Oysterponds Historical Society begins planning Vail House expansion

Amy Folk’s tiny office at Oysterponds Historical Society is a treasure trove of Orient and East Marion history. Every square inch of shelf space is packed, and navigating the narrow aisles is a challenge.

“What is here,” she said, pointing out the labeled boxes on shelves with the pride of an historian who cherishes records of the past, “goes back to the 1600s and is the heart and soul of this community. It’s beyond invaluable.”

Ms. Folk, who is the society’s collections manager and the Southold Town historian, has worked in this office for 20 years and knows how special the estimated 60,000 documents, diaries, maps, pieces of artwork and whaling records are. And she knows they need to be preserved for future generations.

This month, the society took the first steps towards what members have long wanted: a larger, temperature- and humidity-controlled space for the society’s remarkable archives that is more accessible to the public.

On March 20, the society mailed out a request for qualifications to architectural firms “for the conversion, adaptive reuse and expansion of Vail House into the OHS collections center and administrative offices,” according to a news release.

Vail House is one of seven handsome buildings on the 8-acre OHS campus on Village Lane. OHS was formed in 1944 by the historically minded George Latham, a member of the hamlet’s farming community, who also assembled many of the buildings on the campus. Next year, the society will celebrate its 80th anniversary.

“The plan is to solicit ideas to put an addition on the back and side of the Vail House that would be home to our archives, which are the real stars of our collection,” said Alison Ventura, the society’s executive director.

Ms. Ventura and Steve Rotella, the president of the society’s board of directors, sat in a room of the Vail House on Monday to explain their plans. A warm afternoon sun poured through the windows. Peering between the trees, a visitor could see the turquoise blue waters of Orient Harbor.

“We have remarkable items in our collection, and we want to keep them as safe as possible,” she added.

“A lot of work has been done over the past 10 years on how to properly house the collection,” Mr. Rotella said. “All kinds of alternatives were considered, including building a new building here. The board has gone through a rigorous process to hire a firm to study the issue. They came in and examined the collection and they recommended this alternative.”

“It’s important to stress that our collection is safe now,” Ms. Ventura said. “But it is bursting at the seams. It is safe now, but not safe enough. We need more space, and we need fire suppression, humidity and temperature control. The Vail House is also the highest point on the campus, so that is another reason to do that here.”

“This is the heritage of the community,” added Mr. Rotella. No firm budget has been set yet, but he added the total cost will be more than $1 million. The society is fortunate to have a substantial bequest from a deceased former member, and they hope grants and fundraising will help fund the project.

“The first step was to solicit architects to see if they would be interested in this kind of work,” he said. “After that, we will begin to understand the costs.”

At this early stage, Ms. Ventura said the goal is to have a good list of architects to pick from by early May and to possibly begin construction in the fall.

“We are not looking for a modern concept,” she said. “That would not be appropriate here. We want to be extremely respectful of the history of the house and our neighbors.”

“A state-of-the art facility would give Amy more room and better access to our collection,” Mr. Rotella said.

A tour of Hallock House where the collection is currently housed shows the need for that new facility. The tiny room is packed floor to ceiling, but Ms. Folk knows where every document is. She shows a visitor a manumission documents from the 1700s freeing a slave.

“I go to bed each night worrying about the collection,” Ms. Folk said. “It is remarkable what we have here.”