The Nyack Lighthouse, a prominent waterfront landmark visible from the old Tappan Zee Bridge, captured the imagination of Nyack residents in the mid-20th century. However, despite its appearance as a traditional lighthouse with blue stripes, it lacked an actual functioning light. In reality, the structure was built using repurposed gas tanks.
Besides the lighthouse, the Nyack Yacht Center, a unique waterfront resort, encompassed a marina, boutique, art gallery, restaurant, shops, and a swimming pool. This article delves into the origin and eventual decline of the Nyack Lighthouse located at the foot of Burd Street.
Nyack Waterfront in the Early 1960s
By the early 1960s, the once vibrant Nyack waterfront had fallen into disrepair. The Nyack Ferry had ceased operations even before the Tappan Zee Bridge opened. Its abandoned ferry terminal looked lonely on the docks. Additionally, the deteriorated Nyack Rowing Association building at the foot of Spear Street, once a symbol of Gilded Age Nyack, had succumbed to ruin following a severe northeaster storm in 1950. This destructive event caused boats to be pushed ashore, further damaging the decaying boatyard and nearby docks. A two-level gas tank stood as a neglected sentinel on the Burd Street dock. However, Victor Ferris emerged as a beacon of hope.
Victor Ferris, Industrialist, Inventor, and Boating Enthusiast
Victor Ferris, a billionaire by today’s standards, owned the abandoned six-acre Nyack waterfront. Ferris, known for inventing the paper milk carton as a student at MIT, went on to develop industrial relief and safety valves. He also made significant contributions to the US Navy as a consultant, working on such projects as gyroscope development and the design of submarines and destroyers.
Ferris resided in a 20-room mansion on the site of the historic Hellicon Hall in Englewood and, later, in West Palm Beach, Fl. In addition to managing a large family charity, he constructed several office buildings in West Palm Beach. During his leisure time, he enjoyed his 85-foot yacht, Victorious. His passion for boats fueled his desire to revitalize Nyack’s waterfront.
The Lighthouse & Marina
In March 1965, a marina and lighthouse opened simultaneously on the Nyack waterfront. Leveraging his inventive skills, Ferris transformed the two old gas tanks at the foot of Burd Street into a visually striking lighthouse replica that successfully deceived many observers. The four-story structure featured railings on three levels with an open signal tower at the top accessible via an internal stairway.
Adorned with blue stripes on two levels, the lighthouse stood alongside a marina that accommodated approximately 63 boat stalls with a maximum capacity for 55-foot boats. The marina, boasting a depth of ten feet, also housed shops, boat storage, and maintenance facilities within a large shed on its eastern end.
By the summer of 1965, the Nyack Yacht Center thrived as a bustling hub. In fact, they even advertised a job opening for a “Gal Friday” with skills in bookkeeping, typing, and general office tasks. Despite its initial success, the marina business faced challenges in the 1970s due to economic crises and gasoline shortages, leading to a decline in boating popularity.
The Lighthouse Boutique
Situated on the nautically themed ground floor of the lighthouse, a women’s boutique opened its doors. The Lighthouse Boutique attracted attention through its large, eye-catching advertisements in the Journal News, showcasing fashionable clothing from renowned designers in New York, London, Paris, and Rome. The dress collection catered to both the “mod-miss” and the “sophisticated” tastes. Accessories ranged from sports watches, textured stockings, jockey caps, handbags, and white boots.
Tastes in clothing began to change by the mid-1970s. In 1976, the manager of the Lighthouse Boutique lamented the bygone era when boating women would shop clad in bathing suits and leisurely sip martinis. Nevertheless, the boutique offered “curb service,” enabling customers to try on clothes aboard their own boats.
Coffee Shop & Restaurant
At the foot of Main Street, Ferris constructed a long two-story structure that incorporated the old ferry building. In 1966, the Nyack Lighthouse Center Coffee Shop opened, featuring a special Lighthouse burger, a club breakfast, and a sirloin steak dinner for two at the affordable price of $5.00. Nearby, an ice cream stand served cones, shakes, floats, and sundaes.
Shortly thereafter, the Nyack River Inn commenced operations, providing lunch and dinner. services. The scenic river views from its windows encompassed Hook Mountain to the north and the lighthouse and Tappan Zee Bridge to the south. The Nyack River Inn also offered late night suppers and live music in its cocktail lounge, showcasing local musicians and singers.
In 1973, new owners rebranded the establishment as Captain’s Cove, promising year-round entertainment in their Celebrity Room. The Celebrity Room hosted local performers and counted famous comedians Milton Berle, Myron Cohen, and Stiller and Meara among its guests.
By 1976, the restaurant was rebranded again, this time as the Windjammer, which became the most memorable name associated with the establishment. However, the Windjammer’s fortunes took a downturn in 1979 when heavy rain flooded the basement and attic, and it never seemed to recover. The restaurant was plagued further by tragedy in the same year when a 17-year-old boy stabbed a girl to death just 100 feet away from its location. In 1981, a man was arrested for attempting to steal a ship’s wheel from the closed restaurant.
Cabana Club & Swimming Pool
“Swim on the River, Not In It” Ad slogan
In 1969 the Lighthouse Yacht Center introduced a fresh-water swimming pool situated on a dock above the river. Given the Hudson River’s pollution, which dissuaded most from swimming in it during the 1970s, the pool’s slogan “swim on the river not in it“ was fitting. The pool boasted a sun deck extending from its eastern end, alongside amenties such as lounges, lockers, cabanas, showers, and a luncheonette. The exact duration of the pool’s operation remains unclear as it faced competition from other Rockland County “cabana clubs” like the Monterey Cabana Club in Bardonia, the Rockleigh Country Club, and the Hillcrest Cabana and Country Club.
Lighthouse Art Gallery
In September 1968, Harvey Dash, an artist, teacher, and Upper Grand View resident, established the Lighthouse Art Center within the Burd Street building. The center consisted of the Lighthouse Art School, offering courses in painting, sculpture, jewelry, and ceramics, as well as a special Saturday class for teenagers. A few months later, the Lighthouse Gallery opened its doors, hosting its first exhibition featuring works by well-known Rockland County artists like Henry Varnum Poor, Nyack’s Mortimer Bourne, and Harvey Dash himself, among others.
The school and art gallery operated until 1975 when Dash relocated the school to his home in Upper Grand View.
The Clearwater Sloop Controversy
In August 1969, the Clearwater sloop docked at the Lighthouse Yacht Center for two nights. The Clearwater, a single-masted sloop, was the brainchild of environmental advocate and beloved folksinger Pete Seeger. The goal of the Clearwater was (and still is) to educate the public about the river‘s condition and advocating for its clean-up.
The two-day event commenced with a performance featuring Pete Seeger and the Hudson River Sloop Singers attracting hundreds of attendees to Memorial Park, even in pouring rain. The following day, a Saturday, a children’s parade in costume marched to the park, and merchants set up streetside booths selling “sloop” merchandise. Eager crowds thronged the docked Clearwater during an all-day open “house.” A “happening” took place in the park that evening.
A few years later, in 1973, the Clearwater was denied docking in Nyack. The manager of the Lighthouse Marina, James Downey, cited concerns about handling the large crowds and the excessive amount of trash left behind by the visitors. Additionally, people were further outraged when the Lighthouse Yacht Center struck a deal with the Copy Cat, a stern-wheeled tourist boat, to offering mini-Hudson River cruises from their docks around the same time Clearwater wanted to dock.
One Step Forward, Two steps back
Despite Ferris’ vision of a thriving Nyack resort, the business faced ongoing challenges. In 1975, he sought a new management team to lease the facilities. However, even with new management, floods at the restaurant, shop closures, and the art gallery’s relocation indicated that the time for a sale had come. In 1982, Ferris put the property up for sale at $2.5 million.
Ferris presented a new vision for the waterfront, proposing a $40 million riverfront development featuring shops, condos, and offices. To promote his vision, he published an 18-page booklet with sketches and descriptions of a luxurious condominium complex comprising 232 units. The development proposal sparked a heated debate between those concerned about traffic, zoning, public access, and the environment, and those arguing that it would bring tax revenue, tourists, shoppers, and prestige. Eventually, the tax revenue argument won the day.
The story of the waterfront development is complex and extends beyond the scope of this article. However, KBS Development Associates from New York City agreed to purchase the property and build 170 condominiums in town houses and one or two apartment buildings in 1984.
The Bulldozer Cometh
In 1985, proposals to incorporate the lighthouse into a new development failed to make the final design. The same year, the Nyack Village board rejected a proposal to conduct small fire training by burning down the Windjammer Restaurant. Instead, bulldozers arrived, demolishing the Windjammer and the old Nyack Ferry terminal within minutes, reducing both to rubble.
Later, on July 5, 1985, exactly twenty years after it was created from old gas tanks, bulldozers crushed the lighthouse, turning it into scrap metal. Coincidentally, Victor Ferris passed away in West Palm Beach around the same time as his Nyack resort met its demise.
The midcentury-modern Lighthouse Yacht Marina came and went in a flash, a distant memory of one of Nyack’s most wrenching changes.
Michael Hays is a 35-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.