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While the early history of the Huntington Fire Department is obscure, it seems that in response to a rash of fires in the early 1840s, an informal organization relying on buckets of water to put out fires was formed in 1843. Three years later, a meeting was held to discuss acquiring a fire engine, which at that time would have meant a hand pumper to throw water on a fire instead of relying on buckets. Whatever the decision reached at that meeting, no fire engine was secured.

In 1848, Fayette Gould, a local watchmaker and jeweler (who also operated the first photography studio in town), took steps to form a Fire Protection Company. The new. unincorporated organization’s equipment was still limited to leather buckets and ladders. Ten years later, Mr. Gould, who became known as the Father of the Fire Department, took steps to formalize the organization by securing the approval of the Town Board. He was motivated by his service on a jury in Riverhead which had kept him away from his store for a week, costing him income. Firefighters were exempt from jury duty. The volunteers would still provide a very important public service, but closer to home and for a few hours at a time instead of for a full week or more.

On the eve of the Civil War, steps were taken to improve the company’s fire-fighting capabilities. In 1861, a well was dug near the intersection of Main Street and Wall Street for use by the fire company. A Hook and Ladder wagon was built at the carriage factory on Green Street and arrangements were made to purchase a used hand pumper from the Flatlands Fire Company in Brooklyn. The reconditioned pumper was delivered by train to Syosset, then the end of the line, and from there towed to Huntington. The new pumper, nicknamed the “Mercheen,” was greeted enthusiastically when it arrived in the village. It was initially stored in a lean-to shed behind Zophar Oakley’s store on the north side of Main Street where New York Avenue is now located. The pumper was later moved to a shed behind George W. Conklin’s feed store, which was just west of the Oakley store. The fire department still has this early piece of equipment.

The Mercheen in the 175th Anniversary Parade.

Although approved by the local Justices of the Peace, the fire company sought a state charter in order to assure that its members could enjoy all the benefits afforded to fire fighters under state law. The New York legislature in April 1862 approved the charter, which limited membership to 75 volunteers.

In 1869, a new firehouse was built at 10 Wall Street. The two-story wood frame building housed the pumper and hook and ladder wagon on the first floor and meeting rooms on the second floor. The local Temperance Society for a time also used the second floor meeting rooms. In 1899, as the fire company acquired more equipment, an addition was built on the south side of the firehouse.

The Wall Street Firehouse before the addition was built.

By 1887, the company had reached its 75 member limit. To accommodate additional volunteers, a separate Hook and Ladder Company was created. The following year, a fire district was established to provide tax funding. The original Engine Company and the Hook and Ladder Company formed the Huntington Fire Department.

In order to better alert firefighters, a new bell was purchased to replace the bell that the firemen had inherited from the old Huntington Academy. A tower was erected behind the firehouse to hold the 730-pound bell. After an electronic alarm system was installed, the 1890 bell was used to sound the alarm for brush fires. By the early 1950s, suburban development had made brush fires in the village area a rare occurrence. The bell was retired from service, gilded and used to create a memorial to fallen firefighters, which sits outside the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Building.

By 1893, hydrants had been installed throughout the village. This development called for the formation of a Hose Company, which was organized in October 1893.

In 1906, the department purchased its first gasoline-powered pumper, which was pulled by a team of horses. In one of the first fires fought with the new pumper, the 15,000 gallon cistern on August Heckscher’s estate was pumped dry. In 1910, the department purchased its first motorized truck to pull the pumper. The first of what would now be thought of when the name fire engine is used was purchased in 1922.

With the motorized equipment, it became apparent that a new, larger firehouse was needed. Despite the 1899 addition, the Wall Street firehouse was not big enough. In October 1911, the voters of the fire district approved the construction of a new two-story brick firehouse on Main Street, diagonally across the street from the library and half a block from the recently completed Town Hall, which had been built a year earlier. The new firehouse, which still stands, was dedicated on September 10, 1912.

The Main Street Firehouse

With the explosive post-war growth of Huntington, the centrally located firehouse soon proved to present difficulties for the volunteers responding to an alarm. A four-acre parcel north of the village, between Wall Street and New York Avenue, was acquired in 1957. A proposal was then made to build a new firehouse on that property. In a letter to the volunteers, the department explained, “the growth of our town and the present location of Headquarters, makes it almost impossible to get through traffic quickly and safely to our quarters. The first few minutes mean a lot to defend our District properly in saving human lives and property.” The new site would also provide ample parking.

The new firehouse was dedicated on May 23, 1959. The firehouse has been expanded over the years. The most recent building project included the creation of a museum to display the department’s antique equipment.

The Huntington Fire Museum

One hundred and seventy five years later, the Huntington fire department continues to be professionally staffed by volunteers.

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Huntington village was crowded with hundreds of shoppers on the night of Saturday, July 26, 1913 when the fife and drum corps of the Huntington Fire Department led a parade down Main Street to the corner of Wall Street.  The marchers came to rally support for women’s suffrage.  A new symbol of their cause—a Revolutionary war era wagon—added to the controversy of their cause and led to a confrontation with local anti-suffragists.

Women had been agitating for the right to vote since at least the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848.  The effort made little headway over the next seven decades until a new generation took up the cause, working at both the state and national levels to secure votes for women.

Long Island women were particularly active in working for the right to vote.  One prominent leader of the movement on Long Island was Edna Buckman Kearns, a young mother, writer, and editor from Rockville Centre.  In addition to writing about the movement in local newspapers, she led marches and rallies across Long Island.

In 1913, the movement received a gift that would help to draw attention to the cause—a wagon built by a Huntington patriot during the American Revolution.  Dubbed “The Spirit of 1776,” the wagon was used to ferry Mrs. Kearns and her six-year-old daughter Serena from village to village and served as a speakers’ platform at rallies.  The wagon was given to the suffragists by the Brooklyn based I.S. Remsen carriage manufacturing company.  A.F. Wilson, president of the Remsen company, remembered that as a small boy shortly after the Civil War, he knew of an old farmer names Daniel Hewlett.  Years later, in 1892, Wilson purchased Hewlett’s old wagon from one of the family’s employees.  For the next twenty years, the I.S. Remsen company used the wagon—said to be the oldest on Long Island—as an advertising gimmick.

The Spirit of 1776

On July 1, 1913, the company donated the wagon to the suffragists to use to promote their cause.  The wagon was said to have been built in 1776 by Ebenezer Conklin, a Huntington native and supporter of the Revolutionary cause.  Just as the men of 1776 fought taxation without representation, so too did the women of 1913 fight for the same cause.

Suffragists, most notably Rosalie Jones of Cold Spring Harbor, had used wagons before to promote their cause.  General Jones, as she became known, travelled across Long island with a yellow wagon to rally support for the cause.  She later led a 140-mile march from New York City to Albany in December 1912 in order to petition the newly elected Governor, William Sulzer, to support votes for women.  Six weeks later, General Jones led her army on a 245-mile march from New York City to Washington to petition the newly elected President, Woodrow Wilson.  Coincidentally, General Jones was a descendant of the Hewlett family, who had once owned “The Spirit of 1776” wagon.

The Spirit of 1776 at Long Beach

Likewise, “The Spirit of 1776” wagon travelled throughout Long Island during July 1913.  On July 26, Mrs. Kearns and her daughter brought the wagon to Huntington.  The suffragists met at the home of Ida Bunce Sammis, who had founded the Huntington Political Equality League two years earlier.  Mrs. Sammis hosted regular meetings at her home at 70 Main Street, which still stands today next to the entrance to the YMCA.

The suffragists, led by the Fife and Drum Corps, marched down Main Street to the First National Bank building on the northeast corner of Main and Wall Streets.  When the parade reached its destination, Mrs. Oliver L. Jones, mother of Rosalie Jones, stopped the parade and demanded to know by what right the suffragists were using her ancestor’s wagon to promote votes for women.  Mrs. Jones was a fierce anti-suffragist.  She pointed out that the Hewletts were Tories during the Revolution and that their wagon should not be used to promote the suffrage cause.  Mrs. Jones threatened legal action, but it is not known if she ever followed through on the threat.  One wonders what the dinner conversations were like in the Jones mansion overlooking Cold Spring Harbor.

The suffragists finally succeeded in New York State when they gained the vote in 1917.  In the first election in which women could vote the following year, two women were elected to the New York State Assembly.  One of them was Huntington’s own Ida Bunce Sammis.

The wagon remained in the Kearns family until Mrs. Kearns’ granddaughter, Marguerite Kearns, donated it to the New York State Museum around 2003.  It has been exhibited in 2010, 2012 and most recently in 2017-18 as part of an exhibit to mark the centennial of women securing the right to vote in New York State.  It is expected to be on display again in 2020 to mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment to the United State Constitution.  With a better understanding of the history of wagon development, the museum concluded that the wagon was probably built some time between 1820 and 1840.  It is in the style of a nineteenth century pleasure wagon; eighteenth century wagons didn’t have springs.  Whatever its true age, the wagon was always a symbol and one that helped in some small way to secure votes for women.

The Spirit of 1776 at the New York Museum

A historical marker to commemorate the 1913 rally was unveiled on the corner of Main and Wall Streets on April 24, 2018.

All photographs herein are from the archives of Edna Buckman Kearns, courtesy of Marguerite Kearns.

To learn more about the local fight to secure votes for women, read Long Island and the Woman Suffrage Movement, by Antonia Petrash (History Press 2013).

 

 

Huntington Station is home to two Teich Houses.  The better known is the house where Dr. Samuel Teich had lived and had his medical office for over 50 years.  The other is a smaller home nearby on Academy Place which is where Dr. Teich lived when he was growing up, and which is now the first historic landmark property in the vicinity of the Huntington train station..  The house on Academy Place is owned by the Town of Huntington and will be available to be used by community groups and also has exhibits about the Teich family, Huntington Station, and the Station’s African American history.  The Town Board designated the house a historic landmark on April 10, 2018.  This is the story of that house.

On July 15, 1899, Allison E. Lowndes filed a subdivision map for property on the west side of New York Avenue in what was then known as Fairgrounds, now Huntington Station. The subdivision, which stretched from the intersection of New York Avenue and Lowndes Avenue south to Railroad Street, was one of the first residential subdivisions in the fast growing area. Over the next 15 years, much of the land around the train station as far west as Oakwood Road and as far east as Lenox Road (south of the tracks) and Kelsey Avenue (north of the tracks) would be subdivided.

The Teich House on Academy Place

Even before the subdivision had been filed with the County, Janet F.L. Drake had contracted to buy lots in the development, which was referred to as Lowndesborough[1] (although the name does not appear on the subdivision map and does not appear to have stuck). Mrs. Drake began construction of three cottages immediately.[2] Two cottages, including the subject house, were on the north side of Academy Place (then known as Hillside Avenue); the third was across the street.

By August at least one of the new cottages was available for rent.[3] Mrs. Drake, who owned several parcels of land in Huntington, seems to have been an active real estate investor and developer. However, by 1916, she suffered a reversal of fortune. At least three properties she owned were sold at foreclosure, including the property on Academy Place.[4] The two houses on the north side of Academy Place were purchased at auction by Roswell S. Baylis,[5] who in turn sold the lots to John I. Colyer two years later.[6] And two years after that, in 1921, Mr. Colyer sold the two houses to Rosie Teich, wife of Max Teich.[7]

Max Teich, who had worked in the grocery business, operated Hillside Dairy from the property, which included a cow barn in the rear yard. The Teich family had been instrumental in forming the Huntington Hebrew Congregation and were active members of the Huntington Jewish community.

Mrs. and Mrs. Teich raised two children in the house—their son Samuel and daughter Fay.   After Samuel Teich graduated from Huntington High School in 1924, he attended Cornell University and then the Long Island College of Medicine. He purchased the Murray House at 1090 New York Avenue and set up his medical office there in 1935. During his 50 years of practice, Dr. Teich became a well-loved member of the community, delivering thousands of babies and also caring for other residents.

Dr. Teich’s sister Fay Merksamer remained the house on Academy Place after her mother died in 1961.[8] Her son Jay lived in the house until it was purchased by the Town in 2012 as an extension of Gateway Park.

For the most part, the house retains its original appearance. The front porch has been enclosed and the kitchen enlarged, but otherwise the massing and appearance are intact.

The house was designated a s a historic landmark because it represents the early suburban development of Huntington Station. In fact, it was one of the first suburban houses built in that area. . It is a good example of turn of the twentieth century vernacular architecture. Furthermore, it is closely identified with the Teich family, who were active members of Huntington’s early Jewish community. Dr. Teich continues to be a well-known figure in Huntington Station’s twentieth century history.

 

[1] The Long-Islander, May 6, 1899, page 2

[2] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 19, 1899, page 14

[3] The Long-Islander, August 26, 1899, page 1.

[4] The Long-Islander, March 10, 1916 and November 3, 1916

[5] The Long-Islander, January 26, 1917, page 4

[6] The Long-Islander, August 29, 1919, Page 5

[7] The Long-Islander, December 9, 1921, page 9

[8] The Long-Islander, January 26, 1961.

A house with one of the most spectacular settings in the Town of Huntington has been resurrected at least twice in its 130-year history. But now, it has run out of second chances.

Known as East Point, the rambling home sits on a three-acre peninsula jutting out into Huntington Harbor commanding sweeping views of the harbor in three directions.

In 1888, Dr. Daniel E. Kissam, a direct descendant of Dr. Daniel W. Kissam (whose 1795 house on Park Avenue is now a museum preserved by the Huntington Historical Society), purchased the peninsula and 10 acres of uplands from the Scudder family, which had extensive land holdings along the east shore of Huntington Harbor since the colonial period. Dr. Kissam, who lived in Brooklyn, was an active member of the Huntington community, serving on the Huntington School Board and hosting fund raising events for St. John’s church at his home.

Dr. Kissam died in December 1903. Five months later, John Green, a 24-year old millionaire owner of a Colorado mine (in the 1910 census, his occupation was given as “Corporation Office, Investment Securities”), purchased the property. At the same time, his fiancé, the well-known actress Deronda Mayo, announced her retirement from the stage—an announcement that made news in papers across the country.   Deronda was the daughter of Frank Mayo, who was also a famous actor, best known for playing the Mark Twain character Pudd’n-head Wilson on Broadway. Deronda’s sister Eleanor had also been an actress before her marriage to James Elverson, the owner and publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Point Siesta in 1909

After spending a summer at what was called Locust Point or Kissam’s Point, Green had the house remodeled and modernized. Green, who had spent part of his childhood in Huntington, christened the house Point Siesta. Unfortunately, Deronda Green died just seven years after the couple had married. Shortly after her death in 1911, he sold the property to his brother-in-law (by marriage) James Elverson.

Elverson used Point Siesta as a summer home. He died in January 1929; his wife died less than three months later. At the time, the property was valued at more than $100,000 (the equivalent of $1.5 million today). In order to pay Elverson’s debts, the contents of the house were sold at auction in August 1931. The items to be auctioned included:

Several complete bedroom suites, carved post bed with canopy, antique chests of drawers, colonial mahogany dining room suite, Steinway grand piano, radio, a large variety of wicker and willow furniture, English china, glassware, clocks, 40 semi-antique Persian rugs, sterling silver tea set and flatware, Sheffield trays and platters, fine fur coats, electric refrigerator and kitchen equipment, a Packard Town Car and Dodge station wagon, a power lawnmower, and the furnishings of the 11 servants’ rooms over the garage.

The auction did not go smoothly. John Green had been living at Point Siesta, but was evicted by order of the Surrogate shortly before the auction. He was also the residual legatee of the Elverson estate. Green objected that some of the items in the house were his and should not be auctioned off. He had also unsuccessfully sought to remove the executor and administrator because, Green claimed, they had taken actions that resulted in large losses to the estate. After Green was evicted from the house, an inventory was taken. It was discovered that 250 cases of wines and liquors bottled between 1840 and 1850 and valued at $50,000 had disappeared. Green and his representative were arrested. To make matters worse, a portion of the dining room ceiling fell during the auction, injuring two prospective purchasers.

In 1935, the Elverson estate filed a motion to show cause why the house and property should not be sold. A year later the administrator of the estate died and Green and a Philadelphia lawyer were appointed to take his place. In 1937 and 1939, the property was listed by the village of Huntington Bay as having not paid real estate taxes.

It is unclear what happened to the house over the next two decades. In 1962, Arthur and Ruth Knutson purchased the run down house. They restored it and added the swimming pool and raised their children in the house, which they called East Point. Twelve years later, the Knutsons moved to Cold Spring Harbor.

It took several years to sell the house, which again fell into a state of disrepair with burst pipes and an infiltration of raccoons. Gloria Smith, who owned the Yankee Peddler antiques shop, and her husband purchased the house and it was once again restored. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Smith made the house and property available for photo shoots.

Following Mrs. Smith’s death in 2013, the house was again put up for sale.

The house in March 2018

While the house was in need of work, it had not descended to the sorry state it had been previously. Nonetheless, it is now just a memory.

The house in April 2018

 

Erratum:  After the original posting of this entry, the size of the property has been corrected from five acres to three acres.

After federal recognition of George Washington’s birthday was moved to the third Monday in February, the holiday became popularly known as Presidents’ Day and honors all the nation’s chief executives.  Of the 44 men who have held the office so far (Grover Cleveland is counted twice since he served two non-consecutive terms), how many have visited the Town of Huntington?  Local historians are quick to answer that only two sitting presidents have come to our town.  If one removes the qualifier “sitting” and includes pre- and post- presidential visits, the number is higher.

The first president to visit Huntington was the first president.  The capital of the new United States was in New York when George Washington was president.  On April 20, 1790, Washington crossed from Manhattan to Brooklyn to begin a tour of Long Island.  It is thought that the purpose of the tour was to thank the citizens of the Island who helped the patriot cause during the Revolution, especially those who helped by spying on the occupying British army.  After traveling along the South Shore, Washington turned north to Setauket and spent the night there at the house of Captain Roe.

At 8:00 on the morning of Friday, April 23, the party set out for the “small village” of Huntington with a stop in Smithtown to water the horses.  In Huntington, the president and his party dined at the Widow Platt’s Tavern on Park Avenue, just south of what is now known as East Main Street.  Washington described Widow Platt’s as “tolerably good.”   Although Washington did not make a record of it in his diary, it is believed that he addressed a large crowd outside Widow Platt’s, perhaps even a majority of the Town’s 2,000 or so inhabitants at the time.  He is also thought to have toured the Old Burying Ground, which at end of the war seven years earlier had been the site of a British fort.

Platt’s Tavern after it had been moved to Halesite about 60 years after Washington’s lunch. The building was demolished around 1917.

As he left the Town of Huntington, crossing the meadow at the head of Cold Spring Harbor, he observed workmen building a one room schoolhouse for the community.  Legend has it that he helped raise a rafter on the new schoolhouse or that he left a silver dollar for the workers.  That schoolhouse would continue to serve the community until 1896.  The Bungtown School, as it was known, continues as West Side School in its third building as part of the Cold Spring Harbor School District.

The most frequent presidential visitor to Huntington was probably Theodore Roosevelt, which makes sense since he lived right next door in Oyster Bay.  His most famous visit to Huntington was on July 4, 1903 when he came to help celebrate the Town’s 250th anniversary.  However, Roosevelt would have been a frequent visitor to Huntington.  He visited his friend Henry L. Stimson at Stimson’s estate in West Hills.  Roosevelt was also known to row from Sagamore Hill to Lloyd’s Neck and picnic under the Big Oak.  It is also reported that he would visit the men of Squadron C at their farm on Cold Spring Hill (see Squadron C: A Summer Home for Brooklyn Horses, posted on this site in July 2013).

President Theodore Roosevelt addresses his Huntington neighbors, including the women in white who were the founders of the Huntington Historical Society.

Ulysses S. Grant may also be considered to have visited Huntington when he was president.   The place where he went had been part of Huntington, but was no longer part of Huntington when he visited.  In 1875, Grant’s brother-in-law, James F. Casey (the men’s wives were sisters), purchased the Jacob Conklin Farm in what was then known as West Deer Park.  Today, the area is known as Wyandanch.  President Grant visited Casey’s farm on September 1, 1875.  He “expressed himself as highly pleased with the farm of his friend and its picturesque surroundings, and pledged himself to visit Babylon soon again.”  According to later press reports, President Grant visited the Casey farm “once or twice.”[1]  The lack of contemporaneous reports is puzzling.  The visits may not count as visits to Huntington because the farm sat just south of the new town border established on January 1, 1873 when the Town of Babylon split off from the Town of Huntington.

In the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, several presidents visited Huntington either before or after their time in office.

As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the principal speaker at an election rally held in Huntington a week before election day in 1916.  Following a parade through Huntington village, local Democrats gathered at the Bijou Theater on Wall Street to hear Roosevelt speak about the accomplishments of the previous four years, the state of the Navy, and the need to elect the entire Democratic slate in the upcoming election.[2]

FDR returned to Huntington in 1931 as Governor of the State.  He spoke at Old First Church in an event organized by the local masonic lodge to celebrate of Constitution Day (see Happy Constitution Day, posted on this site in September 2013).  Roosevelt, who arrived two and a half hours late by car with a motorcycle escort from New York City (he joked that the name should be changed to Longer Island), spoke on the adoption of the Constitution.  His great, great grandfather was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.[3]

Two years after securing victory in Europe, General of the Army and Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower came to Huntington to help celebrate Henry L. Stimson’s 80th birthday.  Stimson, who had served in every presidential administration from Theodore Roosevelt’s to Harry Truman’s (with the exception of Warren Harding’s) had been Secretary of War during World War II.  He had also had an estate in West Hills since 1903.  The future president was joined by Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal and 16 other top-ranking current of former government officials in wishing Stimson a happy birthday.[4]

In 1960, back when presidential candidates campaigned on Long Island, both major party candidates were met with large, enthusiastic crowds at the Long Island Arena in Commack.  While the arena was not in Huntington, it was only half a mile over the town line.  Richard Nixon’s Commack rally was held in late September.  He capped off a whirlwind day of campaigning in a rally attended by 8,000 people inside the arena and another 3,000 outside.[5]  John F. Kennedy appeared at the arena the Sunday before the election.[6]  Although Kennedy received as warm and enthusiastic a reception as Nixon had, on Election Day, he received 17,000 fewer votes than Nixon in the Town of Huntington (and 52,000 fewer votes in Suffolk County).[7]

Although the candidate did not technically appear in Huntington, John F. Kennedy’s mother visited with 300 women during the 1960 campaign at the home of Mr. & Mrs. Nicholas LaCarrubba on Laurel Hill Road in Northport in September 1960.[8]

Jimmy Carter made Huntington the first stop on his national book tour for Living Faith in 1996.  Four thousand people waited in a line that stretched for blocks to hear the former president speak and sign books at Book ReVue.[9]  Carter had previously visited Huntington when he was a little-known candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in February 1976.  Robert Mrazek, then a Suffolk County Legislator and later a Congressman, hosted a reception for Carter at his home in Centerport.[10]

Bill Clinton visited Huntington as a best-selling author.  In August 2004, he signed copies of his memoir, My Life, for hundreds of admirers at Book ReVue.  He returned to Book ReVue, three years later to promote his book Giving.[11]  But Clinton had been to Huntington many years earlier.  As a college student in the 1960s, Clinton would come to Huntington to spend Thanksgiving with his college roommate, Tom Campbell, who lived on Lloyd’s Neck.[12]  Clinton also was in Huntington in 2010 when he officiated at the wedding of Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin and congressman Anthony Weiner at OHEKA.[13]

Finally, Donald Trump  also signed books at Book ReVue during his 1997 book tour for Trump: The Art of the Comeback.  In addition, Trump has been known to have visited OHEKA.[14]  In 2016, Trump was rumored to be interested in developing condominiums at OHEKA, but he was in the midst of campaigning for the presidency, so that was one deal that never got made.[15]

 

 

[1] South Side Signal, September 4, 1875 (thanks to Babylon Historian Mary Cascone for the citation);  Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 26, 1902, page 9

[2] The Long-Islander, November 3, 1916, page 3.

[3] The Long-Islander, September 18, 1931, page 1

[4] Henry L. Stimson, The First Wise Man, by David F. Schmitz (Scholarly Resources Inc., Wilmington, DE 2001), page xiii.

[5] Newsday, September 29, 1960, page 1.

[6] Newsday, November 7, 1960, page 3.

[7] The Long-Islander, November 10, 1960, page 1 and 2.

[8] The Long-Islander, September 15, 1960, page 1; and September 29, 1960, page 2.

[9] The Long-Islander, November 21, 1996.

[10] The Long-Islander, February 12, 1976, page 5.

[11] The Long-Islander, November 29, 2007, page 1.

[12] The Long-Islander, November 8, 2012, page 2.

[13] New York Times, July 9, 2010

[14] EHEKA Castle, by Joan Cergol and Ellen Schaffer (Arcadia Publishing 2012), page 95.

[15] Newsday, September 9, 2016.

In 1906, August Heckscher purchased a large part of the Prime property at the northeast corner of Main Street and Prime Avenue (see the previous post, Mr. Prime’s Thimble Factories).[1]    Mr. Hecksher’s initial plans for the property are not known.  Eventually, the bulk of this land would become one of the greatest gifts the people of Huntington ever received.

Mr. Heckscher’s first philanthropic use of the property came two years after his purchase.  In 1908, a proposal to replace the wooden 1858 Union School building across the street from Mr. Heckscher’s property with a modern brick building was being considered.  The new building (which today is Town Hall) would be in the same location as the old building.  Moving the old school building to a different part of the property was impractical.  Mr. Heckscher offered the solution: classes could be held in the old Prime mansion free of charge.  The large rooms and wide halls of the mansion were big enough to accommodate the high school classes and perhaps one or two grammar classes until the new building was ready.[2]  The new high school building was completed in January 1910.[3]

At the east end of the old Prime farm along Sabbath Day Path, a baseball field was laid out and as early as 1910 the Huntington Baseball Club played their home games there.

A few years later, Mr. Heckscher, working with the newly formed YMCA of Huntington, transformed the eastern side of the Prime property into a more diverse mix of athletic facilities including tennis courts, a running track, baseball diamond, and soccer field.[4]  The six acre fields were made available to the residents of Huntington during the summer of 1914.  In September, Mr. Heckscher announced plans to give the fields to an incorporated, self-perpetuating organization, which was made up of the same men who organized the local YMCA.  The property was transferred in 1915 to the Recreation and Playground Association, which immediately announced plans to raise funds to make improvements and to hire an athletic director.[5]

The Prime Mansion made available by Mr. Heckscher for use by the High School and the North Shore Holiday House.

Meanwhile Mr. Heckscher made the old Prime mansion available for use as part of the Fresh Air Fund organized by the New York Tribune.  The two week camp gave underprivileged girls from the city a two week stay in the country.  Five sessions were held, accommodating 25 girls in each session.   This effort eventually grew into the still operating North Shore Holiday House, which utilized the Prime Mansion during the summers of 1914 and 1915.

In 1914, when Huntington’s leading citizens were exploring options for a hospital in town, Mr. Heckscher suggested transforming the old Prime mansion for that purpose.[6]  A few months later Cornelia Prime settled the question of where the new hospital would be located by purchasing land nearby on Park Avenue and making it available for a new hospital.

Then in August 1915, Mr. Heckscher announced plans to transform most of the remaining property (other than the athletic fields) into a park. The pond that Ezra Prime had created fifty years earlier as a trout pond and a source of ice, would be deepened and enlarged, and stocked with fish.  Small islands in the pond would be connected to the mainland by rustic bridges.  A Swiss chalet would be built.  A driveway would transverse the park from Sabbath Day Path to New York Avenue.  It was anticipated that when completed Mr. Heckscher would present the park to the town.[7]

The man chosen to lead the physical transformation of the land was Roland Von Waldburg.  He was born in Brunswick, Germany in 1873.  He came to the United States in 1897.  He became a citizen in Pennsylvania in 1900 and was living in North Hempstead in 1910.  He had an engineering and contracting business in Flushing before coming to Huntington, where he was superintendent of Rosemary Farm, the Roland Conklin estate in West Neck that is now the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception.[8]  He also later worked on the Roosen estate in Greenlawn known as Laurel Lodge.

Mr. Von Waldburg favored the use of large boulders to create rustic landscapes as can be seen in the amphitheater at Rosemary Farm, the stone entrance gates at Laurel Lodge, and most significantly at Heckscher Park, which features stone entrance gates, a stone cottage, a stone gazebo, and a stone fountain.  The landscape designer is credited with planning and carrying out “to the minutest detail the wonderful amount of labor which makes possible the feast to the eye of those who visit this delightful pleasure resort.”[9]

View of Hecksher’s Park showing the stone gazebo and the stone cottage.

Workmen excavating the park to realize Mr. Von Waldburg’s design found silver coins, some with Napoleon’s image engraved on them.  It was supposed that these coins had been intended to be melted down by Ezra Prime to be turned into thimbles.[10]

A specific opening day for Heckscher’s Park, as it was originally known, has not been determined, but the July 28, 1916 edition of The Long-Islander included a poem by F.W. Webber extolling the virtues of the park.  Two lines from that poem were placed on a bronze plaque affixed to a boulder near the entrance to the Park from Main Street and Prime Avenue:

Here coming generations, seeking rest,

Mid verdure, bloom and overarching trees,

From Nature’s loveliness will draw new zest,

New inspiration from the perfumed breeze.

The park was opened to the public by the fall of 1916, but the work was not completed.  The stone fountain was not completed until May 1917.[11]  Work on the stone retaining wall around the shores of the pond was also continuing.  And the planting of trees from the Heckscher estate at Wincoma continued in the spring of 1917.[12]  Even in its incomplete state, at least two postcard views of the park had been published.

Mr. Heckscher hired Lars Reitan, an immigrant from Norway, to be superintendent of the park.  Mr. Reitan, who lived in the stone cottage by the lake, quickly became well-liked by the residents of town.  One Huntingtonian was even moved to write a poem about the new Superintendent:

Lover of Nature, with her, hand in hand

Amid her work he toils from day to day,

Rendering service neath her gentle sway

Such as will make more beautiful the land.

 

Rich in the skill that makes the soil obey

Each order that his busy mind has planned;

In leaf and bloom, tree, plant and flower stand

Thriving apace in beautiful array;

And Heckscher Park he makes a Paradise.

None can behold save with admiring eyes.

That the first letter of each lined spelled out the Superintendent’s name impressed him even more.[13]

Ice skating on the pond.

Ice skating on the pond was very popular that first winter of 1916-17.  When Superintendent Reitan hoisted the red ball, it was safe to skate.  The next summer, fresh water swimming was the attraction.[14]  There were ten bathhouses (five for women and five for men) available for a small fee and a diving platform.  Swimmers could also rent a bathing suit from the Superintendent.  Row boats were also available for rent.

Boating on Heckscher Pond.

Mr. & Mrs. Heckscher invited the Town Board to dinner for the Town Board at his estate at Wincoma, where he would outline an offer to donate the new park to a Trust to be established for that specific purpose.   He promised to provide an endowment of $70,000 (about $1.465 million in 2017).  He suggested giving 700 preferred shares of the American-La France Fire Engine Company, which paid 7% for an annual income of $4,900 ($102,000 in 2017 dollars).  Mr. Heckscher offered a list of alternative stocks or bonds, but the suggested stock was met with favor.[17]  The offer of an endowment was very welcome in light of the difficulty in raising funds to maintain the adjoining athletic fields.  Heckscher had set aside $12,000 as an endowment for that property, expecting residents to raise a matching amount.[18]

The actual gift of the park was made a day after Christmas 1917.  In a deed signed by August and Nannie Heckscher, the new 12.372-acre park was transferred to nine of Huntington’s leading citizens, including Supervisor Field (Town Supervisors were ex officio members of the Board), as trustees of the Heckscher Trust. The purpose of the trust was to hold and maintain the new park “exclusively for charitable and educational purposes in the form of a park or playground for the use and benefit of the public and especially of the school children of said Town of Huntington.”  Among other things, the board was authorized “to provide occasional music for the pleasure and instruction of the people.”

The trustees were to submit an annual report to the Town Board and the Town Board was given some say on filling vacancies on the Trust’s board.  The deed also specified that the park was to be known as Heckscher Park.  Reportedly, Mr. Heckscher’s original intent was to use the name Huntington Park, “but the popular sentiment overruled his intention and Heckscher Park is so called because the people would call it by no other name.”[19]

The most interesting provision of the deed was the right given to the trustees “to cut and collect ice from the lake in said park, and arrange for the storage thereof, and it shall distribute the same free of charge to the poor of the Town of Huntington.”  It is unknown if this power was ever exercised by the trustees.

The 1917 map of the area shows the Park and Community Fields as two distinct entities.

As promised, Mr. & Mrs. Heckscher donated 700 preferred shares of American-La France Fire Engine Company, Inc. at $100 par value per share, or $70,000 in total.  Mrs. Heckscher later added another $100,000 to the endowment.[20]  Following his wife’s death in 1924, Mr. Heckscher donated an additional $50,000 in the form of 500 shares of Anahma Realty Corporation, the company through which Mr. Heckscher owned his income producing properties in Manhattan.[21]  It should be noted that these values represent the par value of the stock, not necessarily the market value.  Long term government bonds issued to help underwrite the cost of World War I yielded 3% interest.  Assuming the yield on these shares would be the same, the market value of the initial gift would have had a market value of $163,333.  The endowment was further augmented by a bequest in the will of Willard Baylis, a prominent Huntington attorney who had served as president of the Heckscher Trust.  Mr. Baylis left $1,000 to the Trust.[22]  The market value of these gifts may have been as much as half a million dollars, the equivalent in today’s dollars of about $7,000,000.

The Long-Islander greeted the gift enthusiastically and predicted that “The character of the trustees named in the deed are a guarantee that the trust will be administered wisely and with care and diligence.”[23]

The formal dedication of the park took place on Decoration Day (May 30), 1918.  The morning was filled with the usual Decoration Day activities, e.g. a parade and decorating of veterans’ graves.  The afternoon was devoted to a celebration of the new park with speeches by the donor, Supervisor Field, School Superintendent Robert Toaz, and Dr. S. Parker Cadman.  Mr. Heckscher modestly deflected the praise heaped on him:

In the evolution of this little Park which to-day goes to our people and most of all to the little children, I have had so much satisfaction and so much pleasant anticipation that I am entitled to no praise; and I believe I am speaking for Mrs. Heckscher also when I say that the gift has been for both of us one of unalloyed gratification.[24]

The Park’s dedication rock.

A bronze tablet affixed to a large boulder had been placed in the park in time for the dedication.  The tablet repeated the words Mr. & Mrs. Heckscher had used when they first made the offer to donate the park to the people of Huntington the previous summer.  Their letter had said the park would be for the little birds that migrate and the children who, fortunately, do not.

One important feature of the park was still missing.  The Heckschers’ plans for a museum of fine art had to be put on hold due to material and labor shortages arising from the American entry into World War I in April 1917.  By August 1918, with the war winding down, Mr. Heckscher announced that he had completed plans for the museum.  Construction on the $128,000 ($2.25 million dollars in 2017) building would begin “as soon as the rush of war work is over so that the material needed may be had.”[25]

At the same time, it was also announced that the Park and the Community Field would be united under the ownership of one board.  This combination made the income from the Heckscher Trust endowment available to maintain the Community Field, where the grandstand was in need of repairs.[26]  The Recreation and Playground Association transferred the Community Field to the Heckscher Trust in April 1919.

The Fine Arts Museum

The corner stone for the classical style museum building designed by Maynicke & Franke[27] was laid on May 21, 1919.  The following year, on July 10, 1920, it was dedicated as a gift to the citizens of Huntington on a perfect summer day during which thousands of people came to hear speeches and thank Mr. & Mrs. Heckscher for their continuing generosity.  According to William McAdoo, former secretary of the Treasury and a summer resident of Huntington Bay, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Great War, the gift was not just to the people of Huntington; “it is made to the whole country, to the entire world in fact, for it is an example and an inspiration.”[28]

Perhaps memories of the recent war affected reactions to the gift, but the museum was seen as much more than a building in which to hang pictures.

If the lesson of the occasion is taken to heart the people of Huntington, now and in the future, will accentuate the broad significance of the Heckscher gift by striving to make the town, even more than the Heckschers have made it, a center from which will radiate the spirit of human brotherhood and social uplift.[29]

August Heckscher speaking at the July 10, 1920 dedication ceremony.

August Heckscher accepted the gratitude of the crowd with characteristic modesty.  At 3:00, as the dignitaries took their seats after a 90 minute concert by the 35 piece Seventy-first Regiment band, they were greeted to a surprise fireworks show.  The aerial bombs from high in the air released a large American flag and a streamer that bore the inscription “Heckscher Park.”  When Mr. Heckscher rose to speak, the band played “Hail to the Chief.”  Mr. Heckscher referred to his modest collection of paintings that he did not wish to see scattered to the four winds.  He almost made it sound like Huntington were doing him a favor by keeping the collection together.

Of course, the Heckschers were always mindful of the children.  It is not surprising that while the adults toured the new building, the children “were treated to ice cream, cake and orangeade.”

Museum Interior

The fountain, “Youth Eternal” that sits in the circular alcove at the west end of the museum lobby was not completed until two months after the dedication.  The three children in the sculpture represent the Heckschers’ grandchildren.[30]

Lars Reitan continued to serve as superintendent of the park.  In fact, he would oversee the park until his retirement in 1948.  In 1935, he was also appointed to the Board of the Heckscher Trust.  But the intervening years were not without their share of conflict.  Financial pressure on the endowment brought on by the Great Depression put a strain on the park’s operations.

The Depression eroded the value of the Trust’s endowment.  In the early 1930s, the income produced by the endowment had fallen too low for the Trust to maintain the park and museum.  August Heckscher asked Town Supervisor William Watt to make up the shortfall with town funds.  The Supervisor refused, arguing the Town could not spend taxpayer money on property it did not own.  Mr. Heckscher promised to repay the Town when the investments recovered.  Based on the opinion of Town Counsel Fred J. Munder (later to be a county judge), the Supervisor reluctantly allocated $3,000 to help maintain the Trust’s property.[31] The Huntington School District, which used the athletic fields for its teams and physical education classes, also allocated funds for maintenance of the park.  An income and expense report for 1933 shows dividend revenue from the endowment of $1,125.85 and $3,000 from the Town.  Tennis Court rentals brought in another $360.50.  Expenses were $3,787.82, including $1,500 for the Superintendent’s salary.

By 1935, the Town’s allocation increased to $5,000; along with $1,000 from the school district.  The 1935 report showed no income from the endowment.[32]  In fact, no income from the endowment was reported between 1935 through 1937.  In 1938, endowment income amounted to only $618, less than 10% of that year’s total expenditures.  The value of the endowment by the end of 1943 had been reduced to $18,230.  Without access to the records of the Trust it is impossible to determine how much of this reduction is a result of the sale of some investments to cover expenses, or simply a loss of value caused by the Depression.  The value of the 500 shares of Anahma Realty Corp that Mr. Heckscher donated in 1924 in memory of his wife had fallen from $50,000 to just $2,750.

Supervisor Watt was also able to allocate WPA funds for improvements to the athletic fields in 1934.  Two years later, however, Mr. Heckscher was concerned about a $12,000 project to complete the tennis courts as a WPA project.  He asked Ira Lewis, the Supervisor of Local projects for the WPA, to hold off on that project because he feared the Trust would not be able to repay such a large amount.[33]

Nonetheless, with the Town’s support, which grew to $6,000 a year, the Park remained open throughout the Depression.  The doors to the museum, however, were kept locked; “but there is an obliging curator [i.e. Park Superintendent Reitan] who will unlock them cheerfully and with no desire for gain.”[34]

August Heckscher, who had sold his Huntington Bay estate in 1923, died in 1941.  By that time the Park seems to have become somewhat overgrown and visitation was down.  In June, the Trust’s Board “felt that steps should be taken to increase the public interest in the splendid gift of the Park and the Museum which Mr. Heckscher had established for the benefit of the people of Huntington.”[35]  Three sub-committees were formed, each aligned with one aspect of Mr. Heckscher’s gift:  The Fine Arts Committee, Parks Committee, and Playground and Athletic Field Committee.

The most far reaching recommendations seem to have come from the Fine Arts Committee, which was headed by Albert Delmont Smith, a painter turned art historian.  Mr. Smith was the first professional associated with the care of the museum’s collection.  Previously that responsibility had fallen to the Park Superintendent Reitan, who had a background in landscaping, not paintings.  Residents were incensed to learn that the committee proposed changes to the museum displays and, even worse, holding public art sales in the museum.  In 1944, a petition submitted to the new Town Supervisor Walter Fasbender demanded that the paintings moved to storage “be returned to the walls of the Fine Art Building in Heckscher Park, in the manner in which Mr. Heckscher left them and desired them to be hung there in their entirety permanently.”[36]  William Hartmann, claiming to represent 2,000 residents as the Managing Director of the Huntington Civic Planning Association, sent a letter to Charles Noyes, president of the Trust, claiming that August Heckscher “declared himself emphatically averse to permitting the use of the walls of his museum for any exhibit of paintings other than those of his own collection.”[37]

Despite the objections, the Trustees voted at their January 2, 1943 meeting to allow the exhibit of paintings on loan from other museums.  The first exhibit of loaned paintings opened on May 22, 1943 with 21 paintings from American artists, including Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, and William Merritt Chase, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.[38]  Perhaps to help assuaged the hurt feelings of those opposed to the display of loaned art, the Trustees used the opening of the exhibit to unveil a portrait of August Heckscher that had been in storage at the museum for 20 years.[39]

The Park Superintendent was also unhappy with some of the proposed changes, even though he was also a member of the Heckscher Trust Board of Trustees.  Although Mr. Reitan apparently did not share his disagreement with his fellow trustees at Board meetings, he did share his displeasure with fellow residents.  After he abruptly left a meeting at which his status as an employee and trustee was discussed, the Board voted to remove him as Superintendent.  At a subsequent meeting to consider removing Mr. Reitan from the Board, he voluntarily resigned from the Board, but asked to be retained as Superintendent.[40]  He worked four more years until his retirement in April 1948 due to ill health.[41]

Mr. & Mrs. Reitan in the stone cottage

Mr. Reitan, who had favored maintaining the beauty of the Park over increasing visitation, was given a $75 a month pension by the Trust.  The Town Parks Department assumed responsibility for maintaining the park and the cottage, in which Mr. Reitan had lived for over 30 years, was to be made available to the Town Recreation Committee, otherwise known as the YMCA.  It was reported that refreshments would be available at the cottage for park visitors.[42]   Mr. Reitan moved to a house on Madison Street across from the entrance to the park.  He died in 1954.

By 1948, J. Taylor Finley, chairman of the Athletic and Park Committee, could report “that the park was being used as never before.”  It was used even more in 1949.  The uses included the first High School commencement in the park, the Police Athletic Association’s annual boxing matches, the Municipal Band Concerts on the steps of the museum and musicals held in the museum.  The YMCA ran its summer camp for 210 children between the ages of 7 and 11.  Baseball leagues and a basketball league rounded out the frequent users of the park.  “Also,” Mr. Finley reported, “more people are ‘just visiting’ the park, all of which I believe was intended by Mr. Heckscher when he gave this beautiful spot to the town.”[43]

Use of the park continued to increase.  It was estimated that in 1952, 100,000 people would visit the park, including the average of 50 children a day who made use of the new wading pool donated by the Huntington Rotary Club.[44]  The park was truly a center of activity in the Town of Huntington.  When plans were being made by the Huntington Tercentenary Committee to celebrate the Town’s 300th anniversary in 1953, the logic place to hold the anniversary pageant was in Heckscher Park.  The committee, chaired by Robert L. Simpson, secured permission from the Heckscher Trust to use the park from June 25 to July 7.[45]

A year before the Tercentenary Committee requested use of Heckscher Park, a local attorney raised serious objections to the use of Town funds to maintain the park.  Albert M. Levert of Centerport had earned a reputation as a gadfly with his lawsuit challenging the Town’s purchase of 22 acres in Centerport for use as a Town beach.  Mr. Levert was such an irritant to the powers that be that someone in Town Hall prepared a summary of the nine lawsuits initiated by Mr. Levert against the Town between 1951 and 1955.

In the midst of the Centerport beach lawsuit, Mr. Levert appeared at the Town Board’s budget hearing on November 1, 1951.  The meeting at the Woodbury Avenue School was sparsely attended and lasted all of 15 minutes.  Yet Mr. Levert managed to strike fear in some Town employees, who worried he might take steps that would tie up their salaries.  His main complaint about the 1952 budget was that it continued to allocate taxpayer money for the maintenance of the privately owned park.  Since 1936, when the Town first adopted formal annual budgets, the Town Board allocated $6,000 a year for maintenance of Heckscher Park.  By 1946, the allocation was $8,000; and the 1952 budget included $14,500 for the park.  Not only was the use of taxpayer money for non-town owned property illegal on its face, Mr. Levert also objected because as a private park, the Heckscher Trust could exclude anyone it wished from the park.  Mr. Levert threatened to put someone in jail if such illegal expenditures were not removed from the budget.[46]

The Town Board ignored the attorney, noting that no one else objected to the use of Town funds to maintain the park.  The following spring, Mr. Levert made good on his threat by commencing legal action against Town Supervisor Walter Fasbender and the Heckscher Trust.  The plaintiff in the case was Mr. Levert’s wife Louise.  The suit sought an injunction against spending the $14,500 included in the 1952 budget and recovery of the $72,000 spent by the Town for maintenance of the park since 1944, the year Supervisor Fasbender took office.[47]

At the initial hearing, William Titus appearing as counsel for the Supervisor, pointed out that the Leverts were the only ones who ever raised an objection to the Town’s support of Heckscher Park.  And that their share of the expenses spent on maintenance of the park amounted to only 82 cents.[48]  The court did not grant Mr. Levert’s request for a temporary injunction barring the continued use of Town funds while the lawsuit was pending.[49]

At the semi-annual meeting of the Heckscher Trust in July 1952 held at Linck’s Log Cabin restaurant in Centerport, the Trustees rejected Mr. Levert’s suggestion that the Trust transfer ownership of the park to the Town (according to Mr. Levert, the suggestion to transfer ownership was made by the Supervisor’s attorney, Mr. Titus).  The trustees were confident that they would prevail.[50]

Meanwhile, the park continued to be used more than ever by the high school, the new Little League, the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, and the Township Concert Band.  The museum also saw increased visitation.

But that all came to a screeching halt as 1953 began.  On January 6, Supreme Court Justice Percy D. Stoddart ruled in favor of Mrs. Levert as against defendant Fasbender and enjoined the Town from spending any more taxpayer money on the park.  The court based its decision on the previous ruling in the Centerport Beach case.  The court also entered a judgment against Supervisor Fasbender personally for $101,534.54, which was the total amount spent by the Town since 1944 plus interest to December 31, 1952.[51]

A week after the court’s decision, the Trust closed the gates to the park and posted signs:

WE REGRET

That this Park has been temporarily

~ CLOSED ~

as a result of a lawsuit instituted by

Mrs. Albert Levert which has cut off the

Funds necessary for the maintenance

of this park.

HECKSCHER TRUST

 

Mr. Levert admitted he had seen the signs, but would not say if he planned to take action against the Trust because of the signs. [52] 

Supervisor Fasbender at the opening of a historical exhibit in 1948.

Supervisor Fasbender sought leave, which was granted, to amend his answer to assert a cross-claim against the Trust seeking reimbursement for the judgment against him.  Mr. Levert also filed a motion to recover attorney’s fees.

In February, the Trust announced that without Town funds the park would be open only one day a month—the third Saturday of the month.[53]  The Town’s Tercentenary pageant was relocated to Squadron C Farm at the other end of the village.  The Park was open during the summer thanks to the volunteer efforts of the YMCA.[54]

By July, the Town was considering a settlement along the lines proposed the previous year—transfer of the Park to the Town.  Supervisor Fasbender and the Town Board appointed a committee to consider such a settlement.  The committee recommended that the Town purchase the property, including the museum and the art collection, for the amount of the judgment against the Supervisor.  Of course, no money would actually change hands.  The Trust would transfer the park property in lieu of reimbursing the Town for its past expenses for maintenance.[55]

On December 29, 1954, the Town Board—at the last meeting with Mr. Fasbender as Supervisor—approved a resolution “arranging for the conveyance of Heckscher Park with its buildings, improvements and appurtenances to the Town of Huntington.”  The Heckscher Trust soon agreed to the transfer and a further Town Board resolution adopted on February 2, 1954 authorized the Supervisor, now Joseph Cermak, to execute the contract of sale.[56]  As part of the settlement, Mr. Levert received $12,000 in attorney’s fees.

Heckscher Trust conveyed the park, including the art collection in the museum, to the Town by deed dated May 12, 1954.  Under the terms of the deed, the Town was required to hold the property “in perpetuity exclusively for charitable and educational purposes, in the form of a park and playground to be known as “Heckscher Park,” for the use and benefit of the inhabitants of the Town of Huntington and especially of the school children of the said Town of Huntington, and shall carry out as nearly as possible the purposes for which the Trust was established by August and Nannie A. Heckscher by Indenture dated December 26, 1917.”  If the Town failed to honor this requirement, “then title to the whole of said premises shall . . .  revert to the parties of the first part [i.e. Heckscher Trust], their successors and assigns, and the party of the second part [i.e. the Town] shall forthwith convey said premises to the parties of the first part.”[57]

The Town Board soon realized that it owned a building full of artwork, but it was not technically authorized to operate a museum.  The building was not open on a regular schedule and the art was being neglected.  To remedy this situation, the Town Board in April 1957 appointed a five member Board of Trustees to manage the building and collections.[58]  The new organization, known as The Heckscher Museum, was chartered by the New York State Education Department in June 1957.  Previously the building was called the Huntington Fine Arts Building.  Now with an organization named Heckscher Museum, that name was also applied to the building.

The Heckscher Trust continued to exist and continued to hold the endowment left by Mr. & Mrs. Heckscher.  Income from the Trust was used to make improvements to the park.  For example, in 1963, the Trust spent $3,325 for a new fence around the ball fields; in 1964, it allocated $3,540 to repair the museum’s roof; and in 1966 the Trust purchased a bandstand for the park for $5,785.

The 1966 band stand.

Fifteen years after conveying the park property to the Town, the Trust petitioned the court to terminate the Trust and distribute the remaining endowment funds—now with a value of $111,368—to the YMCA.  The trustees of the museum intervened in that proceeding arguing that the endowment should be conveyed for maintenance of the museum that Mr. & Mrs. Heckscher created, not to the YMCA, which was an unrelated organization.  In her affidavit urging the court to transfer the Trust’s assets to the Museum, Priscilla Williams pointed out that six of the nine trustees of the Heckscher Trust were also trustees of the YMCA, who may have suggested transferring the endowment to the YMCA to meet their fund raising obligations to that organization.

No one disputed that the Heckscher Trust should be dissolved.  The only question for the court was where the endowment should go—the YMCA or The Heckscher Museum.  The court decided in favor of the Museum “as the sole remaining private organization which is an offshoot of the original gift.”  The court found that while the YMCA was a worthy organization, it is, “except for accidents of geography and a partially interlocking board of directors, a complete stranger to the Heckscher Trust and the Heckscher Park.”  Clearly the court was not made aware of the fact that the YMCA had played a pivotal role in the creation of the athletic fields and had conducted most of its activities in the park until it acquired its own property nearby in the early 1950s.

Even with that historic connection to the Park, the YMCA’s claim would not have been as strong as Heckscher Museum’s.  The latter organization was formed specifically to oversee the fine arts collection on behalf of the Town.  In 1964, that relationship was formalized in an agreement between Heckscher Museum and the Town of Huntington.  The agreement provided that while the museum building and the original Heckscher collection are owned by the Town, Heckscher Museum (the organization) will have control of the maintenance and operation of the building and collections.  Any art works acquired by the Museum for display will be the Museum’s separate property.  The Town will provide funding to pay the salary of a professional museum director.  Perhaps the most important provisions of the agreement and the ones that probably gave rise to the agreement in the first place were those that authorized Heckscher Museum to raise funds and develop plans for an expansion of the museum building.  It was recognized that “the present buildings of the Museum have become overcrowded because of inadequate space to store and exhibit its collections.”[59]  It is unclear what buildings other than the 1920 museum are being referred to.

The Museum’s trustees announced its plans for expansion and a fund raising drive a week after the agreement was signed.[60]  The new addition would be built north of the museum.  It was hoped that the addition would be completed in time for the museum’s 50th anniversary in 1970.  Press coverage of the 50th anniversary celebration does not make any references to the plans for expansion, which had not been realized.

The question of expansion seems to have lain dormant until the American Association of Museums issued an accreditation report in 1983.  The Association expressed concerns about the museum’s overcrowding and indicated that if improvements were not made the museum may lose its accreditation.  The museum revisited the issue and announced new plans for an expansion in 1986.[61]  A 19 member town-wide advisory group had been formed to explore options, but the museum’s immediate neighbors opposed the loss of green space that would result from the expansion.  “If there’s a choice between the park and the museum, it’s very obviously the park,” said Elaine Capobianco, the head of the Huntington United Civic Association.[62]

The initial plans called for the new addition to be to the south of the museum building.  But the State Historic Preservation Office rejected the plan because it would adversely affect the symmetry of the original building.  A new plan with two wings on either side of the original building and each equal in size to the original building was approved by the State in 1993.[63]  The State Historic Preservation office described the plan as an “outstanding proposal” that is “completely compatible with both the historic Heckscher Museum and the surrounding park.”[64]

Fund raising efforts received a boost when the Museum’s chairman, John B. Hadley, pledged $3 million towards the project’s then $8 million budget.[65]  The National Endowment for the Arts also helped by making available an earlier $200,000 grant that the Museum feared it might lose because of the delay in construction.[66]

The proposed expansion.

After the Town Board adopted the Environmental Impact Statement, Huntington United Civic Associations, Inc., representing 20 civic associations, filed an Article 78 proceeding attacking the validity of the environmental study.[67]  The suit was dismissed five months later because the plaintiff lacked standing to sue.[68]  Three weeks after the suit was dismissed, the Town Board voted to approve the project.  Almost half of the construction budget had been raised.[69]  Other hurdles remained.  State legislation was needed to allow the conversion of parkland; and a wetlands construction permit from the State Department of Environmental Conservation was also needed.[70]  Those hurdles have been cleared, but the fund raising finish line has moved from $8,000,000 to $13,500,000 to probably more by now.

As any visitor to the park today can see, the expansion plans were never realized, although a new entrance plaza to provide handicapped accessibility to the museum was built in 1997.  While the museum expansion plans stalled, other changes were made to the park, which by the 1970s had fallen into such state of neglect that a local newspaper referred to the park as “Wreck”-scher Park.[71]

A shopping cart and garbage can were some of the debris found in the pond.

In 1978, the Town commenced a $500,000 improvement project.  One of the first tasks was to stabilize the sides of the pond, which had begun to cave in.  Boulders were shipped from upstate New York to replace those placed some 60 years earlier and that had sunk into the ground. The work required draining the pond so that only three feet of water remained.  In the process workers found two old garbage cans, a shopping cart and “enough beer bottles to pay off the capital debt.”[72]  Fish were removed from the pond and given a temporary home at the Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery.[73] 

New viewing platforms added to protect the lake’s edge from erosion.

The playground, which had been located to the west of the current bathroom building, was moved to its current location at the west end of the ball fields.  A maintenance garage was converted to accessible restrooms, replacing restrooms built in 1947.  New wood decks were installed as viewing platforms around the lake.  The white Pekin ducks that were always a favorite recipient of stale bread were removed as an environmental hazard.  Surprisingly, it was reported that “Canada geese will be encouraged” to return.[74]  Be careful what you wish for.

The Rainbow Stage

The most expensive part of the project was the construction of a new amphitheater to replace the bandstand installed by the Heckscher Trust in 1966.  The new $300,000 amphitheater was officially opened on July 6, 1979 when the Huntington Summer Arts Festival began its 14th season.  The program was a jazz concert by Clem DeRosa, featuring soloist Town Supervisor Kenneth Butterfield on the trumpet.[75]  Apparently, the site lines to the new amphitheater did not get good reviews.  The following spring 3,000 cubic yards of fill from a parking lot project at Huntington Hospital were brought in to help the audience see over the railing around the orchestra pit in front of the amphitheater.[76]  Raising the grade did cause some concern that 11 trees might be adversely impacted.  To lessen the impact wells were built around the trees.[77]

Shortly after his death in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway in July 1981, the Town Board voted to name the new amphitheater the Rainbow Stage in honor of singer and Huntington resident Harry Chapin.  The name refers to Mr. Chapin’s song “Flowers are Red,” which includes the line, “There are so many colors in the rainbow.”

The collapsed roof of the gazebo.

One structure in the park that did not fare well over the years was the stone gazebo, popular for its echo.  By the early 1990s, the roof had collapsed.  There was evidence of a fire at some point in the past.  Working with the Huntington Historical Society, the Town undertook a reconstruction project with plans by local architect Neal Hoffman.  The original roof timbers were too far gone to be re-used.  A template was made from the most intact of the beams and the laminated wood tension ring that supports the roof was supplied by an upstate silo manufacturer.[78]  As promised, not only was the gazebo restored, so was the echo.

The gazebo after restoration

In December 1999, the pond was again drained to dredge the muck and litter that had settled on the bottom.  The project was part of a $1.25 million effort to restore the park to its previous glory.  The project also included new asphalt walkways around the pond and additional landscaping.[79]  In addition to the expected muck, visitors found two guns in a plastic bag encased in cement; and a woman found her $15,000 engagement ring that she had dropped into the lake by accident a month earlier.[80]

The park continues to attract tens of thousands of visitors every year.  The work to maintain such a well-used park never ends.  While no major projects are planned, in anticipation of the Park’s centennial, the Town has applied for grant funding to replace the chain link fence around the park with a more historically appropriate steel fence.

And the 50-year old dream of finally expanding the museum lives on.

 

Thanks to Jess Beck, Heckscher Museum, John Coraor, Huntington Director of Cultural Affairs, Karen Martin, Huntington Historical Society, and Antonia Mattheou, Huntington Town Clerk’s Archives for their help with the research for this post.

 

 

[1] Suffolk County Clerk’s Office Deed Liber 589, page 14.

[2] The Long-Islander, July 31, 1908.

[3] The Long-Islander, February 4, 1910.

[4] The Long-Islander, September 25, 1914.

[5] The Long-Islander, March 26, 1915; Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 28, 1915.

[6] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 23, 1914, page 8.

[7] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 12, 1915, page 6; The Long-Islander, August 13, 1915.

[8] The Long-Islander, December 18, 1914, page 2.

[9] The Long-Islander, June 7, 1918, page 1.

[10] The Long-Islander, June 2, 1916, page 10.

[11] The Long-Islander, May 11, 1917.

[12] The Long-Islander, April 20, 1917, page 3; May 4, 1917, page 1.

[13] The Long-Islander, May 18, 1917.

[14] The Long-Islander, June 29, 1917.

[15] The Long-Islander, June 29, 1917.

[16] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 22, 1917, page 8.

[17] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 19, 1917, page 8; The Long-Islander, July 20, 1917.

[18] The Long-Islander, July 20, 1917.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Remarks of Willard N. Baylis at the Memorial Service for Anna Atkins Heckscher held at the Palace Theatre on August 31, 1924.  In the collection of the Huntington Historical Society.

[21] New York Times, November 9, 1924, page 20.

[22] New York Times, March 4, 1932, page 13.

[23] The Long-Islander, January 4, 1918.

[24] The Long-Islander, May 31, 1918.

[25] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 14, 1918, page 4; The Long-Islander, August 16, 1918.

[26] Ibid.

[27] The Long-Islander, March 21, 1919.

[28] The Long-Islander, July 16, 1920.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 24, 1920, page 9.

[31] The Long-Islander, January 15, 1953, page 1.

[32] Statements of the Heckscher Trust in the collection of the Town Clerk’s Archives, Box 43.

[33] Letter dated May 8, 1936 from August Heckscher to Ira Lewis, in the Town Clerk’s Archives Box 0661A.

[34] William Oliver Stevens, Discovering Long Island, (NY 1939), page 31; quoted in August Heckscher: The Elusive Collector, by Megan Sniffin, on file with the Huntington Historical Society Archives.

[35] The Long-Islander, December 30, 1943, page 1.

[36] Petition address to Town Supervisor Walter Fasbender dated February 1, 1944 in the Town Clerk’s Archives, Box 43.

[37] Letter dated June 1, 1943 from William Hartmann to Charles Noyes in the Town Clerk’s Archives.

[38] The Long-Islander, May 13, 1943.

[39] The Long-Islander, May 20, 1943, page 1.

[40] The Long-Islander, December 30, 1943, page 1.

[41] The Long-Islander, April 1, 1948, page 1.

[42] The Long-Islander, April 1, 1948, page 1.

[43] Report of the Park and Athletic Committees, July 13, 1949 in the Town Clerk’s Archives, Box 0499C.

[44] Report on Heckscher Park Activities dated July 10, 1952, in the Town Clerk’s Archives, Box 43.

[45] Letter dated November 15, 1952 from Robert L. Simpson, chairman of the Huntington Tercentenary, Inc. to Arthur Smadbeck of the Heckscher Trust.

[46] The Long-Islander, November 8, 1951, page 1.

[47] The Long-Islander, April 17, 1952, page 1.

[48] The Long-Islander, April 24, 1952.

[49] The Long-Islander, July 17, 1952, page 1.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Huntington Times, January 14, 1953, page 1.

[52] The Long-Islander, January 15, 1953, page 1.

[53] New York Times, February 8, 1953, page 38.

[54] New York Times, December 13, 1953, page 135.

[55] The Long-Islander, September 3, 1953, page 1.

[56] Town Board Resolution adopted February 2, 1954 on file in the Town Clerk’s Archives, box 0187A.

[57] Suffolk County Clerk’s Office Deed Liber3693, page 204.

[58] The Long-Islander, April 18, 1957, page 1.

[59] Agreement dated July 28, 1964 between the Heckscher Museum and the Town of Huntington.

[60] The Long-Islander, August 6, 1964, page 3.

[61] New York Times, September 29, 1991 (Long Island section).

[62] Ibid.

[63] The Long-Islander, August 26, 1993.

[64] Newsday, August 25, 1993.

[65] The Record, January 15, 1992.

[66] Newsday, August 25, 1993.

[67] The Long-Islander, July 8, 1993, page 1.

[68] Newsday, December 9, 1993.

[69] Newsday, December 22, 1993.

[70] The Long-Islander, December 30, 1993, page 3.

[71] Sunday Digest, November 12, 1978, copy in the Huntington Historical Society archives.

[72] Long Island Press, July 11, 1975.

[73] The Long-Islander, June 21, 1979, page 3.

[74] Ibid.

[75] The Long-Islander, June 28, 1979.

[76] Newsday, April 22, 1980, page 27.

[77] The Long-Islander, April 17, 1980, page 7.

[78] The Long-Islander, August 5, 1993.

[79] Newsday, January 14, 2001.

[80] The Long-Islander, January 13, 2000, page 3.

On a sunny summer day, a visitor to Heckscher Park will find children climbing on the playground sets, adults strolling around the pond, art lovers visiting the Fine Arts Museum, teenagers learning to play tennis, picnickers enjoying the shade of a stately old tree, and perhaps a softball game.  It is hard to imagine a time when this plot of land wasn’t used by Huntingtonians as a place for recreation and relaxation, especially since it has been a park for over a century.

Before it was a park, this area was an active industrial and agricultural venue.  If we begin, not quite at the beginning, but at the time of the American Revolution, the land was the home and farm of Zophar Platt, the wealthiest man in town.[1]  His home stood near what is now the southwest corner of the park.  Platt, who built the tide mill on the west side of Huntington Harbor in 1752, saw his orchards and fencing destroyed by the British when they built Fort Golgotha at the top of the Old Burying Ground in 1782.  A supporter of the Revolution, Platt was mistreated by the British, but survived the war and, as noted on his grave, died “in peace” in 1791.

By the 1840s, the land was owned by Albert W. Hendrickson, who sold it to Thomas C. Hendrickson in 1843.[2]  He, in turn sold the 27-acre farm to Ezra C. Prime in 1846.[3]  A few years earlier, the Commissioners of Highways had laid out a road through the farm and neighboring property from Main Street north to Mill Lane, which had been the dam for Huntington’s first mill in the seventeenth century.[4]  Prime moved from the nearby Prime family homestead on Spring Road to Zophar Platt’s old house.

Six years earlier, Prime had established a thimble manufactory in what is now the second house west of Prime Avenue on the north side of Main Street.  Ezra Prime was the great grandson of Ebenezer Prime, who served as the third minister of Old First Church from 1719 until he died in 1779.  Ezra was born in Manhattan in 1810.  His family returned to Huntington was he was four years old.  At sixteen, he became an apprentice in the silversmith shop of his second cousin George Platt.  After his apprenticeship, Prime entered into a partnership with John Roshore, who had also worked in Platt’s shop.  The new partnership did well operating at the head of Chatham square in lower Manhattan.

In 1836, Prime, suffering from ill health, returned to Huntington and established a thimble factory.[5]  According to most sources the factory was on the north side of Main Street, two doors west of the highway laid out in 1839 (now known as Prime Avenue).  That property was owned by Ezra’s brother Claudius, who was also a silversmith.  It is possible the two brothers began the factory as partners.  While silversmiths had been making thimbles as part of their regular business for years, Prime’s factory is often referred to as the first thimble factory in the country.  However, this may be a bit of local boosterism.  The first thimble manufacturer in this country appears to have been Benjamin Halstead, who founded the first American thimble factory in 1794.[6]  “Another well known American thimble-making firm was Ketcham and McDougall of Brooklyn, New York, which produced nearly two-thirds of all the marked American thimbles at present in the hands of collectors.  The company began in 1832 and in various guises continued to make thimbles until 1932.”[7]  Even if Prime’s thimble factory was not the first, it was among the first.

Shortly after establishing the thimble factory, Ezra traveled to Oberlin, Ohio where he studied Greek and Latin.  In light of later mental health issues, his trip may have been motivated by more than the pursuit of academics.  Prime was described as having “an active, nervous temperament, doing with all his might whatever he undertakes.”[8]  The stay in Ohio may have been necessitated by mental exhaustion as well.

After two years at Oberlin, Prime returned to Huntington.  He married in 1842, but his wife died just two months later.  As noted above, in 1846, he purchased the land north of Main Street from Thomas Hendrickson.  He purchased the half acre of land on the northwest corner of Main Street and Prime Avenue from his brother in 1850.

In addition to his thimble factory, in the 1850s Prime had a jewelry store on the north side of Main Street, east of Wall Street.  According to the 1860 Gazetteer of the State of New York (Published by R. Pearsall Smith, Syracuse), Prime’s thimble factory employed 10-12 men and produced 5 to 6 gross of gold and silver thimbles a day.

In 1863, a second factory building was constructed at the southwest corner of Main Street and Spring Road.[9]  This factory utilized steam power, using water from the Meeting House Brook, which ran alongside the building. Five years later, he had the first factory building moved back from the road and converted to a residence. [10]

In addition to his thimble factory, Prime farmed his extensive lands on the north side of Main Street.  In 1850, he purchased from Jonathan Weeks an additional 19 acres to the west of the land he purchased in 1846.[11]  By 1860 he owned almost all of the land on the north side of Main Street from Sabbath Day Path on the east to Mill Lane on the north and as far as Carlos Stuart’s land on the west (i.e. Prime owned land as far west as the municipal lot behind the Elks Club).

He married for the second time in 1858 to Martha Smith Morrell.  The couple had four children, one of whom died when he was two years old.  After his marriage, he built a palatial 26 room house north of the old Zophar Platt house.  The living room in his new house was large enough to serve as a grand ballroom.[12]

The Prime Mansion

In 1864, Prime had a dam built north of his new house to create a pond in the swampy area that stretched from his property up to the harbor.[13]  The pond was stocked with trout. Perhaps inspired by the State fish hatchery in Cold Spring Harbor, which opened in 1883, Prime also had a hatchery.[14]  The pond became a primary source for ice locally.  The ice was 5 to 8 inches thick and clear as crystal.[15]  It also provided a place for skating.  Prime continued to enlarge and improve the pond over the years until it became “a perfect gem of beauty.”[16]

Prime’s third factory building.

The next year, Prime built a building adjoining the pond for E.C. Lefferts who planned to use the building for a sash and blind factory.  In 1871, Lefferts moved to a factory on Wall Street and the building became the third thimble factory operated by Prime.  Fayette Gould leased the building in January 1879 for the manufacture of his patented rowlocks.[17]  By the end of that year, however, thimbles were being made there and Prime added a story to the building in 1879 because business was so brisk.[18]  The various manufacturing uses in this building appear to have utilized steam power.  The nearby pond would have the source of water for the steam engines, but the pond’s spillway does not seem to have been used to provide water power.

The frantic pace with which Prime pursued his thimble business, his farming, and improvements to his property led to some sort of a breakdown.  In 1871, he was forcibly taken to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum in Morningside Heights in Manhattan.  There was some disagreement about whether his confinement there was justified.  Nonetheless, despite one successful escape, he spent 63 days there.[19]

He continued his endeavors back in Huntington.  But in 1883, he was admitted to the Brunswick Home in Amityville, where he would spend the last 15 years of his life.[20]  The Brunswick Home had been set up to care for the “feeble-minded.”[21]

During his time at Brunswick, he left the thimble factory in the care of his sons, but they soon gave up the business.[22]

After Ezra Prime died in 1898, his children sold the ten northernmost acres of the farm between New York Avenue and Park Avenue to Henry C. Platt.[23]  The land west of Prime Avenue was subdivided into 49 lots in February 1906.  That same year, they sold the bulk of the farm, the land north of Main Street and east of Prime Avenue, to August Heckscher.[24]  Thus begins another interesting story.

 

[1] The Long-Islander, August 16, 1973, page 20.

[2] Suffolk County Clerk’s Office Deed Liber 38, page 43.

[3] Suffolk County Clerk’s Office Deed Liber 44, page 140.

[4] Town of Huntington Highway Book A 1724-1851, page 288.

[5] Some accounts give the date as 1837.

[6] Finding: The Material Cultural of Needlework and Sewing, by Mary C. Beaudry (Yale University Press 2006), page 99.

[7] Ibid, page 107.

[8] History of Suffolk County, New York, with Illustrations, Portraits, & Sketches of Prominent Families and Individuals  (W.W. Munsell & Company 1882), page 61

[9] This building was converted to a steam laundry by L.C. Gordon in 1883 (The Long-Islander, May 4, 1883) and later converted into a residence by Henry Saylor.

[10] New York Thimble Makers from Huntington, Long Island, by Elizabeth Galbraith Sickels (Antiques Journal, October 1964), page 21. Copies can be found in the archives of the Huntington Historical Society.

[11] Suffolk County Clerk’s Office Deed Liber 54, page 246.

[12] Ezra Conklin Prime 1810-1898, by T. Ford Prime (1958-59), unpublished manuscript in the archives of the Huntington Historical Society, page 8.

[13] The Long-Islander, December 22, 1865.  Slater’s 1860 map of Huntington village shows a pond marked “Proposed.”

[14] The Long-Islander, November 7, 1884, page 2.  The short piece is about a dog that died in one of Prime’s trout hatching boxes.

[15] The Long-Islander, January 6, 1871.

[16] The Long-Islander, July 12, 1878.

[17] The Long-Islander, January 24, 1879.

[18] The Long-Islander, December 5, 1879.

[19] Munsell, pages 61-62.

[20] The Long-Islander, February 19 & 26, 1898.

[21] American Journal of Insanity, Vol 49, Issue 3, January 1893, page 556. Found at http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/ajp.49.3.556

[22] The Long-Islander, February 26, 1898.

[23] The Long-Islander, January 23, 1903.

[24] Suffolk County Clerk’s Office Deed Liber 589, page 14.