History is homeless in Margate.
And more than a year after the Margate Historical Society lost its city-owned building in a space shuffle, officials from several local institutions are working to help the group find a place to display a collection that includes everything from hand-drawn maps of Margate before it was even called Margate to the actual jail from the town’s old police station.
While that planning goes on — and is complicated by Hurricane Sandy’s damage to other municipal buildings, including the century-old former City Hall itself — the Historical Society’s artifacts are boxed up and stowed away in an Egg Harbor Township storage unit.
The agencies helping find a home for all that local history include the Margate Public Library, the city’s schools and the city government — plus the Historical Society, now officially a part of the library in an entity formally called the Margate Library and Historical Society Alliance Inc.
And the planning is in such a fluid state that at a meeting Thursday, representatives of all those institutions were throwing out ideas and suggestions that didn’t have — and would need — official approval from the City Commission and the school board, at least.
“I want to stress that this is a work in progress,” said Richard Deaney, the city administrator. “Nothing has been approved by anybody.”
But one popular plan involves the city giving space for historic displays in the longtime City Hall, at Washington and Ventnor avenues, next door to the old Historical Society home. The brick building is one of the oldest structures in town, and it currently has plenty of spare space on its hands — because all the city offices had to move out in November, after living history hit Margate and its neighbors in hurricane form.
The City Hall building had close to 3 feet of flooding on its first floor, and within days, the city moved its workers and functions to the Union Avenue School, which had been largely vacant since it closed as a school in 2010.
The city expects to restore that flooded City Hall first floor, which also traditionally housed Municipal Court sessions in a space that doubled as the site of public meetings for the City Commission and other official bodies. Mayor Mike Becker said the commissioners are “pretty much in agreement that we’re going to rebuild the court and the Commission chambers.”
As for the Historical Society, “We are certainly on board for finding them a permanent home where the artifacts of the city can be displayed in a better fashion than they were before. Where that’s going to be, we haven’t decided yet,” Becker said.
Deaney said Margate officials are still working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on repair plans for the old City Hall — and on how much federal disaster aid the town will get to restore the building. So the city can’t offer the Historical Society a home instantly, or imminently.
Still, “From our perspective, the ideal place for the Historical Society would be in that historic building,” said Jim Cahill, the library director.
Mark Slotkin, president of the library’s board, estimated that talk of the Historical Society becoming a library partner goes back 10 years, at least, to a time when the city was considering an addition to the space-strapped library’s building. That expansion never happened, but Slotkin pointed out that the merger of library and history museum would follow a trend in many local communities.
Frank Tiemann, co-founder and president of the Margate Historical Society — and the man who personally assembled much of its collection over decades in flea markets, websites and even trash piles — has followed that trend, too.
“Avalon went to the library, Ocean City went to the library. Atlantic City went to the library,” Tiemann said, and there are more examples — including neighboring Ventnor.
Tiemann is a former city police officer who grew up in another one of the town’s oldest buildings — upstairs at what is now Ventura’s Greenhouse, next to Lucy the Elephant. He has Margate history in his blood, and he likes the sound of moving into the old City Hall, with one qualifier.
“Everyone told me, ‘Don’t go to the second floor. The second floor is no good,’” he said.
And although the library and Historical Society just united formally last year — in part so they could share official status as nonprofit fundraisers — Tiemann has displayed pictures from his history collection in the library’s front lobby for years. Cahill said the library gets a good reaction to that history.
“A lot of people come in here and identify their great-grandfather in a picture and say, ‘I’ll pay you to make a copy of that for me,’” the library director said.
Another player in the planning is the city’s school system, where Superintendent Theresa DeFranco said she hopes to help the Historical Society by giving it new places to show its collection to the city’s residents — including but not strictly her students.
She would like to see museum-style historical exhibits in public areas at the Performing Arts Center in the Tighe School, which can draw thousands of people a year to concerts and other events. DeFranco adds that a local-history collection can also work well in the school’s lessons because part of the state’s curriculum requires teaching students about New Jersey history.
In the meantime, the superintendent hopes to be able to offer the library some out-of-the-way space in Margate’s Ross School to let the staff catalog the Historical Society collection — and thereby give the library a way to start getting all those boxes out of the rented storage unit.
The library has also asked the city for space in unused former classrooms, upstairs in the current municipal building at Union Avenue, so it can move those boxes off the mainland and back home to Margate.
“There’s a sense of urgency,” Cahill said. “We want to get these things out” and let people see them again.
Tiemann, 76, added later that he feels the urgency, too.
“I want to see the museum,” he said, smiling, “before I die.”
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