Chapel returns to original donors

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Manhanset Chapel

The Shelter Island Historical Society has sold the Manhanset Chapel back to the family who donated it to the Historical Society 25 years ago.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” society director Pat Mundus said after announcing that the Osofsky family had purchased the chapel and would continue to preserve it as a historic structure. The owners, Randy Osofsky and Stephen Kessler, are using the legal name of Manhanset Hall LLC.

“There’s no doubt that the sale of the Manhanset Chapel was one of the biggest intellectual challenges ever faced by the Shelter Island Historical Society officers and Board of Trustees,” Ms. Mundus said. The society was compelled to sell, she announced last September, due to economic pressures and the cost of keeping and maintaining the building. Relinquishing the stewardship of a historic landmark that many Islanders worked to preserve was difficult, she said.

The Historical Society received the Manhanset Chapel as a donation from the Meyer Osofsky family in 1985, restored it to its circa 1924 appearance, and had it placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. The chapel was originally built in Dering Harbor in 1890 as a nondenominational place of worship for the Manhanset House Hotel’s guests. A fire destroyed the hotel in 1910, sparing the chapel.

It sat vacant for three years until artist Milton Bancroft bought it and used it as a studio from 1913 to 1924, when it was purchased by a social organization called the Junior Order of United American Mechanics. It had the chapel moved that year to its present location east of the Presbyterian Church on Route 114, where it became known as Mechanics Hall.

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Brianne Fokine and Dan Binder place August Mosca paintings in temporary storage at the Havens House barn after removing them from the paintings vault at the Manhanset Chapel.

Artist Randy Osofsky and her father Meyer bought the chapel in 1974 and again used it as a studio and gallery, until Ms. Osofsky moved her family to the city and donated the property to the Historical Society in 1985.

The Historical Society displayed exhibits in the chapel for nine years. It began renting the building as gallery space in 2005, most recently to Alexis Martino and her Mosquito Hawk Gallery. Ms. Martino is continuing her artistic endeavors at art shows and other venues; see the Mosquito Hawk Facebook page for updates.

Ms. Mundus thanked the officers, trustees, donors and staff “who had the foresight to courageously restore the Manhanset Chapel” and have it listed as a historic structure. Doing right by those donors was one of many objectives in the effort to sell the chapel, she said.

A team of society officers and trustees has been working on selling the property for several years, but doing so with the ultimate goal of preserving the historic structure for the community, Ms. Mundus said. That team included treasurer Peter Vielbig, secretary Bernard Gillespie, recently-retired trustee Howard Brandenstein and recently-retired president Belle Lareau. Current society President Janalyn Travis-Messer, a professional real estate broker, took no part in the process in order to avoid any perceived conflict of interest.

The team recommended that the Historical Society entertain purchase offers from potential parties who would guarantee that the chapel would remain on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Will Anderson (left), Bill Anderson and Danny Binder hauled the old Shelter Island telephone switchboard out of the basement of Manhanset Chapel prior to the transfer of the property back to the Osofsky family. Gene Shepherd assisted with his machinery as well.

“The committee’s recommendations were designed to promote the overall health of the Shelter Island Historical Society’s future, better execute our stated mission for the entire community, and preserve the Manhanset Chapel as historic architecture,” Ms. Mundus explained. With help from “very good legal counsel,” trustee Mary-Faith Westervelt and her research associates, the committee publicly listed the property, explicitly stipulating that the chapel remain on the Historic Register.

“Soon after, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to return the Manhanset Chapel to its original donor’s family … It was a winning combination for them, for the community, and for us,” Ms. Mundus said.

Randy Osofsky said that she plans to use the chapel as a venue to celebrate the arts and special events — “because the space lends itself to special occasions,” she said — with a long-term plan to create some living space in the building. She writes about the past and future of the chapel in this week’s Prose & Comments, page 15.

“The chapel will regain the family’s adoration and conscientious care for the benefit of the whole Island,” Ms. Mundus said. “The sale will strengthen our endowment fund, secure our future, and ensure responsible management of our primary historical asset — the 1743 James Havens Homestead — Shelter Island’s sole museum.”

Proceeds from the sale will be reinvested in the society’s endowment and the Havens House, and will not go into the society’s operating budget, Ms. Mundus emphasized. The Havens House is in need of a new roof and repairs associated with last year’s flooding, she added.

The society is also hoping to expand its archival vault. As the repository of many Island institutions, “We’re chock-a-block,” the director said. In addition to its many historic letters and memoirs, the vault holds town records, older documents from the Shelter Island Library, and organizational records, such as those researched by the Shelter Island Yacht Club, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. Families donate photographs and other heirlooms on a weekly basis.

Part of the archival effort will be making “a historic leap by digitizing a portion of our documents for web access,” Ms. Mundus said.

“After 25 years of stewardship, we returned the Manhanset Chapel to the family who originally donated it to us,” Ms. Mundus said. “We can now turn our attentions to fulfilling our essential mission: research, preservation and teaching local history in earnest.”

Click here for an article on the history of Manhanset Chapel from our May 8, 1986 edition.