Big Duck

big duck

The Big Duck is a ferrocement (cement, sand, and steel mesh) building in the shape of a duck located in Flanders, New York, on Long Island. It was originally built in 1931 by duck farmer Martin Maurer in nearby Riverhead, and used as a shop to sell ducks and duck eggs.

The Big Duck is a prime example of literalism in advertising. The building measures 18 feet (5.5 m) wide, 30 feet (9.1 m) long and 20 feet (6.1 m) tall to the top of the head. The duck’s eyes are made from Ford Model T tail lights and the interior floor space is confined to 11 feet (3.4 m) by 15 feet (4.6 m).

Buildings such as the Big Duck are classified as novelty architecture. However, in architecture the term ‘duck’ is used more specifically to describe buildings that are in the shape of an everyday object to which they relate. According the Long Island newspaper ‘Newsday,’ ‘The Big Duck has influenced the world of architecture; any building that is shaped like its product is called a ‘duck.” American statistician Edward Tufte’s ‘The Visual Display of Quantitative Information’ uses the term ‘duck,’ explicitly named after this building, to describe irrelevant decorative elements in charts. The Big Duck was the target of widespread criticism during the 1960s and early 1970s but the building did have its architectural defenders. American architect Robert Venturi said that since the building combined functional and symbolic aspects of architecture it was noteworthy. It was Venturi who coined the term ‘duck’ to describe a building in which the architecture is subordinate to the overall symbolic form. However, he preferred the ‘decorated shed’ as a model.

Owner Martin Maurer had The Big Duck building constructed on a prime spot on the busy Main Street in Riverhead. The builders Smith and Yeager completed the concrete finish work on the Big Duck which was featured in Atlas Cement’s 1931 calendar. Merlin Yeager noted that most of the duck is actually finished with generic Portland Cement, but they ran out and finished with Atlas Cement. The Big Duck was also featured in ‘Popular Mechanics’ magazine. In 1937, Martin Maurer moved the building four miles (6 km) southeast to Flanders, where it occupied a prominent location near the duck barns and marshes of Maurer’s new duck ranch. The entire area, including Flanders and Riverhead, was the center of Long Island’s well-known duck-farming industry. By 1939 there were about 90 duck farms in Suffolk County.

The Big Duck’s unusual building and prime location helped garner much customer attention until it closed in 1984. In 1988, Suffolk County acquired The Big Duck and moved it to Route 24 on the edge of Sears-Bellows Pond County Park between Flanders and Hampton Bays on the eastern part of Long Island. The building houses a gift shop operated by the Friends for Long Island Heritage. The duck was returned to its Flanders location in 2007. Suffolk County continues to own it, maintains its interior and pays for staffing; Southampton Town maintains the exterior. The original 27-acre  duck farm was purchased by the town in 2006.

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