Living Columns & Blogs

Packet Sea Foam: Hidden gems tucked away behind gates

Thanks to Arnold Rosen of Sun City Hilton Head for sharing his story about another gated community.

He'll be attending a gala reunion for former residents next week in Deerfield Beach, Fla.


By Arnold Rosen

Several months ago, I enjoyed seeing the movie, "The Lightkeepers." It is a romantic comedy centered on an unsociable lighthouse keeper played by Richard Dreyfuss. The movie is set in Cape Cod in 1912.

Watching the scenes of the lighthouse and the adjacent home for the keeper reminded me of my childhood days growing up in Sea Gate, N.Y.

I lived a few blocks from a very special lighthouse that provided a welcome beacon for ships entering New York Harbor. Sea Gate was indeed a unique community. It was the first gated community in New York at Brooklyn's southwestern-most point.

The Sea Gate Lighthouse (officially named The Norton's Point Lighthouse) was first lit Aug. 1, 1890, for the U.S. Coast Guard. It is situated on the oceanfront in Sea Gate and can be seen from miles away by ship captains as they steer into New York Harbor and motorists driving along the narrows on Brooklyn's Belt Parkway. It is an imposing, 80-foot-high white skeletal tower, consisting of a central steel column, black gallery and lantern. The lighthouse has an original optic lens that flashes red every 10 seconds.

The caretaker was Frank Schubert. I visited Frank one day to conduct an interview for a book I wrote, "Sea Gate Remembered." I asked him about some of the tribulations and duties of a lighthouse keeper.

"In 1937 I worked as a crewman on the buoy boat fleet," he told me. "The buoy boats sailed along the coast from Cape May, N.J., to Newport, R.I., providing lighthouse keepers with supplies. In 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard took over the buoy boat run and they fired civilian. I started tending lighthouses that same year and have been here in Sea Gate since 1960.

"I'm the last civilian manning a lighthouse in the country; so what? Visitors and reporters coming around at all hours constantly bother me. They shoot film for hours and then call me back and say they want to shoot some more. They want me to climb up so they can film me. That's 87 steps. I've been up there enough times. I don't need to make any extra trips. I'm 86, and sometimes I say I should just chuck it. I've got a son in New Mexico. He wants me to come out there to live with him. But there's no water there. I've spent my whole life around water."


We talked on his back porch as his cocker spaniel, Blazer, cavorted in the big yard that extends to the bulkhead on the shoreline of Gravesend Bay. As we talked, I gazed at the horizon and noticed two little strips of islands rising midway from the waters between the Staten Island shores and Sea Gate. When I asked Frank about the islands he identified them as Hoffman and Swinburne islands. Actually, these small islands are manmade and barely 13 acres long. During the active period of Ellis Island, they were used as quarantine and detention centers for immigrants. Swinburne Island served mostly as a quarantine hospital for those clearly showing airborne infectious diseases such as typhus, yellow fever or smallpox. Hoffman Island served mostly as quarantine for those exposed to the people put into medical quarantine on Swinburne.

"What's on the islands now?" I asked.

"They're completely abandoned," Frank replied. "It's overgrown with weeds, a few abandoned buildings and a booming rat population, some the size of my pet cocker spaniel."

Frank died at 88 on Dec. 11, 2003, in the seven-room keeper's cottage at the light station where he had spent the past 43 years as a keeper and caretaker.


The lighthouse is just one of many highlights that come to mind as I reflect about growing up in a gated community in the 1930s and '40s. Sea Gate has a rich and colorful history, from its earliest days -- even before the first settlers arrived from Europe -- to the present.

The magnificent beach, the games we played, the somber war years and the ferocious storms brought to mind indelible recollections of my youth.

Of all the amenities Sea Gate had to offer, the wonderful beach was perhaps the crown jewel. In the 1900s this strand was a broad, gently sloping stretch of hard, clean, fine white sand that extended for approximately a quarter of a mile from West 37th Street on the east to Beach 46th Street on the west and varied in width from 100 to 300 feet. It commanded the ocean view to the east, south and west.

Residents said:

"The beach was wonderful all through the year. Occasionally, a tanker would be beached or a plane would make a forced landing there. Massive ocean waves were produced when large boats such as the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth or military convoys were returning from Europe into New York Harbor. The lifeguards always warned us in advance. The waves were strangely calm when ships were going in the reverse direction, out to Europe, from the harbor," Richard Oberfield said.

"To most outsiders, distant, sleepy Sea Gate -- the 'Gate' to insiders -- was beyond the outer reaches of the real world. It was a Brigadoon -- a magical place where people awoke from their gray winter slumber each year on or about Memorial Day to play and sunbathe on the wide, seductive beaches until Labor Day," Leonard Fisher said.

Notable Sea Gate residents -- full and part time -- have included New York Gov. Al Smith, opera diva Beverly Sills, actress Sarah Bernhardt, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., John Garfield, Luther and Stella Adler, Nina Foch, Paul Muni and Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Other Sea Gate-born or based notables over the years include Dr. Martin Couney (inventor of the baby incubator) and Nobel Prize recipient Paul Berg. In the 1890s and early 1900s, Sea Gate was in its glory as a resort, with its mansions -- many designed by Stanford White -- porches and grand gardens, and visitors such as Diamond Jim Brady.


Today Sea Gate remains a gated community. Residents insert cards into an electronic pad that opens the main gate. And like Sun City Hilton Head, guests and contractors drive through a special lane where a security guard checks for authorization to enter.

No one has replaced Frank Schubert to watch over the lighthouse. The house where he lived next to the lighthouse has been boarded up. The lighthouse has been automated, and the light continues to shine over the ocean to alert ships as they enter New York Harbor.

Over the years, the neighborhood's fortunes have fluctuated, but today, proud Sea Gate folks say the neighborhood is thriving. All seem to agree that their secluded, wave-licked, gated community still remains one of Brooklyn's hidden treasures.

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