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The many lives of Shelter Island Town Hall

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTOS | The public meeting room of Town Hall, originally built by mortician Ambrose Havey as a ‘viewing room.’
BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTOS | The public meeting room of Town Hall, originally built by mortician Ambrose Havey as a ‘viewing room.’

Shelter Island’s Town Hall was once a funeral parlor.

Provide your own punch line.

The building on the eastern rim of the circle across from the Shelter Island Library was also a place where Islanders endured teeth drilling and were physically examined. In its long life, the property at the Center’s crossroad also hosted a pool hall — again, keep all ironic comments to yourself — and a barber and blacksmith shop.

Not so long ago, a journalist who had covered Brookhaven Town Hall — 221,400 square feet and a meeting room with seating for 800 — was stunned walking into the Island’s seat of town government.

The place announces its plainness at the entrance, nothing so grand as marble steps or Greek columns, but just a driveway. The public meeting room, immediately to the left of the main entrance, makes tall people instinctively want to duck. When 35 people are in the narrow space, it can correctly be termed “packed.”

Humorous for some first-time visitors, the room delivers a sense of welcome and openness for regulars at town meetings.

There’s no place to hide for public officials and the audience, which can be a good and bad thing, just like the rest of the Island.

The town assessors — located in the house next door — have determined that the handsome main building was once a one-story saltbox built prior to 1850, with a second story added in 1875. Later additions included a long, low, one-story structure, which now houses the meeting room and, down the hall, the Town Clerk’s office. The two spaces, divided by a wall, were once a wide room, separated at times by a curtain.

This was a “viewing room” where the dead were waked, at an establishment operated by mortician Ambrose Havey, who opened for business in September 1978 and built the addition.

Town Clerk Dorothy Ogar, who has worked in town government since the early 1960s, noted that the public bathroom across the hall from her office was a “preparation room” for corpses. Down the short hall, where now there are town offices, was an organ to greet mourners with dirges.

Out back, where the Building Department resides, was space for storage and a showroom where the bereaved could select a casket.

A caring place
The Building Department’s long, low building behind Town Hall was where Joseph Condon, the Island’s blacksmith, worked at his forge in the last part of the 19th century. According to the Shelter Island Historical Society, the poolroom and barbershop operated after 1900.

The saltbox on the corner where the government now does business is known by residents with long memories as first, the “McDonald house,” for a family who lived there, and then  “the White house,” not for any connection to government, but because the Whites — Frank White was a mason — resided there in the middle of the 20th century.

By the late 1960s the handsome house was, according to a Reporter story, “an abandoned and unsightly structure,” but in the early 1970s, Vincent King and his family bought it and spent $40,000 making it livable again.

Part of the house was leased to the town in 1975 as an office for Dr. Edgar Grunwaldt, the Island’s resident physician, which was located where Supervisor Jim Dougherty’s office is now.

Dr. Grunwaldt was remembered in the pages of the Reporter as a doctor whose “care was all encompassing — from home births to midnight house calls to caring for the elderly and even the occasional dog with a fishhook caught in its mouth.”

Dentist Vincent Stiles also leased space upstairs in the White house for his practice. When what is now the Medical Center on South Ferry Road was donated to the town by Clews Carpenter, Dr. Grunwaldt set up his practice there.

Rented out to Shelter Island Realty in the late 1970s, the building was unoccupied for a short time, until a request by Ambrose Havey was granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals in 1978 so the building could be used as a mortuary.

In September of that year, after buying the White House from the King family for $76,598, Mr. Havey opened the first funeral parlor in Shelter Island history.

‘There was a need’
Mr. Havey, who had several funeral parlors in New York City and Westchester County, and his wife, Agnes, were pilots, often taking to the skies to discover new places to visit, according to their son, also named Ambrose, who spoke to the Reporter from his home in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

The younger Mr. Havey, a retired minister who once operated the Shelter Island Funeral Home with his father, said his parents landed on a grass strip on the Island one morning in 1963. Like many first time visitors, they were immediately enchanted.

Not long after dropping in, they bought a summer home at Westmoreland Farm. In the late 1970s, Mr. Havey said, the family began considering opening a funeral home.

“There was a need to fill with no place here,” Mr. Havey said. “How inconvenient and impersonal it was that people had to go away from home to mourn the loss of someone who had lived on the Island all their life.”

Both father and son worked in the city and Westchester managing the other businesses and flew out for Island funerals.

“It wasn’t economically sound to have a full-time funeral director on the Island,” Mr. Havey said, “so we hired a young man, Jimmy Walker, who lived in an upstairs apartment in case there was a death in the middle of the night and people wouldn’t have to wait until morning to be attended to.”

The Haveys soon found there was not enough space and built the addition for an expanded viewing room.

But by the late 1980s, the business was headed for the red.

“Any accountant will advise that you have to do 50 funerals a year to survive,” Mr. Havey said. “And we were plugging along with 28 to 30 a year. We weren’t making it.”

The Haveys sold the residence to David DeFreist in 1989 to continue as a funeral parlor for $400,000. Ten years later, Mr. DeFriest sold the White house to the town for $395,000.

Mr. Havey said he treasures his time living and working on Shelter Island. “I felt very torn,” he said, “knowing I was leaving the Island and the funeral home.”

A good move
“It was so cramped, we had file cabinets on top of file cabinets,” Ms. Ogar said, remembering the old Town Hall building, also known as the “Town House” and now police headquarters.

From July 1932 until the move to the White house in 1999, the small, idiosyncratic building directly across from the Center Post Office was where the supervisor, the town clerk, the Town Board members and other town personnel were located. After a heavy rain, it was reported, the floor in the basement, where the Police Department was headquartered, would be waterlogged for days.

Although the town paid $395,000 for the new facility, it floated a bond for $425,000 with the balance of the funds earmarked to make the place suitable for town government.

The spacious new digs were appreciated most by Ms. Ogar and her staff, since “this is where we live, we’re here all the time,” she said.

Is Town Hall haunted? Deputy Town Clerk Sharon Jacobs smiled and noted this wasn’t the first time the question had been asked.

“I always say, ‘Ghosts would never haunt a funeral home,’” Ms. Jacobs said. She smiled again: “At least I don’t think they would.”