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Village of the Branch Historic District


The Village of the Branch Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [] adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.

Description

The Village of the Branch is an incorporated village in the town of Smithtown, Long Island, New York. The Village of the Branch Historic District is an approximately one-mile-long, nearly straight stretch of Middle Country Road (New York State Route 25), immediately east of the modern commercial Main Street of Smithtown and encompasses the core of Smithtown's eighteenth, nineteenth, and early-twentieth century development on the north side of Middle Country Road. The areas on the south side of the road and to the east of the historic district, which remained largely undeveloped until the early twentieth century, are occupied by several complexes of modern office buildings. Immediately west of the Village of the Branch Historic District is Smithtown's modern central business district. To the north of the historic district are large tracts of modern, post-World War II houses. The Village of the Branch Historic District boundaries were drawn to include the intact historic core of the Branch on the north side of Middle Country Road. Despite the presence of home offices in some of the buildings, the Village of the Branch Historic District retains its historic appearance in marked contrast to the surrounding areas of extensive modern suburban development. The Village of the Branch Historic District consists of fifteen houses, a church and a library that were constructed between ca.1700 and 1965. The majority of the buildings face the north side of Middle Country Road and East Main Street (the westerly continuation of Middle Country Road). The Caleb Smith House faces North Country Road, which branches off from Middle Country Road and East Main Street between the Presbyterian Church and the Smithtown Library. Four small workers' cottages face the west side of Judge's Lane, a small unpaved lane that runs north from Middle Country Road. The Village of the Branch Historic District contains a total of sixteen contributing principal buildings, three contributing barns, three contributing sheds, three contributing garages, one contributing smokehouse, two contributing hitching posts and two contributing roadside milestones. There are four non-contributing garages and one non-contributing principal building, the Smithtown Public Library, in the Village of the Branch Historic District.[1]

The Presbyterian Church and the Halliock Inn, within the Village of the Branch Historic District at its west and east ends, were individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and 1974, respectively. Four buildings in the Village of the Branch Historic District have been moved from other locations. Three of these, the Caleb Smith House (North Country Road), the Epenetus Smith Tavern (211 Middle Country Road) and the Tailor White House (195 Middle Country Road), are all consistent in age, scale and materials with the residential buildings in the historic district and have been sited to conform to the prevailing building pattern in the Branch. These three buildings still contribute to the integrity of the Village of the Branch Historic District. A portion of one leg of the H-plan, red brick, Colonial Revival style Smithtown Public Library was moved to the Village Green in 1950 from its original location across Middle Country Road. The central and eastern wings of the building were added in 1965; thus, the building does not contribute due to age and loss of integrity.

Although many of the residences have been somewhat altered by the addition of small entry porches and other early-twentieth century Colonial Revival style decorative details, the cohesiveness and overall integrity of the Village of the Branch Historic District remain intact. Alterations to buildings in the Village of the Branch Historic District include the expansion of three-bay "half houses" during the eighteenth century, the addition of side and rear wings in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the addition of small entrance porches and Neoclassical style details that date from the first quarter of the twentieth century. The porches replaced earlier porches and verandahs that were added during the second half of the nineteenth century. The Presbyterian Manse received a small entrance porch and quarter-round attic windows. The Methodist Parsonage received a small entrance porch and a gabled dormer in the 1920s.

The main block of The Homestead (205 Middle Country Road) was expanded to six bays in 1768 and received a one-story, two-bay Italianate style wing with a low-pitched pyramidal roof and French doors, ca.1860. A verandah added at the same time was removed as part of the Colonial Revival style renovations of the early twentieth century that also included the addition of two pedimented dormers and a cross gable lit by a lunette with swag motif muntins. The Erastus Arthur House (227 Middle Country Road) was greatly altered by the addition of a large rear wing and a raised gable roof similar in configuration to the original roof as well as the replacement of its mid-nineteenth century verandah with one of similar design with simple Tuscan order posts. The John Wilson House (215 Middle Country Road) was built in the 1850s as a vernacular, three-bay Italianate style house; it was remodelled to its present appearance in 1918 with the addition of a gabled roof with quarter-round attic windows, replacement of the full-front porch with a small glazed entrance vestibule, and the erection of a one and one-half story gambrel-roofed wing.

The Village of the Branch Historic District's roadside features, including the shipmast locust trees, two mileposts, hitching posts, an unpaved pedestrian path and wood picket and rail fences that line the frontages of the properties, contribute to the historic residential character of the district. These roadside features also act as a visual buffer between the buildings of the Village of the Branch Historic District and the surrounding areas of twentieth-century suburban development. The ten houses along Middle Country Road are three-, five- and six-bay buildings with side- and center-hall plans. Most of the buildings retain their original clapboard or shingle siding and all are painted white with black or dark color shutters. All of the houses are two stories in height, with the exception of the one and one-half story Tailor White House (195 Middle Country Road) and all have gable roofs that are oriented parallel to the road. The Homestead (the Judge J. Lawrence Smith House, 205 Middle Country Road), located near the center of the Village of the Branch Historic District at the northeast corner of Judge's Lane, is a two-story, six-bay residence with several additions of the mid- and late-nineteenth centuries, including a one-story, mid-nineteenth century Italianate style wing and later dormers believed to be the design of noted architect Stanford White.[2]

The Federal style Presbyterian Church and the Colonial Revival style brick library are located at the west end of the Village of the Branch Historic District on the northwest and northeast corners of the intersection of Middle Country and North Country Roads. The church building combines such classically inspired features as a tiered entrance tower with pinnacles, a second-floor Palladian window, round-arched windows, a main entrance with an elliptical transom and the native shingle siding. The one-story, red brick, Colonial Revival style Smithtown Branch Library is located in the northeast corner of the village green, which is located at the northeast corner of Middle Country Road and North Country Road. The green, created in 1907, is an integral part of the village and the historic district and the roadside trees on the green contribute to the setting of the historic district; it is landscaped with roadside shipmast locust trees and low plantings of yews. Adjacent to the library in the Village Green, facing North Country Road, is the Caleb Smith House, a two-story, five-bay residence which is similar to the dwellings facing Middle Country Road.

Four more modest residences which date from the first quarter of the nineteenth century are located behind the Presbyterian Manse on the west side of Judge's Lane, a small, unpaved private road at the middle of the district that intersects Middle Country Road between the Manse and The Homestead. Three of these one and one-half story, three- and five-bay frame farm workers' cottages have received later additions which are in scale with the original buildings. Like Middle Country Road, Judge's Lane is lined with shipmast locust trees and wood fences.

Significance

The Village of the Branch Historic District is architecturally significant as a rare surviving, largely intact Long Island village of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that recalls the architectural development and settlement pattern of the village from ca.1700 until 1935. The Village of the Branch Historic District includes several settlement-era residences of early and prominent local settlers which illustrate the evolution of the local vernacular building tradition as well as the linear development pattern typical of rural Long Island villages. Alterations to buildings in the historic district reflect the community's growth and gradual transition from a farming and transportation center to a suburban residential center for nearby New York City. The Village of the Branch Historic District is also historically significant for its associations with Smithtown's eighteenth-century settlement, nineteenth- and early-twentieth century development and for its association with several generations of the Smith and Blydenburgh families, early settlers of Suffolk County and the Branch.

After several transactions involving land once belonging to the Nesaquake Indian Tribe, a tract was conveyed to Richard "Bull Rider" Smith who, with his seven sons, settled the town of Smithtown on the east bank of the Nissequogue River in 1665. The town's first church is believed to have stood in this first settlement just south of Long Island Sound; this area is known today as Nissequogue.

Settlement of the Branch dates from ca.1700 when Joseph Blydenburgh of New York City brought his wife, Deborah Smith — granddaughter of the "Bull Rider" — to Smithtown. They built their home, believed to be the three western bays of the house now known as The Homestead and located near the center of the district, several miles south of the Nissequogue settlement on what was even then called Middle Country Road. The road was one of the three major east-west highways on Long Island that were laid out early in the eighteenth century to follow old Indian paths, called North, Middle, and South Country Roads. It was along Middle Country Road that the town of Smithtown later developed. The original portion of the Epenetus Smith Tavern, an outstanding example of Long Island salt-box form, is also believed to date from the early eighteenth century. Originally, it stood on the Middle Country Road, west of the Presbyterian Church. The reasons for settlement of the Branch and the origins of its name are somewhat obscure. Possible explanations for settlement include the presence of level, fertile land for farming, proximity to the grist mill at the head of the Nissequogue estuary, and the intersection of two of the three major east-west roads on Long Island. In order to avoid a dangerous ford across the relatively deep Nissequogue estuary, the North Country Road turned to the south, joined the Middle Country Road for two miles, and branched off to the northeast at the Branch. According to local tradition, the community takes its name from the nearby branch of the Nissequogue River; it is also possible that the Branch takes its name from the fork in the road.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, Middle Country Road was apparently so heavily settled that it was decided to move the Presbyterian Church from the earlier Nissequogue settlement to the Branch. Several houses built in addition to the Epenetus Smith Tavern and The Homestead during the first half of the eighteenth century still stand in the historic district. They include the Halliock Inn (ca.1725, 263 Middle Country Road), the Joseph Reed Hunting House (ca.1725, 257 Middle Country Road), and the Franklin O. Arthur House (ca.1730-1750, 245 Middle Country Road). Like many houses of this type on Long Island, these five-bay center-hall residences were all originally two-story, three-bay "half houses" which were later occasionally irregular spacing of bays in these house These buildings are sheathed with shingles, the common siding material of early Long Island buildings.

The local vernacular building tradition in the eastern portions of Long Island, which the buildings in the Village of the Branch Historic District illustrate, resembles that of coastal New England, the original home of many of this area's original settlers. Common features of the buildings in these areas include heavy timber framing systems with mortise and tenon joints, shingle or wide clapboard siding, minimal roof overhangs and simple Neoclassical style decorative details. Residential buildings also follow the New England patterns in form, occurring in three-, four-, five- and six-bay plans; three-bay "half houses" and five-bay examples are most common.

Although the individual buildings in the Branch resemble contemporary buildings of New England, the overall siting of the group is typical of Long Island rather than New England growth patterns. The Branch developed along a single main thoroughfare rather than around a central meetinghouse or village green. This difference in village arrangement is probably due, at least in part, to the theocratic nature of early New England communities and the planned orientation of villages around central commons and meetinghouses. The Branch developed, at least in part, in response to commercial opportunities at a major intersection of the early highway network; the local church was relocated to the Branch some fifty years after the path of development had been set in its linear path along the principal thoroughfare, Middle Country Road.

In 1772, Epenetus Smith's tavern became an overnight stop on the Brooklyn-Sag Harbor stagecoach line, making Smithtown Branch an important early transportation center. The tavern remained the most important inn and the center of social and political activity in the town of Smithtown until the early nineteenth century. Special terms of court were held there in the early days and the tavern was the favored lodging of itinerant judges and lawyers during court sessions.[3]

During the Revolution, the Branch and all of Smithtown were occupied by the British. The Smith Tavern, the Halliock Inn, and the Widow Blydenburgh's Inn, located on the site of the present Village Green, were all frequented by the occupation forces. (The widow of Benjamin Blydenburgh, a descendant of Joseph Blydenburgh, maintained an inn supposedly built in 1688. Having fallen into a state of decay, the building was razed in 1907 to create the Village Green. A bronze tablet on a boulder in the green commemorates George Washington's stop at the inn to feed and rest his horses during his tour of Long Island in 1790.) As in other areas of Long Island where local sympathies lay with the patriot cause, the Branch suffered under the British occupation. Supplies for the occupying forces were taken without compensation and over 6000 board feet of lumber was ripped out of the Presbyterian Church.

Smithtown recovered slowly from the effects of the Revolution and the British occupation. Local residents continued to farm the land, erected a few more mills on the Nissequogue River and pursued the business of oystering and clamming. Shipping and fishing, however, remained negligible as commercial pursuits; the mainstay of the community was farming.

Early in the nineteenth century, Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College, commented in his journal that the Smithtown Branch was a pleasant area with a church and "ten or a dozen Houses."[4]

During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the Branch experienced the beginning of a period of prosperity. In 1817, the Huntington and Smithtown Turnpike Company was formed to improve the Middle Country Road as a toll turnpike by extending the Jericho Turnpike to Smithtown. Many existing houses were expanded and renovated and new ones constructed. Just east of The Homestead, a short lane was cut through to connect North Country Road with Middle Country Road. The four houses on the lane (later named Judge's Lane in honor of J. Lawrence Smith, the mid-nineteenth century owner of The Homestead) were built between 1800 and 1825 by Richard Blydenburgh III to house his farm workers. Richard Blydenburgh III was a direct descendant of Jacob Blydenburgh and inheritor of the Jacob Blydenburgh farm. In 1825, the Presbyterians replaced their meeting house, which had been partially demolished by the British during the Revolution. The Federal period building combines Neoclassical style details such as round-arched and Palladian windows, moulded pilasters, and a tiered tower with the shingle sheathing which is characteristic of the region. The Halliock Inn, which served as the meeting place for the local Masonic Lodge between 1806 and 1818, was remodelled during this period and, by the 1830s, became the Branch's premier hostelry for both local business and stagecoach traffic. The interior of the new, two-bay west addition was embellished with Greek Revival woodwork; a pair of rooms on the second floor were separated by a movable partition which created a flexible meeting room, and the third floor received an arched ceiling. The modernized building was the location of town meetings between 1832 and 1868, housed Smithtown's first library in 1828, and became an overnight stop on the Fulton's Ferry-Sag Harbor stagecoach line. The Halliock Inn is also noted for its association with Walt Whitman, a Long Island native who is believed to have taken his meals there when he taught at the nearby schoolhouse in 1837 and 1838. (The schoolhouse has been moved to Old Bethpage Village, a museum of moved Long Island buildings.)

Other buildings in the Village of the Branch Historic District which date from the first half of the nineteenth century include the Erastus Arthur House (1806, 227 Middle Country Road), the John Wilson House (ca.1850, 215 Middle Country Road), the Presbyterian Manse (1836, 201 Middle Country Road), the Methodist Parsonage (1845, 199 Middle Country Road), and the Tailor White House (ca.1835, 195 Middle Country Road). The Presbyterian Manse and the Methodist Parsonage retain their original three-bay, side-hall plans. The main block of the parsonage was added to a one and one-half story eighteenth century saltbox form residence. The one and one-half story gambrel roofed wing of the John Wilson House pre-dates the building's main block; an old photograph indicates that the three-bay main block was originally built in a vernacular interpretation of the Italianate style with a flat roof. All of these buildings are variations on two common Long Island house forms, the three-bay half house and the saltbox, and all are covered with shingled siding. The Tailor White House was built as a store on the edge of Middle Country Road and housed, successively, a post office, a general store, a tailor's shop, and a bakery before being moved back from the road and converted for use as a residence in 1918. The five-bay Erastus Arthur House, originally a saltbox-form house, was enlarged to its present configuration ca.1900 and the present wrap-around porch was added, replacing a full-front, mid-nineteenth century verandah.

The inauguration of service between New York City and North Islip by the Long Island Railroad in 1844 greatly improved Smithtown's accessibility to New York. The Branch continued to prosper as the town's center of residential and commercial development. In 1845, J. Lawrence Smith, a New York lawyer and descendant of the "Bull Rider," married Sarah Clinch and moved to Nissequogue. Finding the area too remote, the Smiths relocated to the Branch area and bought the Blydenburgh farm ca.1851. The J. Lawrence Smith House, also known as The Homestead, was among the first rural/suburban estates in the Branch. The Smiths added a large Italian Villa inspired one-story wing and a long front verandah to the two-story, six-bay, eighteenth century house. J. Lawrence Smith operated his law practice from The Homestead and became a prominent Smithtown judge. During this period, the house was also the center of a working farm. One of Smith's daughters, Bessie, married Stanford White of the prominent New York City architectural firm of McKim, Mead, & White in 1884.[5] According to family tradition, White designed the building's cross gable and dormers for his brother-in-law, James Clinch Smith.

As a result of local efforts by J. Lawrence Smith and others, the Port Jefferson branch of the Long Island Railroad was completed through Smithtown in 1873, making the Branch and environs more convenient for summer residents. Despite improved transportation, the Branch did not attract summer residents until the early twentieth century. By the 1910s, a few garages, a town hall, and a hotel had been built in the modest Main Street commercial district west of the historic district, between the Presbyterian Church and the train station. In 1911, the Epenetus Smith Tavern was moved for the first time in the face of commercial development and a portion of the red brick Colonial Revival style library was constructed on the south side of Middle Country Road, opposite its present location. This period also saw the development of suburban estates by wealthy New Yorkers who were attracted by the Branch's rural setting.

Several houses in the Village of the Branch Historic District received minor alterations early in the twentieth century. In most cases, this consisted primarily of removing large mid-nineteenth century verandahs and the addition of Colonial Revival style details. The John Wilson House (215 Middle Country Road), a three-bay Italianate style residence built ca.1855, was remodelled with a gable roof, Palladian and quarter-round attic windows, and a small, glazed entrance porch. At about the same time, The Homestead (205 Middle Country Road) was stripped of its full-front porches and embellished with pedimented dormers, a cross-gable with a semi-circular, swag-patterned attic window, and a trabeated entrance surround.

As early as the first quarter of the twentieth century, concern was expressed by the citizens of the Branch about the preservation of their neighborhood. In 1927, residents of the early houses north of Middle Country Road and their neighbors residing on large estates south of the road created the incorporated Village of the Branch to facilitate control of local land development. (In the 1970s and early 1980s, most of the estates on the south side of Middle Country Road were replaced by complexes of professional offices.) The Village of the Branch remained predominantly residential until the 1940s, when the increased use of the automobile encouraged suburban development. Although Main Street became the busy commercial center of rapidly growing, suburban Smithtown, the residences east of Main Street were undisturbed by the pressures of modernization. In 1950, the Village Green Association donated the green to the expanding Smithtown Library. At this time, the library building was moved across the street and enlarged. The library was enlarged again in 1965 and no longer contributes to the significance of the historic district due to the scale of the additions (which are compatible with the original portion of the building).

Two early houses in the Village of the Branch Historic District were moved to their present locations in order to save them from demolition. In the mid-1950s, development was threatening the Caleb Smith House, one of Smithtown's historic houses which stood just over the town's western border in Commack. The house was saved from demolition by Miss Anna Blydenburgh, a descendant of early local settlers, and moved to a site on the village green just north of the library. The Caleb Smith House now serves as the home of the Smithtown Historical Society and Museum. The house was built in 1819 by Caleb Smith II, a great-great-grandson of Richard "Bullrider" Smith, incorporating the frame of an earlier three-bay "half house." In 1831, Caleb Smith III found the deed, dated July 14, 1659, conveying from Sachem Wyandanch to Lyon Gardiner "all his Nissequogue lands" in the house. The Epenetus Smith Tavern, one of the oldest buildings in the Branch and the oldest (surviving) tavern in the community, has been moved a total of three times, twice to save it from demolition. In 1911, it was moved from the growing commercial area of Main Street to Route 111, south of the Branch. In 1928, the house was moved across Route 111. Most recently, the tavern was purchased by the Smithtown Branch Preservation Association and moved in 1972 to the association's property on Middle Country Road after it had been left vacant and allowed to fall prey to vandals.

The Village of the Branch Historic District remains as a rare surviving and largely intact rural village of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Long Island. In its linear development pattern and largely intact vernacular residences, the Village of the Branch Historic District illustrates typical Long Island village development as well as the local frame building tradition.

Endnotes

[1]Since three resources within the district were previously listed on the National Register, the contributing resources being added to the National Register comprise 22 buildings, one structure and four objects, a total of 27 resources.

[2]Stanford White was the brother-in-law of James Clinch Smith, owner of the house at the time that the dormers were added.

[3]Verne LaSalle Rockwell, Colonel Rockwell's Scrap-book; Short Histories: Dwellings, Mills, Churches, Taverns, Township of Smithtown, Suffolk County, Long Island, N.Y., 1665-1845 (Smithtown, N.Y., 1968), pg.32.

[4]Timothy Dwight, Travels in New-England and New-York, (New York, 1823), pp.199-200.

[5]Bessie White, "Memories," unpublished manuscript written in May 1926 at the request of Robert DeForest.

References

Albany, N.Y. Historic Preservation Field Services Bureau. Research Files.

Dwight, Timothy. Travels in New-England and New-York. New York: n.p., 1823.

Rockwell, Verne LaSalle. Colonel Rockwell's Scrapbook. Smithtown, N.Y.: n.p., 1968.

White, Bessie. "Memories." unpublished manuscript, 1926.

Robert T. Englert, New York State Division for Historic Preservation, Village of the Branch Historic District, nomination document, 1986, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Village of the Branch Historic District Map

Street Names
Country Road North • Judges Lane • Main Street East • Route 25

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