By Ellen Barcel
It’s been 75 years since the Ward Melville Heritage Organization (originally the Stony Brook Community Fund), under the direction of philanthropist Ward Melville, constructed the Stony Brook Village Center. It was planned as a “living Williamsburg” recognizing the historic importance of the village “where culture would blend with natural beauty as a part of everyday life — the first planned business center in the U.S.”
Interestingly, the selection of Stony Brook as the site for this center came about by accident. The Melville family was on its way to the South Fork when, taking the wrong train, they found themselves in Stony Brook. “[Frank and Jenny] fell in love with the area,” noted Stephanie Ruales, special events coordinator at the WMHO. They vacationed in the area and finally, son Ward Melville planned the Stony Brook Village Center.
The WMHO has mounted a special exhibit, “It Takes A Team To Build A Village,” which will run now through Sept. 7, to display the memorabilia associated with the history of the center. “We started to look for a couple of pictures and found so much,” said Gloria Rocchio, president of the WMHO and exhibit curator.
“What’s very interesting to me, what I didn’t know, was that Jenny Melville [Ward Melville’s mother] was Canadian and that she bought up property here in the early 1930s, the Depression. When she died, Ward Melville picked up the gauntlet. She was the one who started the garden club — the tea house (later becoming the Three Village Inn) at the old homestead,” said Rocchio.
Co-curated by Ruales and Rocchio with help from Karen Kennedy, the exhibit consists of dozens of enlargements of historic photos, showing the village before, during and after the construction as well as the original blueprints for the village center and letters documenting the purchase of the land. In addition, there’s the original model of the proposed village center used by Melville to present the proposal to the village back in 1940. The exhibit also includes some items from the 1940s, representative of the time.
Just a year later, July of 1941, the new village center was completed. Over the years, various businesses have come and gone, including a four-lane bowling alley in the basement of one of the buildings. In the early 1940s, the automatic pin setting machine didn’t exist, so pinsetters, usually young men, stayed down by the pins, ready to reset them after each bowler’s turn.
When searching out the historic photos and documents, Ruales noted that they found an eight-millimeter film of the grand opening of the center, “something we didn’t know that we had. We had it converted” to a DVD and it is running on a loop at the exhibit.
One of the unique features of the village center is the mechanical eagle on top of the Stony Brook Post Office, which flaps its wings every hour on the hour from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Noted Marie Gilberti, communications manager at WMHO, Ward Melville himself, “planned and instituted,” the eagle.
But, the eagle was installed for a few years, with its wings flapping up and down, when Melville decided he didn’t like the way it looked. The eagle was taken down and reconfigured, so that the wings flap back and forth now.
Melville also had the Dogwood Hollow Amphitheater constructed opposite the bank in Stony Brook. Concerts were held there through the 1950s and 60s. “Big name” entertainers performed at the concert, noted Rocchio. They included Liberace, Ferrante and Teicher, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Louis Armstrong, Pete Seeger, Victor Borge, the Clancy Brothers and Lionel Hampton. “Mr. Melville paid for it himself,” Gilberti added. But, unfortunately, the concerts outgrew the venue and were stopped in 1970.
Today, live concerts are still held, but in front of the post office, sponsored by the WMHO. “We’re going to have a concert from each decade this summer,” said Rocchio. She noted that a history of Dogwood Hollow will be on display at the Jazz Loft, 275 Christian Ave., in a building (originally the fire house) owned by the WMHO.
The Jazz Loft will be a center for music education. It is open through Saturday, May 28, from noon to 5 p.m. Beginning June 2, it will be open Thursday through Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. For details, events and performers, go to www.thejazzloft.org. Beginning in September, Swing Dance Long Island is schedule to hold its dances there.
According to Ruales, the whole idea for the exhibit came from Rocchio. “She was in charge of the exhibit.” It was her idea “to celebrate [the anniversary] and … for people to come and see the history,” of the area.
The name for the exhibit, “It Takes A Team To Build A Village,” came about because “we are honoring a lot of people who were involved in constructing the center. It’s a huge village center,” added Gilberti.
Future events connected with the 75th anniversary include a ceremony on July 9 recreating the 25th anniversary celebration. “We’re going to have antique cars from each decade in the village,” said Rocchio. A talk by her is also planned for the future. “There are so many things I’ve been taught by Mrs. Melville [Dorothy Melville, Ward’s wife] that no one knows. I worked for her for 10 years. She was the president” of the WMHO. “I was the Administrator at that time.” Rocchio added that putting together the exhibit and various events connected with it “has been a labor of love.”
The exhibit is currently on display at WMHO’s Educational and Cultural Center, 97P Main Street, Stony Brook through June 19 (Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and June 20 through Sept. 7 (daily, 10 a.m. through 5 p.m.) — closed Memorial Day and July 4. There is no admission charge, but donations are suggested. For further information, call 631-689-5888 or visit www.wmho.org.