History

Rebecca Muroff, a 17-year-old Girl Scout Gold Award recipient, shows off the archive of historical photos she created for the Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society Aug. 11. Photo by Alex Petroski

A piece of history has been organized and preserved thanks to the hard work of a Mount Sinai teen.

Girl Scouts looking to achieve their Gold Award, the highest honor a scout can earn, are tasked with identifying an issue in their community, conducting research, pitching a project, and shepherding it to completion in a leadership role in the hopes of achieving some greater good for the community. Rebecca Muroff, a Mount Sinai High School student heading into her senior year, stood at the William Miller House, the headquarters of the Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society on North Country Road in Miller Place, Aug. 11 and shared the byproduct of months of hard work as the culmination of her Gold Award project.

Muroff and her family have long enjoyed events held by the historical society, from the annual Country Fair to the local Christmas tradition of passing letters to Santa off to Postman Pete, so exploring a project to help an organization close to her heart was a no-brainer, she said. The Gold Award recipient, beginning in October 2017, sifted through the historical society’s vast collection of old photos amassed since its inception in 1974 to create a pictorial archive, labeling the photos with numbers and a corresponding destination in a spreadsheet, including categories like location, date, names of the people in the photo and any other pertinent comments. The result is a detailed catalog available to visitors who can now quickly and easily find photos of specific people or events dating back decades. Muroff said plans are even in the works to digitize the archive in some manner.

From left, Troop 1090 leaders Tara Broome and Gretchen Lynch join Muroff’s parent Greg and Christine, right and third from right, as well as Edna Giffen of the society, second from right, in honoring the latest Gold Award recipient. Photo by Alex Petroski

“It shows people as we matured over the years and there are a lot of people — members — that, because we were founded in ’74, have passed or moved away,” said Edna Giffen, the society’s recording secretary and archivist, who Muroff said played a crucial role in working on the project. “I realized there are people in the pictures that I don’t even know. Members will be glad to see this.”

Muroff said she always liked going to events at the society as a kid and reflected on the idea that she’d created something that will enrich visits by future generations.

“It’s just nice I think to have tangible memories of the historical society,” she said. “Now people can look through the pictures and people can see themselves or their family members. It’s a nice feeling to know that I’m preserving history so other people can enjoy it.”

Tara Broome and Gretchen Lynch, Muroff’s leaders in Girl Scout Troop 1090, attended the Aug. 11 event set up to unveil the new photo archive.

“It’s really beautiful because we started with the whole troop when they were in second grade and now they’re seniors in high school,” Broome said.

Lynch added the troop had about 20 members when the girls were young, and Muroff was one of only five to earn the Gold Award.

“We’re almost like second mothers to them really,” she said. “They really persevered and did everything that was asked of them, and they’re like a family now.”

Muroff’s actual parents, Christine and Greg, also beamed with pride over their daughter’s accomplishment.

“It really hit me yesterday when we went to the Girl Scouts store to complete her sash,” her mom said. “I’m so happy she stuck with it.”

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Donna Smith, left, education director with Three Village Historical Society, explains to students the use of codes during the Revolutionary War. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

Fifteen summer camp students ranging in age from 11 to 13, from Campus Camps in Oakdale, under the direction of Ashleigh Frezza, director, came to Setauket for a half-day spy school at the Three Village Historical Society’s history center. The students were ready to discover the story of the Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring and to explore how the ring operated during the British occupation of Long Island and Manhattan.

A student presents the results of her work to others during the spy school program at Three Village Historical Society. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

The spy school program was designed to introduce students to each of the five main spies in the spy ring and how they operated between 1778 and 1783. Following a short PowerPoint presentation on the Culper Spy Ring, the students were divided into three groups. Each group of five students, together with an education leader, were provided with specific details of the operation of the spy ring. They studied the information until they understood the ring and were able to write about it and make presentations to the entire camp group at the end of the session.

The first group learned about each of the five principal members of the spy ring: Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Robert Townsend, Austin Roe and Caleb Brewster as well as the most important female who aided the ring, Anna Smith Strong. They also dressed in some of the clothing of the period and learned about a number of everyday items used and enjoyed by Long Islanders. When the entire camp met, each student, portraying a specific member of the spy ring, gave clues to the students in the other groups to see how long it would take to discover their identity.

The second group provided information about five various codes used during the Revolutionary War period, and the other students had to decipher a simple message presented by each student.

“They loved the codes and wanted more samples to decode,” said Donna Smith, TVHS education director. “I think they appreciated how long it might take to write a message in code and even to decode some of them.”

“I really enjoyed seeing how they were able to make predictions and were genuinely surprised when they realized how different the results were.”

— Lindsey Steward

The third group working with three different invisible ink liquids — lemon juice, milk and a solution of baking soda — presented their hypnosis as to which would prove to be the most effective invisible ink and their individual findings when they finished the experiment.

“I really enjoyed seeing how they were able to make predictions and were genuinely surprised when they realized how different the results were,” said Lindsey Steward, spy school leader.

Following the presentations, the students and their leaders went on a field trip to the Setauket Presbyterian Church graveyard and the Setauket Village Green. Here the students learned about conditions in Setauket and the Town of Brookhaven during the Revolutionary War. They explored part of the cemetery with special emphasis on the grave of Abraham Woodhull and the other Revolutionary War-era family sections that make up the earliest part of the graveyard. As they were leaving, I asked one student what she liked best about the day.

“I liked the trip to the cemetery, I liked everything,” the student said.

Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

Nikola Tesla, depicted in statue at top, was a Serbian-American inventor who had a lab built in Shoreham, where the statue sits. Photo by Kyle Barr

Centuries of scientific experimentation and exploration will be preserved in Shoreham.

Concluding months of nail-biting anticipation, the Wardenclyffe property in Shoreham, made famous as the last standing laboratory of famous 19th- and 20th-century scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla, finally made it onto the U.S. National Register of Historic Places July 27.

The designation is the culmination of hard work by the nonprofit Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe to get the site listed on local, state and national lists of historic places.

Marc Alessi, the science center’s executive director, said the site landing on these historic registers helps to guarantee that the property will survive through future generations.

“Listing on the National Historic Register not only helps preserve Nikola Tesla’s last remaining laboratory, but it allows us to move forward with renovations and plans to develop Wardenclyffe into a world class science and innovation center,” Alessi said. “[The] listing also opens doors for funding, as many grants require official historic status.”

Members of Tesla Science Center spent close to a year gathering data on the historic nature of the site located along Route 25A in Shoreham. They hired a historic architecture consultant to document which parts of the 16-acre property were historical and which were not.

The property was considered for historical site status by the New York State Historic Preservation Office June 7 after receiving 9,500 letters of support from people all over the world. The property passed that decision with a unanimous vote of approval, and it was then sent to the National Park Service for a decision to place the property on the national register.

“We hope that this will remind people of the importance of Tesla and his work at Wardenclyffe,” Tesla center President Jane Alcorn said.

The Shoreham property was home of one of Tesla’s last and most ambitious projects of his career. His plan was to build a tower that could, in theory, project electricity through the ground as a way of offering free energy to everyone in the area. Creditors seized upon his property after it was learned there would be limited ways of monetizing the project.

Tesla spent his remaining years for the most part in solitude and obscurity until his death in 1943. Recent decades have shown a resurgence of interest in Tesla for his groundbreaking technologies such as the Tesla Coil, a 19th-century invention used to produce high-voltage alternating-current electricity, and Alternating Current which is used in most electronics today.

In 2012 the science center worked with The Oatmeal comic website to launch a successful Indiegogo campaign that raised $1.37 million to purchase the land. Since then the nonprofit has renovated the property with plans to turn the site into a museum and incubator for technology-based business startups.

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The Tyler Brothers General Store once housed the Setauket post office. Photo from Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

My great-aunt Annie, Anna Louise Tyler (1863–1943) lived her entire life in the house I grew up in on the corner of Main Street and Old Field Road in Setauket. For more than 80 years, from about 1850 to 1931, the Tyler Brothers General Store stood on the same corner in front of the house close to the road. For all those years the Tylers also served as postmasters, and the post office was located in the general store.

Anna Louise Tyler, center, was an early postmaster, while her sister Corinne, right, ran the general store. Photo from Beverly C. Tyler

Anna Tyler was appointed Setauket’s 11th postmaster Nov. 12, 1897, and she served the community until 1915. At the time of her appointment, she was 34 years old. She was the niece of Capt. Israel Bennett Tyler (1830–1895) who served as postmaster 19 years from 1870 to 1885 and again from 1889 to 1893.

In 1895, after the death of Israel Tyler, Capt. Charles Tyler, my great-grandfather, carried on the store until two years before his death, when he became ill and passed away June 12, 1899. From 1897 on, the post office and store were run by Annie and Corinne Frances Tyler, spinster daughters of Capt. Charles Tyler.

The mail was brought to Stony Brook and Setauket by the Long Island Rail Road. For most of that time, mail was delivered twice a day. It was carried to the store and post office and handed to Annie Tyler for many years by Adolph Pfeiffer who began mail service with a horse and wagon. In the winter months, he used a horse and sleigh. According to an article in the Three Village Herald in 1965, “Occasionally when the roads were almost impassable, the mail was taken by Mr. Pfeiffer on horseback, or even on foot — pulling the bags on a sled. Later with the advent of the automobile, he became agent for the Franklin automobile, and these as well as other makes of cars were used for transporting the mail.”

The entrance to the post office in the West Setauket store was through a side door on the left (north) side of the building. The northern third of the store was the post office and the remainder, from the front door over, was the general store. Annie Tyler was postmaster and her sister Corinne (1858–1941) ran the general store.

The general store was the center of the small community, which included about 100 families and numbered less than 800 people. The school on the Village Green, the churches and the new library around the Green and the grist mill on the lower pond were also a part of the community’s hub. The general store and post office building was a center for communication and gossip as well as a place to tell stories and swap
information about the latest farm equipment, the weather and, of course, politics.

“We were a big family, and we was always down there. Sometimes Poppa paid once a week. They kept track of it and I could get anything. They never asked no questions.”

— Lucy Keyes

Telephone lines were first installed from a central office in Northport in 1896. In the last few months of 1899, central offices were established in Port Jefferson and Smithtown. According to historian Kate Strong, the first telephone subscribers in Setauket were her father Selah B. Strong, her uncle Thomas S. Strong, Annie Tyler’s store and the Setauket railroad depot.

Lucy Keyes, who was born in 1900, remembered in a 1989 interview that when she was 6 or 7 and going to school on the Village Green, she would walk home, stopping first at the post office.

“They were such nice ladies,” Keyes said. “Miss Annie took care of the mail … Miss Annie used to make money orders and everything … We went there to pay land taxes.

“Miss Corinne took care of the store. They kept it open even during lunch — Miss Corinne and Miss Annie switched. It was open until after mail at night. There were two mails — a morning and an
evening mail. We used to trade with Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. It came in the mail.”

Keyes recalled that Corinne’s brother Henry Tyler helped her at the store.

“Momma and Poppa brought all their groceries there,” Keyes said. “We bought canned goods, salt pork, potatoes, bread and even bananas in later years. We were a big family, and we was always down there. Sometimes Poppa paid once a week. They kept track of it and I could get anything. They never asked no questions.”

Lucy Keyes was one of 12 children of Jacob and Hannah Hart born between about 1880 and 1910. An 1889 “day book” for the “Tyler Bro” store lists “Jacob Hartt” 34 times in a two-month period. One entry included “1 box blueing, 1 jelly roll, 4 barrels, 3 butter tubs, 1 box, 1 bag flour, 5 candles, 1 loaf bread, 1 bot. vinegar, 1 lb lard,” all for $2.42.

Keyes remembered a candy case in the store that contained a number of selections.

“You would get four or five round things for a penny,” she said. “Jawbreakers, three or four for a penny; and stick candy was a penny a stick.”

By 1915, the automobile was beginning to change the buying habits of local residents who found a wider range of goods and services in specialty stores. The telephone was bringing gossip and information directly into the home, and Parcel Post was bringing catalog shopping into the home. The post office in Setauket was also becoming an independent operation and would soon outgrow the general store where it had coexisted for so many years.

Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

The Three Village Community Trust closed on the historic Timothy Smith House, below, offered by Julia de Zafra for a nominal price. Attorney Gary Josephs, Assemblyman Steve Englebright, TVCT trustee Robert Reuter, Julia DeZafra, trust attorney Peter Legakis, and Cynthia Barnes, TVCT president, were on hand for the closing July 12. Photo from Three Village Community Trust

A local group has preserved a piece of history for future generations.

The Three Village Community Trust acquired the historic Timothy Smith House at 55 Main St., Setauket, July 12, according to a press release from the trust.

The Timothy Smith House will be renamed the Timothy Smith-Robert de Zafra House. Photo by Robert Reuter

“Because of its long history, its connection to town government in Brookhaven, and its remarkable degree of preservation over its 300-year life span, the Smith House is a valuable acquisition,” the release read. “The Three Village Community Trust is indebted to Robert de Zafra for acquiring it at the death of the previous owner, protecting it from being subdivided, and in so doing preserving the historic character of Setauket and this area’s contribution to the nation.”

In March, de Zafra’s widow, Julia, offered the house to the trust for a nominal price and will donate funds to help with continued restoration. According to the press release, de Zafra was a founding trustee of the Three Village Community Trust, and the Timothy Smith House, also known as the House on the Hill, has been recognized as a Brookhaven landmark and dates back to the early period of Setauket’s settlement starting in 1655.

Cynthia Barnes, president of the TVCT, said the trust will continue the restorations that de Zafra started and will be raising funds through contributions to the Robert de Zafra Restoration Fund and seeking grants. The house will be renamed the Timothy Smith-Robert de Zafra House. While the home will remain a private residence, Barnes said there are discussions about ways to make it available to the public periodically.

Robert Reuter, a TVCT trustee, said the house is “a treasure that figures prominently in our town’s earliest history” and he feels it offers an opportunity to interpret the best of design and craftsmanship in 18th-century colonial Setauket.

“The Timothy Smith House, a substantial two-story post-and-beam colonial building, remains original save for plumbing and electrical improvements.”

— Robert Reuter

“The Timothy Smith House, a substantial two-story post-and-beam colonial building, remains original save for plumbing and electrical improvements,” Reuter said. “It features immense structural timbers, floor boards — 24 inches and more in width, wrought iron hardware, primitive window glazing and simple but robust interior architectural details. A massive central chimney serves multiple fireplaces on both floors. The main kitchen fireplace incorporates a rare beehive oven with arched brick opening.”

According to the TVCT press release, the house, which dates back to 1695 to 1705, occupies one of the earliest farmstead plots in the area. It was laid out along both sides of a freshwater creek that was dammed to create the Setauket millpond. It is historically significant because it was the de-facto Brookhaven Town Hall during much of the 1700s due to successive Smith family members serving as town clerk. Timothy Smith occupied the house during the Revolutionary War, and it and the surrounding farm property remained in the Smith family until the death of Julia Sophia Smith in 1948. Forrest Bonshire, lived there from the 1960s to 2013, and the home was purchased by de Zafra from Bonshire’s estate to prevent it from being subdivided, and de Zafra was carefully restoring it before his death in October.

The first floor of The Hall of Fishes. Photo courtesy of the Vanderbilt Museum

CENTERPORT: The first floor of The Hall of Fishes at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Marine Museum has reopened following the Marine Collections Conservation Project. The second floor remains closed temporarily while the nearly 1,500 wet specimens, recently conserved, are organized and returned to their exhibition cases.

Supported by a $135,000 grant from The Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, the conservation project began in the summer of 2015. Work included conserving five taxidermied flamingos and a group of dry-mounted fish specimens, the repair of three shore bird dioramas and restoration of the diorama background paintings, and the creation of a new undersea painting for a large-scale exhibition case.

“We’re indeed fortunate to have some of the finest restoration experts from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to help us with the conservation and preservation of the collection,” said Stephanie Gress, director of curatorial affairs for the Vanderbilt. 

“Their exceptional skills allow us to be the careful stewards of Mr. Vanderbilt’s legacy, a marine and natural history museum for the education and enjoyment of the people of Long Island and beyond,” she said.

The first floor of The Hall of Fishes. Photo courtesy of the Vanderbilt Museum

The specimen conservation work was completed in New Jersey at Wildlife Preservations, the studio of taxidermist George Dante. He and his colleagues cleaned decades of dust from the specimens, touched up fins and feathers, and returned them to the Vanderbilt.

Sean Murtha, an artist who specializes in fine-art background paintings for museum dioramas, recreated an 8×10-foot painting of the ocean floor to replace the faded original created in 1924. Thomas Doncourt, a foreground artist, restored the habitat in the Caribbean shore bird dioramas, which included recreating a crumbled section of beach in one diorama. Murtha also restored sections of the paintings in those dioramas.

Murtha and Doncourt are both former staff members of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), and Dante is a top AMNH taxidermy consultant. The three are part of the continuous, century-long Vanderbilt-AMNH collaboration that began when William K. Vanderbilt II (1878–1944) hired artisans and scientists from the museum to design the habitat dioramas in his own new museum in the 1920s. Vanderbilt also hired artist William Belanske, who accompanied him on his world voyages and became his resident artist and curator.

Over the past several years, the three artists also completed extensive work on the wild-animal dioramas in the museum’s Stoll Wing, funded by two $100,000 grants from the Roy M. Speer Foundation.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. Summer hours are Tuesdays to Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.   

General museum admission is $8 for adults, $7 for students with ID and seniors (62 and older), and $5 for children 12 and under, which includes estate-grounds access to the Marine Museum, Memorial Wing natural-history and ethnographic-artifact galleries, Nursery Wing, Habitat Room, Egyptian mummy and Stoll Wing animal-habitat dioramas. For a mansion tour, add $6 per ticket. 

For further information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

A swan lands in Lake Ronkonkoma. Photo by Artie Weingartner

By Melissa Arnold

Artie Weingartner

For as long as Artie Weingartner has taken photos, his focus has always been on others.

Weingartner, who lives in Lake Ronkonkoma, is a fixture at local high school sporting events. He has faithfully chronicled the work of the Lake Ronkonkoma Historical Society and is the official photographer for the Lake Ronkonkoma Improvement Group.

Now, for the month of July, the focus is on him as Sachem Public Library presents an exhibit featuring a wide array of Weingartner’s photos in a collection titled Scenes of Lake Ronkonkoma.

It’s an odd feeling for 58-year-old Weingartner, who admits it took a serious push from friends and loved ones to move forward with the exhibit. But nothing makes him happier than bringing joy to the people who see his photos.

“I like seeing people’s reactions to pictures and hearing their feedback — it really makes me feel good, and it makes me want to do it more. I love the rush of satisfaction that comes with it. I guess you could say I’m addicted to it,” he laughed.

Lake Ronkonkoma on a fall day

While photography has piqued his interest for decades, it took a long time for Weingartner to really find his niche. His father bought him his first camera, a simple Kodak, when he was just 9 years old. But he admitted feeling frustrated over the process of shooting a roll of film, waiting to have it developed, and then discovering that many of the photos were duds. “I didn’t have the patience for [traditional photography],” he said. “Not being able to see what the result was right away was hard for me.”

When digital photography emerged in the early 2000s, Weingartner was thrilled. Finally, he had the instant gratification of seeing each photo, with no wasted film and the option to delete ones he didn’t like with the push of a button. His love for photography was rekindled, and he hasn’t looked back. 

He began casually taking photos of his kids’ sports matches, plays and concerts. Word spread quickly about his natural talent. “Parents stopped bringing their cameras around and my pictures were used more and more. It became a lot of work, but a lot of fun,” Weingartner said.

A swan lands in Lake Ronkonkoma. Photo by Artie Weingartner

Now that his children are grown, the photographer is focusing more on chronicling the history of Lake Ronkonkoma. On a frigid day in January of 2016, he was invited by Lake Ronkonkoma Historical Society member Matt Balkam to photograph the historic Fitz-Greene Hallock Homestead on Pond Road. The 14-room home was built in 1888 and contains all of the original furnishings of the Hallock family. In 2006, the Lake Ronkonkoma Historical Society took over the care of the home, and it is now the only historic home in the community that remains open for tours and other public programming.

That experience would lead Weingartner to become regularly involved with the historical society and the Lake Ronkonkoma Improvement Group.

In 2016, News12 contacted Evelyn Vollgraff, the president of the historical society, about filming in the area for a show covering historic places on Long Island. When reporter Danielle Campbell arrived at Long Island’s largest freshwater lake with Vollgraff, she was horrified to see how neglected and filthy the body of water was.

Fog encompasses Lake Ronkonkoma

Campbell, Vollgraff and several others put the word out on social media that they wanted to work on beautifying the area. The response was beyond anything Vollgraff anticipated. “We never asked for help. We just did it,” she recalled. “People got interested — legislators, councilmen. At the first meeting, 90 people were there asking what they could do and how they could help. The community came together in an amazing way. We have joined together as groups of friends that wanted to help our community. But now many of them are a part of the historical society as well, and most importantly, they’re my friends.”

In early 2017, the group held its first cleanup of the lake. Weingartner was there that day, too. They have since removed more than 300 tons of trash from the lake, and turned an old bookstore destroyed by fire into the historic Larry’s Landing, a popular hangout named for the bookstore’s late owner, Larry Holzapfel.

“Artie showed up with a camera at one of the cleanups and just started taking pictures — that’s just who he is,” Vollgraff said. “You have to record history. I can’t save every house in Ronkonkoma, but with Artie taking pictures, the history lives on forever.”

The community has also expressed its gratitude for Artie’s work through Facebook, where he frequently posts his photos on the Lake Ronkonkoma Improvement Group and Sachem Sports pages.

“People were coming out of the woodwork from Florida or South Carolina who lived there 30 years ago to say how much it meant to them to see pictures of the place they grew up,” Weingartner said. “When I first moved to Long Island from Queens in 1970, we used to swim in the lake, but over a few years it got so dirty that we didn’t swim there anymore. Before that, people used to come out from Manhattan just to spend time at the lake. It’s always been an important, historic part of this community.”

While the exhibit is named Scenes of Lake Ronkonkoma, Weingartner said it encompasses a range of subjects, including sports and landscapes from other parts of Long Island, including Port Jefferson and Belle Terre. More than 75 framed 8-by-10 prints are on display. His favorite photo features Lake Ronkonkoma at sunset, with two birds and sunlight streaming down to the shore. All the photos were taken with a Nikon D600.

The photography show also includes guest contributions from photographers Richard Cornell and Richard Yezdanian.“This exhibit will be interesting to people in our area because [the lake and other scenes] are literally in our backyard,” said Anne Marie Tognella who works in programming and public relations at Sachem Public Library. “It captures many of the scenes that we see and appreciate every day with natural and historic value.”

Sachem Public Library, 150 Holbrook Road, Holbrook will present Scenes of Lake Ronkonkoma in its art gallery on the lower level through the month of July. Join them for an artist reception on Saturday, July 21 at 2 p.m. For more information, call 631-588-5024.

Robert Moses featured in Fortune Magazine in 1938. Photo by Fernand Bourges/courtesy of The LIM

By Kyle Barr

This summer, visitors to The Long Island Museum’s Visitors Center can enjoy The Land of Moses: Robert Moses and Modern Long Island, an exhibit dedicated to the legacy of the man responsible for the development of many of Long Island’s bridges, parks, highways and more. 

Presenting a major exhibit on Robert Moses meant trying to understand who he truly was, beyond many of the long-held concepts of the controversial 20th-century builder/planner and unelected official.

‘Southern State Parkway,’ watercolor on paper, circa 1930 by Samuel Rothbort. Image courtesy of The Long Island Museum

Though Moses wanted his story to be known through the pages of his own autobiography called “Public Works, A Dangerous Trade,” it was another book, a thick tome titled “The Power Broker” by Robert Caro, that defined his legacy, that of a callous and conceded individual who simply did not care who he ruined in his pursuit of his next, great project.

According to the exhibit’s co-curator, Joshua Ruff, director of collections and interpretations and chief curator at The LIM, “That became the portrait that Moses spent the rest of his life fighting. He wanted to get things done, and back then the way to get things done was to accumulate power.”

Close to 37 years after his death, Moses remains a controversial figure. In his decades spanning career, he was in charge of cultivating nearly 2.5 million acres of parkland in New York state, building 13 bridges and completing 135 miles of parkway on Long Island. Those parkways, originally intended to be used for “pleasure driving,” now exist as often congested strips of road that connect Long Island’s east and west ends.

Ruff, who organized the show along with Assistant Curator Jonathan Olly, spent the past several months researching and gathering the more than 170 items for use in The Land of Moses exhibit. On display is Moses’ oblong desk and typewriter along with many of the original models used when Moses was in charge of building the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and designing the 1964 World’s Fair along with many paintings, historical photographs and film and audio clips. “What we try to get into with this exhibition is you can go back much earlier in his career and see much controversy, but maybe just not as necessarily at the public level,” said Olly during a recent tour of the exhibit. “He was very press savvy, and he was often able to control the terms of the public perception.”

Moses held sway in multiple unelected positions throughout his reign, from head of the New York City Planning Commission to president of the Long Island State Parks Commission. Ruff said that, at his height, Moses held more power as an unelected public official than most other elected officials at that time.

The “master builder” never shied away from the public space and was quick to get his picture taken with influential figures; and the exhibit shows Moses with many famous people from Walt Disney to President John Kennedy. He wasn’t a man to shy away from controversy either. Quotes from Moses are posted high up on the exhibit’s walls. One reads: “As long as you’re on the side of the parks, you’re on the side of the angels. You can’t lose.” Another reads: “Those who can, build. Those who can’t, criticize.”

Though many perceptions of Moses have been formed from his description in “The Power Broker,” the museum curators wanted to offer a more nuanced, historical view of the man. “His ideas endured — because how do you deal with a lot of people living in a confined space?,” explained Ruff. “They need people to be able to move from one space to another. What about recreation? He was interested in the quality of life for the greatest number of people.”

Though Moses built this lasting infrastructure, he did so sometimes in nefarious ways. Building the roadways as he intended often put the work straight through some poor, yet vibrant, neighborhoods; and while he might have paid to move suburban houses out of the way of progress, he would easily make near-unilateral decision to tear down poor and minority neighborhoods to build his highways.

‘No Exit,’ acrylic on linen, 2006, by Margery Caggiano. Image courtesy of The Long Island Museum

This ties into many allegations of racism that people like Caro have made of Moses. Ruff and Olly said that reality is more complicated. “It’s been a controversial topic in academia,” Ruff said. “Robert Moses, in some ways, undeniably made some racist decisions in his career and his work, such as putting highways through poor areas. His thought process was it cost less to demolish a poor neighborhood than it was to demolish a rich neighborhood, so it would cost less to the taxpayer.”

There are allegations that Moses specifically built bridges along his parkways too low for buses (which were often used by poorer minority communities) from the city to pass under, just so they wouldn’t walk on Moses’ many beaches and parks. The museum curators don’t put too much credence to that claim. “There’s no evidence that states that this was a decision to make it so poor people couldn’t get to the beaches,” Olly said. “The reason really was about aesthetics and economics. What Moses wanted was this idea of ‘Ribbon Parks,’ for use in pleasure driving. Having buses or public transportation on the roads was unacceptable. He didn’t think this was the road that people in 20, 30 years would be commuting to work on.”

Olly added that buses were able to go to Jones Beach, Heckscher State Park and other parks since the beginning, and there are bus advertisements from the time that prove it.

“In many ways, [‘The Power Broker’] was the last word in many instances in a lot of things Moses — it’s one of the best biographies of an American public official ever written, but on this particular argument its on shaky ground,” Ruff said.

Moses’ power declined in the late 1960s. Perhaps his biggest failure was his inability in the 1970s to finalize the building of a cross-sound bridge from Oyster Bay to the town of Rye up in Westchester County. Many locals protested building the bridge over concerns of increased traffic congestion and potential environmental impacts. 

After Caro released his book in 1974, Moses spent the rest of his days contesting the allegations made in the book until his death in 1981 at the age of 92 from heart disease.

Though he remains controversial, Moses made a definite and lasting impact on Long Island. Ruff said that while his public perception changed over time, Moses was the catalyst that really created the Long Island identity. “People like to think about how his career ended — of how Caro’s book changed a lot of the perception about him,” Ruff said. “But he played a leading role in the 20th century, and we wanted to put an emphasis of his work specifically on Long Island.”

Related programs at the LIM

Summer Thursday 

Enjoy a free self-guided tour of The Land of Moses on Thursday, July 19 from 6 to 8 p.m. Sample wine and tasty treats on museum grounds. Coolers and picnics welcome. 

Author Talk

Journalist and author Anthony Flint will speak about his book, “Wrestling with Moses:  How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City,” on Sunday, Aug. 19 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Flint will lead the audience on an introspective journey into the battle between Moses and activist Jane Jacobs.  Afterward, visit the Robert Moses exhibition to gain additional insight into Moses’ life and times. This event is free with museum admission.

The Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook will present The Land of Moses: Robert Moses and Modern Long Island in the Visitors Center through Oct. 28. Museum hours are Thursday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 adults, $7 seniors, $5 ages 6 to 17. For more information on ticket prices or for more information, call 631-751-0066 or visit www.longislandmuseum.org.

The Vanderbilts and Huntingtons, with the Sikorsky seaplane behind them, are greeted by press photographers at the airport in Mendoza, Argentina. Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Museum
Update: This event is sold out!

By Sabrina Petroski

Dance the night away at the eighth annual Summer Fiesta at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport! The year’s most important fundraiser for the museum, the gala event will be held in the Vanderbilt Mansion’s Spanish Revival courtyard on Saturday, July 21 from 6:30 to 10 p.m. and feature an evening of wine, food, music and, of course, dancing. 

“We want it to be a wonderful evening for the attendees, and we also want to showcase the museum and have them see why it’s important to support the museum and the work that we’re doing here,” said Lance Reinheimer, executive director of the museum, in a recent phone interview. “Thirdly, we want to raise funds for our programs and to be able to expand our education programs.”  

 According to the museum’s Director of Development Sue Madlinger, this year’s gala is a salute to William K. Vanderbilt II, his wife Rosamund and friends Edie and Robert Huntington who flew around the Caribbean, Central America and the perimeter of South America in Vanderbilt’s Sikorsky S-43 seaplane, from Jan. 18 to Feb. 11, 1937, “which was a major feat in it’s day. Each year we try to bring Mr. Vanderbilt’s history into our events, and all the great things he did for [the museum], for Long Island, and all the adventures that he went on,” she said.

Entertainment for the gala includes Latin music by the world-renowned band, Los Cintron, with performances by flamenco dancer Juana Cala. The Cintron brothers are known as the greatest Gypsy Kings tribute band, and the group’s guitars, vocals and melodies evoke the traditional sounds of Andalusia and their beloved Spain. Food will be catered by Sangria 71 restaurant in Commack and feature hors d’oeuvres, a five-foot paella and dinner. On the menu will be chicken, salmon, fish and skirt steak plus margaritas, sangria, wine and beer. 

The funds raised from the gala will go toward expanding and modernizing the Vanderbilt Learning Center within the Carriage House. “We have an aggressive plan to upgrade [the Carriage House] architecturally, to maintain the historic features of the building but to bring in modern elements and flexibility so that we can continue the education program in a way that children are used to learning,” said Reinheimer. 

Elizabeth Wayland-Morgan, the associate director of the museum, says the museum is looking for more sponsors, as well as corporate support to continue working on making the educational programs more attractive for children of all ages. 

Tickets are $135 for nonmembers, $125 for members. In the event of rain, the Summer Fiesta will be moved to the Celebration Tent. Guests are asked to follow a formal dress code, with cobblestone-friendly shoes. For more information, visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org or call 631-854-5579.

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