A building once used to help save lives in Oak Beach is being resuscitated from the damage of two powerful storms.
After years of delays, Babylon Town has begun renovating the Oak Beach community center, which was damaged first by tropical storm Irene in 2011 and then superstorm Sandy in 2012.
The historic building was once part of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, the precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard. The station is believed to be the last remaining one of its kind out of 23 that were built along the South Shore — which at the time included the East End and the Rockaways — in 1872 by the U.S. government. The building remained in almost continuous use by the Coast Guard until 1945. It was sold three years later to Babylon Town and, starting in 1975, barrier beach residents began using it for a variety of purposes, such as civic meetings and chapel services.
“It’s been a long road, so we’re really excited about the progress now,” said Barrier Beach Civic Association president Jed Meade, whose grandfather was officer-in-charge at the station in the 1920s. “The building serves the community in so many ways.”
After Sandy, the town looked to elevate and refurbish the building, but numerous obstacles emerged, including funding. They also had to create a new well water system for the community after Suffolk County health officials threatened the town in 2015 with fines and sanctions, saying the current water system is vulnerable to contamination.
“We couldn’t move until we figured that piece out,” said Deputy Supervisor Tony Martinez, noting that a new water treatment facility will be built next to the community center. “We were a few hundred thousand dollars short, too.”
To pay for the $400,000 elevation last year, the town used bonds issued for Sandy reconstruction, then bonded for an additional $350,000 for the renovation work. The town also received two grants totaling more than $882,000 from the state’s Historic Preservation Office. Those grants were to expire at the end of the year, but the town was recently granted an extension until 2019.
The years of delays served one benefit: more time for town historian Mary Cascone to piece together the building’s complex history, which includes numerous overhauls, additions and even two moves.
“We didn’t want this much time before we could start to do this, but I think it’s helped us make some really good decisions,” Cascone said.
The town initially had been unsure which era to highlight in doing the renovation, but the grant money officials received is tied to the building’s last historical significance so it will be restored to its World War II-era look. Still, Cascone said, the building will once again have a distinctive red roof, a feature present in all of the stations built in 1872 that earned them the nickname of “red houses.”
The town also will preserve and highlight different eras through the interior of the structure, where the outline of bay doors, changes in wainscoting and ceiling seams will reveal the building’s history.
“It’s had many lives,” Cascone said. “If we give the building a chance, it tells its own story.”
A Life-Saving Timeline
1871 — Congress approves $200,000 to establish U.S. Life-Saving Service
1872 — 23 identical stations are constructed along the South Shore, including Oak Beach. Stations are 18 feet x 42 feet, designed to accommodate a six-man crew, gear and rescue victims
1888 — 20 of the original stations are enlarged by 10 feet on each side, including Oak Beach, to accommodate equipment
1899 — Station moves from its original location — just south of Oak Beach Park — to the north side of Oak Beach by Coolie's Channel
1924 —Station is renovated, including addition of indoor bathroom and cooking facilities
1932 — Station has to be moved to the south side of Oak Beach, at its present location, due to construction of Ocean Parkway
1942 — Station is renovated and enlarged for use during WWII, and includes mess hall and sleeping quarters
1948 — Station is deactivated and transferred to the Town of Babylon for use as community chapel
1975 — Building becomes known as Oak Beach Community Center
Source: Babylon Town historian Mary Cascone