An ornate gazebo sat on an island in the middle of a laguna at the north end of a canal framed by striped mooring poles and gondolas imported from Italy. From their perch of towering columns, statues of winged lions invited passersby to come closer and explore, to saunter over arched Venetian bridges and past Italian-style villas.
This was once the scene not in Venice, Italy, but in American Venice, a unique community created in the 1920s in Copiague, just off the Great South Bay. The Great Depression and a surge of year-round residents eventually transformed American Venice into a conventional suburban neighborhood, and for years the Town of Babylon has been trying to recreate those golden days. But it would require acquisition of a site at the head of the canal, and the town has been unable to persuade the property owner to sell.
American Venice was the brainchild of real estate developers Victor Pisani and Isaac Meister, according to a new book, "Copiague" (Arcadia Publishing), by Babylon town archivist Mary Cascone. At a time when many communities on Long Island were still on the cusp of development, the pair decided to create right in the heart of Copiague an oasis dedicated to a city more than 4,000 miles away.
"There was this period, before the stock market crash, when people in New York City were looking for places to spend the summer," Cascone said. The automobile was gaining in popularity, and people wanted to get away, she said.
The year was 1925, decades before the Southern State Parkway was completed and 40 years before Copiague would even have its own high school. It was a time when you could see the bay from Montauk Highway, she said.
"It was a very unique time that people forget about," Cascone said. "It wasn't until after World War II that this became a place to live. This was the country back then."
Pisani and Meister dredged an area of marshland bordered on the north by Montauk Highway, the bay to the south, Great Neck Creek to the west and Copiague Creek to the east. They created a pathway of canals and began building houses in the Italian style of arched doorways and stucco façades. The pair began advertising the community, stating that a $250 cash down payment would give someone immediate possession of a house.
"Once you come to know American Venice, once you discover all that lies there, the fires of your imagination will be rekindled, your hopes renewed, your search for an ideal home rewarded," read one ad.
American Venice did not last long. In June 1930, the developers filed for bankruptcy. Subsequent companies built houses in their own architectural style, Cascone said, and the result was a mishmash of designs.
Even as some of the houses have become modernized over the years, remnants of the American Venice style can still be spotted here and there, Cascone said, among them terra-cotta roofs and arched doorways. In 1988, residents successfully fought the town's attempt to tear down the aging bridges on East and West Riviera Drive. The town repaired them, and their Venetian style was left intact.
"People often call American Venice a failure," Cascone said. "I take a lot of objection to that because it did happen. It may not be today exactly as it was in 1926, but it's still there, it's still a community and a thriving community."
American Venice takes up a large chunk of Cascone's book, accounting for 40 of the 200 photographs. Visible in many of the photos are the winged lions that sit at the gateway to the community on Montauk Highway. They are symbols of Saint Mark, patron saint of Venice, Cascone said, and replicas of the column in Venice's Piazza San Marco.
"The fact that they have withstood weather and time is really a testament to the people who constructed them," she said.
Town Supervisor Steve Bellone wants to preserve the lions. "Communities that preserve their history are communities that prosper," he said. "American Venice is a really unique part of our history."
The lions sit next to RPM Marina, which is owned by Terry Pulvidente Sr., who also owns the island of the gazebo, which is now a marine gas station. In 2007 he stood with Bellone and county officials at the marina to announce that he would be selling the land so the town could build a park. Bellone said recently he envisioned using the buildings - which are the original structures - for refreshments and a small museum. The gazebo would be restored, and gondola rides would be offered in the summer, he said.
But Pulvidente balked. The county offered up two appraisals, but Pulvidente did not respond to either offer, and the town has not spoken with him since earlier this year. Pulvidente's only comment for this article was that he is not going to sell his property.
The town said they are not considering taking the land through eminent domain. Bellone said the town is applying to the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities to have the area placed on a list of endangered sites. He said he hopes that by doing so, it will raise the site's profile and create broader understanding of its importance.
"There are very real structural elements that survived that era but that are in danger," Bellone said of the lions and nearby buildings. "If we fail to preserve them, then we will have lost a really valuable opportunity for our community."