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St. Johnland

Real estate attorney J. Timothy Shea Jr. gives a presentation on The Society of St. Johnland's proposed assisted living facility to Smithtown Town Board.

The Society of St. Johnland in Kings Park hopes to continue its mission to help seniors in need by constructing a new assisted living facility aimed at Medicaid-eligible residents.

The nonprofit nursing center has submitted an application to construct a two-story facility with 82 units and 100 beds in the footprint of an existing, dilapidated building on the north side of Sunken Meadow Road — a separate tax map parcel on the same property as St. Johnland nursing home.

The proposed building will fulfill a need in the community for alternate living options for low-income seniors, according to a real estate attorney speaking on behalf of the project at the Nov. 30 Smithtown Town board meeting.

J. Timothy Shea Jr., of Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman in Hauppauge, asked the board to consider granting  the St. Johnland facility a special exception as its concept plan meets that zoning criteria. This approval would give the nonprofit the ability to use land in a district for a purpose other than what is generally permitted there, in this case an assisted living program on the same property as a nursing home.

“Allowing for this special exception to take place, we would be able to service up to 100 local persons most likely for the assisted living and it’s possible that many of those residents will eventually move to the nursing home at some point in the future,” Shea said.

St. Johnland is also making efforts to implement ideas from staff members and residents into its design of the building’s facade to comply with local waterfront revitalization program standards, he added.

“When we provided elevations of the proposed building to our staff, we received comments indicating they would like to have more of a historic type of architecture,” Shea said. “We are willing to do that and will adjust our elevations accordingly.”

Based on the feedback from the Kings Park Civic Association, the nonprofit has agreed to reduce square footage of the 76,696-square-foot site by approximately 8,000-square-feet to lessen its footprint; preserve an old chapel located to the east of where the facility will be; and provide the group with any building revisions moving forward for further review and comment.

Shea said the site will be “a low traffic generator” because although the facility would employ 70 new employees, they will work in three shifts, so there will be no more than 20 to 25 employees on site at a given time.

Linda Henninger, the president of the Kings Park Civic Association said she and other members were in favor of it.

“We think it’s a good project,” Henninger said. “A lot of residents from Kings Park and our vicinity — like Commack and Northport — utilize St. Johnland and this seems to be within their wheelhouse. We also liked that they’re not clear cutting woods for it. It seems like a win-win for the community and St. Johnland.”

Mary Jean Weber, the chief executive officer of St. Johnland Nursing Center, which has been caring for Kings Parks’ needy since 1870, said the facility has been in planning for nearly two years.

“I think this is the type of service that is really needed in Kings Park,” Weber said. “This is for the population that doesn’t require the [around-the-clock] medical care needed in a nursing facility but maybe cannot remain living at home any longer or have limited funds. For us, it’s a positive program that really helps with our care for the senior community.”

St. Johnland is still awaiting determination on its application for special exception. The project’s construction costs have not been finalized yet.

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How a utopian Christian community started an elder care center

William Augustus Muhlenberg, c. 1860. Photo from the Smithtown Historical Society

By Marianne Howard

Kings Park was once home to the Society of St. Johnland, a utopian Christian community founded in 1865. It was once described by authors Bradley L. Harris and King Pedlar as a “forgotten utopia,” founded as a safe haven, orphanage and school for impoverished boys from Manhattan and Brooklyn. William Augustus Muhlenberg, (1796-1877) a Philadelphia native, ordained an Episcopalian priest in the 1820s, found himself with international accolades after founding St. Paul’s, a private college near Flushing, Queens.

He began to think about creating a refuge for members of the Protestant working-class poor and thus purchased 500 acres of woodland in 1866 for $14,000, which grew into a campus built a stone’s throw from the picturesque mouth of the Nissequogue River to the Long Island Sound. It included a camp, an additional home for girls, an infirmary, a baby shelter and a living facility for seniors. Patients, their families and employees from the campus as well as nearby hospitals were excellent customers for the abundance of farmers in the area at that time. The Long Island Sound became such a draw for the families and children, providing beach access for summer education through the late 1940s.

Notable New York society philanthropists contributed to the growth of St. Johnland. Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt paid for the Sunbeam Cottage, built in 1881 for the educational training of orphan girls. The cottage had a sitting room, a playroom, dining room, kitchen and dormitory space for 20 girls. The babies’ shelter, known as the Lawrence House, provided care for children ages 2 through 8, was established the following year.

In 1911, Alice Page Thomson became superintendent and arranged for 150 impoverished boys from Manhattan and Brooklyn to travel to the beaches of St. Johnland. She spent 35 years in the position. Under her leadership, the construction of the Robert Louis Harrison Infirmary opened in 1913. She also created the Women’s Auxiliary for St. Johnland in 1915, a group of women who provided philanthropic and physical support to the residents. During World War I, St. Johnland contributed not only its alumni who entered the service but also increased crop production for over 200 people throughout the war.

During the 1950s, the trustees of St. Johnland had to decide upon which community they would focus their resources — children or the elderly, and the board voted to specialize in care for the elderly population. In 2016, St. Johnland celebrated its 150th anniversary and it is now a premiere nursing home with specialties in dementia care, adult day health care and rehabilitation services.

Bradley L. Harris, Town of Smithtown historian, Joshua Ruff, consulting curator for the Smithtown Historical Society, and I were invited by Arcadia Publishing to author a book on the history of Kings Park in 2015. The book, “Kings Park,” was published last month and is for sale at the Smithtown Historical Society.

Marianne Howard is the executive director of the Smithtown Historical Society. For more information on the society, its events or programs or on becoming a member, visit www.smithtownhistorical.org or call 631-265-6768.

St. Johnland Nursing Center in Kings Park is celebrating a milestone this year. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

For a century and a half, the name St. Johnland has been synonymous with helping people from all walks of life. Established in 1866, the Society of St. Johnland is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2016.

In 1866, the Society served as a home for veterans and orphans from New York City, but eventually developed into a self-sustaining industrial village.

Today, the St. Johnland Nursing Center is located on the North Shore near Smithtown Bay in Kings Park and serves as a long-term skilled nursing facility caring for about 300 people every day.

Over the course of 150 years, the role of the facility has changed, but their mission remains the same, according to a press release about the anniversary: “To create a caring and supportive environment committed to the highest standards of quality health care … to uphold the principles of human dignity and worth … affirm the right of every individual to maintain the optimum quality of life.”

St. Johnland Director of Development Cathie Wardell, who has been at the nursing center for 13 years, reflected on the impact St. Johnland has had on the community and people in need.

“The level of care for the people whose care is entrusted to us is very high and it’s amazing to see everyday,” Wardell said in a phone interview.

The nursing center shifted its focus from children to the elderly in the 1950s. Today, their primary focuses are providing care for people with Alzheimer’s, dementia and traumatic brain injuries.

“The fact that this institution has survived and persisted for 150 years focusing on different demographics, the fact that we are 98 to 99-percent full all the time, that we have evolved over the years to make the changing needs of the community with our specialty units and adult day care programs is significant and noteworthy,” Wardell added.

In honor of the anniversary, the society will hold four events during 2016. For all of June, historical photographs of St. Johnland will be on display at the Kings Park Library.

On June 18, people who grew up at the facility around 70 years ago will gather for a reunion.

On Oct. 27, a dinner will be held at Watermill in Kings Park to honor the Fire Department and EMT Squad, and on Nov. 18, town historian Brad Harris will deliver a lecture on the history of the Society.

For more information about the anniversary or any of the events, call 631-663-2457 or visit www.stjohnland.org.