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Ward Melville’s Stony Brook center that revitalized village turns 75

Gloria Rocchio, president of the Ward Melville Heritage

Gloria Rocchio, president of the Ward Melville Heritage Organization, shows an original model of the Stony Brook Village Center on Dec. 30, 2015. The group plans a dinner to celebrate the center's 75th anniversary. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

The 1940 dinner in which business tycoon Ward Melville announced plans for the shopping center that would reinvigorate Stony Brook will be re-created later this month to mark the outdoor mall’s 75th anniversary.

The Jan. 19 fete will be the first time the nonprofit Ward Melville Heritage Organization has celebrated the day when the late developer outlined his proposal to buy up leases from local businesses and build the Stony Brook Village Center, a commercial district modeled after Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg museum.

This month’s dinner is based on Melville’s Jan. 19, 1940, meal, from the venue — the Three Village Inn, then called the Hallock Homestead — to the menu, featuring prime sirloin of beef.

Melville, a shoe and drugstore magnate who died in 1977 at age 90, is widely credited with transforming Stony Brook from an aging fishing community into an upscale suburb.

“This little village here, after the Depression, was kind of suffering,” said Gloria Rocchio, president of the heritage organization, which owns the Village Center and historic properties such as a grist mill and the William Sidney Mount House. “He decided to pick up the gauntlet and rehabilitate the village.”

Most shopkeepers agreed

Most of the shop owners at the 1940 meeting agreed to go along with Melville’s plan, Rocchio said. Melville, dipping into his personal fortune from the chain of stores owned by his family’s companies, paid to move buildings, construct new ones and reroute local roads.

The Village Center opened on July 4, 1941, featuring structures reflecting Melville’s love of Colonial architecture. The Stony Brook Post Office, which is part of the center, is best known for an eagle on its facade that flaps its wings at the top of the hour.

Melville, who lived in Old Field, had said in an interview with Newsday that his goal had been “to cure the cancer . . . [of] haphazard, shoddy and unattractive construction.” The original 20 stores have grown to 35 shops, restaurants, spas and offices, and retain their original appearance nearly eight decades later.

Longtime Suffolk County planner Lee Koppelman said Melville, whom he knew, was a “complex individual” who imposed restrictive covenants dictating that houses he owned must have white exteriors with black doors and roofs.

An offensive covenant

The covenants also barred Jews, Koppelman said. Those covenants now are illegal.

Koppelman, a Stony Brook University political-science professor, said he was offended by those covenants, but he credited Melville with creating a planned community at a time when municipal oversight of development was unheard of.

“What he did in Stony Brook is still a living testimony to his genius,” Koppelman said, adding Melville was “well ahead of anyone in terms of how suburbia developed.”

Shawn Nuzzo, president of the Civic Association of the Setaukets and Stony Brook, said Melville’s development vision remains a powerful force in the Three Village area.

“I think we can look to Ward Melville to guide the way [for] this area going into the 21st century,” he said, “the way Ward Melville brought Stony Brook into the 20th century.”

Tickets for the dinner are $125. For more information, call the heritage organization at 631-751-2244.

Who was Ward Melville?

Born: John Ward Melville on Jan. 5, 1887, in Brooklyn. He went by the name Ward.

Businesses: Melville expanded his father Frank’s company, Melville Corp., to include brands such as Thom McAn shoes, Marshalls and CVS. The company was renamed CVS Corp. in 1996.

Impact on education: Melville donated the initial 480 acres to create Stony Brook University. He was president of the Setauket Board of Education; the district’s high school is named for him.

Died: June 5, 1977, at New York Hospital.

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