Residents voice their concern over expansion of Old Lighthouse Museum

Stonington — A large group of borough residents told the Stonington Historical Society Wednesday night that while they support the physical restoration of the Old Lighthouse Museum, they are worried that a planned glass addition is not only out of character with the village but would produce additional traffic and special events on the museum lawn.

Some suggested the society move its artifacts out of the stone lighthouse and build a new museum on the grounds of the society's Palmer Street headquarters, eliminating the need for climate control and handicapped access, two of the reasons behind the $2 million project.

Resident Jesse Diggs, one of those who have been leading the opposition over the past few months, challenged the historical society to name two residents to the committee planning the project.

"Prove you really want to work with the community. Let us participate," he told Rob Palmer, chairman of the society's board of trustees, near the end of an informational meeting in which close to 70 people packed Borough Hall.

Palmer did not address Diggs' request but promised the residents that the society would listen to them.

"We'll go back and reflect on what we've heard. We'll continue to listen to you as we go forward," he said.

The support of residents could be important not only to raise funds for the project but because the society would need approvals from the Planning and Zoning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, both of which would hold public hearings.

The society wants to construct an 827-square-foot glass-enclosed addition to the 2,442-square-foot museum to provide entrance lobby as well as handicapped access and bathrooms.

The lobby would overlook Little Narragansett Bay and Sandy Point and create an admissions, shop and exhibit area helping to lessen congestion in the current building. A crushed stone path would lead to a terrace off the lobby. The project also includes climate control measures for the collection.

During his presentation, Conrad Ello, whose Boston architectural firm designed the project, showed the group photographs of the extensive structural damage to the museum that needs to be repaired. He said that because substantial improvements are planned, building codes require handicapped access improvements as well. He also showed various design alternatives the society has considered for the addition.

He said the addition is designed to have a different look from the lighthouse to provide a clear delineation between the two and not "create a false history."

But Susan Higgins of Hancox Street called the design "un-Stonington in character." She said the austere pathway and patio are in contrast to the warmth of the borough.

Ello said a proposed hedge that would have barred access to the seawall on the property would be removed from the plan after residents objected to it.

Many of the comments about the project came from people concerned about traffic, special events and handicapped access.

Ed Smith, who has joined Diggs in heading the opposition, said people in a wheelchairs leaving the property cannot safely access Water Street because their view of oncoming cars is blocked. There is only one narrow sidewalk across the street.

Ello said the project is still in the preliminary design phase, and other handicapped improvements could be made.

Society members said the project is not designed to increase visitors. Visitors have fallen from 10,000 in 2000 to just over 4,000 in 2012.

Editor's note: This version corrects an earlier version.

Other speakers pointed out that traffic and parking in the borough will continue to be a problem in the borough with or without the addition.

Several speakers said the addition would make the museum more attractive, and the resulting publicity would bring more visitors and special events, such as weddings. Smith said these events bring caterers, electricians, tent providers and others who sit in their idling cars and cause residents to lose four days at a time in the summer.

Society director Evelynn Lyons said the 10 events held each year do not make money for the society but are done in the public interest. Cheryl Danis, the society's development chairwoman, said there are no plans to increase the number of events. Diggs said he would like to see the society put that in writing.

Society director Janis Mink supported the plan, saying she was taken aback by suggestions to remove the artifacts and make the museum less accessible. She charged the neighbors with being "exclusionary and elitist."

"The historical society has the right to continue its mission of explaining the history of Stonington and displaying the artifacts people have donated," she said.

j.wojtas@theday.com



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