Repairing, redoing and updating an old house is always a voyage of discovery, with the past often brought into vivid relief, providing answers and, as often as not, more questions.
That was the case when architect William Pedersen and builder Chris Fokine began work to bring the Shelter Island Historical Society’s home, the 18th century Havens House on South Ferry Road, into the 21st century.
Not only is the house being renovated, but a $1.7 million, 2,800 square foot construction project is underway that will include a courtyard, workrooms and meeting rooms, an exhibition gallery and a climate-controlled archival space so the Historical Society can properly house, preserve and expand the existing collection of 100,000 documents and objects. The two floors will be connected by dual staircases and a lift to provide access for people with limited mobility and also to move materials from one level to another.
Breaking ground on the project two years ago, one intriguing discovery of the Havens Houses makeover was oak ceiling beams, hidden under plaster for more than 250 years, the trunks flattened on the tops and bottoms but the sides left untreated and covered in bark from 1743. The beams — which have supported the structure through its history as a family’s residence, a boarding house, tavern, meeting house and school — are still so solid and functional that “we just had to dust them off a little,” said Mr. Fokine, who heads the Island’s Fokine Construction.
But the real discovery came when they looked a little closer and discovered Roman numerals carved into each beam. “These were marked so they could be taken down and assembled, like an erector set,” said Mr. Pederson, an Islander with an international reputation as an architect who has created the design pro bono. “They were either moved house from another location to here or were set to be moved.”
Another key element of the original construction of the seemingly indestructible building is that there is a basement constructed from large stones, rather than some impermeable material, Mr. Pedersen said.
The house is close to wetlands and prone to flooding —a large pond sprung up early on in the new construction that was dubbed by some as “Lake Fokine” — but the original builders used the stones so water could flood into the basement rather than being blocked and raising the house off its foundation.
Mr. Fokine and Mr. Pedersen, along with Historical Society officials, took the Town Board on a tour of the newly renovated house and new facility last week, which has a ribbon cutting set for June. Mr. Pedersen outlined plans for the Society’s campus for the board, including moving and expanding the popular summer Saturday’s Farmers Market to a new parking lot on the north side of Havens House, rather than keeping it in the front of the building on South Ferry Road.
Society Executive Director Nanette Lawrenson noted that the market attracts a large number of people and the foot traffic tears up the grass and landscaping. Plus, with many children attending, there was a danger from traffic on busy South Ferry Road so close to the market.
The new location will be leveled, Mr. Pedersen said, providing space for 32 stalls and electricity for the vendors.
The town owns a strip of land adjoining the Society next to the proposed market’s site. Mr. Pedersen suggested that it could be used for parking, as it has been on past summer Saturday’s and for special events throughout the year.
Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams said that was not a done deal, since the Community Housing Board, charged with finding space for affordable housing on the Island, is taking an inventory of all town-owned land not slated for preservation and it might have it’s eye on the space for new construction.
LIGHT, STONE, SAFETY
The overall new construction added on to Havens House is an impressive display of the use of natural light — some even flooding to the below-ground exhibition space and work rooms — and gray and white Pennsylvania wall stone. At several points in the new campus, 20-inch high stone walls will be available for visitors and staff to sit when the weather suits.
The lion’s share of new construction will be below ground, Mr. Pedersen has said, so as not to “overwhelm the scale of the existing building. We were determined to keep [the new construction] from becoming competitive with Havens House.”
Ms. Lawrenson, ushering a guest recently into the new archive room, called it “our pride and joy.” A soaring, 21-foot ceiling oversees the 20- by 28-foot room, providing “visible storage,” Ms. Lawrenson said, in a humidity-controlled atmosphere. There will be state-of-the-art lighting, a large map table and rooms adjacent for archivists, historians and visiting scholars.
A new archive room was one of the spurs to embark on the construction project, she said. “We had close to two thirds of our collection stored in the attic of Havens House,” Ms. Lawrenson added, noting that the material was difficult to access and that the danger of a fire was ever-present, with the top of the house often reaching 100 degrees and more in the summer.
Former Shelter Island Fire Department Chief John D’Amato, who is presently vice president of the Society’s Board of Trustees, warned officials that Havens House was such a fire trap that the thousands of documents would be lost by the time an alarm came into the fire house. Chief D’Amato urged officials to move the materials or build an archival facility.
Mr. Pedersen said the new construction with a zinc roof and stone and brick material has made it a “non- combustible structure.”
The courtyard, which Mr. Pedersen described as creating another room, will have stone walls inviting people to sit, and is shaded by four Chinese elm trees.
In the main gallery below ground a space on the wall is reserved for a tapestry, being woven by Helena Hernmarck, an internationally honored weaver. The tapestry will recreate in textiles the oldest document in the Society’s possession, a 1652 contract spelling out an ownership agreement of Shelter Island between the Manhanset people and the English settlers.