Exclusive Series: Changes at historical society | Part 1
Phillip Blocklyn is leaving his position as executive director of the Oyster Bay Historical Society on Oct. 7. The society has not chosen another director to replace him yet.
The “face” of the society, Blocklyn has represented it for 19 years, marching in all of the hamlet’s parades, leading popular walking tours, as well as attending meetings with town representatives and others working to bring alive Oyster Bay’s history for visitors.
Always the first to greet people dropping by to see an exhibit, lecture or presentation, he is alternately quiet and reserved, traits that he has used over the years to remain an effective force at the society. His objective has long been to move forward with the group’s mission — to preserve, collect and make available even the smallest nuggets of the hamlet’s history.
Settled by the Dutch in 1653, Oyster Bay has a storied past, which includes the Colonial period, when British forces occupied it as an encampment during the Revolutionary War.
Originally from Philadelphia, Blocklyn, 65, came to the society gradually, first becoming involved in the mid 1990s. He began by writing book reviews for the society’s quarterly newsletter, which is now retired. Then in 1998, he joined the board, remaining active on it until 2007. Then he became the society’s librarian/archivist, remaining in that position until 2010, when he became the director.
But he isn’t a historian. “I always had an interest in history but no training,” he said, surrounded by many books in his office in the Angela Koenig Research Center, a building that he helped ensure was built. Directly behind the Earle-Wightman house — one of the oldest surviving houses on Long Island and a town landmark — the center is important to the community because it houses Oyster Bay’s genealogical and architectural collections.
“I was trained in special collections, which is a parallel universe,” Blocklyn explained. “But I’m actually a librarian and book dealer.”
When he joined the society’s board in 1998, there was much to do. “It was very different here,” he said. “The board was trying to raise money to build a new building, and that was the focus of everything. Ten years later, we broke ground and began construction.”
The reason for a new building was because the extensive collection in the Wightman house needed to be moved. If the items remained there, they would not have survived. “There are no environmental controls at the house because it wasn’t meant to be for storage,” he said. “This building has concrete floors so it can bear a lot of weight and it has a steel frame, so it is resistant to fire, and we can control the environment, which protects the collection. It’s also easy to bring things out for an exhibit here.”
But moving the collection would prove to be an arduous undertaking.
“It was difficult because the house was small, and it was hard to access the materials,” he said. “The artifacts were all over the house. You literally had to empty a room to get anything out.”
And there were other challenges too. “It was hard to move the collection because things tended to be bulky and fragile,” he explained. “The largest item was a bobsled from the early 20th century.”
Moving the items, which were primarily documents, manuscripts and photographs, had to be gradual, because storage shelves had to be created first in the new building. The society’s extensive textile collection, protected in big boxes, also had to be moved. There are women’s’ and children’s’ clothing, hats, gloves and many large quilts, many of which are fragile. Textile items, Blocklyn said, have “to be moved flat” in the boxes.
As the only full-time employee, he had to organize the move carefully, deciding a number of issues, including what needed to be moved first. “We moved everything box by box over a period of 10 months, but the bulk of the move was in August 2011,” he said.
That was because Tropical Storm Irene was predicted to hit Long Island in September. “We hurried right before Irene to bring over the entire library archives, and we got it here right before it hit,” he said.
“We brought over the high-priority materials first, the paper based items, like Mary Cooper’s diary, who lived in Cove Neck,” he said. “It is one of the few remaining diaries from the end of the colonial era.”
The collections are housed on the upper floor at the center, which was Blocklyn’s idea. “I decided when I became director to change the planning of the new building for security reasons,” he said. “And I wanted to use the first floor for public lectures and exhibits. Also, I wanted to have an office on the first floor. At the Wightman house, you had to walk through the library to get to the offices.”
The Wightman house, having once quartered the Queen’s Rangers during the Revolutionary War, remains a tourist attraction, even though many of the items are not original to the house. “We simplified the rooms, but the theme there hasn’t changed,” Blocklyn said. “We use props at the house and have moved the collections here to protect them. But we still interpret the rooms in a responsible way.”
Another change Blocklyn was able to make was the hiring of a full-time collections’ manager. Nicole Manchise, who recently left the society after five years, had been working there part-time. The society, which operates on town property in town buildings, receives a stipend of $125,000 to underwrite its operations. The funding was not sufficient to allow for the hiring to a full-time worker. He had to find another way.
“Nicole was a gift, so good at what she did,” he said. “When other part-timers left, I didn’t rehire and gradually acquired the funding to hire Nicole full-time. It took two years.”
The society depends upon fundraising, sales of artwork, grants and admission fees to clear its budget each year. That’s one reason why the center is so vital. It provides the location to allow for engagement with the community, which also helps to keep the society operating. “We have book signings, lectures, children’s events and crafts here now,” he said. “Our programing is growing, at its peak now. The next step will be to find the revenue to hire more people, an education director, for example. But the next director will have to figure that out.”
What he is proud of most is that he’s raised the bar of the society itself, including the addition of exhibits of contemporary artists and musical performances. “I don’t like hearing, ‘We can’t do that, we are too small,’” he said. “I’ve always believed you just do what you can and shouldn’t limit yourself.”
Under his leadership, the society’s scope has broadened. It collaborates with larger organizations now like Sagamore Hill, and it has crafted some of its exhibits to reflect the local scene.
Blocklyn believes the society’s future is bright.
“When Nicole came her she was entry level,” he said. “We are no longer a historical society that can hire an entry level person. We now require professionals and that’s a big step forward.”
As for what the future holds Blocklyn said he’s retiring and moving to Ashville, N.C. But he won’t be sitting around. “I will be engaged with the community there — I hate golf,” he said. “I will be involved as a volunteer maintaining hiking trails and doing river work. I don’t want to be behind a desk and answer phones anymore.”