Suffolk County Historical Society Eyes Expansion

Suffolk County Historical Society
Suffolk County Historical Society. Photo credit: Lisa Tannenbaum

Kathy Curran has a vision for downtown Riverhead that extends beyond the confines of her museum. The Director of the Suffolk County Historical Society, Curran envisions a vital and walkable downtown cultural corridor with the Historical Society museum as an anchor in a revitalized downtown Riverhead. The “cultural mile” along the riverfront would stretch from the library, Historical Society and Railroad Museum on the west end to the aquarium and exhibition center on the east end.

In order to have a more prominent position in downtown Riverhead, there are expansion plans underway at the Historical Society. Founded in 1886, it’s the oldest museum of its kind on Long Island.

The major expansion plan is the addition of an exterior wing to the structure containing elevators, ramps and bathrooms for handicapped accessibility.

The current museum building was erected in 1933. At that time there was no concern for wheelchair accessibility, and there’s a large staircase leading up to the main entrance. The exhibition space is on two floors, making it difficult for anyone with a disability to navigate the museum.

The new wing would contain an orientation center and frame an outdoor patio for fundraising functions. A wing compliant with the ADA or Americans with Disabilities Act would bring museum access to a whole new segment of the population. It would allow the elderly and wheelchair bound, as well as parents with strollers, to more easily visit the collections and participate in programs.

Models and plans for the Suffolk County Historical Society's expansion.
Models and plans for the Suffolk County Historical Society’s expansion. Photo credit: Lisa Tannenbaum

The mission statement of the Historical Society is to make history come alive. Curran proposes to extend this goal to the museum itself by creating an architectural statement with the building addition. The board of the Historical Society approved one scheme that’s a somewhat conventional orthogonal box added on to the back of the east wing. Curran had preferred a more daring composition with slanted edges to try to contrast 21st century contemporary architecture with the existing building, a national historic landmark.

Executive Director Kathy Curran
Suffolk County Historical Society Executive Director Kathy Curran. Photo credit: Lisa Tannenbaum

Curran offered a challenge to the Riverhead architect, Gary Jacquemin, to create a modern piece of architecture in the historic setting. Curran’s role model is the addition to the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan by architect Renzo Piano. That design integrates a sleek white glass box with an early 20th century mansion. The Director of the Suffolk County Historical Society wishes to emulate this, though on a smaller scale. The budget for this renovation is $750,000 to $1 million, and the museum is seeking sponsorship from and offering naming rights to prospective donors.

Another opportunity for sponsorship is a smaller scale interior renovation that has already received $25,000 in grant funding. Currently the East Wing of the museum is a closed off to the public except for an exhibit that is itself historic—it hasn’t changed since 1984! Curran has a plan to open up the East Wing’s grand space that’s currently being used for storage as another exhibition room. The 12-foot ceilings and charming fireplace will make a significant increase in the amount of square footage for exhibits and functions. The storage will be relocated downstairs.

All of these expansion plans will allow the Suffolk County Historical Society to reach a greater audience and provide expanded programming. The next exhibit opening on October 18 is called “Back to the Future” and is a juxtaposition of contemporary artists alongside historic pieces from the collection, demonstrating the evolution of society and culture.

The Suffolk County Historical Society is located at 300 West Main Street in Riverhead and is open Wednesday through Saturday. 

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