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Double celebration at History Center: 100th anniversary of Society

What does it cost to bring history to life? It’s either priceless, or at best, comes at a price that can’t be identified. That’s what Shelter Island Historical Society Executive Director Nanette Lawrenson told members of the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island and the North Fork on May 15.

The occasion was a day of double celebration. The Historical Society is celebrating its 100th anniversary year and the League is celebrating its expansion from being the LWV of the Hamptons to embracing Shelter Island and the North Fork. Had it not been for the pandemic, that merger would have been marked in 2020.

Under bright, sunny skies on a day when most would have chosen a day of outside activity, about 35 people came to the History Center Sunday to hear Ms. Lawrenson tell them about the evolution of the Society.

Leading the Historical Society for 10 years, Ms. Lawrenson briefly recounted the story of the Historical Society’s growth reflected in the Island’s development. While the Society started in the 1920s, its development gained momentum when Andrew Fiske, a 13th-generation descendant of Nathaniel Sylvester who settled Shelter Island in 1652, revitalized the Historical Society in 1966. Three years later, the New York State Education Department recognized the Society as an educational institution.

The Historical Society settled at Havens House, which dates to 1773, and had been a private residence for years. It has undergone upgrades but in the beginning of the current century, the need for more space was evident.

Architect William Pedersen, along with his wife Elizabeth, now deceased, contributed $1 million to the project, and Mr. Pedersen provided the plans pro bono. Ms. Lawrenson estimated it took 17 years of discussions and exploration of what was needed, and about three years of actual construction. In addition to providing meeting and research space, there was a need for climate regulation to protect exhibits and materials.

There were many other contributions, and what stands today, after stabilizing the basic Havens House structure, is room for displays, meeting rooms and research space.

Between June 4 and Sept. 4, the art work of Willem DeKooning, Jules Feiffer, Alan Shields, Ned Smyth, Janet Culbertson, Karen Arm and John Chamberlain will grace the walls of the History Center.

The curator for the exhibitions is artist and dancer Margaret Garrett, who lives on the Island with her husband, composer and pianist Bruce Wolosoff.

Generations of people lived in Havens House and it’s a challenge to reflect those eras. The furniture was stored during construction and is slowly being examined to determine what can be used. An upcoming feature will enable those with smartphones to point them at a wall display to get explanations of what they are viewing. There are also 8mm films shot between the 1930s and 1950s being digitized for viewing. Taped interviews with various Islanders through the years about their lives and views of changes on the Island will be available. One of them is an interview with Mr. Fiske. Interviews started with children entering school with followups as they graduated. But more interviews have been done and are continuing with Island seniors telling their stories.

All of this is handled by four paid staff members but Ms. Lawrenson credits some 45 volunteers, without whom she said the History Center couldn’t function.

There are a number of special summer events coming up, including a 1960s dance party on July 30 and a musical play written and directed by Islander Lisa Shaw to be presented on July 22, 23 and 24. A full list of exhibits and special events is available at the Historical Society’s website at shelterislandhistorical.org.