Located on Route 25A in Stony Brook and a short distance from the still-running Grist Mill and the historic Three Village Inn, the Long Island Museum offers visitors an immersion into the area’s rural past through three modern exhibition buildings and five authentic structures sprawled across a nine-acre campus.
Accredited by the American Alliance of Museums in 1978 because of its excellence in exhibitions, programs, and collection care, and one of the country’s few Smithsonian affiliates, it displays American history and art with a Long Island connection.
Tracing its origins to the Suffolk Museum, whose original Christine Street building stills stands today, it was established to preserve, exhibit, and interpret artefacts by five founding members at the end of the Great Depression: Ward Melville; his wife, Dorothy Bigelow Melville; Robert Cushman Murphy, a prominent naturalist; Winfred Curtis, a local doctor; and O. C. Lemphert, an insurance broker.
A growing collection, along with the addition of carriages in 1952, soon prompted the search for new headquarters, which took form as the History Museum on one side of Route 25A. New to the then-named “Museums at Stony Brook,” it was old to the area.
The site was once the location of the D. T. Bayles Lumber Mill, whose lineage stretches back to 1874 and which operated until 1955. Melville purchased the building at that time.
“Ward Melville always wanted Stony Brook to be a village similar to the ones found in New England,” according to the Long Island Museum’s website. “The Long Island Museum was inspired by this premise and museum grounds soon resembled a New England village as local historic buildings were carefully tucked onto the grounds… Since 1939, the museum has grown to become a leading institution on Long Island and the only Smithsonian affiliate in the region.”
THE HISTORY MUSEUM
The History Museum, which serves as the Visitor’s Center and gift shop, is the location of changing art exhibitions. Its most recent “Fire and Form: New Directions in Glass,” for instance, encompassed some fifty works by eight contemporary artists, whose variety of approaches, inspirations, and starting points demonstrated the near-infinite nature of sculptural creation.
The separate Cowles Gallery, named after Sharon Cowles, who once lived next to Dorothy and Ward Melville and recently made a significant contribution to the museum, showcases works from its permanent collection.
THE DOROTHY AND WARD MELVILLE CARRIAGE MUSEUM
Cornerstone of the Long Island Museum complex, which is located across Route 25A, the 40,000-square-foot Dorothy and Ward Melville Carriage Museum occupies the site of the former Stony Brook Hotel and depicts the pre-motorized transportation era by means of more than a hundred horse-drawn vehicles displayed in eight galleries.
Its centerpiece, which is visible as soon as the visitor enters the building, is the “Grace Darling,” a 45-passenger, beautifully decorated omnibus originally pulled by a half-dozen horses. Richly upholstered and spring-provisioned to reduce wheel impacts on unpaved trails, it was employed on excursions to Coastal Maine between the 1880s and the early-20th century.
The “Going Places” Gallery features carriages that were commonly used on Long Island, along with a fiber optic map that illustrates the development of regional transportation routes.
The Wells Fargo Coach, one of its exhibits, is representative of the vehicles used by Wells Fargo and Company, whose transportation services were vital to the country’s westward expansion. Inaugurating overland passenger service in April of 1887, it assessed the then-astronomical fare of $275.00 for the Sacramento, California, to Omaha, Nebraska, route.
The “Carriage Exhibition” Gallery, based upon the 1893 World’s Fair transportation building, highlights the opulence wealth could inject into a carriage.
The “Making Carriages: From Hometown Shop to Factory” features the museum’s collection of vehicles that were factory-built by the Studebaker Brothers, as well as in the Graves Brother’s Carriage Shop, an original, 19th century, Williamsburg, Massachusetts facility that has been reassembled here.
The “Streets of New York” Gallery, complete with simulated burning buildings, displays the types of carriages and vehicles that once plied its bustling streets. One of them, an 1887 street car, enables the visitor to trace the origins of mass transportation. Pulled by one or two horses, it rode on rails, enabling New York City to move its masses on horse car lines between 1832 and 1917. They were replaced by motorized street cars and trolleys, before being usurped by steam-powered, elevated railroads that ultimately gave way to electric, underground subways.
The Crawford House Coach, located in the “Driving for Sport and Pleasure” Gallery, was sold to the New Hampshire resort of the same name in 1880, transporting up to 20 passengers, their baggage, and goods between the railroad station and the hotel, and plying narrow, winding roads as it did.
The “Long Island in the Carriage Era” is a recreation of an intermodal transportation scene. An actual deport wagon once picked up passengers at the Stony Brook station of the Long Island Railroad and delivered them to the surrounding villages. The puffing sound of steam locomotives completes the re-creation.
Although horse-drawn carriages may not evoke images of luxury, two other galleries dispel this myth-the “Gentlemen Coach House” and the “European Vehicles” ones. The former displays the opulent vehicles that inspired the 19th-century Gold Coast carriage houses, which were once integral to Long Island’s North Shore mansions, and the latter showcases the royal vehicles that were used by European nobility.
THE MUSEUM CAMPUS
Aside from the Dorothy and Ward Melville Carriage Museum, the original structures on the remainder of the Long Island Museum campus, accessed by walkways, exude a rural area feel.
The Samuel H. West Blacksmith Shop, one of them, dates to 1834 and was originally located off of Main Street in nearby Setauket. Completely reconstructed between 1875 and 1893, the building, of mortise and tenon circular sawn timbers, was the heart of his multi-faceted, interrelated trades, which included horse-shoeing, wheel and wheel vehicle making and repairing, and blacksmithing. But the appearance of the motorized automobile during the 1920s soon obviated its need.
Some three decades later, The Museums of Stony Brook acquired the structure, which now displays era artifacts.
The 1794 Williamson Barn next to it was originally located on the Stony Brook farm of Jedidiah Williamson, a Revolutionary War hero who made his living as a farmer, a millwright, and a carpenter.
The 1867 Smith Carriage Shed, next to the barn, was originally located on the Timothy Smith farm in St. James and was used to protect carriages from inclement weather while parishioners attended services at the next-door St. James Episcopal Church. Its wrought iron rings served as horse ties during this time.
No 19th-century restoration would be complete without the almost symbolic one-room schoolhouse, and the Long island Museum campus does not fail in hits respect. Designated Nassakeag, or South Setauket, Schoolhouse, it was constructed by Frederick A. Smith in 1877 on Sheep Pasture Road in its very namesake town on the site of a previous 1821-built structure that served the same purpose.
Because of the area’s’ significantly smaller population, it offered an entirely different educational concept than modern institutions do. It housed approximately thirty students who ranged from five to fifteen years of age and who all occupied the same space. It was, as much as a tiny, single-room building could achieve, sexually separated, boys entering the right door and girls entering the left, and each sitting on their respective sides. Each foyer contained coat, hat, pail, and cup hooks. Heat was provided by a single stove and a single teacher taught all grades. Students used notebooks made of paper, as well as erasable slates. The curriculum entailed the three “r’s”-that is, reading writing, and ‘rithmetic.
The school’s rural location dictated its seasonal sessions, which included those in summer and winter, while spring and fall were reserved for home life, where students were respectively needed for the all-important planting and harvesting, along with the full range of other farm functions.
After the Setauket school districts were consolidated in 1910, the building fell into disrepair, but was acquired by The Museums of Stony Brook and moved to its campus 46 years later.
Museum educators periodically offer classes in the schoolhouse.
In front of it is a fountain and horse trough. Donated to New York City in 1880 by philanthropist Olivia Egleston Phelps Stokes and originally standing at the intersection of Madison Avenue and 23rd Street, it is an example of Beaux Arts stone and marble work. The 20-ton structure provided drinking water for both people and horses. But when it was rendered obsolete by the automobile, it was dismantled in 1957 and acquired by the Long Island Museum. Now located next to a herb garden, it is fully functioning.
Other campus attractions include the Smith-Rudyard Burial Ground, which remains on its original site and contains headstones from 1796 to 1865, and a museum building, whose two galleries feature changing exhibitions, showcasing American art and history.
Its most recent one, “Tiffany Glass: Painting with Color and Light,” was considered the first of its kind at the Long Island Museum.
“As a painter, Louis C. Tiffany was captivated by the interplay of light and color, and this fascination found its most spectacular expression in his glass paintings,” according to the museum’s website. “Using new and innovative techniques and material, Tiffany Studios created leaded-glass windows and lamp shades in vibrant colors and richly varied patterns, textures, and opacities.”