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East Lyme Historical Society eyes new home

East Lyme — The East Lyme Historical Society is planning to open a museum and research space in the building that started out in 1946 as the first firehouse in the Flanders section of town.

Most recently, the two-story brick structure on Boston Post Road in front of Flanders Elementary School was home to the town's dispatch system and fire marshal's office. But the fire marshals already have moved to the new public safety building on the other side of town and dispatchers are set to follow this coming week.

Historical society President Norman B. Peck III said the group has long been eyeing 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 East Lyme History Center, with a museum on the first floor and research space on the second.

"The building is the best we can possibly dream of," Peck said. "It's all masonry construction, sprinklered, air conditioned, built like a fort."

Archival experts emphasize that controlling temperature and humidity is one of the most important factors in preserving collections.

The building will have to remain heated and air conditioned regardless of occupancy status, according to officials. That's because there will be some communications equipment remaining on site in an enclosed space at the front of the building.

First Selectmen Kevin Seery described the building as "the perfect setup" for the historical society. The accessible first floor works well for exhibit space, while the location near multiple public schools aligns well with the educational aspect of the organization's mission. And no other groups expressed an 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 the use of the building. Seery said the plan is to offer a long-term, renewable lease for $1 per year that could have signatures on it by the middle of next month.

The group is partnering with the East Lyme Public Library to create the museum, which includes an archive currently housed in wood-and-glass cabinets in the library's East Lyme Room.

Lisa Timothy, executive director of the library, 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 National Endowment for the Humanities affiliate to go toward operational expenses.

Peck estimated startup costs could be in the vicinity of $20,000 to $25,000. He said the historical society will be hiring an architect who will provide firmer estimates.

The costs are related to bringing the facility up to federal accessibility standards through improvements like larger doors and an expanded bathroom, he said.

'So much to show off'

Town Historian and historical society Treasurer Liz Kuchta said large fires at the Colonial Inn in 1935 and then at Comstock Hall 11 years later were the impetus for the creation of the Flanders firehouse in 1946. Before that, trucks had to come over from Niantic.

The Flanders department outgrew the space in 1972. It was used by local groups until becoming the communications center, officials said.

Now, members of the historical society and library are looking at the place as a showcase for a unique local history that starts with the Nehantic tribe and includes Revolutionary War skirmishes, granite production, ice harvesting and one man who served three tours in the Civil War before coming home and drowning at sea.

"We have his gun," Peck said. It's part of an extensive Civil War collection being given to the historical society in the near future that members plan to prominently display in the new museum.

Peck said the historical society is also hopeful it will be able to obtain — or at least borrow — a portion of the Norris L. Bull Native American artifact collection related to the Nehantics.

According to the University of Connecticut, the more than 8,000-piece collection goes back 12,000 years and is one of the largest in the state. It was donated to the school in 1963 and spurred the development of its archaeology program.

Meanwhile, there are numerous other documents and artifacts spread around town at members' homes and in Town Hall, in addition to at the library. Peck described it as "a whole lot of other stuff that belongs in the public eye instead of hidden away."

Kuchta noted 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 not heated, which means they are not particularly welcoming to visitors during colder months.

"This will make more of our town artifacts available for people, and especially schoolchildren, to come and see," Kuchta said.

Timothy put it this way: "There's so much to show off in this town."

e.regan@theday.com

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