This summer, legions of beachgoers will tool down the Robert Moses Causeway to the sandy stretches of the South Shore’s barrier islands, just as they have since the well-traveled thoroughfare was constructed in the mid-1950s. Now local leisure seekers can take a worthwhile side trip to the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook to enjoy “The Land of Moses,” an exhibition opening June 22 that examines the legacy of the man behind the network of roadways, bridges and recreation areas that has largely defined Long Island suburbia.
“For better or for worse, Robert Moses has meant more to the region than any other person in the last century,” says Joshua Ruff, the museum’s chief curator, who organized the sprawling show with assistant curator Jonathan Olly.
Made up of more than 170 items, including paintings, architectural models, historical photos, film footage, ephemera and personal effects, the exhibit documents the decades-long career of New York’s master builder.
“As president of the Long Island State Parks Commission, he added 17 state parks,” says Olly about the Ivy League- and Oxford-educated public official who at one point held 12 titles simultaneously. “When Jones Beach opened in 1929, it had 1 million visitors with 7.4 million people in the region. By 1964, the end of Moses’ tenure, Jones Beach had 12 million visitors — some of them repeat — with a New York City and Long Island population of 10.2 million.”
“As long as you’re on the side of the parks, you’re on the side of the angels. You can’t lose,” Moses said. His connections, ambition, and legal and engineering acumen led to such highway, byway and bridge projects as the Northern and Southern State parkways, the Throgs Neck Bridge and the site for two World’s Fairs, among countless others.
Dubbed “The Power Broker” by Robert A. Caro in the title of Caro's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Moses only took a back seat when he was being chauffeured in black Packards or Cadillacs (he never learned to drive) on the roadways he built. Residing in Manhattan and Babylon, “he lived what he created,” Olly says.
To help transport exhibition visitors to the heyday of Moses’ extended building spree, the curators have re-created scenes from the past, which alternately include a Ford Model A sedan; a vintage lamppost and road sign from Ocean Parkway; Moses’ typewriter and inkwell; and chairs and an umbrella that dotted the early days of the Jones Beach park. “Exhibitions should be part education and history and part theater,” Ruff says.
Also on display will be representations of Moses’ botched ventures and public critiques. A 20-foot model of the Oyster Bay-Rye bridge, conceived to span Long Island Sound, is all that is left of the defeated project, along with a series of protest signs objecting to it. While minority neighborhoods were often skipped over for recreational development plans, the areas were frequently poached for roadway construction.
“Robert Moses had trouble reconciling 1930s and ’40s answers to 1960s and ’70s problems,” says Ruff of his subject’s waning support.
With the region’s aging infrastructure, Moses’ contentious career is a lesson for the ages, but also a chance for New Yorkers to marvel at how one man could dramatically transform life on the Island.
WHEN | WHERE June 22-Oct. 28, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday, Long Island Museum, 1200 Rte. 25A, Stony Brook
INFO $10, $7 seniors, $5 ages 6-17, free younger than 6; 631-751-0066, longislandmuseum.org