By Brad Harris
One hundred years ago, the little waterfront community that we know today as San Remo did not exist. A glance at the map showing the mouth of the Nissequogue River, from the 1909 E. Belcher Hyde Atlas of Suffolk County, shows that the 187 acres of property that make up today’s San Remo was then owned by one man, R. H. Handley. Who was R. H. Handley and why did he acquire the 187 acres of property in Smithtown on the Nissequogue River?
Richard Hochman Handley was ”born on December 23, 1848, in New York City” but he grew up in the Handley family home in Hauppauge. The Handleys had a large estate that was located south of Veteran’s Memorial Highway, and encompassed the land between Northern State Parkway and Old Willets Path. The Handley home was located on what is today the southeast corner of the intersection of New Highway and Veteran’s Memorial Highway. Richard’s father died in 1857 when Richard was nine years old, and Richard inherited his father’s estate. Richard continued to live with his mother in the large Handley home. Richard was home schooled since he “received his education through private tutors.” His favorite subjects “were English literature, history and music.” It was his love of history that led him to collect historical materials throughout his life. As a youth he collected stamps, coins and Indian arrowheads. As an adult, he became interested in collecting books and documents relating to Long Island History, and during the course of his lifetime, he collected over 800 books and 1,200 manuscripts that pertained to Long Island’s history. This collection of books and manuscripts is the backbone of the unique historical material that can be found in the Long Island Room of the Smithtown Library. (Jean Leonard, “The Richard H. Handley Collection of Long Island Americana at the Smithtown Library,” Master’s thesis submitted to the Graduate Library School of L.I. University, Brookville, N.Y., 1965, p. 10-13, on file in the Long Island Room of the Smithtown Library.)
As a young man, Richard “represented his mother” in a number of “real estate dealings” that involved New York City property that his mother had inherited from her family, the Hochmans. Richard was successful in his real estate transactions and “increased his real estate holdings in New York City properties” and acquired additional “holdings on Long Island from Hempstead to the Hamptons. In later years he became greatly interested in stocks and bonds and maintained an office in New York City.” This financial success gave Richard Handley an independence which made it possible for him to live comfortably in his family’s home in Hauppauge. (Jean Leonard, op. cit., p. 10-13.)
And a grand house it was that he shared with his mother. While his mother was alive, Richard Handley remained single and didn’t get married. Three years after his mother’s death, in 1890, at the age of 42, Richard “married Mary Lavinia Osborn … from California.” He brought his bride to live in the big house in Hauppauge. Downstairs Richard Handley had his library that was overflowing with the books and manuscripts he was collecting. The kitchen, dining room, and parlor completed the downstairs. Upstairs the house had six bedrooms on the second floor, each with a wood burning fireplace. On the third floor there were three servants’ rooms, a study room for the children, and later a darkroom where Mr. Handley printed and developed his own photographs. The estate even had gas lanterns that lit up the grounds at night. It was here that the Handleys lived for the next 24 years and raised their family. (Jean Leonard, op. cit., p. 10-13.)
It must have been sometime after his marriage in 1890 that Richard Handley purchased the 187 acres of land on the Nissequogue River. Why he chose to do so at this time is not known but it may have had something to do with his interest in bicycling. Among the many interests that Richard pursued during his life was a lifelong interest in sports and outdoor activity. Before his marriage, he made “numerous hunting trips to the Adirondacks,” he made many “fishing trips,” and he loved iceboating. His marriage did not end these pursuits since his wife loved the outdoors and seemed to enjoy physical activity as well. No doubt, she accompanied him on some of these forays. One sport they both enjoyed was bicycling and the Handleys were often described as “enthusiastic bicylcists.” To ensure they would have a suitable bicycle path to ride on near their home in Hauppauge, Richard Handley had a bicycle path built. (Jean Leonard, op. cit., p. 10-13.)
The first section of the bicycle path was built in 1892 and connected the Handley estate in Hauppauge with the town of Smithtown. To create this path, Richard must have been in the market to purchase land for his bike path. In 1897, Mr. Handley had his bicycle path extended to Brentwood. Using the Handley Path it became possible to ride from Brentwood to Hauppauge and from there to Smithtown, or if one followed a west fork in the path, the cyclist could travel to Comac and on up to Northport. The Handley Bicycle Path became one of Long Island’s most beautiful and popular bike paths on Long Island. Its popularity increased when the Brentwood Wheelmen got together in 1899 and extended the bicycle path further south to Bay Shore. That made it possible to bike from the south shore to the north shore through some of the most scenic terrain on Long island. It is a ride that Mr. and Mrs. Handley must have frequently taken. (Information taken from articles found in a scrapbook that belonged to Richard Handley. These articles appeared in local papers and only one is dated and labeled: Bay Shore Journal, August 14, 1897. The originals are on file in the Long Island Room of the Smithtown Library.)
We know that Richard Handley purchased the 187 acres of land sometime before 1909 since he appears as the owner on the 1909 atlas. The property that he purchased apparently had only one dwelling on it, the house known to historians as the Lawrence House. The house was built in 1821 on the farmland owned by Elias Smith. Elias Smith built the house “for his daughter Phebe Tredwell Smith (1801-1889) on her marriage to Leonard W. Lawrence.” Leonard Lawrence (1795-1887) who came to Smithtown in 1820 was “a descendant of Major William Lawrence and the Patentee’s daughter Deborah Smith.” Elias Smith’s own home was nearby on the Northside Road not far from the farm and pond of James B. Harned. (Colonel Rockwell’s Scrap-book, edited by Charlotte Ganz, Smithtown Historical Society, Smithtown, N.Y., 1968, p. 114.)
Phebe and Leonard Lawrence lived in the house that Elias built for most of their lives. They had a son named William Charles Lawrence (1827-1888). In 1851 he married Elizabeth H. Smith, a daughter of Major Ebenezer Smith of Hauppauge. He lived in his grandfather Elias Smith’s house, and “undertook the management of the 187 acres of his father’s farm.” William turned out to be a “successful farmer” and, according to J. Lawrence Smith, he had “a large area” under “cultivation.” When Leonard Lawrence died at 92 in 1887, and his son William C. died at 61 a year later in 1888, the Lawrence farm was occupied by William’s daughter Anna Willis Lawrence and her husband, Charles Hilton Brown. But “owing to the peculiar conditions of the will of Elias Smith, it became necessary to sell the place under a suit of partition, and it was purchased by James W. Phyfe, Esq. who was the owner in 1898.” (Colonel Rockwell’s Scrapbook, op. cit., p. 114.)
Sometime before 1909, Richard Handley bought the 187 acres of farmland from James W. Phyfe. Why he chose to do this is not known. The property certainly must have been a desirable piece of farmland but Handley wasn’t interested in farming. The waterfront property was valuable for the docks that were located where Landing Road came down to the river’s edge, but by the turn of the twentieth century, the traffic of sloops and schooners in and out of the Nissequogue River had come to an end and the docks were rotting away. Perhaps Richard Handley bought the property on speculation figuring that in a few years’ time he would be able to flip the property and make a great deal of money. But that doesn’t explain why he purchased an additional 80 acres of property that was to the south of Landing Road. This property, located on both sides of Landing Avenue, was the land owned by Aaron Smith II (1741-1794). The John Vail House is still standing on the southwest corner of the intersection of Landing Avenue and Landing Road, and on the river front below the house, was Aaron’s Landing. When Handley purchased this property sometime between 1909 and 1914, it was owned by Mrs. K.V.K. Hale. The addition of these 80 acres to the 187 acres of land he already owned, gave Richard Handley 267 acres of land at the north end of Landing Avenue. Perhaps Richard Handley acquired this property so that anyone cycling north on the Handley Bike Path would have a private park where they could stop to rest and relax, break out the picnic baskets and eat lunch while enjoying the views of the Nissequogue River and Smithtown Bay. We actually have a photograph of the Handley family enjoying a picnic lunch on this property in the files of the Smithtown Historical Society so the suggestion that he might have wanted the property for a park may not be so far- fetched.
What he intended to do with this land will never be known because Richard Handley met a tragic and untimely end when “on July 16, 1914, Richard Handley died from injuries he sustained as a result of a fall from a favorite polo pony which had grown fractious and which he was endeavoring to subdue.” Richard Handley was 66 and apparently still enjoying horseback riding and polo when a fall from his pony resulted in his death. The 267 acres of property he purchased from James Phyfe and Mrs. K.V.K. Hale was still part of the Handley Estate in 1917 and it would be a decade after Handley’s death before the land was sold to others and the development of San Remo began.