While exotic animals around the world are threatened by habitat encroachment, a small herd of gemsboks -- large antelopes -- is returning to a savanna transplanted from Africa to a hillside overlooking Northport Harbor.
The animals last roamed a half-century ago. They've since been displayed in still- life settings behind glass in Vanderbilt Museumdioramas. As part of a $100,000 restoration, Sean Murtha, a former American Museum of Natural History artist, is creating two new diorama scenes for the Vanderbilt's Stoll Wing, encasing a tiger, a wildebeest, an ostrich and more big-game specimens. This follows his 2009 work on the adjacent Habitat Gallery for its $135,000 restoration. Most of that money went to taxidermist George Dante's reclamation of the 8-ton, 32-foot whale shark that hangs from the gallery ceiling.
Murtha, a staff artist at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, who grew up in Port Jefferson Station, brings the Vanderbilt dioramas full-circle from their origins.
William K. Vanderbilt II, who started building the Spanish-style Centerport mansion in 1921, continued its expansion until his death in 1944. A yachtsman, naturalist and big-game hunter, Willie K, as he was known, collected animal specimens, many on view in the nearby Marine Museum. In 1922, he built the Habitat Gallery for his larger specimens, including walruses, polar bears, leopards, jaguars, buffalo and a collection of heads, recently restored by Dante. "William hired Natural History Museum artists to paint the dioramas," says Vanderbilt curator Stephanie Gress.
The Stoll Wing, named for Charles Stoll, a Nassau judge and adventurer, was added next to the Habitat in 1970. The taxidermied animals in those eight galleries, now being restored by Murtha, are "trophies" from safaris he took with his wife, Merle, between 1920 and 1969. Film from the final hunt was transferred to DVD to help Murtha re-create authentic African scenes.
Murtha says his style is from the "golden age of diorama painting" -- just after World War II -- passed on by his late Natural History Museum mentor, Fred Scherer. "The idea is to make a panoramic view look as real as possible," he says, "blending into the three-dimensional foreground where the animals stand."
By contrast, the Habitat dioramas are more "painterly," he says. "They don't create the illusion of reality."
The latest restoration is courtesy of Stoll granddaughter Lynne Speer, who donated $100,000 after a recent visit revealed the wing's water-damaged appearance.
Murtha continues his scene-painting next week. The dioramas remain open to visitors, who can watch his work-in-progress on Tuesday.
WHAT Stoll Wing/ Habitat Gallery dioramas
WHEN | WHERE Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Rd., Centerport. Mansion hours: noon-5 p.m. Tuesdays and weekends
ADMISSION $3-$7; 631-854-5579, vanderbiltmuseum.org