There may be some ruffled feathers at the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center for the next couple of years, when the tranquillity is replaced by the jarring sounds of bulldozers, hammers and drills, but the major renovations they will produce will make for a more welcoming center, for the birds and for everyone else.
Much fanfare, including a champagne toast, accompanied the groundbreaking for the $2.5 million project on Oct. 1. Residents joined members of the sanctuary and Audubon New York to celebrate a number of planned improvements, including a new entrance plaza, ADA-accessible pathways, restoration of the historic Bessie Potter Vonnoh memorial sculpture and fountain as well as the renovation of an existing center building.
“The design of the property is to function as a model for learning to attract more birds here,” explained Ed Mohlenhoff, the president of Youngs Memorial Cemetery, the burial site of President Theodore Roosevelt, which overlooks the sanctuary. Mohlenhoff is also a board member of the sanctuary, and worked tirelessly on preparations for the renovations. “We want this to be a conservation hub,” he added, “and once we have the center’s building restored, we might do something with Sagamore Hill. Our ultimate goal is to include history here.”
Erin Crotty, a former executive director of Audubon New York, made the renovations sound a bit magical last year, when she said that one of the improvements would be “secret gardens around every corner of native plant species” and shade and butterfly gardens to attract birds, which the organization is predicting will increase in number throughout the sanctuary’s 12 acres of woods.
Long Island’s ecosystem is important for migrating birds, Crotty said, and some are becoming endangered. “The center in Oyster Bay is the cornerstone of Audubon’s work,” she said.
Additionally, the center’s educational programs will be improved and expanded to help it achieve its goals — a greater conservation impact, and the promotion of science-based learning and career paths. The building where the programs are held, which has a 1960s feel to it, will be razed. Another building, referred to as the “white building,” where the superintendent once lived, will replace it when renovations are completed there.
Oyster Bay Cove Mayor Charles Goulding has been a big supporter of the project, and, recognizing the hurdles, he has tried to help. “Any time there’s a need for building improvements, it requires permits,” he said. “I kept an eye on the process.”
For Goulding, who is an attorney, the renovations are a bit nostalgic. The Gardiner Foundation, he said, contributed a sizable donation for the work. “They put me through law school,” he said, pausing to take in the beauty that surrounded him at the sanctuary. “I worked for their family at a gas station that they owned in Smithtown.”
Mohlenhoff said that work had been done on the property to prepare for the renovations, including the elimination of a massive amount of invasive species, including pachysandra and English ivy.
Before a shovel touched the ground on Oct. 1, Audubon New York Executive Director Ana Paula Tavares spoke. “This hasn’t been easy, getting to this moment,” she said, triumphantly displaying a permit for everyone to see. “Centers like this is where the magic happens. Imagine, Theodore Roosevelt rode horses on this property.”
Mohlenhoff reminded the attendees that preparation for the project had taken years, making the moment bittersweet. “There were doubts from friends and neighbors that this would ever happen,” he said. “This sanctuary, and Youngs Cemetery, are the anchor of Oyster Bay Cove. And I’m sure TR would be happy that we are honoring him with a native plant garden and our plans to make this area a hub for conservation on Long Island.”
Tavares thanked state Sen. Carl Marcellino for his support, calling him a great friend of Audubon. He, in turn, stressed the importance of education. “Bringing children here and letting them see and smell — we need to teach them all about what is here,” Marcellino said. “This place is one of the gems on Long Island.”
Native plants, like purple coneflowers, will allow for the American goldfinch to catch a quick lunch, and black cherry trees will draw cedar waxwings. The birds that are already there — red-tailed hawks, egrets and belted kingfishers — will likely thrive too.
The renovations will be visually appealing, especially at the entrance. A sidewalk close to Cove Road now leads to a set of iron gates. The area will be opened up, with a 30-foot by 30-foot plaza at the entrance and a serpentine walkway leading to the Bessie Potter Vonnoh memorial sculpture and fountain.
The statue in the center of the fountain, installed in 1927, was created by Potter Vonnoh, a turn-of-the-century artist, to honor Roosevelt. The fountain, which has been inoperable for some time, will be restored and operational once again. Block seating will be installed near the fountain for visitors, which will also serve as an area for educational programs.
The center’s property was donated to the Audubon Society in 1923 by the Roosevelt family in memory of Theodore Roosevelt. A home for songbirds, it was the first of its kind.