New home sought for Vanderbilt's dinosaurs

Caroline Mul, along with her daughter Isabella, 5,

Caroline Mul, along with her daughter Isabella, 5, of Centerport, check out the life-size dinosaur replicas at the Vanderbilt Museum. (Feb 17, 2009) (Credit: Newsday/Charles Eckert)

Rick Brand

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The dinosaurs at Suffolk's Vanderbilt Museum and planetarium may soon become extinct -- or at least go into hibernation.

In January 2011, tons of snow collapsed the roof of a metal prefab building housing the 17 reproductions. Now, officials are finally preparing to move the damaged reptiles out -- though they're still seeking a permanent home so the public can see them.

"They were smooshed by the snow," said Vanderbilt board member Steve Gittleman, chief champion of the dinosaurs. "The dinosaurs were left without a home and it's a big bill to repair them. It's a sad story."

The remains were extracted about a year ago as the metal building was demolished and hauled away. What's left is now stored in metal tractor-trailer storage containers and wooden crates in the museum's south parking lot. The collection's headline attraction -- a 38-foot fiberglass Tyrannosaurus rex that stood outside the building -- is undamaged but weathered and is now covered in tarpaulin.

It's a far cry from the vision Gittleman and his uncle, fellow Vanderbilt board member William Rogers, had for the collection. The men are also board members of a nonprofit group, The Dinosaur Society Inc., that built the replicas -- worth an estimated $500,000 -- with Universal Studios to promote the 1993 film "Jurassic Park." Later, some pieces were used at the studio's theme parks. The rest went to Vanderbilt.

Rogers, a businessman and philanthropist, pledged $1 million to the museum amid discussions about the county restoring the waterfront at the 43-acre Centerport estate and turning the seaplane hangar into a dinosaur exhibit hall.

Plans fizzled during the Wall Street meltdown that dissipated much of the museum's endowment. Rogers did contribute $300,000 to create a special fund for the dinosaur museum. The fund paid $80,000 to shelter the replicas, but display was minimal.

Some critics questioned whether the museum was subsidizing the storage of the reptiles for fans that for years seemed to consist only of Rogers and Gittleman. Others expressed concern that the dinosaurs distracted from the museum's mission to preserve William K. Vanderbilt II's Gold Coast mansion, known as Eagle's Nest.

Dinosaur backers saw the replicas as a draw, particularly for children.

Ray Ann Havasy, Dinosaur Society president, said the group's intentions have always been sincere, but added, "Sometimes a small group like the society gets squashed by politics."

Unresolved for the past year, the fate of dinosaurs -- along with a $117,202 insurance payment for collection damages -- was settled two weeks ago after lengthy wrangling between the society, which owns the reptiles, the county and the museum.

Under an agreement, $97,202 will be deposited in the William Rogers Special Fund. Rogers and Gittleman have agreed the money will be used solely for the Vanderbilt museum.

Another $20,000 will go to Havasy, also head of the Center for Science Teaching and Learning in Nassau, to pay for removal of the dinosaur collection from the estate. Havasy said she expects to begin moving out the first pieces within a week, but is still trying to find space to store them and to raise $100,000 for repairs.

Havasy's original plan was to move the collection to a building on Freeport's Nautical Mile. But the village pulled out of the deal and the center is suing.

"We want to see it put to good use," Gittleman said of the collection. "The idea is to excite kids and not keep them in a box."