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North Shore museum finally set to debut

North Shore Historical Museum president Brian Mercadante stands

North Shore Historical Museum president Brian Mercadante stands at the judge’s bench. Before the overhaul, the roof leaked and the interior was a shambles. (Aug. 21, 2012) Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

It's taken 15 years and $750,000 in grants and donations, but the former Justices Court building in Glen Cove will soon reopen as the North Shore Historical Museum.

"It's been a lot of work," museum president Brian Mercadante said during a recent tour of the Dutch Revival structure on 140 Glen St. that was built in 1907-08 as a Town of Oyster Bay courthouse. The structure had served as city hall, courthouse and jail for Glen Cove when it was designated a city by the State Legislature in 1917.

The museum has scheduled a preview party for members and sponsors Saturday to show off the renovations.

Admission will be free for members and children under 12; $5 for adults and $3 for children over 12.

When volunteers began working on a plan to transform the vacant building into a showcase for the area's heritage, they knew they had taken on an ambitious task. The roof leaked and was missing some of its green terra-cotta tiles, many windows had deteriorated beyond repair, the interior was a shambles and pigeons had moved in and left a thick layer of excrement on the upper floors.

"It looked like a Halloween exhibit, because that's the last thing it had been used for," Mercadante said. "We wanted to create a cultural institution here in Glen Cove," he added, "but we also wanted it to be for the North Shore, not just specifically Glen Cove."

The goal was to create a space where other historical groups from around the area could set up their own temporary displays.

The turnaround began when Mercadante, who was on the board of the Glen Cove Business Improvement District, persuaded the organization to provide $1,000 for initial planning.

The group obtained a provisional charter from the state Education Department and began applying for grants. It received more than $350,000 in funds that it matched with membership fees -- the museum already has more than 750 members -- and fundraising. Contractors were hired, and they began with the leaking roof.

 

$10 transaction

The building was owned by Mayfair Llc, which operated the adjacent assisted living facility. In 2002, the museum received a 99-year lease with an option to purchase. Four years later, the museum paid Mayfair $10 and became owner of the structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The roof-to-basement overhaul has included recreating the judge's bench in the three-story courtroom space as a permanent exhibit.

But a bigger attraction for most visitors will probably be the jail cell in the basement. There were originally three of them, Mercadante said, but two were lost to earlier renovations.

When Locust Valley-based Forest Ironworks was hired last year to replace the cell's window bars, the company had a surprise for the museum. It had removed the heavy cast-iron door from the cell years ago when the building no longer served as a jail and kept the artifact in its yard. The owner offered to return the door.

"We freaked out," Mercadante said.

The work to date, along with oral history interviews of area residents, has been chronicled in videos that will be displayed in the building on large-screen monitors and on the museum website, northshorehistorical museum.org.

After the final interior restoration punch-list items are completed, the courtroom will display permanent and temporary exhibits. The permanent displays will include Civil War artifacts from local residents, a 1911 bell from J.P. Morgan's mansion on East Island and volumes of early court records.

 

Final restoration remains

Meanwhile, the museum has been presenting outreach programs at other area institutions for several years while trying to finish the courthouse project, and those programs will continue even after the museum opens, Mercadante said. The next one is a tour of The Matinecock Friends Meeting House on Oct. 27.

No opening date for the courthouse has been set yet, but it will be before the end of the year, Mercadante added. He expects the museum to be open two days a week, probably Wednesday and Saturday, once a director is hired. Admission will be free for members and $3 for children over 12.

Only one more phase of restoration remains, dependent on more grants and fundraising. The stone ornamental trim that adorned the facade was removed not long before the museum plan began to take shape, and the pieces were dumped at the municipal golf course. Volunteers tracked them down and had them returned to the building, where they are stored in the basement.

"When they took it apart, everything was labeled," Mercadante said. "Our architect -- James O'Grady of Glen Cove -- has laid it out and taken an inventory, and he knows what pieces are missing and have to be reproduced. It's going to be beautiful when it's back up."

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