Historic Structures

The Big Duck, Southampton New York

Date added: June 10, 2022 Categories: New York Retail Roadside Attraction

Built in 1930-31 on West Main Street in the Upper Mills section of Riverhead, this building, the idea of duck farmer Martin Maurer, was designed to look like the Peking ducks that were sold inside it. The location of the store on busy West Main Street provided the ideal location where motorists entering Riverhead's downtown would pass the large, 20-foot high duck. The site was also a logical place for the store, since it was on the farm where the ducks were raised. In 1937, Martin Maurer moved The Big Duck four miles to Flanders, where it occupied a prominent roadside location alongside the duck barns and marshes of Maurer's new ranch.

By the early twentieth century, the Riverhead vicinity, including the hamlet of Flanders, was the center of Long Island's well-known duck industry. The numerous waterways in this rural area, namely the Peconic River and the many creeks running into the Moriches and Flanders Bays, provided an ideal location for raising ducks. The first white Pekings were brought from China during the late nineteenth century, and adapted easily to the Long Island conditions. By 1939, there were approximately 90 duck farms in Suffolk County producing more than 3,000,000 ducks annually. With environmental concerns and resultant regulations, increasing real estate values, and development of residential areas around the odoriferous ranches, many duck farms went out of business by the 1980s.

The final closing of The Big Duck store in 1984 was largely a result of the demise of its duck ranch and the general decline of the Long Island duck industry. Due to development pressures on the duck farm, The Big Duck was given to Suffolk County and moved in 1988 approximately three and one-half miles south-east to a wooded location on the same road. Although built within the context of the Suffolk County duck industry, The Big Duck today is removed from its historic duck farm context, and therefore no longer illustrates its connection to this important local industry. The current location, while maintaining the building's historic relationship with the road and still within the Flanders vicinity, was never associated with The Big Duck or duck farming in general.

According to historian Edna Howell Yeager in her account, Around the Forks, The Big Duck was the idea of its original owner, duck farmer Martin Maurer. In an attempt to attract customers on busy West Main Street to pull off and purchase his Long Island duckling, Maurer conceived of a store building in the shape of a duck. He contacted local carpenter George A. Reeve to build the duck, according to Lillian Beach, Reeve's daughter; Reeve in turn went to the Collins brothers to draw up plans for the building. The Collins, Samuel and William, lived close to Riverhead in Calverton, but were from New York City, where they had worked as set designers. It is William who is often credited with the design of The Big Duck. According to several accounts, the Collins brothers tied down a live duck to use as a study for the store, and from this study developed full-scale plans for a wood-framed building with a concrete skin.

With the assistance of the Collins brothers, George Reeve built the frame of the duck from hand-sawn wood, which was fastened with nails and reinforced by a skin of galvanized mesh. Smith & Yeager, mason contractors, were hired to apply four coats of Atlas pure white cement. A front door was provided in the breast, and a secondary entrance was installed at the back. The Big Duck also featured illuminated eyes made of Model 'T' tail lights, an orange beak, and an upturned tail. The interior was finished in stove-pipe tin painted white, and included a counter and refrigerator.

While mimetic buildings have never been prevalent on the American roadside, Martin Maurer was certainly part of an early twentieth-century trend across the country to use architecture in innovative ways to draw the attention of speeding motorists. Most roadside commercial buildings were outfitted with larger and more eye-catching signs or architectural features. However, by the late 1920s, there were an increasing number of mimetic buildings appearing on the highway landscape, a giant milk bottle, tea kettle, dog, tepee, and, of course, a duck. Previously limited to amusement parks, the giant follies, by their bizarre scale and function, naturally attracted the attention of passers-by. Many, such as The Big Duck, were a giant sign that advertised the product sold inside.

The Big Duck apparently worked well for Maurer. At at size of approximately 20 feet in height, 30 feet in length, and 15 feet in width, The Big Duck proved to be an immediate attraction. The Riverhead News printed complete with a photograph the following account on June 26, 1931, soon after opening of the store:

"Motorists passing through Riverhead now have something else quite distinctive to remember us by: it is the big duck on the Maurer ranch at Upper Mills, and naturally it is attracting much deserved attention. This true-to-life bird, sitting so comfortably beside the road, and at night showing its electrically lighted eyes, is 28 feet high and has inside dimensions of 11 x 15 feet. It is the biggest duck ever 'raised' anywhere in the world."

The Big Duck was also a big hit with the Atlas Cement Company, whose executives came to Riverhead to inspect the novel concrete creation, and who featured a picture of The Big Duck on their calendar for the year 1931; they also awarded the building the company's "Most Spectacular Piece of Cement Work of the Year 1931" award. Popular Mechanics magazine also featured an article on the duck around the same time touting the bird as a do-it-yourself triumph.

Martin Maurer opened his store on a seasonal basis, usually beginning in March. A March 6, 1936 advertisement in the Riverhead News proclaimed in bold print and with a prominent photograph, "The Big Duck Now Open." Maurer called his farm "The Big Duck Ranch" (for which he received a U.S. trademark in June, 1932) and advertised that his ducklings were "Pellet-fed/The Sanitary Way/Broilers/Milk-fed, Freshly Killed."

In early 1937, Maurer moved The Big Duck to a new ranch he purchased south-east of Riverhead in Flanders on the main road leading east to the south fork of Long Island. The ranch backed up to Reeves Bay, providing an ideal waterside location for raising ducks. The reason for this move is not certain, but it may have been related to Maurer's success and need for a larger ranch. The old ranch on West Main Street was later bought by a Mr. Bruno. The Riverhead News printed the following account of the seasonal opening of The Big Duck in its March 12, 1937 edition:

"The Big Duck owned by Martin Maurer, which was a landmark on the main highway at Upper Mills, is now calmly roosting in Flanders. It will be opened for business on March 13, which will be good news to the housewives who want the most delicious duck or broiler that can be produced. Mr. Maurer raises all of the 'birds' he dispenses from the interior of the Big Duck, and all are reared under the most rigid of sanitary conditions, only the Petersine electric brooder being raised."

The Big Duck remained for many years a popular roadside landmark on eastern Long Island, situated as it was on one of the main roads leading east from New York City to the Hamptons. It was this location, according to historian Phil Patton in his 1986 book, Open Road, that led The Big Duck to become one of the most criticized buildings of the 1960s and early 1970s, and a focus of theories concerning the need for symbolism in modern architecture. The Big Duck's prime location, passed by many in New York City art and architectural circles to weekend retreats, garnered it attention on a national scale. One of the first among the critics to cite The Big Duck was Peter Blake in his 1964 work, God's Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America's Landscape. Blake was concerned with the ruination of the landscape through commercial sprawl, and felt The Big Duck was a prime example of tacky roadside development. Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi early on used The Big Duck, such as in their 1968 essay, "A Significance for A & P Parking Lots on Learning from Las Vegas" (and thereafter in numerous articles and books) to illustrate that roadside strip architecture was not all bad. They found that The Big Duck clearly combined both functional and symbolic aspects of architecture, and therefore provided important lessons for modern architects. Scott Brown and Venturi used the term "duck"--in honor of The Big Duck--to illustrate their famous theory dividing architecture into "ducks" and "decorated sheds," where a "duck" described a building in which the architectural program, structure, and space are subordinate to the overall symbolic form. Perhaps The Big Duck's most enthusiastic supporter was James Wines, who wrote "The Case for The Big Duck" (Forum, April, 1972) noting that "The Big Duck has fantasy, humor, and a special fascination to which people react spontaneously . ..", and offering a "Duck Design Theory" whose first tenet is that "form follows fantasy, not function..."

The Big Duck attracted persistent interest into the 1980s, as the roadside architecture of the early and mid-twentieth century gained greater romantic appeal among the general public, and increased scholarly interest among historians as significant manifestations of the dominance of the automobile and suburban life in American culture. Chester Liebs' Main Street to Miracle Mile (1985) is one such work that cites The Big Duck. Liebs wrote that The Big Duck was probably ". . . the most publicized mimetic building in the country ..." Today, according to the Statewide Inventory of Historic Resources, the Big Duck remains one of a very few extant examples of early twentieth-century mimetic roadside architecture in New York State.

The Big Duck continued to operate as a poultry store into the early 1980s. In 1970, Martin Maurer sold the farm to a Mr. Colombo, who continued to operate the farm until around 1980. The farm was then sold in 1983, and The Big Duck was closed for the last time in fall, 1984. The property was subsequently sold again, with a housing development proposed for the eleven- acre Big Duck Ranch in the mid-1980s. Local residents raised concerns over the fate of The Big Duck, and the Suffolk County Historic Trust worked with the property owners, Kiamarz and Pouran Eshghi, to donate The Big Duck to the county. The Eshghis agreed, provided they were allowed to retain trademark rights, and provided the county move The Big Duck off the property. The proposed preservation and relocation of The Big Duck garnered a great deal of attention in the local press, attesting to the public's interest in this unique building. In a 1987 article on The Big Duck, the New York Times called the building ". . . a 'pop icon' of roadside architecture" (August 26, 1987).

A new site was found for The Big Duck within Sears-Bellows County Park, and a new foundation was soon constructed to match the 1937 cellar, placed to maintain the same orientation to the road. The move occurred in January, 1988, and rehabilitation followed, including repair of the wood frame and cement exterior; painting; replacement of the front door; reconstruction of the rear; and resurfacing of the interior with new metal cladding similar to the original stove pipe tin.

Its exterior is largely unchanged except for cement repair and repainting. The building was carefully restored after its move in 1988, and is well maintained by Suffolk County and the Friends for Long Island Heritage, which operate a gift shop in the building. Still capturing the attention of motorists speeding by on the two-lane state road between Riverhead and Hampton Bays, The Big Duck remains a prominent example of early twentieth-century mimetic roadside architecture, recognized not only regionally, but across the state and country as well.