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Jonathan Olly

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.

Above, a portrait of Leonard A. Zierden, age 4, March 1900, with his Jack Russell Terrier (Star Studio, Johnsonburg, PA) will be on view at The LIM through Dec. 31.

By Jill Webb

As the dog days of summer are brought in with the August heat, The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook will also put dogs in the spotlight. Starting Aug. 11, the Art Museum on the hill will feature an exhibit titled Dog Days: Portraits of Man’s Best Friend. The exhibit’s collection will focus on works from the 1840s to the 1960s featuring dogs.

Ernest BJ Zierden, age 7, March 1900, with his Jack Russell Terrier (JYL Photo Studio, Johnsonburg, PA)

“This gallery tends to be devoted to changing exhibits drawn from our permanent collection,” Assistant Curator Jonathan Olly said of the room currently preparing for the Dog Days exhibit. The exhibit will open tomorrow, Aug. 11, and run through Dec. 31.

Beneath the gallery resides the vault storing the museum’s art collection. “It’s kind of a continuing challenge of coming up with new ways to look at the collection and put together themes,” Olly said.

Olly got the idea to draw together works highlighting dogs after gaining inspiration from a cat-centric exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts. Realizing the fact that Long Islanders love their dogs led him to curate the Dog Days exhibit. “When most people were living on a farm, farms had dogs because they were pets but they’re also practical. They could catch pests, they could guard the homestead from intruders,” he said.

There are about 20 major works in the gallery, from watercolor and oil painting to photographs. There will also be a display case featuring smaller objects such as dog show tags, ribbons from the North Shore Kennel Club in St. James, postcards that have advertising containing dogs, ornaments that were pinned on horse wagons leather straps and even a pair of slippers with dog’s faces embroidered on them.

William Sidney Mount’s Esqimaux Dog, 1859

Famous artists William Sidney Mount and William Moore Davis have pieces on display. Mount was a 19th-century genre and portrait painter who lived in Setauket and Stony Brook. The museum has the largest collection of his works. Davis, a friend of Mount’s, resided in Port Jefferson and is known for his landscape paintings.

“They are the two artists that are most strongly represented in the show. That’s because they were local people and they both depicted scenes of regular people on Long Island at work, at play, at rest — and often dogs were part of the scene,” Olly said.

The interesting part of the gallery is that in most of the works the dogs are not the most prominent part of the piece. Often, they were just another component in the scene, which draws a comparison to how they were (and are) just another part of Long Islander’s lives.

“A lot of the things that we’re working with in here tend to be things that have come into the collection not because they’re dog-related, but the fact they have dogs is almost accidental,” Olly said.

This is the case in Alexander Kruse’s 1969 painting “Bicycle Parking Fire Island,” which is the most current piece in the exhibit. “He didn’t paint it because of the dog, but he just happened to include a dog,” Olly said.

One of the most interesting pieces featured, according to Olly, is a painting illustrating a scene of the Meadow Brook Hounds. Fox hunting was a popular sport for Long Island’s elite in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There were three main fox hunting organizations on Long Island during this time: The Meadow Brook Hounds (1881-1971), Suffolk Hounds (1902-1942) and Smithtown Hunt (1900-present).

The painting of the Meadow Brook Hounds is particularly interesting because it’s one of the few where the dogs are a major part of the scene. The painting is accompanied by a label that not only names important figures portrayed in the piece, like Theodore Roosevelt, but also credits the dog’s names. “The dogs are actually getting equal billing with the people,” Olly said.

In conjunction with the Dog Days exhibition, The Long Island Museum will present its third Summer Thursday event on Aug. 17 from 6 to 8 p.m. with a concert by the Cuomo Family Band. Visitors are encouraged to pack a picnic dinner and bring chairs or blankets. Admission to the grounds and exhibit is free.

Shelter dogs from Last Chance Animal Rescue will be available for adoption and The Middle Country Public Library’s Mutt Club, which partners with animal rescue organizations, will be collecting donations for shelter pets including pet food, toys, treats, collars, cat litter, toys, cleaning supplies and peanut butter.

Dog Days: Portraits of Man’s Best Friend is a chance for North Shore residents to see the beloved pets in an artistic light. Stop by the gallery to see just how man’s best friend has been captured over the past centuries on Long Island.

The Long Island Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate, is located at 1200 Route 25A in Stony Brook. Regular museum hours are Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call 631-751-0066 or visit www.longislandmuseum.org.

Above, a 1927 Ford Motel T greets visitors at the entrance of the exhibit. Photo by Julie Diamond

By Susan Risoli

Prohibition made the 1920s roar. Long Island was the center of all the glamour and danger of that whirlwind time, as we now know from Midnight Rum, a new exhibit on display through Sept. 4 at The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook.

“Being on a coast and having so many inlets, Long Island was a natural” for running illegal alcohol, said LIM Executive Director Neil Watson. Proximity to New York City was another factor. The exhibit, which Watson described as “unusually stimulating and rich,” reveals the daring and ingenuity of people making the most of an era that lasted from 1920 to 1933. “When alcohol was banned, it flourished,” he said, “but it flourished in a different way.”

Above, a still used by Roy Edwin Thompson of Roosevelt in the 1920s and ’30s. Photo by Julie Diamond

A massive car built for adventure greets the visitor to the gallery. Was this 1927 Ford Model T touring car one of the vehicles involved in illegal activity? We don’t know for sure. But memories and newspaper accounts reveal that similar Model Ts were the car of choice for smuggling booze. The one in the LIM show is a black chariot with a black leather interior. The running board alone could hold a small gang, and the button-tufted back seat looks made for shenanigans.

Assistant curator Jonathan Olly said he originally wanted to find a rum runner boat to display. He found someone willing to loan one for the exhibit. But the motorboat was just a foot too wide to fit into the gallery. “It was a disappointment,” he recalled.

After contacting multiple car collecting clubs and individuals, “some of whom are very elderly,” Olly turned up the Model T in the exhibit. The owner was willing to drive it out to Stony Brook from Bayside, Queens — no easy journey, given the distance and the car’s top speed of 40ish miles per hour. “We lucked out,” Olly said.

A vignette depicting the Suffrage movement. Photo by Julie Diamond

Olly and his colleagues found the perfect accompaniment to the car: vintage wooden crates just like those that would have been used to store liquor, “from a guy who sells reconditioned Jeep parts out in Riverhead.” The idea came from a 1924 newspaper article that described a Model T, found in a shed by authorities, with 13 cases of liquor hidden in it.

Midnight Rum is a feast of details. Some are luxurious, some are practical, but no less fascinating. A vignette of objects portraying a speakeasy includes a hand-beaded dress and a beautiful cut-glass bowl for punch (spiked, of course). A still based in somebody’s kitchen occupies another vignette, complete with beautifully preserved stove and the tubs and pots needed to cook up some home brew. Over in the corner, tacked up on the kitchen wall, is another LIM find: actual old recipes, written in carefully cursive penmanship. But this is not your grandmother’s coffee cake recipe. “Place in tub as is, stems and grapes,” says the instructions.

Other vignettes tell the story of the strong connection between the drive to make alcohol illegal and the fight for women’s suffrage. Equally compelling are the artifacts and objects that reveal how women, growing in political savvy and connections, helped lead the movement that ultimately repealed Prohibition.

Midnight Rum is a multimedia exhibit. The sounds of oral histories, projected on a screen, draw the viewer in. A short film on the perils of drink is entertaining, while it explains the thinking and emotions that led to Prohibition in the first place. The film’s string- and woodwind-filled score might be familiar to anyone who remembers the Little Rascals or Bugs Bunny.

A speakeasy vignette. Photo by Julie Diamond

Olly said although Long Island played a key role in what he called “a very extreme moment in American culture, when alcohol suddenly became illegal,” there were challenges in putting the exhibit together. “Everyone has some sort of anecdote about Prohibition,” he said, but often anecdotes are … well … only anecdotal. Finding all the objects needed to tell the story properly was a complex task, he said, and consequently “a lot of the objects are borrowed. It’s not a story we could tell without a number of lenders.”

Olly and his colleagues found parallels between the Prohibition era and today’s America. There was economic inequity, with poor people being affected more directly by the alcohol ban than their wealthy counterparts who could afford to stockpile liquor or frequent fancy speakeasies.

Many of the alcohol brewers of the time, in the New York metropolitan area, were German-American. And saloons were important places for Italian and German immigrants to gather, to find out about work and socialize in what Olly called “a public drinking culture.”

“There was some anti-immigrant sentiment, a nativism,” he said. “There were issues of citizenship — who should have access to resources and who shouldn’t.”

The Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook will present in the Visitors Center through Sept. 4. The museum is open Thursday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 12 to 5 p.m. Regular admission is $10, $7 for seniors and $5 for students ages 6 to 17. Children under 6 and museum members are admitted free. For more information, call 631-751-0066 or visit www.longislandmuseum.org.

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