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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM BRIDGEHAMPTON, N.Y.

Tapping Into Hamptons Kids' Heritage

A children's museum that opens next weekend highlights the area's pre-golf course days.

October 02, 2005|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

BRIDGEHAMPTON, N.Y. — Lucy Muhlfeld remembers exactly when she began plotting with her friend Jorie Latham to create a new cultural facility in the Hamptons. It was back in 1995, at a bike-a-thon fundraiser for a recreation center.

Muhlfeld had just returned from Connecticut, where she'd taken her 2-year-old triplets to a small children's museum that had occupied all three for a full 90 minutes. So when Muhlfeld spotted Latham and her 6-year-old son at the bike-a-thon, she began gushing about the place and how "the next thing we do should be a children's museum."

A decade and $8 million later, the Children's Museum of the East End is poised for its grand opening next weekend on land donated by actor Alan Alda and his wife.

One thing that won't be featured in the exhibit is the eastern tiger salamander, which museum organizers say delayed the project by two years and increased the project's cost by $1 million. But there are hands-on exhibits about potatoes, which used to be grown most everywhere on the far end of Long Island before golf courses and vineyards became more popular uses of the land.

And there is a child-sized farm stand, like the ones that abound along the narrow roads that become crowded each weekend, especially in the summer, when the area draws its wealthy visitors and part-time residents from Manhattan and other points west.

Muhlfeld, Latham and the other parents who campaigned for the museum are year-round residents who worried that there was not enough for younger children to do outside of the Hamptons' broad beaches and movie theaters.

"I think the perception is that there's nobody out here year-round, that it's just a summer community," said Adrienne Kitaeff, executive director of the Children's Museum of the East End, better known as CMEE, as in See Me. "People just don't know that there are families who have been here for generations and want to stay here."

Although some of the year-rounders are affluent too, and may rub tanned elbows in the summer with Steven Spielberg, Jimmy Buffett and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, the schools and day-care centers also serve a large general population.

One goal of the museum is to get local kids playing alongside the offspring of the weekenders and the summer homeowners and renters, Muhlfeld said.

Despite her friends' initial enthusiasm and two years of "pulling our act together," as Muhlfeld put it, they were not convinced that such a facility was feasible until 1997, when they were offered space in East Hampton's historic Guild Hall for a three-month pilot project. Then more than 5,000 parents and kids showed up to sample the temporary exhibits, including the miniature farm stand and a simulated fishing pond.

Plans for a permanent facility were given a huge boost when the parents of museum board member Bea Alda stepped up: Alan and Arlene Alda -- the latter a photographer and an author of children's books -- bought 12 acres for the museum in Bridgehampton.

Besides its central location -- Bridgehampton is between Southampton and East Hampton -- the site seemed promising because a second group was trying to develop another cultural facility across the road. The South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center was planned on three acres just across the Bridgehampton/Sag Bridge Turnpike. That project also had impressive backing, with a $500,000 state grant and the personal support of New York Gov. George E. Pataki.

The chief local donor to that effort had long campaigned for protection of the eastern tiger salamander, and soon the New York Department of Environmental Conservation was scrutinizing the proposed children's museum site.

Half a mile of drift fencing had to be constructed on the site, along with aluminum flashing dug into the earth -- and salamander-friendly buckets.

"We had to put [130] buckets in the ground on both sides of the fence, with a special lid and a wet sponge, in case any salamanders fell in, so they wouldn't get suffocated," Muhlfeld said. "Then we had to hire a licensed biologist to come in every two days to check the buckets."

"They found no salamanders -- not one," said Kitaeff, who saw fundraising stall and construction costs rise until the state agency gave its go-ahead in April 2003. Today, there's debate whether the final cost of the 13,000-square-foot museum was a bargain.

"Depends who you talk to," said Muhlfeld, whose husband helped found one of the real estate firms that has sold some of the imposing homes for which the Hamptons are famous.

"Some people go, '$8 million!' but around here you buy a [property] for $8 million and then you tear the house down."

Some of the construction was still being completed at the site last week, even as a group of Bridgehampton schoolchildren was to give the museum a pre-opening tryout Thursday.

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