lake was a beautiful lake that was frequently used by “city people” and other non-residents who would come and rent here, or buy here, and shop the local stores and businesses during their summer stay. Now, busloads are shipped in from the city to use a man-made pool and then head back to the city just hours later without ever becoming involved in the local communities or adding to their economies while utilizing their resources – resources that were taken AWAY from the locals. Is this progress? Was this what was intended? Again, in light of the beauty that is Harriman State Park, the peace of Rockland Lake State Park, and the needed interstate and river crossing we have now – perhaps it has been for the best common good.  But Rockland has given and given and given for the common good and too infrequently receives back.  The mountain villages and Rockland Lake Village are no more… I hope that those in charge take serious consideration of just how much this area has sacrificed to the common good before they plunge into the sadly necessary need to rebuild the Bridge. Before anymore homes, dreams, communities, memories and history get trampled in the mad rush of expediency and “for the common good” may those in power take some time to consider treading as lightly as is humanly possible in a place that has already sacrificed so much of itself. Karma is supposed to come around, isn’t it? Hey Albany, are you listening?

photo: JP Schutz

 

photo: JP Schutz

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10 Years Ago Today: 9/11/2001 Nyack’s 9-11 Hero

I’ve been planning a post about a certain young man for almost a year – half out of the concern that perhaps he’d be forgotten in the crush of politicization of the event; conflict over the museum and memorial; bickering between New York and New Jersey over who should be “invited”; the inevitable conspiracy theories and an undercurrent of still simmering anger and unresolved grief. I was wrong.  Mercifully  he has NOT been forgotten in the chaos of this anniversary. People have remembered to celebrate and tell the story of this remarkable young man.  The mysterious and miraculous “Man in the Red Bandana”, a Nyacker who on 9/11/2001 lived – and died – according to what he believed and what he had been taught by his family, his church and his schools growing up among us. Welles Remy Crowther, NHS Class of 1995. He did us all proud.

The Honor Student from Nyack High and volunteer member of the Empire Hook and Ladder Co. in Upper Nyack graduated from Boston College in 1999. He was working at Sandler O’Neill & Partners as an Equities Trader. From his lofty office on the 104th Floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower it seemed that the world was literally and figuratively at the feet of this polite, dedicated, brilliant young man.  Then that dream exploded on the wings of hijacked planes and a religion hijacked by fanatical extremist devotees.  Wells Remy Crowther would counter those acts of crushing hate with acts of towering love. 

This athletic young man would have easily made it out, and could have. At 9:12 AM he would call his mother in Upper Nyack from his cellphone to say he was okay. His mother would never hear his voice again. For Wells Crowther (who had already somehow miraculously made it down to the 78th floor skylobby from the 104th) could not see the pain and fear and confusion in the Skylobby’s burning ruins and not ACT.  He led people to the only remaining usable stairwell to the lower floors and carried a facially burned woman down all the way to the 61st… and then he went back up for more people, and brought them down, then back up again… On March 19, 2002 Wells Remy Crowther was finally recovered in the company of several FDNY and EMS members – the group had been heading back UP with a ‘jaws of life’ device when the South Tower followed its’ sister in a slow cascade of doomed hopes and broken dreams. At least 18 people are known to owe their lives directly to the selfless acts committed by a man in a red bandanna. On December 15, 2006, through a Special Commendation by the NYC Fire Commissioner Welles Remy Crowther was made an honorary member of the FDNY.  This was the first time in history that the department had done that posthumously. The Crowther family was presented with a framed certificate of appointment which included a department badge and a red bandanna.

The word “hero” is sadly overused these days.  Pampered overpaid athletes simply doing their job are not heroes.  Politicians mouthing platitudes  and slogans of every variety are not heroes. Even those who survive an act of horrifying evil, or lose someone to it, are not heroes but victims of an assault on humanity. People who put their lives on the line everyday fighting fires, crimes and dire illnesses – or fighting in service of their country – are heroes. And people who go back upstairs over and over in a conflagration of staggering proportions, knowing full well that the edifice’s twin has already collapsed, and who are not even “official” rescue workers on the scene? Well to me, that’s the definition of a superhero, or perhaps, a saint. In the spirit of “No greater love than this…” , young Mr. Crowther laid down his life – not even for friends – but for perfect strangers. Strangers he believed were his brothers and sisters in the human condition. When I reach my last day on Earth, I hope that I can face it the way Wells Remy Crowther did – with courage, honor and love.

photo: Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust

 

10 Years Ago Today: 9/12/2001 Nyack the Day After

Of course, everyone over the age of 18 remembers where they were on “that day” 10 years ago – I was with most of the other Rand Realtors in Orangeburg at a conference that quickly came to a halt and we watched horrified as friends, neighbors, and even spouses died in front of us on TVs in the lounge of the Holiday Inn, before slowly singly and in pairs we slipped out and headed home to some perceived place of safety or at least of isolation from the horror.

But what about the next day? Do you remember where you were on September 12, 2001?

I do – I spent much of it at the Runcible Spoon cafe in the center of Nyack and just blocks from my house.  Still staggered by the events of the day before and sitting up literally all night watching the news and waiting for reports on loved ones and friends, we crept out of our homes and our modern-day isolation in desperate need of human contact. The first thing I noticed was the silence – not a single plane was traversing that blue sky. Almost no one was in a car, there were people on the street, strangely hushed and many with red-rimmed eyes. And there were… flags. In a trendy village that considered overtly patriotic displays to be inappropriate or gauche except on special holidays, suddenly Old Glory could be seen on flag poles, on porch railings, hanging from the terraces in my building the Ivanhoe and down the street at the Rivercrest, or tacked up in the windows of apartments or the few open businesses. I stifled an urge to cover my heart with my hand right in the middle of the cross walk.

Arriving at “The ‘Runce” there were some subdued greetings and some deep quiet hugs – assurance that YOU and I were still here, that there was some sanity left in this bad dream. And newspapers everywhere – I must confess, I still have not looked at that famous photo in the New York Times – it seems somehow obscene (and I mean that word in its’ original meaning) that the terror and horror of some poor soul’s last plummet to the ground could be tossed out like a vacation snapshot. I felt violated for that man when a friend reading the Times started to fold the paper back intending to show me, and I turned away. Looked around instead. Confusion. Muffled sobs. Inappropriate laughter. Then silence again. I heard a child’s voice ask “But when is mommy coming home???” and silently wept in my heart for the adult who could not answer that innocent question. A question that burned in my mind all day and that evening back home listening to Chuck and Sue continuing to give us more information on what was happening, I wrote a lyric for a children’s musical I was writing with composer Neil Berg. “Someone’s Always There For You” became the most loved song from the musical the HHPAC had commissioned us to write. 

The next morning there would be more flags, eventually every car would begin to look like it was in the Presidential Motorcade and bunting and banners were everywhere. On September 10 we were grumbling about parking, arguing over the Nurses’ lawsuit at Nyack Hospital and really oddly, on September 10, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was calling for a downsizing of the Department of Defense, giving it a grade “D” for business efficiency and comparing to “Soviet Central Planning”. The tragedy of September 11 put away our differences for a good long time – reminding us of our shared experience as human beings and as citizens of the United States of America.  We came together in a way that had not happened in some time – as shared crisis will always do.  Yes, as the tragedy receded into the past, the events of that day would be used over and over by numerous politicians of all stripes as a tool to be used to get elected; and religious denominations bemoaning perceived flaws in some other religious denomination or lifestyle, and yes, the makers of really tacky Americana kitsch would make a windfall on items that can be looked at now while shaking one’s head and thinking “how did I ever buy THAT?”  The tragedy has been used, and abused. But it did bring us together as a Nation when we had spent so much of the late ’80s and all of the 1990’s in a long era of self-interest and diffidence toward community.

Fast forward to September 11, 2011. When I was on the altar at St. Ann’s this morning (now yesterday morning, good grief!) singing “God Bless America” at 9:59AM – I found myself mentally and emotionally flashing back to the horror, the fear, the anger and the pain of that day and feared I would lose my composure before I could finish the song. Then I looked out at the congregation, many of the same faces I saw a decade ago, and I remembered the day AFTER – and the sense of community that saved us from despair in 2001 saved my song and tribute in 2011. One cable TV station chose to honor the 9-11 Anniversary by playing my favorite film “Casablanca” which puzzled me at first.  Then we got to the scene where everyone at Ricks is looking at the floor while the occupying Nazi army sings a victory song. One man with the courage to risk his life and resist – Victor Laslow or Wells Crowther? – goes to the bandstand and conducts the orchestra into playing “La Marseillaise” the National Anthem of then occupied and conquered France. Eventually everyone else in the cafe joins in the song – not a fist fight or exchange of shots, but a subtler battle for the heart and mind – the offensive Nazi battle hymn is drowned out by people realizing that they are more than the sum of their parts, and that when they join together they cannot be defeated.

Donations can be made to the  Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust, P.O. Box 780, Nyack, NY 10960-0780;  crowthertrust@aol.com. The trust endows scholarships for Nyack High School students and helps fund local music, environmental and educational charities.  

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For the rest of her long life she was tormented by the same nightmare. She would find herself with her back to the pit facing the guns of the Bolshevik Firing Squad as did her brothers and her uncle the Czar, and all of her cousins. They would fire and her lifeless body would land atop theirs in that shallow pit she could never forget.  She was the last of the Romanov Family to remember what life was like in Imperial Russia.  Born in 1906 to the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess, she was the childhood playmate of her cousins Princess Anastasia and Prince Alexei and their sisters, and was related to most of Europe’s royal families.  She fled with her mother and one brother into exile in 1918, and would later again have to flee the Nazis from Bavaria. Where would she find safety and peace? Why Nyack, of course.  She passed away here 10 years ago in January of 2001.

photo: pubic domain

Nyack’s Russian Orthodox Community is one of the “quietest” and least known of our many diverse ethnic communities.  I remember a day during my summer college break of 1982 – I was working with the Orangetown Assessors office doing a full reassessment of all the homes in the township and was (not surprisingly) assigned Nyack.  One day we were on Cedar Hill Avenue being escorted through a Victorian house by a woman with a fairly heavy Russian accent. The walls were festooned with lovingly framed old photographs – I gasped when I recognized one as Anastasia and the other Romanov sisters and pointed it out to my supervisor who was quite possibly a bigger history nerd than I am.  He looked and then pointed to another: “That one is Czar Nicolai and Czarina Alexandra in their car!” The lady of the house just beamed at us, and then from behind we heard this deep commanding voice.  “You know of them? Tell me what you know of them…” We turned to see an elderly man with a ramrod straight back and sliver hair in a military cut.  His daughter proudly informed us that her father had been one of the Czars Imperial Guards, and the old gentleman led us to the parlor where we sat for hours drinking tea from glasses and listening as he told us stories of the days of the Czar, the fear and horror of  the Revolution and his escape to freedom in the United States. He told us that Princess Anastasia did NOT survive her escape attempt with brother Alexei (their burned remains would be found only a few years ago and DNA tested proving his story correct) but that a Romanov Princess of the House Royal was living right here in the Nyacks.  He spoke very highly of The Tolstoy Foundation and Holy Virgin Protection Church located across Cedar Hill Avenue from his home.

With the help of many others including composer Serge Rachmaninoff and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Countess Alexandra Tolstoy (daughter of author Leo Tolstoy) began the Tolstoy Foundation in 1939. Through her foundation, she assisted more than 500,000 people to escape the atrocities of war and religious and political persecution while building a new free life in America honoring their past heritage, but assimilating quickly into the American Mainstream. In 1941 with the help of a “private donor” she acquired the Reed Farm in Valley Cottage.  There new refugees could come and learn English and modern working skills and live until they could move out into the greater community.  Many chose to stay close by and so Nyack’s Russian Community was born.  It became obvious that a church other than the one on the grounds of the Foundation was needed for this small but thriving community, and after a few temporary locations around the Village, the parish opened the doors of its new member-built sanctuary The Holy Virgin Protection Russian Orthodox Church in 1957, it’s church school is still considered one of the finest in the Russian Diaspora.  As you come across the Tappan Zee Bridge, you can see her golden-burnished dome lifting itself above the buildings around it as this quiet church caters to its dedicated parishioners. 

 After years of flight and turmoil, Princess Vera Constantinova would finally find a place to rest, arriving in at the emigre enclave on Lake Road in Valley Cottage in 1951.  She began to work selflessly for the Tolstoy Foundation, eventually splitting her time between the Foundation (and the St. Sergius Chapel on the grounds there) and an apartment she found in New York City.  Princess Constantinova and founder Countess Alexandra Tolstoy would continue to dedicate their tireless work to the Tolstoy Foundation for much of the rest of their lives, eventually moving back to the center into the Adult Home where Tolstoy passed away in 1994 and the Princess in 2001. 

If you have never had the pleasure of touring the lovely Holy Virgin Protection R.O. Church, make a date on your calendar to attend their now locally famous “Holiday Boutique ala Russe” usually in late November. Here Russian arts and crafts are sold and celebrated, samovars steam and russian delicacies are lovingly prepared and the visitor is permitted to tour the sanctuary.  The book store is a delight for craft fans and history buffs alike.  The Church and the Tolstoy Foundation are a great credit to these Great Ladies and to all the other men and women – royal or not – who came here and from sorrow and loss created hope and a future, forever intertwining the threads of their history into the fascinating tapestry of the Nyacks…  “Do Svidanya”, ya’ll!

photo: Holy Virgin Protection Church website

http://www.holyvirginprotectionchurch.org

http://www.tolstoyfoundation.org/index.htm

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Along with my continuing series on “Why is it called that”, I’ll also be doing a continuing series on some well-known Nyack buildings that were constructed as something else entirely. 

THE HOTEL EVERETT:  The five-story building that is the home of Pickwick Bookstore at 8 South Broadway was for many years Nyack’s tallest building.  The Hotel was host to a special dinner for young John D. Rockefeller, Jr,’s Sunday School Class (though Junior didn’t bother to show up himself – shy, I expect) back in 1906 and made the New York Times back in November of 1911 when the mysterious suicide of young man named H.E. Baldwin occurred in one of the rooms (and from some accounts of friends who have lived there, may be lingering on...). The upper stories are now residential rental apartments with spectacular views from the upper floors. 

photo by J.P. Schutz

 

CONGREGATION SONS OF ISRAEL:  The House of Worship on the corner of  South Broadway and Hudson Street was constructed in 1924 for the Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack – in the early 1960s, the congregation required more room and moved north on Broadway to their current home on the border of Nyack and Upper Nyack (where they maintain a vibrant congregation – in fact, they marched by my building blowing their shofars celebrating Rosh Hashanah while I was setting up this post!). In 1964, the structure became the Berea Seventh Day Adventist Church and remains so to this day.  The former temple still displays a number of visible symbols of its’ former use, notably the Stars of David on top of each tower and the depiction of a scrolled Torah in the stained glass above the door. Of course, though not frequently seen on Christian Churches, the symbols are a part of the spiritual heritage of all Judeo-Christian denominations, and so were fortunately kept intact for us to admire today. 

photo by J.P. Schutz

 

HOTEL ST. GEORGE:  This gorgeous structure located on Burd Street between Broadway and Piermont Avenues was once Nyack’s most glamorous hotel, the Hotel St. George.  Jim Leiner of the Nyack Villager will tell you there were once 25, count ’em, 25 hotels scattered around the Nyacks and mostly concentrated downtown (He should know, his great-grandparents were the proprietors of the “Nyack Hotel” that stretched from Main Street through to Burd Street).  Built in 1885, the Hotel St. George was the preferred overnight accommodation for many a Ferry or Hudson Steamboat passenger, and was renowned for its’ Dining Room, particularly their Grand Breakfasts featuring “Flaming Rum Omelettes” – proving that Nyack has been doing Fabulous Brunches for well over a century! 

photo by J.P. Schutz

 

The Hotel St. George is now a lovely complex of office suites at 48 Burd Street.  I am so grateful that such a gorgeous building with real “Nyack History” was so lovingly up-dated… but I still wish it could have been brought back as downtown’s only hotel.  “But I can dream, can’t I…”

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