A fortuitous journey on the wrong train brought and Jennie Melville and their family to the north shore of Long Island. Intending to visit the Hamptons, they instead arrived here and were so charmed by the area they chose to build a summer home in Old Field. After years of residing here, Mrs. Jennie Melville came to believe that Old Field, Stony Brook and Setauket were communities so similar, she tagged them the “Three Villages,” and urged civic cooperation. The Melvilles distributed their philanthropic activities Island-wide, but their hearts and enthusiasm were dedicated to the Three Villages. In the mid 1930’s Ward Melville, who had succeeded his father Fran as president of the Melville Shoe Corporation, began formulating a plan to fulfill what his mother Jennie’s dream of creating a beautiful, planned business community to replace the area’s haphazard collection of rundown stores and commercial buildings.
Thus, 1939 was a busy year for Ward Melville and his wife Dorothy. Jennie Melville had just passed away and Ward was making interior renovations in the centuries-old Hallock homestead he inherited and renamed it the Three Village Inn. Dorothy Melville co founded the Museums at Stony Brook, now known as The Long Island Museum of American Arts, History, and Carriages, with her friend, Mrs. Pierson Curtis. On December 29, 1939 and with great foresight, Ward Melville created a not-for-profit corporation, the Stony Brook Community Fund, renamed The Ward Melville Heritage Organization. It was founded to maintain and protect the historical and sensitive environmental properties that he would deed to it over the coming years.
Stony Brook Village ~ First Planned Shopping Center in the Country
Mr. Melville had still greater plans when he undertook the rehabilitation of Stony Brook Village. He hosted a dinner at the Three Village Inn where he set forth plans for the reconstruction of the village. The project, designed by architect Richard Haviland Smythe, included a crescent-shaped Village Center with connected shops grouped around a federalist style post office that would overlook a two-acre Village Green. The view of Stony Brook Harbor he believed was so important would require the razing of a commercial site known as “the block” located near the Three Village Inn.
This enormous project that involved rerouting roads, leveling or relocating existing structures, moving one million cubic yards of dirt and construction of the business center, was all financed at Ward Melville’s personal expense. With the post office as its centerpiece, the center offered relocated businessmen and shopkeepers fair treatment in both shop placement and rent. Completed in 1941, the Stony Brook Village Center has long been recognized for its architectural design and as the first planned shopping center in the country.
The Stony Brook Post Office, home of the mechanical eagle that resides on its pediment, has been flapping its wings on the hour (8:00 am – 8:00 pm) since 1941. The post office, a traditional hub of community activity, is the core of Mr. Melville’s original vision and project, his “living Williamsburg.” Now named Harbor Crescent, the series of connected shops overlooks the Village Green, site of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s holiday tree lighting and a premier wedding photograph location for generations of area brides and grooms. Market Square was added in 1965 and the Inner Court, adjacent to Harbor Crescent, was converted from storage sheds to shops in 1986.
Looking east, Main Street leads into Christian Avenue, a roadway to the other two of the Three Villages, Setauket and Old Field. Christian Avenue was home to many sea captains and other historically interesting families. Numerous houses are designated with plaques denoting their heritage.