By the time we moved into the Captain Merritt’s Hill neighborhood in December 2007, the main house of the 19th century facility was abandoned and decrepit. The adjacent infirmary, marked with a painted Swiss flag, was in worse shape: broken windows, doors ajar, scattered beer cans and graffitied walls — telltale signs that teenagers had taken residency of the place on many a night since its doors formally shut two decades ago.
The main house and its three derelict outbuildings had come to look like quintessential haunted structures demanding to be explored, and the long, gradual slope leading up to them — decorated with signs reading, “No Sledding” — had been ridden down to mud at the first speck of snow by children on Flexible Fliers and the like since the 1880s, according to local records.
I wanted my daughter not to be afraid of the facility; I wanted her to appreciate things that came before her. But most of all, I just had to see what was inside the forsaken place and she was the perfect cover.
That day marked the beginning of many delightful father-daughter walks around the once grand Swiss Home grounds, where we gorged on wild raspberries and wove intricate stories about imaginary people who had lived and died in the buildings since the turn of the last century.
The infirmary had a massive stone hearth and a disintegrating grand piano, without a trace of lacquer, that must have gleamed when it was young. Around it we conjured suffragettes and aged civil war veterans, with broken limbs elevated, singing gay, patriotic tunes on winter nights. We gave them each names.
On a bench at the top of the hill, a widow and widower surely met and fell in love. There they sat, every day at sunset, holdings hands.
The dances in the main house, which we never entered, had been the fanciest affairs we could conjure. The women wore broaches and ballgowns. The gentlemen came in white tie and tail.
The rest of this column is available at Newsday and Newsday Westchester. Thanks for reading!