Nine years ago, a friend who worked with the racehorses at Belmont Stakes told me of a Long Island McDonald’s housed in an 18th-century mansion. Instantly I knew that I, a lover of history, architecture, and McNuggets, needed to experience this mythical McDonald’s in the flesh. Google Maps said it was a 40-minute drive from my apartment in southern Brooklyn, so I hopped into my beat-up Honda Civic and sat in Belt Parkway traffic for about two and a half hours, keeping my spirits up and anxiety at bay by visualizing myself nibbling on fries under a grand chandelier, sipping Orange Hi-C with my pinky stiffly up. At last I arrived in the village of New Hyde Park and drove slowly down Jericho Turnpike, a street lined with auto mechanics, dilapidated strip malls, and “gentleman’s” clubs, wondering if this McDonald’s was actually real or simply a ruse concocted by Long Islanders to attract tourists.
Then, I saw it on the horizon. The glow of golden arches, radiating like a gateway to the heavens. My heart began to flutter as I pressed down on the accelerator, my mouth slowly beginning to water, my eyes growing wider and wider as I got closer and closer. And then, she came into full view: the most magnificent McDonald’s I’ve ever seen. As hungry as I was, I could not rush through her double doors before taking in her beauty. I stood in the parking lot smiling ear to ear, her columns and curves erasing every ill feeling that had arisen during my voyage. Even if the fries were soggy and the Big Macs dry, it had all been worth it.
The story of this fabled McDonald’s is a remarkable one, as a recent profile from Insider shows. It was built in 1795 for Joseph Denton, a member of an old Long Island family whose ancestors co-founded the hamlet of Hampstead. Originally constructed as a farmhouse, as it changed hands through the centuries it found new life as a funeral parlor and then as a series of restaurants. By the late 20th century the architectural treasure fell into disrepair, and local residents hoped that one day the house would be restored to its former glory.
In 1985, the privately held property was sold to McDonald’s, which intended to raze the structure to build yet another generic location on the lot. Though years of neglect had transformed the home into a dilapidated eyesore, locals were outraged by the prospect of losing one of the last standing historic mansions in the area. Local preservationists urged the company to reconsider its plans, tying McDonald’s up in the bureaucratic nightmare of local government, and by 1988, their campaign succeeded in getting the Denton House designated as a historic site. Unable to demolish the building, McDonald’s came up with a brilliant compromise that made everyone happy: the company would invest several million dollars into restoring the house, in exchange for permission to build a drive-thru. The locals agreed, the permits were granted, and the transformation began.
Long Island’s most beautiful McDonald’s opened its doors to the public in 1991, with a fully refurbished interior that honored its history while still being a functional fast food restaurant. Because of its landmark status, the Denton House McDonald’s cannot make significant changes without government approval, and indeed, not much has changed from opening day, save for some improvements in 2017 that brought ordering kiosks, digital menu boards, and new counters to the restaurant.
When I finally stepped through its heavy wooden doors in 2012, I was floored by McDonald’s dedication to honoring the integrity of the Denton house. Though the ravages of time had destroyed it to the point where it needed to be gutted, the interior was rebuilt with vintage touches like hardwood and tile floors, a grand double staircase, and a floral wallpaper designed to match the one seen in old photos. I know it probably was all in my mind, but I swear the McNuggets at the Denton House McDonald’s were the greatest I’ve ever tasted. I’ve never been back, and I’ve never stopped praying that one day every McDonald’s will present its dollar menu with the air of refinement that I experienced that day in New Hyde Park.