By Heidi Sutton
I’m sitting on a bench on the Village Green at the Stony Brook Village Center. I’ve come to see the sun set over the harbor. It’s mid-June and there’s still a slight chill in the air. Behind me are the quaint New England style shops and restaurants; across the street Hercules sits in his Pavilion, tall and regal with a lion’s pelt wrapped around his shoulders while kayakers and paddle boarders row silently behind him.
Down to my right I spy the little stream that I used to play in as a child and beyond that the Three Village Inn, the spot for so many family gatherings. I hear a familiar sound and turn to catch the mechanical eagle on the post office flap its wings. It’s 8 p.m. and the chimney swifts above me make their last rounds in search of insects as the sky turns orange and purple and pink. The scene is peaceful and beautiful; a community treasure.
One man’s vision
According to Gloria Rocchio, president of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, this exact spot was the focal point for Ward Melville’s vision to build the nation’s first planned business community. Originally Melville’s mother, Jennie, came up with the idea of rebuilding the village after the Great Depression and started purchasing properties in the area. When she died in the summer of 1939, “Mr. Melville took up the gauntlet” and envisioned opening the whole village to the harbor.
After establishing The Ward Melville Organization (then known as the Stony Brook Community Fund) on Dec. 31, 1939 the philanthropist presented his grand plan, a crescent-shaped Village Center with connected shops grouped around a Federalist-style post office, to the community in January of 1940 at a special dinner at the Three Village Inn. The project was well received.
“He officially opened [the Stony Brook Village Center] on July 5, 1941 but the last tenant, the hardware store, opened on Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day,” said Rocchio during a recent interview, adding that the mechanical eagle was there from the first day. “The idea of attaching buildings together and having the road network where the deliveries went in the back – all of it was very unusual and unique,” she said.
Now known as the Harbor Crescent section, the shops featured big show windows with identical signage. Full-size trees were planted in the grassy area in front of them (probably to keep them from blocking the storefronts as they grew, theorizes Rocchio), with green metal garbage cans inscribed with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives,” placed next to them.
Melville then turned his attention to restoring historic properties in the area dating back to the Revolutionary War, including the Stony Brook Grist Mill and the Thompson House and Brewster House in Setauket. “Each time he did that he deeded it over to the Stony Brook Community Fund, now the WMHO, and here we are,” Rocchio explained.
In the 1960s, Melville saw that the community was changing, and to go along with the times, he built the second section of the Stony Brook Village Center, Market Square, which featured a Bohacks.
When he passed in 1977, his wife Dorothy became president of the board and headed up the third phase of the Village Center with the addition of the Inner Court. Rocchio worked for Dorothy Melville from 1979 until she died in 1989. “I worked very closely with her and she taught me a lot; I learned how [the Melvilles] thought and that was very important.” The final phase, the Educational & Cultural Center, located behind the Inner Court, was completed in 2002.
According to Rocchio, the Stony Brook Village Center was part of a larger vision. “[Ward Melville] loved history – American history. He bought all these properties as it relates to the history of this area,” she explained, adding that Melville’s goal was to have Stony Brook look similar to Colonial Williamsburg.
“[Melville] saw it as a master plan, the Williamsburg concept,” which included donating 400 acres of land for the development of Stony Brook University. “This [shopping area] was supposed to be the road that leads to [The College of] William and Mary,” Rocchio explained, and a lot of the homes on Main Street were purchased by Melville who removed all the Victorian architecture and brought them back to the Colonial style. Slate sidewalks were installed to complete the look.
“This was a place that you lived with history … So you just lived with the Grist Mill where it always was, you lived with the Thompson House where it always was – and to think that this one man had the vision to save all of this and to create this for the residents is such a treasure,” said Rocchio. “The legacy and the foresight that he had is just amazing to me, amazing.”
Continuing the legacy
Today, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization continues its mission to protect and preserve historic and environmentally sensitive properties deeded to it by Ward Melville including the Stony Brook Grist Mill, Thompson House, Brewster House, the 11-acre T. Bayles Minuse Mill Pond Park and two-acre Upper Pond, the Hercules Pavilion, and the Ernst Marine Conservation Center and 88-Acre Wetlands Preserve.
The organization also leases WMHO land and buildings to the Long Island Museum, The Jazz Loft and the Three Village Society Lending Aids for the Sick for $1 per year with the stipulation that they are responsible for maintenance and operations. This was Ward and Dorothy’s vision of creating a community where art, music and history are an integral part of daily life.
Every year the organization offers free summer concerts in front of the post office, a scarecrow contest in October, a holiday festival and Promenade of Trees in December, educational programs for children, Master Classes for adults, cultural exhibits, musical theater luncheon and Wetlands Discovery Cruises. In addition, the WMHO hosts the Long Island’s Got Talent competition and Walk for Beauty.
The Stony Brook Village Center, 111 Main St., Stony Brook is a lifestyle shopping center with specialty shops and services, restaurants and year-round events including its annual outdoor summer concerts, Halloween Festival and holiday tree lighting.
The Brewster House, 18 Runs Road, East Setauket was built in 1665 and is considered the oldest house in the Town of Brookhaven. Home to six generations of Brewsters, it was operated as a tavern and general store during the American Revolution by Joseph Brewster. Open on Culper Spy Day every year and by appointment.
The Stony Brook Grist Mill, 100 Harbor Road, Stony Brook is Long Island’s most completely equipped working mill. Listed on the National and New York State Register of Historic Places, it is open to the public for guided tours with a miller on weekends April through mid-October from noon to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children.
Hercules Pavilion on Main Street, Stony Brook, houses the figurehead and anchor from the U.S.S. Ohio, the first ship launched from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1820. Sharing the Hercules Pavilion with the historic figurehead is the Polaris whaleboat, thought to be the only surviving artifact from the Charles Hall expedition to the Arctic in 1870.
Discovery Wetlands Cruises depart from Stony Brook Marine Services across from the Three Village Inn through Oct. 20. The 27-passenger vessel cruises through the organization’s 88-acre wetlands preserve for a 1½-hour tour. A naturalist on board will highlight and describe the wildlife and flora that the passengers will see. Visit www.wmho.org for full schedule.
The Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Educational & Cultural Center, 97P Main St., Stony Brook is a state-of-the-art venue that offers a wide variety of events throughout the year including cultural exhibits, musical theater performances and children and adult programs. Home of the Heritage Gift Shop.
The Jazz Loft, 275 Christian Ave., Stony Brook offers a treasure trove of memorabilia from some of the greatest jazz musicians of their day and even an orchestra stage that was constructed from the original Roseland Ballroom dance floor. The venue includes a full calendar of musical performances, as well as sensory-friendly programs. 631-751-1895, www.thejazzloft.org.
The Mechanical Eagle at the Stony Brook Post Office, 129 Main St., Stony Brook, was hand carved and has a wing span of 20 feet. It flaps its wings every hour on the hour from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. as it has done since 1941, welcoming visitors to the Stony Brook Village Center.
The Thompson House, 91 North Country Road, Setauket is one of the largest houses in the Town of Brookhaven. Built in 1709, this five-room saltbox farmhouse was home to five generations of Thompsons, including patriot, farmer and physician, Dr. Samuel Thompson. WMHO education programs are held here by appointment and the house is open for tours on Culper Spy Day
Time to celebrate
In honor of its 80th anniversary, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization plans to celebrate with a series of exciting family events kicking off with its Summer Concerts on the Green from July 7 to Aug. 18. Titled Music Through Time, every concert will represent a different decade. “We’re going to be counting down backwards so we’re going to start off with today’s music and work our way right down to the 1940s,” said WMHO Director of Development Gabrielle Lindau.
From July 14 to Sept. 29 the WMHO will present an exhibit at the Educational & Cultural Center titled Journey Through Time. Working in collaboration with Newsday and the Kings Park Heritage Museum, the exhibit will show how society has changed since 1939 because of national, regional and local events and the advancements in technology. “Each panel will represent a different decade,” explained Rocchio. “Newsday is giving us national news, then we have Long Island news and then we have what’s happening here. It’s been a big project.”
The celebration continues from July 20 to Sept. 14 with Walking Through Time, one and a half hour walking tours that will feature costumed actors from St. George Productions portraying historic figures performing in the first person.
“For this tour we are specifically featuring local women … and you’re going to get to meet people who really lived here and owned some of the properties,“ said Lindau, explaining that participants will meet “Mrs. Devereux Emmet” who owned the Stony Brook Grist Mill and built All Soul’s Church and then head over to the Hercules Pavilion with “Mrs. Jonas Smith” who will speak about the U.S.S. Ohio as well as the legend behind Hercules. The group will then walk over to the Three Village Inn to learn about Captain Jonas Smith, Long Island’s first millionaire. Next the group will meet “Miss Louise,” Dorothy Melville’s longtime driver who will move the group to The Jazz Loft to discuss the history of the building. The tour will conclude in front of the Stony Brook post office just in time to see the eagle flap its wings.
See below for additional details on these special anniversary events.
On Sept. 28 the organization will present The Courageous Women of the Revolutionary War. “[Participants] will have the opportunity to visit the Educational & Cultural Center, the Brewster House, the Thompson House, the Hawkins-Mount House and the Stony Brook Grist Mill,” explained Lindau. “In each of the houses there is going to be a living history performance and you’ll meet ‘residents’ who actually lived in those houses during the Revolutionary War,” she said. “There will be things revealed during this tour that most people have never heard before.” Transportation provided by WMHO to all sites.
The Ward Melville Heritage Organization will also team up with The Jazz Loft to present the John Monteleone Art of the Guitar Festival from Sept. 11 to 14 and the Harbor Jazz Festival from Sept. 25 to 29 and collaborate with the Long Island Museum to present a program titled William Sidney Mount & the Sounds of the 19th Century on July 20 from 2 to 5 p.m.; Hawkins-Mount House tours on Sept. 15 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and a Carriage Show and Ride Demonstration on Oct. 27 from 1 to 4 p.m. For more information, call 631-751-2244 or visit www.wmho.org.
MUSIC … ART … HISTORY, 1939–2019
The Ward Melville Heritage Organization is celebrating a milestone in its history with a variety of events for the entire family. Mark your calendars for these not-to-be-missed happenings throughout the summer and fall that will literally take you on a historical and musical journey.
MUSIC THROUGH TIME
Music Through Time free summer concerts will take place each Sunday evening 7 to 9 p.m. in front of the Stony Brook Village Post Office from July 7 through Aug. 18.
Take a musical journey through the decades:
July 7: Sound Chaser Band (2000s-today)
July 14:Tom Manuel & Guests (’90s/Motown)
July 21: Six Gun (’80s/’70s country rock)
July 28: Left Jab Band (’70s/’80s)
Aug. 4: Just Sixties (’60s)
Aug. 11: NY Exceptions (’50s)
Aug. 18: The Jazz Loft (’40s)
JOURNEY THROUGH TIME
Journey Through Time summer exhibit will open July 14 and run through Sept. 29 at WMHO’s state of the art Educational & Cultural Center daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. See how our lives have changed since 1939! Enjoy vintage items such as a WWII Army helmet; a fire engine red T-Bird; Marilyn Monroe, Popeye and Wizard of Oz dolls; a rotary phone as it compares to an iPhone; and so much more! General admission is $8 per person; seniors and children under 12 are $5 per person. Call 631-689-5888 for more info.
WALKING THROUGH TIME
Walking Through Time historic walking tours will begin at the Stony Brook Grist Mill at 1 and 3 p.m. and introduce visitors to a variety of historic figures performing in the first person. Enjoy fun facts and historical happenings from the 18th to the 21st centuries! “Mrs. Devereux Emmet,” c. 1940s, an Astor orphan, who was from Stony Brook, will tell you about why All Souls Church stands here in Stony Brook Village. “Mrs. Jonas Smith,” c. 1850s, will tell you about how her husband became Long Island’s first millionaire through shipbuilding; and “Miss Louise,” c. 1980s, will talk about Dorothy Melville and her interests and activities during this period.
Tour dates are:
July 20 (rain date July 21)
July 31 (rain date Aug. 1)
Aug. 10 (rain date Aug. 11)
Aug. 21 (rain date Aug. 22)
Sept. 14 (rain date Sept. 15)
Regular admission is $15 per person; a Premium Ticket is available for $20 per person, which includes the Journey Through Time exhibit and refreshments; children ages 5 and under are free. Reservations are required by calling 631-689-5888 or 631-751-2244. For more information, visit www.wmho.org.