Poquatuck Hall celebrates 150 years as Orient’s ‘living room’ and arts center

On a Saturday night last month, North Forkers crammed into Poquatuck Hall for its famed annual community sing-along: the Anne MacKay Song Swap.

For a couple hours, the sounds of guitars, piano and vocalists reverberated through the hall. Performers of all ages were invited to showcase a wide array of musical styles, including original compositions, and audience members were encouraged to sing along.

“This year’s was spectacular, it was the best ever,” said Doug Gray, a board member of Poquatuck Hall Inc., the nonprofit that owns and serves as custodians of the hall, located at 1160 Skippers Lane in Orient. “We made some big changes. We put it on the stage instead of on the floor, so we had more people attending than ever. It was a real community event, it really felt like a community.”

The tradition, now in its 13th year, is in its infancy compared to the venue that hosts it. This year marks Poquatuck Hall’s 150th birthday, and thanks to some work it’s had done in recent years, it looks great for its age. In 1871, residents formed the Orient Literary Society, which organized lectures and live performances to accomplish its dual mission of providing community entertainment and building a town hall. Three years and $2,900 later, James Henry Young, a member of the society, planned and constructed the Poquatuck Hall, named for the local Native American tribe. 

In 1962, the Oysterponds Community Activities, Inc., took over stewardship of the hall. This year, to avoid confusion with other entities with either “Oysterponds” or “Orient” in their name, the nonprofit renamed itself Poquatuck Hall Inc. The group, which also cares for various memorials and monuments around Orient, including those for the Civil War and Korean and Vietnam Wars, rakes in donations large and small, including those collected at the song swap, to fund repairs around the hall, including reinforcing the floors and foundation as well as the installation of ADA-compliant bathrooms, a new HVAC system and new stage lighting. ​

“The building was built by the people of Orient, for the people of Orient, and it’s been totally supported by the people of Orient for 150 years,” said John Holzapfel, an honorary board member of the Oysterponds Historical Society, who will deliver a lecture on the history of Poquatuck Hall on Saturday, May 11 at 11 a.m. “They raised the money for it, they kept it going and they’re still involved in making it happen and offering it for the community.”

The song swap is not merely a fundraiser that honors the late Ms. MacKay, a former president of the nonprofit. The popular event continues the hall’s storied history as a community hub for the arts. What began as a performance and social party venue for the Orient Literary Society, which on occasion performed plays and other programming at the hall, quickly welcomed an array of performers.

“In 1886, a group called [The Fisk University] Jubilee Singers showed up and they performed two different nights,” Mr. Holzapfel said of one of many early tales in the 150-year historical tome of Poquatuck Hall. “The Jubilee Singers were an 11-person choir made up of former slaves. They had just been at the White House, a year or two before that they were at Queen Victoria’s — it just goes on, and here they are in Orient.”

In 1920, a local branch of the Junior Order of United American Mechanics acquired the 1160 Skippers Lane structure, and it was often referred to as Mechanic’s Hall. During this time, a troupe known as the Orient Play Shop performed plays including “The Male Animal,” “The Late Christopher Bean” and “Hay Fever.”

Poquatuck Hall Inc., then the OCA, took over the hall in 1962, and continued its legacy as a community center for the arts, as well as a forum for civic and political matters. Linton Duell, the board’s current president, pointed to a string of performances by Steven Blier, a famed pianist, Juilliard School instructor and founder of the New York Festival of Song who summers in Orient, as some of his favorite events in recent years.

“He brings students from New York City and they put on a concert which is very well received,” Mr. Duell said. “It creates tremendous goodwill for us and helps with our donations.”

The hall’s 2024 calendar has already been — and will continue to be — booked. On May 25, the hall will host a Rites of Spring performance, a series going on its ninth season, that has compelled North Forkers to expand their perception of classical music and connect with their environment and history. The Orient Association often meets or hosts forums at Poquatuck Hall. Along with Southold Town, the civic group coordinated a discussion on the townwide zoning update on March 3 and a Southold Emergency Management Committee and Highway Department forum on May 4.

“We actually encourage Southold Town to use it when they have any type of program that they’re trying to get out to the public,” Mr. Duell said. “We usually get a pretty good turnout when town officials are trying to talk to the community.”

(Nicholas Grasso photo)

Poquatuck Hall Inc. also rents out the hall for private events, from baby showers and wedding receptions to retirement and birthday parties. Among his favorites he’s seen throughout his seven years on the board, Mr. Gray pointed to a 50th birthday party that saw the venue decorated as Hogwarts’ Great Hall from the “Harry Potter” series.

“One of our mottos is ‘it’s your living room downtown,’” Mr. Gray explained. “Many people have small houses, so when they want to hold an event, even a family event, or a larger event, the hall is available, you know, for a nominal rental fee … We’ve had a long list of baptisms, children’s birthday parties — it’s really available to the community, and that’s what makes it so special, because there’s no place like it. One of the things that makes us unique is we have zero employees. Everything is done by our small cadre of board members and a few volunteers, that’s how we keep our costs down.”

Among the board members Mr. Duell highlighted as critical to ushering the hall into its 150th year are Kathleen Becker, Ellen McNeilly, Dina Seiver, who handled the nonprofit’s name change, and Scott Stein, who handled the hall’s digital presence and fundraising efforts.

“I may be president, but the people who do a lot of the real work should be acknowledged, especially in the refurbishing of the hall,” Mr. Duell said.

Mr. Duell plans to step down as board president after this year. He explained the nonprofit is seeking more and younger community members to join its ranks and carry the hall into the future. As for what that looks like, Mr. Duell hopes the hall will continue its legacy as a meeting space for civics and expand its reach as a community home for the arts.

“We’re always looking for new people, new blood, new ideas,” he said. “That’s key to any type of organization. I’m 74 years old, I really think it’s time for younger people to come in and start operating it.”