A Piece of the Rock: Rockville Centre’s Road From Sailors’ Haven to Bustling Community

By: Alexa Anderwkavich
05/12/2022
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The Phillips House in Rockville Centre.Long Island Home / Vince DiMiceli

Rockville Centre has been a home to progress and pop culture since the Long Island Rail Road first chugged into town in 1867 — bringing with it a quick commute to New York City and setting the stage for the development of one of the most popular towns on Long Island.

“It’s the gem of the South Shore,” said long-time resident Frank Seipp, the president of the historic Phillips House, who has lived in “RVC” for more than half a century.

But the little town of about 25,000 didn’t become the family-friendly suburban paradise we know today overnight. That took a lot of work — and a little bit of wordplay.

First the wordplay: In 1848, when Robert Pettit applied to open a post office in his general store, names he suggested such as Smithville and Rockville were rejected by the U.S. postal service, which demanded a more distinct moniker. At the time, the word “centre” featuring the British spelling was commonly used when something was considered to be “proper” or upscale. Thus, Rockville Centre — for Mordecai “Rock” Smith, a community leader, craftsman, farmhand, justice of the peace and preacher — was coined.

Next came the hard work.

All great communities need public services to keep residents safe, secure, and engaged. To that end, Rockville Centre’s volunteer fire company was founded in 1875, followed by a public library in 1882. The town’s first commercial bank — and the first on Long Island’s South Shore — opened in 1891, and South Shore’s first high school followed in 1892. All the while, places of worship sprouted up around town.

“A real hidden treasure is the Church of the Ascension,” Seipp said of the Episcopal church at North Village Avenue that was built in 1888 and expanded in 1942. “It’s a beautiful place. They still hold mass.”

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The Town Hall.Long Island Home / Vince DiMiceli

The town’s population continued to increase as more people found its town’s location and resources a draw. The municipal electric power plant, built in 1898, which powered street lights and allowed for nightlife, is still located on Maple Avenue and is one of three municipal electric utilities on Long Island.

The first water and electric utility building was located on the south side of Maple Avenue on land owned by Edwin Wallace — the first of many sea captains who were attracted to the town thanks to its proximity to the sea — who hosted village board meetings in his home.

As the town grew as a center of banking and commerce, other sea captains dropped anchor in the town. Another famous Rockville Centre seafarer was Samuel L. Phillips, who lived in the aforementioned Phillips House, a Victorian-era home that is now a museum. In 1975 when it sat in a parking lot and was set to be demolished, the Phillips residence was purchased by the town for one dollar, then transported to its current location at 28 Hempstead Avenue. The tiny museum inside it has numerous antiques dating back to Phillips’ time, and in the public park and garden that surrounds it sits a millstone dating back to colonial times.

By 1928 Rockville Centre had grown to 300 homes, two schools and various places of worship within its two-square-miles. It is home to Long Island’s first automatic traffic lights, installed in 1926 and by 1929 it was known as Long Island’s financial center, thanks to the numerous banks that opened branches in the Village.

 

One of those, the Bank of Rockville Centre on the corner of Merrick Road and North Village Avenue, eventually became the Chemical bank that offered customers the first automated teller machine in the United States.

 

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The first automated teller machine to ever go into service in the United States was located at a Chemical Bank in Rockville Centre.Herald Newspapers / File Photo

 

That machine, which only allowed users with a Visa or MasterCharge to make withdrawals, was celebrated upon its 50th anniversary in 2019 and is on display in the bank. Don Wetzel of Docutel Corp, inventor of the ATM — known as the Docuteller, made an appearance for the milestone event.

 

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This cash card given to ATM inventor Donald Wetzel is not the actual size of the ones used in the 1970s.
Herald Newspapers / Jill Nyssa

 

By the 1950s, year-round parks and recreational facilities were in demand, leading to the construction of the John Anderson Recreation Center in 1962 and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center in 1981. In 1986, the village gained 110 acres of Donald Browne Rockbill Center Park from New York State that is used to connect with nature, host picnics and other leisure activities such as fishing and racing model boats. By 1992, more than 10,000 locals enjoyed its recreational centers and 150 acres of parks, sports fields, and playgrounds.

For nearly 100 years, one of the biggest lures of Rockville Centre has been its variety of housing within the town. Dubbed “The Village of Homes” by its 40th anniversary in 1933, its decorative architecture and diverse styles attracted Nuclear Age homeowners looking to live in an area that was unlike the new-school developments with similar homes.

Historic buildings such as the Tudor Apartments at the corner of North Village and Hempstead Avenue — built in 1929 and one of Long Island’s first large apartment complexes — remains; one of the two movie theaters in the village, Fantasy, also built in 1929, is currently open, although its famous vertical, neon-yellow sign that read “Fantasy” was removed sometime in 2019.

The Wallace homestead, still standing at 275 Lakeview Ave. and known today as the Alessi House, was the center of village activities. Built in 1835, the building sits on the Village Green — a park that offers great space for celebrations, festivals, concerts, and the annual village tree lighting ceremonies.

And of course, The Phillips House, Seipp’s cherished second home in Rockville Centre, where they have a collection of indigenous artifacts, more than 200 kitchen tools, and WWI memorabilia.

 

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The Phillips House.Long Island Home / Vince DiMiceli

 

Today, the bustling community of 3.3 square miles has more than 400 stores, a bevy of corporate and professional offices, seven public schools, a college, and at least 15 places to worship.

But most importantly, it has that small-town charm that makes it one of the most attractive places to live on Long Island.

“It’s a community that cares for each other,” Seipp said.