Located on Route 25A in Stony Brook and a short distance from the still-operating Grist Mill and the historic Three Village Inn, the Long Island Museum offers visitors an immersion in the area’s rural past through three modern exhibit buildings and five authentic buildings spread over a nine-acre campus.
Accredited by the American Alliance of Museums in 1978 for its excellence in exhibitions, programs, and collection care, and one of the nation’s few Smithsonian affiliates, it showcases American history and art with a Long Island connection.
It traces its origins to the Suffolk Museum, of which the original Christine Street building still stands. It was established to preserve, display, and interpret artifacts by five founders at the end of the Great Depression: Ward Melville; his wife, Dorothy Bigelow Melville; Robert Cushman Murphy, a prominent naturalist; Winfred Curtis, a local physician; and OC Lemphert, an insurance broker.
A growing collection, along with the addition of carriages in 1952, soon led to the search for a new headquarters, which took shape as the Historical Museum on one side of Route 25A. New to the then ‘Museums at Stony Brook’, it was old in the area.
The site was once the site of the DT Bayles Lumber Mill, which traces its lineage back to 1874 and operated until 1955. Melville purchased the building at the time.
“Ward Melville always wanted Stony Brook to be a village similar to the villages of New England,” according to the Long Island Museum website. “The Long Island Museum was inspired by this premise, and the museum grounds soon resembled a New England village, as local historic buildings were carefully tucked into the grounds…Since 1939, the museum has grown into a leading Long Island institution and the only Smithsonian affiliate in the region.”
THE HISTORY MUSEUM
The Historical Museum, which serves as a visitor center and gift shop, is the site of rotating art exhibits. For example, the most recent ‘Fire and Form: New Directions in Glass’ included some fifty works by eight contemporary artists, whose variety of approaches, sources of inspiration and starting points demonstrated the almost infinite nature of sculptural creation.
The separate Cowles Gallery, named after Sharon Cowles, who once lived next door to Dorothy and Ward Melville and has recently made significant contributions to the museum, displays works from the permanent collection.
THE DOROTHY AND WARD MELVILLE TRANSPORT MUSEUM
Cornerstone of the Long Island Museum complex, located on 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 through more than a hundred horse-drawn vehicles on display in eight galleries.
The centerpiece, visible as soon as the visitor enters the building, is the “Grace Darling”, a beautifully decorated 45-passenger omnibus, originally drawn by half a dozen horses. Richly padded and fitted with springs to reduce the impact of wheels on unpaved trails, it was used on excursions to Coastal Maine between the 1880s and the early 1900s.
The “Going Places” gallery features carriages that were commonly used on Long Island, along with a fiber optic map illustrating the development of regional transportation routes.
The Wells Fargo Coach, one of the exhibits on display, is representative of the vehicles used by Wells Fargo and Company, whose transportation services were vital to the nation’s westward expansion. In April 1887, overland passenger service was inaugurated and the then astronomical fare of $275.00 was estimated for the Sacramento, California, to Omaha, Nebraska route.
The “Carriage Exhibition” gallery, based on the transportation building of the 1893 World’s Fair, emphasizes the opulence that wealth can bring in a carriage.
The “Making Carriages: From Hometown Shop to Factory” showcases the museum’s collection of factory-built vehicles by the Studebaker Brothers, as well as the Graves Brother’s Carriage Shop, an original 19th-century facility in Williamsburg, Massachusetts that is here put back together.
The “Streets of New York” Gallery, complete with simulated burning buildings, showcases the types of carriages and vehicles that once plied the bustling streets. One of them, a road car from 1887, allows the visitor to trace the origins of mass transport. Pulled by one or two horses, it ran on rails, allowing New York City to transport its masses on horse-drawn wagon lines between 1832 and 1917. They were replaced by motorized trams and trolleys, before being superseded by steam-powered, elevated railways that eventually gave way to electric, underground subways.
Located in the “Driving for Sport and Pleasure” Gallery, the Crawford House Coach was sold to the New Hampshire resort of the same name in 1880 and carried up to 20 passengers, their luggage and goods between the train station and the hotel. and cruising narrow, winding roads as it did.
The “Long Island in the Carriage Era” is a recreation of an intermodal transportation scene. A real deport car once picked up passengers at the Long Island Railroad’s Stony Brook station and took them to surrounding villages. The puffing sound of steam locomotives completes the recreation.
While horse-drawn carriages may not evoke images of luxury, two other galleries dispel this myth: the “Gentlemen Coach House” and the “European Vehicles”. The former depicts the lavish vehicles that inspired the 19th-century Gold Coast carriage houses, which were once an integral part of Long Island’s North Shore mansions, and the latter depicts the regal vehicles used by European nobility.
THE MUSEUM CAMPUS
Aside from the Dorothy and Ward Melville Carriage Museum, the original buildings on the rest of the Long Island Museum campus, accessed by footbridges, exude a country atmosphere.
The Samuel H. West Blacksmith Shop, one of them, dates back to 1834 and was originally located off Main Street in nearby Setauket. Completely reconstructed between 1875 and 1893, the building, of mortise and tenon sawn timber, was at the heart of his multifaceted, interconnected trades, including horseshoes, making and repairing wheeled and wheeled vehicles, and blacksmithing. But with the advent of the motorized car in the 1920s, the need for it quickly became obsolete.
Some three decades later, The Museums of Stony Brook acquired the structure, which now displays artifacts from the era.
The 1794 Williamson Barn next door was originally located on the Stony Brook farm of Jedidiah Williamson, a Revolutionary War hero who made his living as a farmer, millwright, and carpenter.
The 1867 Smith Carriage Shed, adjacent to the barn, was originally located on the Timothy Smith farm in St. James and was used to shelter carriages from inclement weather while parishioners attended services at the adjacent St. James Episcopal Church. The wrought iron rings served as horse tires during this time.
No 19th-century restoration would be complete without the almost symbolic one-room schoolhouse, and the Long Island Museum campus doesn’t fail in respect. Designated Nassakeag, or South Setauket, Schoolhouse, it was built by Frederick A. Smith in 1877 on Sheep Pasture Road in the town of the same name on the site of an earlier 1821 building that served the same purpose.
Due to the area’s significantly smaller population, it offered a very different concept of education than modern institutions. About thirty students aged five to fifteen lived there, all occupying the same space. It was, as far as a small one-room building could get, sexually segregated, boys coming in through the right door and girls through the left door, and each on their own side. Each foyer contained coat, hat, bucket and cup hooks. The heat was provided by a single stove and a single teacher taught all classes. Students used paper notebooks and erasable slates. The curriculum included the three “r’s”, that is, reading, writing and arithmetic.
The rural location of the school dictated the seasonal sessions, which included those in summer and winter, while spring and fall were reserved for domestic life, where students were required respectively for the all-important planting and harvesting, along with the full range of other farm features. .
After the Setauket school districts consolidated in 1910, the building fell into disrepair, but was acquired by The Museums of Stony Brook and moved to campus 46 years later.
Museum teachers periodically give lessons in the school building.
In front of it is a fountain and a horse trough. It was donated to New York City in 1880 by philanthropist Olivia Egleston Phelps Stokes and originally stood at the intersection of Madison Avenue and 23rd Street. It is an example of Beaux Arts stone and marble work. The 20-ton construction provided drinking water for both humans and horses. But when it was rendered obsolete by the automobile, it was dismantled in 1957 and taken over by the Long Island Museum. Now located next to a herb garden, it is fully functioning.
Other on-campus attractions include the Smith-Rudyard Burial Ground, which still stands on its original site and contains tombstones dating from 1796 to 1865, and a museum building, whose two galleries contain rotating exhibits of American art and history.
The most recent, “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 fascinated 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 materials, Tiffany Studios created stained glass windows and lampshades in vibrant colors and richly varied patterns, textures and opacities.”
The Long Island Museum offers a return to rural 19th-century life and invites reflections on and reinterpretations of contemporary life.