Less than a year ago, the Suffolk County Historical Society’s east wing was “nothing but a big closet,” said Bob Barauskas, president of the Riverhead organization’s board of trustees.
Not anymore. On Thursday evening, the newly restored former storage room was dedicated as the Noel J. Gish Sr. Gallery during a ceremony attended by nearly 125 people.
“This is a brand new era for the Suffolk County Historical Society,” director Kathy Curran said. “I’m excited, I’m happy, I’m delighted and I’m relieved.”
Mr. Gish is a Riverhead author who taught history at Hauppauge High School, developing Long Islahd history courses during his 35 years there, and retired from Suffolk County Historical Society’s board of trustees in January after three decades. He remains chair of its collections committee. In addition to his work with the SCHS, Mr. Gish has devoted much of his time to researching Smithtown’s history in particular; he penned a book that caught the interest of the New York Times in the mid-1990s for including some of the town’s past that might otherwise have been swept under the rug — namely its past as a Ku Klux Klan gathering place.
Peter Fox Cohalan — Suffolk County’s official historian, a former county executive and a retired state Supreme Court justice — introduced Mr. Gish by calling him a “renaissance man in the field of history” and “an excellent advocate for all local history.”
“I can think of no one who is more worthy of having a room in this particular great building dedicated in his honor for all the work that he has done,” Mr. Cohalan said.
The SCHS building itself was erected in 1930, about 45 years after the SCHS was founded. The east and west wings were added about 20 years later.
In a speech, Mr. Gish told guests he was humbled by the honor.
“This room is marvelous,” he said of the 952-square-foot gallery, whose $100,000 renovation was paid for mostly by grants and gifts. “It is just a great exhibit room for art, for lectures and for all the things a historical society should be.”
Featuring Tiffany-blue walls and an abundance of natural light, the east wing is currently being used to display an assortment of nautical-inspired paintings and sculptures for sale by the J. Russell Jinishian Gallery of Fairfield, Conn. Ms. Curran said a percentage of the proceeds generated from sales of the artwork will benefit the proposed construction of a new $900,000 handicapped-accessible wing at the historical society.
“We’re going to build an entire wing with restrooms, elevators and parking,” she said. “It’s not just about people with disabilities or even the elderly — we want mommies with giant strollers to be able to have access to the museum so that they’ll be able to train their children that it’s a friendly, interesting place.”
On Saturday, the historical society hosted an opening reception for its latest exhibit, “From Shore to Shore: Boatbuilders and Boatyards of Long Island.”
Curated by David Buyer-Tyre, the exhibit highlights Long Island and Westchester County’s maritime history and features examples of traditional and modern boatbuilding.
Running until Sept. 19. it can be viewed Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the historical society, which is located at 300 W. Main St. in Riverhead. Visit suffolkcountryhistoricalsociety.org for more details.