East Lyme – The East Lyme Historical Society plans to open a museum and research space in the building which began in 1946 as the first fire station in the Flemish section of the town.
More recently, the two-story brick structure on Boston Post Road across from Flanders Elementary School housed the city’s dispatch system and fire marshal’s office. But firefighters have already moved to the new public safety building across town and dispatchers are expected to follow next week.
Historical society president Norman B. Peck III said the group has long viewed the building as a showcase for a growing collection of documents and artifacts. The sign when it goes up will identify the space as the center of East Lyme history, with a museum on the first floor and a research space on the second.
“The building is the best we could dream of,” Peck said. “It’s all masonry construction, watered down, air-conditioned, built like a fort.”
Archival experts point out that controlling temperature and humidity is one of the most important factors in preserving collections.
The building will need to remain heated and air-conditioned regardless of occupancy status, officials said. This is because there will be communications equipment left on site in an enclosed space at the front of the building.
Early selectors Kevin Seery described the building as “the perfect setup” for the historical society. The accessible first floor works well for the exhibit space, while the location near several public schools aligns well with the educational aspect of the organization’s mission. And no other groups have expressed interest in taking over the space, according to Seery.
The Board of Selectmen in October authorized the first selectman to negotiate with the historical society for use of the building. Seery said the plan is to offer a renewable long-term lease for $1 a year that could have signings by the middle of next month.
The group is partnering with the East Lyme Public Library to create the museum, which includes archives currently housed in wooden and glass cabinets in the library’s East Lyme Room.
Lisa Timothy, the library’s executive director, said she received a $10,000 grant from Connecticut Humanities to hire an archival consultant to help guide the creation of the museum. The historical society received a $6,000 grant from the same branch of the National Endowment for the Humanities to cover its operating expenses.
Peck estimated start-up costs could be between $20,000 and $25,000. He said the historical society will hire an architect who will provide firmer estimates.
The costs are related to bringing it up to federal accessibility standards through upgrades such as larger doors and an expanded bathroom, he said.
“So much to show”
City historian and historical society treasurer Liz Kuchta said large fires at the Colonial Inn in 1935, and then at Comstock Hall 11 years later, led to the establishment of the Flanders in 1946. Before that, trucks had to come from Niantic.
The Flanders department overran the space in 1972. It was used by local groups until it became the communications hub, officials said.
Now members of the historical society and library consider the place a showcase of unique local history that begins with the Nehantic tribe and includes Revolutionary War skirmishes, granite production, ice harvesting and a man who served three tours in the Civil War. before returning home and drowning at sea.
“We have his gun,” Peck said. It is part of an extensive Civil War collection donated to the historical society in the near future that members plan to display prominently in the new museum.
Peck said the historical society also hopes to be able to obtain — or at least borrow — some of the Nehantic-related Norris L. Bull Native American artifact collection.
According to the University of Connecticut, the collection of more than 8,000 pieces dates back 12,000 years and is one of the largest in the state. It was given to the school in 1963 and stimulated the development of its archeology curriculum.
Meanwhile, there are many other documents and artifacts scattered around the town at members’ homes and at City Hall, in addition to the library. Peck described it as “a whole bunch of other things that belong in the public eye instead of being hidden”.
Kuchta noted that the historical society has various artifacts at the Thomas Lee House and Museum, which has been in operation since 1915. But she said the house and its barn are unheated, which means they are not particularly welcoming to visitors during the colder months.
“It will make more artifacts from our city available for people, and especially school kids, to come and see,” Kuchta said.
Timothy put it this way: “There’s so much to show in this town.”