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Historic Landmark

The Town of Smithtown's Whisper the Bull statue as decorated for the 2017 holiday season shows the Happy Hanukkah sign that was destroyed. Photo from Corey Geske

Whisper the Bull has long been an iconic landmark in Smithtown, standing at the west entrance of town at the intersection of Routes 25 and 25A, but recently is gaining attention at the state level.

Smithtown resident Corey Geske announced the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has determined the Whisper the Bull statue is officially eligible for the New York State and National Register of Historic Places. Geske called on Town of Smithtown officials at their Dec. 11 meeting to sign off on and complete the application that could protect the statue for generations to come.

“I’m bullish on seeing downtown revitalized with historic preservation leading the way,” she said. “So, let’s get Whisper registered.”

I’m bullish on seeing downtown revitalized with historic preservation leading the way.” 

— Corey Geske

Geske said it was in 2017 she first proposed a three-part conceptual plan for revitalization of downtown Smithtown to elected officials. One key component was the creation of a historic corridor along Main Street/Route 25A starting at the western edge with the bull statue.

“It’s comparable to the Charging Bull on Wall Street, the famous sculpture that brings in tourists from around the world” she said. “We have something to be very proud of, it’s a world-class sculpture.”

The concept of creating a statue for Smithtown was first conceived in 1913 by town founder Richard Smythe’s descendant, Lawrence Smith Butler, while he attended the National School of Fine Arts in Paris. He asked a fellow student Charles Cary Rumsey for help, who came up with depicting the centuries-old legend of Smythe riding the town’s boundary on a bull to claim it.

Geske said she uncovered the sculpture’s history when drafting the nearly 80-page report in April to be submitted to the state for a determination on whether it was eligible to be named a historic place.

New York State’s Registry of Historic Places is an “official list of buildings, structures, districts, objects, and sites significant in the history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture of New York and the nation,” according to the state’s website. Four criteria considered by the state in evaluating the statue include: whether its associated with events that have made a significant contribution to history, associated with the life of a significant person, if it possesses high artistic value or yields information important to history.

The cement platform on which Whisper the Bull stands has a crack. Photo from Corey Geske

Geske said she received a letter in July from the state parks department that Whisper is eligible, but the Town of Smithtown must be the applicant as they are the official owner of the statue.

“We will be moving forward with the approval on that,” town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo said. “Once it’s on the registry, we will be applying for grants to take better care of it.”

One immediate concern of both Geske and Smithtown’s elected official is a crack visible on the cement pedestal on which the 5-ton sculpture rests. It is visible immediately along “Smithtown” in the inscription and can be seen running from front to back of the platform. Garguilo said the town has plans to repair the base this upcoming spring under the direction of Joseph Arico, head of the town’s parks department.

“It’s our understanding any restrictions the historical register would require [to] be maintained pertain to the bull itself, not the base or anything around the base,” she said.

If Whisper the Bull is approved as a state historic place, Geske said it would be the first phase before applying to have it placed on the national registry. She hopes to follow up by seeking historic status for other Main Street buildings, including the 108-year-old Trinity AME Church on New York Avenue, the 105-year-old Resurrection Byzantine Catholic Church on Juniper Avenue and the 265-year-old Arthur House.

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The Cumsewogue Historical Society has a ticket to the Gentlemen’s Driving Park from July 4, 1892. Photo by Elana Glowatz

What was once an abandoned and forgotten horse racing track in a stretch of woods in Terryville is now a Brookhaven-designated historic landmark.

The town board voted unanimously during its May 11 meeting to recognize the Gentlemen’s Driving Park, the last Victorian-era harness racing track on Long Island, as an historic landmark and by doing so, solidified the hard work of the local residents and elected officials who helped to make it happen.

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, Jack Smith, Ed Garboski of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association and Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine examine the Gentleman’s Driving Park. File photo by Elana Glowatz

The half-mile track, before it became hidden among trees, was a popular gathering place for bettors in the late 19th century to watch men race around the loop behind horses in carts. It was part of a circuit of tracks in the Northeast — others sat in Smithtown, Setauket and Riverhead — and is the last remaining one.

“I urge you to recognize it,” Barbara Russell, Brookhaven town historian, said before the board made their decision.

Russell played a huge part in providing historical context to the site when Jack Smith, president and founder of the Cumsewogue Historical Society, initially kicked off the project more than a year ago.

She made all resources of her office available to the historical society, including original photographs of the track donated by the historic Davis family and firsthand accounts of these races through old letters.

Smith discovered the faint outline of the horse track from a satellite image on Google Earth upon hearing of its existence off Canal Road, and eventually went to the site with his wife Pam, to examine it more closely. To his delight, he ended up finding pieces of Long Island history scattered throughout the 11-acre site, including a broken pair of Victorian-era field glasses close to where the finish line of the track would’ve been as well as a race day ticket from 1892.

Smith then reached out to former Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld and other council members about acquiring the site, clearing the overgrown path and restoring it. Rosenfeld, Smith said, saw the value in preserving the site and laid the groundwork to make the project possible.

The Gentlemen’s Driving Park officially opened to the public in October.

“The landmark status recognizes the importance of preserving this colorful and almost forgotten part of Brookhaven Town’s history,” Smith said in a phone interview. “The driving park is now a collective symbol of the many large driving parks that once dotted the Long Island landscape … Long Island being the birthplace of horse racing in America. I’m happy the society as a whole was able to play an integral part in getting this important part of our history preserved.”

Jack Smith takes a closer look at a wrecked car on the Gentlemen’s Driving Park track around the time he first discovered the forgotten historical spot. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Smith said Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) picked up where Rosenfeld left off when she was first elected.

“She took it through some difficult negotiations and brought the whole thing to fruition,” he noted. “Her diligence and hard work, tremendous optimism and skill in bringing everything together have culminated in the preservation … .”

Cartright expressed her excitement about the designation in an emailed statement. She described the endeavor as a three-step process — first the town’s acquisition of the park in 2014, then the reopening in 2016, and finally receiving the landmark designation last week.

“During each of these steps, and for several years prior to my taking office, Jack Smith has been at the forefront of the Gentlemen’s Driving Park project,” she said. “The activism, research and unwavering support of Jack and the Historical Society has been an inspiration. The historic landmark status draws additional attention to Gentlemen’s Driving Park and is an honor the rich history of the location and all those who helped preserve it certainly deserve.”

Smith said the town plans to build a Victorian-style gate as an entranceway to the track.

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Dominick-Crawford Barn is now a historic landmark. Photo by Giselle Barkley

It’s history in the making.

Brookhaven’s Three Village Historical Society is continuing its quest to preserve the town’s history and educate the community after the Town of Brookhaven’s meeting on Thursday Sept. 17, at 5 p.m.

That Thursday, the town established the Three Village Society’s Ebenezer Bayles/Stephen Swezey house in Setauket and the dismantled Dominick-Crawford Barn, which will be located nearby, as historic landmarks in Setauket. The goal isn’t only to establish these buildings as historic landmarks but also classify them as a museum where residents can visit and learn about the history behind the house and the barn.

But it may take some time before the society fulfills its goal. The society had the nearly 155- to 168-year-old Dominick-Crawford Barn dismantled as part of its Crawford Barn Renovation Project.

According to John Cunniffe of Stony Brook, the architect of this project, the Village of Old Field originally wanted to take the barn down and use the land. Cunniffe said the village received the deed for the property several years ago but it didn’t do anything with the property until it decided the barn was “in their way.”

“The barn was left in a neglected state for quite some time,” Cunniffe said. “So the Historical Society found some funding to pay a contractor to carefully dismantle [the barn]. So it was that or watch the barn be demolished.”

Cunniffe also said establishing the barn as a historic landmark was not only important because of the barn’s long history but also because there is a town code requirement to classify the barn as a museum as it will rest on a residential property.

According to Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) the Society for Preservation of Long Island Antiquities used to own the property where the barn and the house will be located. They used to have an auction out of the barn that was there at the time. When SPLIA moved its headquarters from the Ebenezer Bayles/Stephen Swezey house location in Setauket to Cold Spring Harbor, it took the barn that was there at the time.

The Dominick-Crawford Barn, which was located on the east side of the junction of Old Field Road and Quaker Path in the Village of Old Field before it was dismantled, will be located to the left of the Ebenezer Bayles/Stephen Swezey House parking lot.

Thus far Englebright has helped provide $625,000 in grants to help fund the project. He also said the organization has held fundraisers with the hope of collecting additional funds to pay for the project.

While the Crawford barn was built around 1847 to 1860, the house was built in 1800. Former President of the Three Village Historical Society Steven Hintze said the house is of great importance to the community’s history.

“It was built before [the] Civil War. And many of [those houses] haven’t lasted. They haven’t made it to this point due to neglect,” Hintze said. “We were able to see [the Ebenezer Bayles/Stephen Swezey house] was starting to fall to disrepair so we started to move.”

After SPLIA moved, the Three Village Historical Society left its old headquarters for its new one in the house. The Three Village Society was originally operating out of an upstairs room in a house before purchasing the Ebenezer Bayles/Stephen Swezey house on May 14, 1998.

Cunniffe was unsure how long it may take before the organization can reassemble the barn, as the town’s decision to make it a historic landmark is one of many steps in the approval process to put the barn back together near the Three Village Society’s headquarters. Regardless, the Three Village Society wants to continue giving back with the hope that the project will allow residents to learn more about the history of the house and the barn. It’s a desire that Englebright supports.

“They are doing a great job and as long as I can possibly support them, I’m going to continue to do so,” Englebright said. “They are making it possible for us to have an even stronger sense of place, and that’s at the core of what it means to be a part of a community.”