New Montauk Museum

November 14, 1996

The South Fork Natural History Society has set its sights on establishing a museum at Montauk Point State Park. A 3,000 to 6,000-square-foot building is envisioned, with a small IMAX-type theater and nature exhibits, including a butterfly garden, and perhaps a room where the blind could study natural scents.

The seven-year-old society has wanted to develop a natural history museum for some time. It had explored the potential of Montauk County Park and the Morton National Wildlife Refuge in Noyac, but agreements couldn't be reached.

It is based now in an outbuilding on the Old Montauk Highway, Amagansett, property of its president, Andrew Sabin. It houses live salamanders and snakes, mounted specimens and bird nests, and marine creatures as well as an office.

Donated To State

According to James Ash, vice president of the society, the preliminary plan is to put the museum next to the expansive parking field across from the Montauk Lighthouse.

Although nothing is in writing, Mr. Ash said, "It looks encouraging. The plan has verbal support from the State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, he reported. "They said we would probably meet again in a month or two," he added.

The society would spend $1 million to build the museum and would donate the building to the state. The society would manage it under what it hopes will be "a long-term lease," Mr. Ash said.

"Marvelous Addition"

Dick White, chairman of the Montauk Historical Society's Lighthouse committee, said this week he liked the idea. Such a museum, along with the society's programs and guided walks, would complement visits to the Montauk Point Lighthouse and its museum, he said.

He and representatives of the society held an upbeat session a week ago to discuss the possibility that they will be neighbors at Montauk Point.

"We have between 3,000 and 5,000 school kids each year, and [a natural history museum] would make a marvelous addition to the Lighthouse experience," Mr. White said. "We're all friendly. There's no dispute, and no one is trying to hog the scene, but it has to work out financially for all concerned," he said.

Mr. White said he had presented figures on the number of visitors to the Lighthouse so that society officials could get an idea of how many might come and what revenues it could expect. The Lighthouse Museum, with its gift shop, welcomed about 110,000 visitors during 1995. The total for 1996 is expected to be higher.

Costly Business

Even so, Mr. White said that running a museum is costly. At the Lighthouse, he said it added up to about $250,000 a year "just to open the doors . . . not counting erosion- work, renovations, or dioramas." He added that insurance alone ran about $30,000 a year.

Mr. White cautioned his would-be neighbors that visits to the Lighthouse fell when the state raised its parking fee from $3 to $4 and charged for parking on weekends year-round instead of just in the summer. The Lighthouse Museum charges $3 for adults, $2.75 for seniors, $1 for children. Children under six are admitted free.

Wider Scope?

Mr. White also expressed a desire to widen the scope of the planned new museum. He spoke about the peninsula's rich military history, including its role in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Spanish-American War. Town officials, including Larry Penny, director of the Natural Resources Department, have expressed a similar interest, he said.

Montauk contains remnants of a dirigible base, some of the H.M.S. Culloden, which was wrecked during the Revolutionary War, and Camp Welsh, a World War I Army base, now the site of Lions Field.

Mr. White also spoke about preserving the World War II observation bunkers along the shore and perhaps reconstructing one of Camp Hero's 16-inch gun emplacements. He said he envisioned a long-term project with possible town and state involvement.

"Andy would rather deal with natural history," Mr. White said, referring to Mr. Sabin. "That doesn't mean we can't cast a wider net." Mr. Sabin was in California this week and could not be reached for comment.