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Tea dances to yoga, 146 years of the Heights Beach Club


In 1921, a crowd of bathers at what is now the Shelter Island Heights Beach Club witnessed the arrival by canoe of Miss Dorothy Stokes of Greenport.

Said to be a former Queen of the Yale Ball, she paddled across, tied her canoe up to the floating raft and “cavorted gaily, revealing her legs, sans stockings in a bathing suit slit up the sides.”

The account of Miss Stokes’ memorable arrival is part of an unpublished memoir written by long-time Island summer resident Waldo Kramer and is among the papers and photographs relating to Island history that Wade Badger, himself a long-time Heights resident, shared with the Reporter.

Mr. Kramer also wrote of an enormous pile of pebbles, dredged from the beach in an effort to uncover a sandy bottom, that became a play mountain behind the cabanas. “Beautiful, clean, sunbaked rocks that you could form into wonderful, warm nests on a chilly day to say nothing of a bountiful supply that you could bombard the backs of the houses with.”


In the years since Mr. Kramer’s memories were stored, adult supervision of beach-going children has increased, but the club perched next to the ferry parking lot has not changed much and the cabanas that line the beach not at all. Some of them have been used by the same families for generations.

The Heights community has always been a self-contained area on the Island, maintaining its own designated facilities. Amenities such as a pavilion reinforced a close-knit sense of kinship for its population. People would come to the beach to swim, eat, hear music and watch the sunset, much like today.

Since its establishment, the club has undergone several refurbishments. The destruction wrought by Hurricane Carol in 1954 necessitated a rebuilding project, when the two-level pavilion of the 19th century became the single-level club of today. Another restoration occurred in 2004, with the club now featuring private lockers and cabanas for families, an open deck area with lounge chairs and a pier with swimming.

The children’s program that was part of beach club summers for more than 18 years, has a new director, Nicole Gorman. Hired to step up the game of the three-day-a-week half-day program, she has designed activities for the 4- to 7-year-old children that are developmentally appropriate (such as shark week) and healthy (such as yoga), but most of all fun.

“Kids are so flexible,” she said. “I do a lot of research on what the hot new sand toy is out there.”

In the beginning, it was the Prospect House Bathing Pavilion, built around the same time as the Prospect House in 1872. Prohibition led to the creation of a two-story beach club in 1907 with an open porch on the second floor designated the Sihaqua Club, since private clubs could sell alcohol legally.


An orchestra played at the club every morning and tea dances were held during the summer. On June 27, 1918, the New York Times reported that the Prospect House on Fourth of July weekend would feature a “modern dancing contest for a large gold cup” and water sports.

In the 1930s two enormous masts were erected on the bathing beach float to support a screen where first-run movies were shown. Mr. Kramer wrote of sitting on the beach in the late 1930s, “watching Captain’s Courageous on a misty night with a little fog blowing in and the waves white-capping just under the screen.”

Over the years financial setbacks, a fire in 1942 and storms — especially Hurricane Carol — meant the end of the hotel and another rebuilding of the pavilion, but even without the hotel the beach club remained.

For the rest of the 20th century, the beach club was run like a country club, with parents relaxing on the beach while their kids made wonderful summer memories, mostly without the projectiles so fondly remembered by Mr. Kramer.

Despite outward changes, two aspects of the club remain unchanged, long-time members say: the trademark red and white awning and the club’s intrinsic value to its members.

The Heights Morning Program, runs for seven weeks from June 25 to August 10, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and is open to the public. Registration is ongoing, and an Open House (with lemonade and cookies) will be held on Sunday, May 27 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.