Huntington's history to get bigger home

Toby Kissam, executive coordinator of the Huntington Historical Toby Kissam, executive coordinator of the Huntington Historical Society, sorts through photos at the historic Trade School building which houses the Huntington Historical Society. (Jan. 4, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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A letter penned by Walt Whitman, hand-drawn maps from the 1830s, and thousands of photographs that chronicle Huntington's history. All the treasured archives are lovingly stashed, stuffed and stacked at the Huntington Historical Society on Main Street.

After 14 years, the society has raised enough money, about $800,000 -- including a $400,000 matching grant from the state -- to build an addition to the building that will be used as a storage and resource center, a spacious place for Huntington's history to call home.

"We've been kicking this proposal around for years and raising money," said Toby Kissam, executive coordinator of the society. "With the money we have, we're ready to go."

The building was erected in 1905 as a sewing trade school for girls and a place where boys learned caning -- or chair-seat weaving. It has housed the historical society since 1982, when members purchased the building and a 20-foot lot on its west side from the town.

The building, designed by the architects of the Metropolitan Opera House and the American Museum of Natural History, is an integral part of Huntington's past, having served as classroom space for Huntington High School, and Town Hall offices. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The two-level addition will be built in the side lot and add more than 1,200 square feet and include two rooms and a new entry through a handicap-accessible plaza. The historic facade will remain.

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Fundraising efforts for the expansion began after philanthropist Doris Buffett, sister of billionaire Warren, came to Huntington in the 1980s to research her family tree. Town historian Robert Hughes said ancestors of the Buffett family settled in Huntington in 1696. Hughes said that as Doris Buffett neared the end of her research in the late 1990s, she asked what the society needed and he said archive space.

But before she would write a check, Hughes said, she challenged the society to double its membership in three months, to see if it had community support. When the society met the challenge, it received $25,000 -- and another charge.

"She said, 'I will match dollar for dollar everything you raise up to $500,000 to build a new archive,' " said Hughes, who is a historical society volunteer. "We raised about $167,000, and she matched that. That was our biggest donation."

Kissam said he expects construction to begin by early summer. The society has a parking variance hearing before the zoning board of appeals on Feb. 28. It is also seeking state approval of the design plan selected from five proposals by a panel of community and business leaders, merchants, preservationists and neighbors."This is one of the great buildings of Huntington," Kissam said. "It has a rich history."

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