Ward Melville: A Vision to Preserve a Community and its History

Ward Melville: A Vision to Preserve a Community and its History

Amidst the sprawling suburbia of Long Island, just outside NYC, where shopping malls, big box stores and cookie cutter housing developments are the norm, lies a Colonial-style village that is like no other on Long Island, primarily due to the great foresight that went into how it was developed.

Stony Brook, NY has been called a ‘living Williamsburg.’ The nation’s first planned business community. A place where a rich history filled with tales of America’s Revolutionary-era spy ring lives on. And ghosts of the past are around every corner.

The centerpiece of the community, the Stony Brook Village Center, was created through the vision of one man, Ward Melville who, along with support of other community-minded citizens, purchased and either razed or relocated the remnants of a run-down downtown at the end of the Great Depression. He then had all the stores moved or re-built to seamlessly invoke the style of the 17th and 18th century homes and inns in the community.

It was an extreme measure to maintain the character of the community, and the first time anything like it had been done.

At the same time, Mr. Melville understood the importance of preserving the history of the area. He would go on to purchase over a dozen historic sites, as well as conserving open space and wetlands and creating cultural and recreational opportunities.

Mr. Melville formed the Stony Brook Community Fund, now called the Ward Melville Heritage Organization (WMHO) in 1939 as a non-profit corporation to own and manage the land and the properties he would deed to it in the years following. After gaining community approval in January of 1940, Ward Melville enlisted the help of close friend and architect Richard Haviland Smythe. The plan was for a crescent-shaped Village Center with connected shops grouped around a federalist-style post office. The plan included a mechanical eagle high above the entrance that flaps its wings every hour (8am-8pm) to the delight of visitors.

The creation of the Village Center shops, completed in 1941, was initiated at Ward Melville’s own personal expense of $500,000, or in today’s conversion, over $8, 000,000. He relocated, demolished, or modified some thirty-five buildings in the downtown area and moved 1,000,000 cubic yards of dirt in the undertaking.

Interestingly according to historic records, receipts at the newly opened shops increased 30% after the opening of the Stony Brook Village Center. Today the shops are a mix of trendy style boutiques, restaurants and service organizations. Two new business area sections were completed in 1965 and 1987 in the same Colonial-style architecture. The center continues to draw visitors who come for the shopping and the seasonal events throughout the year.

Many might not know this but Mr. Melville, who owned 3,000 acres in Stony Brook, also built housing around the downtown district including the houses of Long Hill to accommodate working families, as well as Stony Brook Shores and Hawkins Hill a little later. Interestingly, Hawkins Hill was built for Grumman employees and TWA pilots.

Mr. Melville also gave New York State 600 acres to create what would become Stony Brook University, an institution known for its academic excellence and research, especially in the area of medicine.

As opposed to bulldozing the past, as some communities are wont to do, Mr. Melville recognized the importance of preserving a link to the community’s shared history, including its unique place in Long Island’s Revolutionary War era. During the Revolution a small group of friends and Patriots (including names like Tallmadge, Woodhull, Strong and Brewster) got together and became America’s first spy ring, AKA Culper Spy Ring or Washington Spy Ring.

Visitors today come to see some of the sites linked to that Revolutionary era history, depicted recently in the AMC series Turn. Coming here is like stepping back in time.

One of the properties deeded to WMHO is the c. 1751 Stony Brook Grist Mill, which offers a glimpse of life during that time period. It was where the community went to have their corn, wheat, barley or oats ground into grain. The large mill wheel and pulley still function and its quite a site for visitors to see. 100 Harbor Rd.

The 11-acre pond that powers the mill, called the T. Bayles Minuse Mill Pond and Park, is also preserved as part of the WMHO’s mission to create and preserve places of significance to the community. This beautiful pond is popular with families and children and it also has a sensory garden for visually impaired visitors to enjoy. Main St., Stony Brook.

Revealing his deep love of nature, Mr. Melville also acquired 88 acres to create a wetlands preserve and what is now the Dr. Erwin J. Ernst Marine Conservation Center and wetlands preserve. This foresightedness prevented commercial development on the sensitive lands, preserving it for native flora and fauna. WHMO now operates a 27-seat Discovery Wetlands Cruise to educate visitors and residents about the history and nature of the area, including the Ice Age to Native American and Revolutionary era history. The one-1/2 hour scenic cruise departs based on the tide, across from the Three Village Inn at 150 Main St. ‘Photography’ cruises are also given. Make sure to check the schedule.

Mrs. Jennie Melville (Mr. Melville’s mother) purchased the Jonas Smith homestead in 1929. Originally it was used as a Woman’s Exchange for the Three Village Garden Club, where women could sell their handiwork and socialize with each other. Mr. Melville, upon her death, inherited the Exchange building and changed the name to The Three Village Inn, which now includes the excellent Mirabelle Tavern restaurant. The Inn dates back to 1751. It also has cottages that are named after the Revolutionary era ‘spies’ from the area, tying into the community’s unique legacy.

Another of the properties Mr. Melville acquired and preserved was the Brewster House at 18 Runs Rd., East Setauket, built in 1665 and owned by six generations of Brewsters. Joseph Brewster operated the house as a tavern during the Revolutionary War where British troops who occupied the area would come to drink. It’s probable that his cousin, Caleb Brewster, who was a member of the Spy Ring, frequented the tavern as well, possibly gathering secrets to send to General Washington.

WMHO also owns the c. 1709 Thompson House in Setauket, home to five generations of Thompsons, including a doctor who treated members of Washington’s Spy Ring, according to his account book, 91 N Country Rd. East Setauket.

The c. 1710 Country House restaurant, owned by WMHO is also known for Revolutionary era activity. You can ask the owner to tell you the story of why some think the restaurant might still be haunted. Whether or not you believe, the restaurant is a memorable setting for fine dining and parties. Located on the corner of Rte. 25a and Main St., it has been named the Most Romantic Restaurant on Long Island and is always elaborately decorated for the seasons.

Other properties that WMHO owns and leases (at an annual $1 fee) include the Long Island Museum of American Art, History and Carriages. This Smithsonian affiliated museum contains the country’s foremost collection of horse-drawn carriages and vehicles, including a huge omnibus and gypsy caravan, as well as a ‘Streets of NY’ exhibit and ‘Driving for Sport and Pleasure’ gallery. The c. 1725 Hawkins Mount house is also leased to the Long Island Museum. This important structure was once owned by Jonas Hawkins, a messenger for Washington’s Spy Ring. In the 1800’s the family of famous American painter, William Sidney Mount lived in the house and a painting he created can still be seen on the attic ceiling.

The Jazz Loft at 275 Christian Ave. is in a building also owned by WMHO and leased to the Jazz Loft for $1.00. The non-profit organization there enhances the community through Jazz preservation, education and performance. It includes a trove of memorabilia including instruments, diaries, autographed pictures, original sheet music, and even an orchestra stage that was constructed from the original Roseland Ballroom.

Across from the Village Center is the Hercules Pavilion. The Hercules statue was originally a nautical figurehead on the bow of the U.S.S. Ohio. This intricately carved historical figurehead was originally placed on the ship to protect it and inspire fear in the hearts of enemies. It was acquired by Ward Melville in 1954, who deeded it to The Ward Melville Heritage Organization for preservation. Legend is that Hercules has the strength to grant your wish of being married within the year.

Another historic building owned by WMHO is the All Souls Episcopal Church on Main St., Designed by famed New York architect Stanford White it was erected in 1889. As you approach the front door, the buttress design elements are intended to represent ‘praying hands,’ and the stained glass window behind the altar was fabricated by the Mayer Company of New York City and represents the ideal of charity. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

WMHO also leases a property to the Three Village Society for Lending Aids for the Sick. Located at Knoll Top Road, these volunteers loan residents of Setauket, Stony Brook, and Old Field several types of medical and post-surgical equipment and devices, at no charge. (631) 751-0500.

The WMHO owns and operates the Educational and Cultural Center at 97B Main St. in the Stony Brook Village Center is a state-of-the-art-facility that offers a wide variety of events and programs throughout the year. This includes annual summer exhibits; spring and fall musical theatre performances with luncheons paying tribute to the lives of famous celebrities such as Barbra Streisand, Marilyn Monroe, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and more; winter and spring break programs for children; on-site adult and youth programs; and video-conference distance learning programs that broadcast live to schools and groups throughout the United States. The 8,800 sq. ft., two-story, colonial-style WMHO Cultural Center is also available for community event rentals. It can accommodate a total of 299 persons.

The annual ‘Walk for Beauty’ held in the fall has raised over $1.415 million for cancer research since its inception in 1994 by WMHO. Funds raised also help to supply items such as wigs and prostheses for Cancer Center patients.

WMHO is also involved in enhancing and interpreting Stony Brook Village historic and environmentally sensitive properties and utilizing state-of-the-art technology for educational outreach programs. This includes school field trips to historic properties, including ‘A Day in the Life of a Colonial Family;’ the local Youth Corp; and ecological programs for students, including the Coastal Ecology Program at the Erwin J. Ernst Marine Conservation Center.

A Charter Society that provides membership in a community with a shared passion for American History, Culture, Education, Arts, Environment, and Science was also recently created by WMHO. Members receive free passes to certain historic sites and cultural events.

Due to Mr. Melville’s deep love of his community, history and nature, the character of Stony Brook is preserved for future generations through the organization that bears his name: Ward Melville Heritage Organization.


-by Kristen Matejka