Oyster Bay, groups join to preserve past

A recent photo of The Wightman House in

A recent photo of The Wightman House in Oyster Bay. Photo Credit: Oyster Bay Historical Society

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Anywhere you turn in Oyster Bay hamlet these days, it seems as if a historic preservation project has either just been completed, is under way or is being planned.

On West Main Street, the former Octagon Hotel has been rehabilitated rather than demolished. Down the block, Oyster Bay Town has put a new roof on Colonial-era Raynham Hall Museum and purchased a house next door that will serve as a visitor center and staff office space. The town also put a new roof on the 17th century Earle-Wightman House it owns on Summit Street, and has begun to design a restoration and use plan for the 17th century Mill Pond House at the west end of the hamlet.

On East Main Street, a nonprofit has repaired the deterioration that was letting rain pour into the Trousdell House and causing a bearing wall to sag.

And nonprofit groups are trying to restore the 1889 Long Island Rail Road depot and the building occupied by the now-defunct Snouder's drugstore.

Town and community leaders say the burst of activity reflects a heightened emphasis on preservation in a community that has always been proud of its heritage.

What's changed in the past couple of years is that preservation efforts are being tackled by community groups or the town with the support and coordination of other local history and preservation groups rather than working in isolation.

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"A lot of it's coincidental but part of it is that there have been concerted efforts to try to do something about buildings that are in danger," said Philip Blocklyn, executive director of the Oyster Bay Historical Society.

The conduit for this cooperative push is the Oyster Bay Preservation Roundtable. The coalition -- composed of the heads of the historical society, Oyster Bay Main Street Association, Raynham Hall Museum, Oyster Bay Railroad Museum and North Shore Land Alliance -- was pulled together two years ago by Isaac Kremer, executive director of the Main Street Association.

Its biggest success came when, working with town officials, it helped steer a developer into rehabilitating the Octagon. More recently the roundtable helped the Land Alliance with its plans to buy the Trousdell House, stabilize it and eventually resell it to a sympathetic buyer.

Another factor that helped spur preservation, Kremer said, was New York Islanders owner Charles Wang's $50 million purchase of more than 85 downtown properties, not all of them historic, beginning in the early 1990s. His subsequent $30 million investment in renovating them "proved to be the catalyst and the tipping point for the revitalization," Kremer said.

Community leaders also credit local government support. "The town seems to actually want to do something, whether it's through landmarking, funding or actual purchase," Blocklyn said. "It's encouraging to people."

Kremer said, "The more preservation you do, the more interest there is in it. The success of the Octagon Hotel project really galvanized the community's interest. In the past year, we've seen over a dozen other projects in the downtown. We easily have over $10 million in preservation work on the drawing board."

While the sagging economy has made private fundraising more difficult, the town has had environmental bond money to spend on preservation projects, and state grants have continued, Kremer said.

He said his 10-year-old association has brought in almost $300,000 in federal and state grants for preservation in the past three years. Over the past decade, almost $1 million in private funding has gone into restoration projects in the hamlet.

Even more buildings would be saved, said Alexandra Wolfe of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, if the town became more "proactive" rather than waited for others to identify needed projects.

"We don't go looking," conceded town Planning Commissioner Frederick Ippolito. But he expects that to change now that some vacancies have been filled on the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

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He said officials are "very much in favor of saving as much of the history of this town as we can."

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