Port Authority of Oswego looks to build new maritime museum

The Port of Oswego Authority. Provided photo

OSWEGO — Bill Scriber’s vision of the Port he runs here seems to grow by the day. Up to now it’s been all about commerce and jobs, about technological advances and keeping the Port competitive.

But there’s always been another side, an historical side, a nautical reminder of Oswego’s maritime past. Since the time of the great Rosemary Nesbitt, historian, educator, and founder of the H. Lee White Maritime Museum, the Port has been its home and benefactor. And now Scriber wants to bring that quaint and historic building, or at least what it stands for, into the 21st century as a new museum of modern design out on the Port looking out over the lake.

For now, it’s a dream, but real plans are soon to be made. Scriber hopes to meet with the Port’s board and the present museum’s directors in the near future to discuss the overall possibility of a new museum and to commission architectural drawings of its future design.

“The Port and the H. Lee White Museum are joining forces. We own the building and some of the artifacts at the H. Lee White Museum. We’re putting an ad hoc committee together to look at redesigning and creating a new museum, building one,” Scriber said in a recent interview.

“We would partner with H. Lee White Museum, and we would build a new museum, a maritime museum, right there on the pier. We’re the only maritime museum on Lake Ontario. We’re going to be getting together and start looking at possibilities, get some architectural renderings, look at the possibility of raising the funds for it, and moving ahead. We own the property, so that’s a big one out of the way. With both of us together, we should be able to get enough money to build, I think, a fairly reasonable, nice museum that would attract more visitors to Oswego. And also, you’ve got NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an office of which is considering declaring 1,700 square miles of eastern Lake Ontario a National Marine Sanctuary) going on. So, that would even be a possibility of creating space for them in the new building ‘cause we’d be right on the water. And the sunsets would be outstanding. It’s going to be a six-month sit-down and plan,” he said.

“The building was a former canal structure before it became the Port,” Scriber continued. “They have a canal museum in Syracuse, but we actually have the real canal that’s operating, and there’s nothing going on. There’s money for the canal out there. I’m sure there’ll be money next year, they’ll bring back the Regional Economic Development thing. All those funding sources are out there, and people are very good to the museum. So, there could be donations. Eventually, the model would be changed. We’d have to look at revenue streams that could support the museum in multiple ways. So, everyone was very enthusiastic. We felt both the H. Lee White Museum and the Port are basically going on the same track, but we were going on different sides of the street. So, this was one way to bring us both together as one. Originally, the museum was totally the Port’s.

“As the years went on, the Port couldn’t handle it. So, they created a group that managed the museum and the artifacts. And they do tours of the lighthouse and such like that. We own the tug, but they have an agreement to manage it, and they charge a fee to take a tour of it. We work together. Let’s talk about the future realistically and look at a new building that would accommodate the needs, be more energy efficient, and be more manageable for them.”

Scriber’s not advocating tearing down the present museum to make way for the new one however.

“I’m not tearing it down,” he said. “We’ll repurpose it. There are a couple ideas. Number one: eventually lake cruising’s coming back. That could be a lake cruise office. Other community organizations could locate there in the summer. It’s too hard to maintain heat there in the winter.

“Taking it down… they took down the grain silo in the ‘90s, and that proved to be a catastrophe,” Scriber added. “The business actually went out of business. Then they tried to take it down. It damaged the wharf. It was a mess.

“The building is still usable to a limited degree, but the museum, we all agree, needs to be in a newer area. The present museum itself is outdated. It was built back in the early 1920s by the state as a granary. It was basically the office for the granary. Back then you built things a certain way, and today you don’t do it. The heating system in it, the registers are original. The walls are one-foot-thick concrete. The black iron that feeds the heating system is about 30 years past its life now. We’re putting money in patching, repairing. There are very few options by which we can put a new heating system in. Our air conditioning to it is just horrendously expensive. So, what we were thinking about is that seeing as the power is already out on the dock, we’ve got water lines, sewer lines, electrical out there for anything we need. On the north end of the present museum, there’s about 100 feet of unused space. So, really, what I’m looking at is a nice, one-story building with glass facing where you’d see the lake and the lighthouse. You’d have one floor of semi-open space where you walk through the various exhibits. That would fit over there. And then, of course, we’d attach to it, not on the lake side but on the south side, offices. And make it kind of an open, airy thing where you’re looking at the lake and the Port, and you’re not restricting it with those walls. There are some renderings I found online that I kind of liked, but I’m not going to pre-empt my decision on everybody else. We have the room on the west pier. It’s already an operating dock. There shouldn’t be any issue with building a nice, one-story building. And why I wanted one-story is because I didn’t want to get involved with elevator systems. I want to make it very accessible. And I had an idea that I hadn’t thrown out to anybody yet, that there’d be a little internal balcony on one side of it that you can walk out on and be a little higher and overlook what’s downstairs, similar to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Something like that. You’re up, but you’re inside. It’s open and welcoming. We could extend it out on the west pier. And to be honestly cheap, one-story buildings aren’t as expensive as two.”

Scriber estimates the museum could be somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 feet by 100 to 150 feet in size, “that is basically a lot of glass looking out over the lake,” he said. “It would be architecturally pleasing. I don’t want to be the owner of a box. I want to be the owner of something that when you come in on a boat, you say, ‘that’s really nice looking. That’s a museum?’ I was thinking we could make it look like a big boat almost, and I think that would not cost a lot of money.”

But a museum is more than its outside, and Scriber wants its inside to tell the story of Oswego’s maritime past.

“The only reason Oswego even exists is the river and the depth of the river, that ships were able to come in, do commerce, build granaries, build coal trestles, have railroad access, and build ships. That’s what Oswego did. Now the city’s declining in population. There was more population years ago than there is now, and it was driven by the maritime trade. We were a big maritime community. And that’s the story the museum should probably tell. And that’s what I think would attract people, because people love history,” he said.

“You know, the new marina will be nice-looking. We’re going to do a little spruce-up around the derrick barge, and then it would look nice to just get rid of everything over there and put up a nice, new, one-story, glass museum. My vision is in keeping with the history of the maritime traditions of the city and this area. I see how places like Cleveland have blossomed. The have a port right at downtown Cleveland. I walked from my hotel to the port, and it’s a huge port. It’s employing 40 to 50 people a day down there making transportation wages. And then I walk about four blocks to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. So, why can’t they co-exist here? We were the largest grain milling area in the United States at one time. There are pictures where you could walk across the Oswego River just on boats. And all those boats had crews. And all those crews got off and ate and drank or slept somewhere, and all those people had to unload stuff, and it was just bustling here. People made millions. It’s why you have those big beautiful houses on the west side. This city was primarily maritime, and slowly it slipped away. It’s sad in a way.”

Scriber said he has no idea what the new museum would cost, but dreams have to start somewhere, and he’s all about starting.

“I seem to be the spark plug in the engine,” he said, “and this is priority one of eight priority ones I’m dealing with at the moment.” In other words, he’s not saying this museum will happen tomorrow.

“Right now, my plate’s full with what I’ve got,” Scriber said, “so I’m not rushing into the next big project other than starting to plan for the next couple years what we need to do.”

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