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National recognition for Frank Melville Park

Setauket site achieves listing on Register of Historic Places

Photo by Lee Lutz: The peace and serenity of the park has attracted residents for 70 years. Below, the park has another look, just as beautiful, in winter. File photo courtesy Beverly Tyler (click for larger version)
September 08, 2010 | 02:13 PM
Another Three Village community treasure has been recognized as a national treasure as well. On July 19 the Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket was added to the National Register of Historic Places — although the notification from Washington did not arrive until last month.

Dedicated in 1937 to the memory of Frank Melville Jr., the millpond and surrounding landscaping, walkways and vistas have for generations been an irresistible attraction for local residents and visitors who find serenity, beauty — and learning — within its 26 acres.

But, don't think for a minute this private park takes care of itself. The Frank Melville Memorial Foundation owns and maintains the park and its volunteers work year-round to keep it as welcoming as it has been for seven decades. Foundation President Tim Glynn of Setauket noted the importance of the national designation.

(click for larger version)
"This is tangible recognition of the uniqueness of the park and buildings," Glynn said. He hopes the honor, along with the earlier historic listing by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, will be helpful in seeking grants and donations to aid the foundation in some sizeable tasks facing the park's stewards — as well as to help convince the U.S. Postal Service not to close its small branch on park property at the corner of Main Street and Old Field Road.

The USPS threatened to do just that a couple years ago as a five-year lease extension was being negotiated. The Richard Haviland Smythe-designed classical revival building was constructed around 1940 specifically to house the post office. Glynn said the new lease significantly increased the annual rent, bringing it "closer to market" value, according to Glynn. However, maintenance of the 70-year-old building is one of the responsibilities of the foundation.

Dredging the ponds
Another is the health of the ponds and their natural environment. The ponds have suffered for years as runoff from adjacent roadways has silted and polluted the waters, impacting the flora and fauna in and around the water. Preliminary steps have been taken by the FMMP trustees to address the situation, but each tentative step has more clearly revealed the immensity of the project. Glynn said surveys of the ponds have indicated in some places it is only about a foot deep, and dredging the two will be a huge undertaking — environmentally and financially.

After extensive improvements the mill with its waterwheel now serves as an office and meeting room for the foundation. File photo by Alyssa Cutler (click for larger version)
The post office is not the only structure within the park requiring maintenance and upkeep. The Bates House, a 1922 Colonial Revival-style house that was acquired by the foundation in 1955, is often used by community members for meetings and events. Glynn described its condition as acceptable for the basics, heating and plumbing for example, but "shabby" and in need of work in areas like the floors and walls. The home's long driveway has recently been paved — "a big improvement," said Glynn — but the parking area still awaits paving.

Some years ago the foundation undertook the renovation of the Miller's Cottage, a small historic home on the west side of the park along Old Field Road. By making significant improvements — paid for in part by money borrowed from the foundation's small endowment and still not entirely repaid, according to Glynn — the dwelling could be rented, providing a year-round presence at the park and generating a small income.

Achieving recognition
Glynn was quick to credit several other trustees for the successes achieved by the foundation.

"Barbara Russell did much all on her own," Glynn said, to achieve the National Register listing. Russell is a Three Village resident, foundation trustee and Brookhaven Town Historian.

"[NYS] Parks first visited a couple years ago," Russell said, the first step to achieve historic recognition. "You have to do in-depth research to complete the application." For example, Russell recalled, "Who was the landscape architect? What's the bridge made of?" Russell said the cooperation of the Three Village Historical Society and use of the Rhodes Collection at Emma Clark Library was vital to her ability to complete the required research.

The Parks Department considered the park as a whole, including "the ponds, bridges, post office, Miller's Cottage, barn," when examining the FMMP application. Russell said the red barn at the northerly end of the ponds was constructed in the 1920s from lumber from Camp Upton in Yaphank after it was decommissioned following World War I. She added that the Old Field Road bridge was modeled after an illustration in a Hugh Walpole novel set in the Lake District of England.

The foundation grows
Glynn also cited Beverly Tyler of Setauket as one of the key people in the foundation's history. Tyler served for nearly two decades as board president and oversaw the modernization of the foundation.

"They had no formal bylaws," Tyler said. "It was a family operation." When Ward Melville resigned as president due to illness his wife Dorothy assumed the position, Tyler said. The reorganization of the foundation included expanding the board to 12 members and diversifying its membership. "You need to recruit people who don't agree with you," said Tyler, creating a dynamic that gets things done. "If you don't do that you don't get anywhere."

Also instrumental in the growth of the foundation has been former president and fundraising chair Bruce McNaughton.

Programs at the park now include a fishing club, meditation, pilates and yoga classes, bird walks and more.

Reviewers in both Albany and Washington have officially recognized what Three Villagers have known for 70 years: Frank Melville Memorial Park is a gem.

More information is available at the FMMP website, www.frankmelvillepark.org.

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