By Nate Cohen
How did Great Neck South become Great Neck South? While to many students this question sounds silly, it is an important one to examine. During the rush and bustle of school, it can feel like Great Neck South has always been here and that life in Great Neck has always been the same, but it hasn’t. In fact, the land on which Great Neck South stands was once a great estate owned by Henry Phipps.
A 39-room Georgian-style mansion sat on a great estate with stables, tennis courts, garages, and a barn. No, this is not the description of an opulent palace in Europe, although it does seem like it, but rather the South campus less than a century ago. Back then the estate went by the name Bonnie Blink, which is Scottish for pretty view. And while many students would contest that the only view from South today is that of busy cars on the Expressway, when it was his residence, Phipps would gaze upon Manhasset Bay.
Although it may seem tempting to see Phipps as a member of the wicked “one percent” hoarding his wealth from working people in need, upon further examination, it becomes clear that this is not true. In fact, he actually devoted much of his life’s work to helping the poor. After selling his share of the Carnegie Steel Corporation in 1901 to J.P. Morgan for $50 million, he dedicated his life to philanthropy. In 1905, Phipps dedicated one million dollars towards Phipps House, a non-profit organization for the construction of tenement housing for New York’s working class. He specifically focused on housing projects for minority groups such as African Americans and Jewish migrants escaping Eastern Europe. By 1970, Phipps House built nearly 2,531 affordable units of housing. In addition to housing, he also donated money to help fight tuberculosis, and provide public baths, playgrounds, and reading rooms.
After Phipps retired, the family decided it was time to invest in a summer home. By 1916, Phipps bought the property on which the South complex stands today and construction on what is now the Phipps Administration Building began soon after.
However, by the mid 1930’s, both Henry Phipps and his spouse had passed away, leaving their house unoccupied for nearly two decades. This all changed in 1949 when the Phipps children donated the Phipps house and the nine acres surrounding it to the Great Neck School District. Upon the decision to build two secondary schools, the district bought up 115 additional acres surrounding the property. But then an agreement was made between the Phipps children and the school district that would determine the design of our school. The agreement stated that the land on which the school was to be built must be kept in its natural state. A traditional school design like the one for North High wouldn’t fit into the hilly landscape of the South campus, and so a unique design was implemented instead. Construction on the two schools began in 1957, and by 1959 the school opened its doors.
When students from South compare their high school experience to that of students in other schools, they will notice some differences. They may notice that other schools have greater spirit or are less competitive in academics and more competitive in sports—but what many of these schools don’t have is a rich history. They don’t have a school campus that was formerly a grand estate. They don’t have a school with a design built directly into the land instead of on top of it. And they certainly don’t have a caring philanthropist that worked with the third richest man in American history as the father of their school. Yes, Great Neck South has some history: a history that gave us the school we have today and changed many lives as a result.