Suffolk County Historical Society announced the opening of its new Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant wing during a ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday, officially making the 133-year-old institution accessible to all.
Due to a steep set of stairs and the lack of an elevator, the facility was previously deemed inaccessible to those who are handicapped, disabled, temporarily injured and/or require a wheelchair or stroller for transport, officials said. That means roughly 12 percent of Suffolk County residents were unable to utilize the historical society for its rich history museum and research library.
“It’s been an issue since the very beginning,” said SCHS Executive Director Victoria Berger. “The [previous] entrance – it [had] really impeded accessibility.”
Frank Krotschinsky, director of the Suffolk County Office for People with Disabilities has, for over 40 years, been directly affected by the historical society’s limited architectural design. Ms. Berger said Mr. Krotschinsky has been a huge source of support and inspiration throughout the project.
“As a person who uses a wheelchair, I’ve been driving by this facility, this building for many, many years,” Mr. Krotschinsky said. “Ever since I moved out to Suffolk County in the mid-’70s. And I always wondered how I get in here. I always wanted to come inside. A couple of years ago they called my office wanting to know if I knew of funds so that they could put an accessible entrance in here. I did a little bit of research for them, but really, they did the work in having funding approved and getting the entrance built and I’m thrilled.”
The building now follows a universal architectural design, which includes a ground-level entrance, the addition of on-site parking, accommodating restroom facilities and an elevator. Local architects Gary Jacquemin and Robert Stromski led the design, while Radon Construction dealt with the brick and mortar.
It was about eight years ago that serious planning and fundraising began for the $1 million capital project, when the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation – one of the project’s major donors – first provided seed money. Kathryn Curran, executive director of the Gardiner Foundation, was executive director of the historical society at the time.
“She was the first to sign contracts on this project and then was able to help us see it through with tremendous grant support,” Ms. Berger said of Ms. Curran to an audience of donors and supporters at Thursday’s ceremony.
Though the groundbreaking took place in May and the estimated completion date was that summer, the team hit a significant setback along the way.
“The water table was much, much higher than calculated and so, immediately after groundbreaking, we had the site flooding,” Ms. Berger said. “We had to arrange for dewatering, which delayed the project quite a bit.”
The historical society remained open through both the project’s design and construction phases – something Ms. Berger said is a product of her staff’s commitment.
SCHS Board President Bob Barauskas said the society’s focus on keeping the museum and library up to par, in terms of both safety and environmentalism, dates back nearly a decade, when in 2011 the building’s front staircase was redone and a heating pad was placed just below the surface to melt ice during winter months. In 2013, one of the interior rooms was refurbished and in 2017, climate-control devices were installed in the library and attic. Last year, the building converted its antiquated boiler system to gas.
Additional major donors on the accessibility project include New York State Council on the Arts and Empire State Development. Funding and support was also provided by the Kenneth J. Tedaldi Foundation, the Leo S. Walsh Foundation, the John C. Dunphy Private Foundation and a host of smaller private donors, as well as Suffolk County National Bank.
Frank Grasso, a board member at the John C. Dunphy Private Foundation said he decided to help when he first heard about the planned capital improvements years ago.
“We just like the idea of adding value to a community center, and that’s where it started,” he said. “We learned as we went along, as we’re still learning, what this is all about. The character of the place, the museum … I think it made good sense to support the local community … You can do things that help people individually, or you can do things that help people collectively, so we saw this as an opportunity to help people collectively.”
Also in attendance Thursday were county and local representatives, including Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Islip), Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, Councilwoman Catherine Kent and Councilman Tim Hubbard.
“This has been the baby that’s been so many years in development,” Ms. Berger said. “It’s just exciting and exhilarating to be able to open the doors.”
Top Caption: Officials celebrate the opening of the accessibility wing at the Suffolk County Historical Society. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)