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Celebrate St. James

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The St. James Long Island Rail Road station house was built and funded by residents in 1873. Photo from the Smithtown Historical Society collection

For more than a century, one thoroughfare in St. James has been hustling and bustling. It’s no surprise that the Smithtown town board and St. James residents have been directing their energy toward the revitalization of Lake Avenue in the last couple of years with the nonprofit organization Celebrate St. James. With the arrival of the Long Island Rail Road to St. James in 1872, the avenue and connecting streets quickly became the center of local commerce, especially around the LIRR station house.

The flatiron building in St. James was built in 1908 by Joseph Amey. Photo from the Smithtown Historical Society collection

Smithtown Historian Brad Harris said the station house in St. James located near the northwest corner of Lake Avenue and Railroad Avenue was built in 1873 by community members, who also paid for it. Soon stage actors and other visitors from New York City, including Mayor William Gaynor, who once lived in Deepwells Mansion, were visiting the hamlet on a regular basis, especially in the summer.

“There was activity the town had never seen before,” Harris said.

Local historian Noel Gish said the St. James station house is the LIRR’s oldest one in existence still standing in its original form. In the early 1970s, the railroad considered remodeling it or tearing it down, when it was in need of painting. Louise Hall, who was the director of the Smithtown Historical Society at the time, organized a group of women to paint it, Gish said, and when the LIRR found out, they sent staff members to do the job, and the station house remained as it was.

Harris said as more people traveled to St. James, boarding houses and hotels were built to accommodate them. One hotel was built on the southeast corner of Lake and Railroad where Garguilo’s Bakery is located today. Built in 1905, the Nissequogue Hotel accommodated the visitors vacationing in the area in the summer and coming to hunt in the cooler weather. The hotel, that was renamed the St. James Hotel, was destroyed by fire in December 1962.

“The friendly ghosts of the Calderone Theater have been with me throughout the metamorphosis of this structure.”

— Natalie Weinstein

In 1908, a unique structure was built across the street from the hotel by Joseph Amey. Shaped like the flatiron building in New York City, it still stands today and has been home to various businesses throughout the decades including a soda fountain. Harris said at one point a bowling alley was located toward the back of the building in the basement, and the roof of the alley stuck out above the street.

Through the decades businesses with names such as Harry’s Barber Shop, Riis’s Stationery and Barber Shop, Sam’s Meat Market and Bohack’s Supermarket have lined Lake Avenue. Harris, who is a 50-year resident of the hamlet, said his favorite building is where Uniquely Natalie Quality Consignment is now located on Second Street off of Lake Avenue. He said the structure dates back to the 1930s, and at one time it was the Calderone Theater, which showcased live performances and silent movies. The building now houses the St. James Museum featuring local memorabilia.

Natalie Weinstein, owner of the building, purchased it in 1985.

“The friendly ghosts of the Calderone Theater have been with me throughout the metamorphosis of this structure, since I purchased it with my husband Bernie in 1985,” she said.

In addition to housing Uniquely Natalie and the museum, Celebrate St. James hosts social and cultural events at the former theater.

“It is a pivotal place for this town to regain its love and appreciation of its history, as we begin to revitalize economically and recapture what this small town has to offer,” Weinstein said.

Harris said he believes the revitalization of Lake Avenue will be a plus for St. James.

“I think people are going to discover Lake Avenue more and more,” Harris said.

On May 19, Celebrate St James hosted state, county and town officials as well as local residents at the Lake Avenue Gazebo to commemorate an official Cultural Arts District, located along Lake Avenue in the hamlet of St. James. 

The event, led by one of the organization’s founding members Natalie Weinstein, included a custom artwork unveiling by local artist Arline Goldstein, a ceremonial toast and ribbon cutting. The not-for-profit organization was also responsible for approaching the Town of Smithtown with the vision of creating a Cultural Arts District along Lake Avenue.

“There has always been something about St. James that has fostered community pride. It was and is a place where people have come together in the past and still do,” said Weinstein. “It is a place where, no matter who we are or what we think, we always share one commonality – we love our hometown.”

Weinstein went on to thank Gary Fitlin, CEO of Gyrodyne; Mario Mattera of Deepwells Farm Historical Society; St. James and Smithtown chamber of commerces; and the Smithtown Historical Society. “They, along with local and state government, realize the economic benefits that a revitalization of St. James would have, not only for Smithtown, but Suffolk County and all of Long Island,” she said. 

The Smithtown town board voted unanimously on April 25 to declare an overlay cultural arts district along Lake Avenue in St. James from Route 25A (at the St. James Firehouse) on the north end down to Woodlawn Avenue on the south end, which is intended to highlight the arts, culture and entertainment for residents and visitors alike, creating much needed attractions, tourism and foot traffic along the St. James small business district.

“Thanks to the Town Council and Supervisor Ed Wehrheim, we are on our way to making history! Celebrate St. James is about you – all of you – all who will reap these benefits as you walk down Lake Avenue, sharing a coffee or ice cream, playing a game of chess, joining your friends for a meal or just … sitting on a park bench and enjoying the best of what small town life on ‘Main Street’ was like and will be again,” said Weinstein. 

“And we are privileged to make it happen and see it become a wonderful gathering place for us all. We truly look forward to the future, joyfully, as we celebrate our past.”

The ceremony was held in conjunction with Celebrate St. James’ first St. James Art Walk, which featured vendors, art demonstrations and music along Lake Avenue.

Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) asked the crowd of enthusiastic residents to envision the future Lake Avenue as it undergoes a renaissance.

“An artist looks at life around him or her and sees something that most of us can not … They see colors on a blank canvas, they see the finished product looking at a blueprint. They see potential. They see an extraordinary future,” said Wehrheim. “As we cut this ribbon today, I ask that you take a moment, find your inner artist … and imagine the potential.” 

Arline Goldstein and Natalie Weinstein together inside Studio 455 Art Gallery

By Susan Risoli

The St. James of the past was a gracious world, where locals were joined by artists and celebrities summering in the prosperous farming community. St. James of the present is a town marked by empty storefronts and limited opportunity for growth.

“St. James needs sprucing up,” said Eric Neitzel, owner of DeBarbieri Associates Real Estate agency and a member of Celebrate St. James. “If you look at Lake Avenue, it looks a little depressed.”

St. James residents at the summer concert series organized by Celebrate St. James.

Interior designer Natalie Weinstein helped form the nonprofit organization Celebrate St. James whose mission is to “develop community pride and involvement, and allow people to understand what we can have here.” She is owner of Uniquely Natalie, a high-end furniture consignment shop housed in the former location of the historic St. James Calderone Theater, and Studio 455 Art Gallery on Lake Avenue. 

Like Weinstein, many of the group’s members are lifelong St. James residents. They are proud of the town’s rich history. New York City mayor William J. Gaynor and his family lived at the Deepwells mansion, where notable figures such as Harry Houdini, Mae West and Madam C.J. Walker strolled through the parlor. 

“Our unique and special town has an auspicious history — but it has so much more,” reads a post on Celebrate St. James’ Facebook page. “It has spirit and pride and a desire to look back while looking forward. It has young and growing families, valued seniors, those who have been here for generations, and those who have just chosen to live and work in our wonderful hamlet because of who we are and what we stand for.” 

For their vision and determination to make St. James thrive once more, TBR News Media is honoring the members of Celebrate St. James as 2018 People of the Year. 

Since its formation in 2017, the group worked hard to create an 18-month calendar for 2018 featuring historic photos of the town and put together an outdoor concert series at the St. James Gazebo. 

Events scheduled for 2019 include a springtime silent film festival and an Art Walk slated for May 5, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For three weeks, more than 20 local artists will partner with St. James businesses along Lake Avenue to showcase their work, according to Arline Goldstein, a St. James resident and Celebrate St. James member. It is currently in the process of reaching out to visual artists, sculptors, photographers, potters, weavers, performing artists and others interested in participating in the event. 

Weinstein said Celebrate St. James has also applied for a grant to create a historic walking tour enhanced by kiosks that people could access via an app on their phones. 

Arline Goldstein and Natalie Weinstein. Photo by Kyle Barr

Celebrate St. James is continuing its work to create a Lake Avenue arts district that would stretch from the St. James firehouse on Route 25A to Woodlawn Avenue. The group first presented this idea to Town of Smithtown officials at their May 8 board meeting. 

“It’s in my heart for artists to show their work, and for others to see that work,” Goldstein told TBR News Media in May. “The project is the culmination of all my ideas about art.” 

Neitzel explained that the district could become a reality when the street is outfitted with a sewer system. In the new year, the first piece of the plan will move forward, with dry sewer mains scheduled to be installed on Lake Avenue. The town’s streets and sidewalks will also be redone. 

“Right now, development is hindered,” Neitzel said. “Eventually the commercial community, and an arts community surrounding it, will be piped into the sewers.” 

Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R), the town board and its planning department have said they will help in any way they can. Smithtown officials and St. James community members, including representatives of Celebrate St. James, have been having regular meetings to plan out steps toward downtown revitalization, according to town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo. 

Weinstein and the organization’s hard work and persistence has not gone unnoticed by their neighbors. 

“Natalie is a phenomenal woman that’s done a tremendous amount for our town,” Tom Donohue, of St. James, said. She’s always looking for the future; she had a ton of energy.”

Goldstein also oversees a committee composed of residents, business owners, architects and representatives of the Town of Smithtown planning department. Goldstein said they are looking at various issues, including off-street parking and signage. 

“Right now signs are haphazard and not attractive,” she said. 

Goldstein said Celebrate St. James is strategizing ways to strengthen the relationship between the town and creative people. One goal is to have artists and musicians living and working in St. James, “to bring art from the studios right out into the community.”

“We can and will save this town through the arts,” Weinstein said. 

The members of Celebrate St. James are all volunteers. Together, they have embraced the challenge of navigating complex matters of zoning and funding, if it means restoring St. James to its former glory. 

“We have a big love for St. James,” Neitzel said, “It’s a wonderful town.” 

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