Historical Society: Repairs critical to mission

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Historical Society Archivist Phyllis Wallace shows off the current climate controlled vault crammed with more than 11,000 documents.

Shelter Island Historical Society Executive Director Nanette Breiner-Lawrenson wanted to make one thing clear: “This isn’t about old stuff.”

She was speaking of work beginning this fall on “phase one” of what will be a two-part, $1 million construction project. “We tell stories, we house stories, and we share stories,” Breiner-Lawrenson said on the ambitious project that will make real the society’s mission.

The new construction will focus on changes to make Havens House a facility that not only harbors history, but makes it more accessible to residents, students, researchers, writers and curators of other museums. Some of the $400,000 expected to be invested in phase one will spruce up the old house built in 1743. But it’s mostly about creating classroom space so those who want to explore archives aren’t crowded into a tiny office where archivist Phyllis Wallace works.

While plans began in earnest this past winter to address the need for more space, the organization got a major boost when Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Pedersen and her husband Bill pledged up to $200,000 in a challenge grant, promising to match dollar for dollar what others contribute. What’s more, those who pledge money to the building fund and work for companies that make matching grants might be able to triple their own contributions with money from their employers and the Pedersens.

Since word of the Pedersens’ challenge was made public, there have already been two more “significant” contributions to the building fund, Ms. Breiner-Lawrenson, said, but she’s not ready to go public with the names of the recent donors or the amounts received.

Looking ahead, Ms. Breiner-Lawrenson hopes to see phase one completed within a year or two while fund raising moves forward on phase two that will finance a new and separate climate-controlled vault to maintain various records. The existing vault houses more than 11,000 documents.

“We’ve run out of space,” Breiner-Lawrenson said, pointing to the crammed shelves in the vault that have old newspapers, records of every club on the Island, information about residents and their ancestors and a cornucopia of records documenting Island history.

The vault is now crammed into a tiny space off Ms. Wallace’s office. The new vault will be a free-standing structure on the grounds.

“It’s an absolute necessity,” Ms. Breiner-Lawrenson said.

Other plans going forward call for scanning and uploading records online so researchers unable to visit Havens House will be able to access records.

Many visitors to Shelter Island stop at Havens House to learn about their family histories. Pick a date or event in Island history and be assured Ms. Wallace will find something in the vault that expands your knowledge, Ms. Breiner-Lawrenson said.

“It’s like an iceberg,” Ms. Wallace said, describing the depth of information in the vault. But while she’s more than willing to dig into the records and make them available, space for a visitor doing research is tiny. New classroom space would enable researchers to spread out materials and take time to look at them without feeling the archivist is being crowded out in doing her work.

The Historical Society is the “center of the community” and strives to be welcoming to visitors, Ms. Breiner-Lawrenson said. In fact, while she and staff members entertain visitors from around the world, she wants more Island residents to come in and experience the wealth of materials the society has. Toward that end, there are a number of activities to bring people to the site. Saturdays there’s a farmer’s market on the grounds and on June 29, the society will host a car show featuring antique, classic and muscle cars.

“We encourage people to come knock on our door” and learn about what’s inside, Ms. Breiner-Lawrenson said. “We hope more Islanders will make us a habit in their lives,” she said.

To contribute to the building fund, visit www.shelterislandhistorical.org or call 749-0025.