City Island Nautical Museum goes back into commission

When the museum’s entrance caught fire last year, it needed to be reconstructed to appear as it did before the fire. The completed product (above) looks even better than the original. Photos by Patrick Rocchio

When the façade and entranceway for the City Island Nautical Museum caught fire in a suspicious blaze in 2007, those in charge of the more than 40-year-old society vowed to rebuild. Now, the City Island Historical Society’s Nautical Museum has been brought back into commission.

The pillared front of the building at 190 Fordham Street leading to the museum was set afire and was extensively damaged on Friday, July 13. The building also houses 16 condominium units and the City Island Community Center.

Because it is a landmarked building, formally housing P.S. 17, the wooden façade front had to be rebuilt as close to the original design as possible. With work being completed in the fall, the nautical museum held is Going-Back-into Commission open house on Sunday, December 14.

“A few people had the idea of organizing a nautical society and museum in the 1960s, and when P.S. 175 opened in 1975 replacing P.S. 17, the museum moved into this building,” said Tom Nye, vice-president and curator. “This is an extraordinary museum built by ordinary people.”

The blaze that took the museum “out-of-commission,” to use a term often applied to ships when they are taken in or out of service, started just before sunset on July 13. Neighbors heard firecrackers, which was almost immediately followed by the sight of flames shooting up to 80 feet into the air above the façade of the building.

Exhibits in the hall of the building were completely destroyed, but most of the collection, either in storage or on exhibit in other rooms, were intact, thanks to the building’s heavy schoolroom doors.

It is unclear if those who lit the firecrackers meant to light the building on fire. The doors and all of the moldings had to be custom crafted to the architects’ specifications in order to replicate the interior with the exterior of the original entrance, which was over a century old.

Museum president Ed Sadler, who is 92, remembers the days when City Island housed seven full-sized ship yards which built boats, and got his start as a launch boy, bringing people out to boats on the water, in 1928. It is City Island’s unique place in the history of nautical New York and America that the museum seeks to document.

“I worked aboard the biggest fireboat in the world, the “Firefighter,” to which I was appointed to on July 1, 1939,” Sadler said. “I got my start on City Island when I was 12-years-old in 1928-29 running a pilot boat, putting pilots on ships with a 20-foot launch. At this museum, people learn about boating and become very interested in it. It is all about old-time City Island, from the start of the island up until the present.”

The City Island Historical Society’s Nautical Museum should be open again on a regular schedule in the spring, with hours on Sunday between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. and by appointment.

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