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As His Wife Lay Dying, an Architect Brought Her Building to Life

SHELTER ISLAND, N.Y. — As the founding design partner of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, William Pedersen is best known for soaring skyscrapers like the World Financial Center in Shanghai or sprawling developments like the recently completed Hudson Yards in New York.

But in Mr. Pedersen’s more than 60 years of architectural practice, the project that means the most is the modest one he just completed here, where he and his wife, Elizabeth Pedersen, have summered since 1975.

“I probably had the most pleasurable professional experience of my life,” Mr. Pedersen, still lithe at 81, said during a recent walk through the Shelter Island History Center.

The center is the new name for the reconfigured complex run by the Shelter Island Historical Society, custodian of the island’s archives and artifacts. Until recently, those treasures were housed in the attic of the historical society’s decaying Havens House Museum, built in 1743. Despite a slight update in 1966, the museum was desperately in need of rescue.

“It was a tinderbox waiting for a match,” said Nanette Lawrenson, the historical society’s executive director.

Over the last three years, Havens House has been renovated and expanded with a two-level addition designed by Mr. Pedersen to create more storage and a proper art gallery. (A barn on the property, built in 1988, has remained intact). The effort was initiated by Ms. Pedersen, who served for eight years as the historical society’s president. Four years ago, she received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, just as the project was gaining steam. Ms. Pedersen continued to be actively involved until her illness made that unfeasible; her husband has finished it for her.

“It was through her determination to make this possible that it happened,” Mr. Pedersen said. “And once one gets excited about it, it has a momentum of its own.”

The entire undertaking was very much a product of the Pedersens’ personal partnership. Their 50th wedding anniversary gift to each other was a construction assessment of the building. They donated 90 percent of the project’s approximately $6 million cost (the rest was raised from more than 400 contributors), and Mr. Pedersen gave his architectural services for free.

“You can’t imagine how much this meant to us — the timing of it, in terms of our own relationship,” he said. “It was such a shared thing.”

Ms. Pedersen was inspired by the example of her father, Hiram E. Essex, the director of physiology at the Mayo Institute of Experimental Medicine. Dr. Essex helped found an art center in Rochester, Minn., and donated his family’s 325-acre farm — where he raised purebred Holstein-Friesian cattle — to that city so it could become a public park.

“Elizabeth was quite determined to do something like her father did for her community,” Mr. Pedersen said. “So, she did.”

The project proved more challenging than anticipated. To ensure that the addition did not overwhelm or upstage the original Havens House building — which over time has served as a home, tavern, school and boardinghouse — Mr. Pedersen decided to locate half of the center below ground level.

“We did not want to build a structure that was of equivalent size,” he said. “We wanted something that was lower and would allow this to always remain the dominant player in the composition.”

Because of the water level below ground, it was necessary to dig down about 18 feet to achieve a ceiling height in the new building that would be adequate for museum display. “We had to pump water out for three months to make all of this happen,” he said, “sort of like building the Brooklyn Bridge.”

The new building, which doubles the original space to about 4,000 square feet, includes an art gallery, which opened June 23 with a show by Alan Shields, a longtime island resident who died in 2005. Shelter Island has long attracted artists — like John Chamberlain, who made his scrap-metal sculptures there, and the violinist Itzhak Perlman, who with his wife, Toby, established the Perlman Music Program — and the historical society hopes the center will become a cultural destination on Long Island’s East End.

“It’s a place for people to gather and see art and historical exhibits,” Ms. Lawrenson said, “a way for people to enjoy a Shelter Island story.”

The project was very much a local endeavor. The landscape architecture was done by David Kamp, who used to live on the island and volunteered his services. The builder was Fokine Construction, whose principal, Christian Fokine, also makes cheese that he sells at the farmer’s market held outside the history center on Saturday mornings. Mr. Fokine’s wife, Heidi Fokine, has long taught a weekly yoga class in the historical society’s barn.

Roz Dimon, a Shelter Island artist, created an interactive installation for the center — “DIMONscape” — which layers 300 years of Havens House’s history into a single artwork.

The historical society’s collection of 100,000 documents and objects — including correspondence, news articles, photographs and maps — now resides in new climate-controlled spaces. The artist Helena Hernmarck has created a tapestry for the new center that is based on one of the society’s prized artifacts: a 1652 owners contract for the purchase of Shelter Island between the Manhanset people and English settlers.

The building includes a meeting room featuring the original oak beams, which had been covered by plaster and are each marked by Roman numerals that were historically carved in to help with assembly. The courtyard is bordered by Pennsylvania wall stone, where visitors are encouraged to linger. Maxim Velcovsky, a Czech designer, made the glass light fixture in the art gallery; Mr. Pedersen designed the display tables.

Understanding the surrounding landscape typically takes time for an architect. But Shelter Island was in Mr. Pedersen’s bones, given his many years on the island — the salty sea air, the tall beach grass, the sand beneath the osprey nests. He didn’t need to be told to redirect the driveway to protect the dawn redwood on the property, for example, one of only three such trees on the island. After renovating two different houses on North Cartwright Road, which now belong to his two grown daughters, Mr. Pedersen designed a contemporary home on Ram Island Drive, where he and his wife have resided for the last decade.

“I like to think it’s always been my thing — whether it’s my house or a high-rise in Hong Kong,” Mr. Pedersen said, referring to a building’s sensitivity to the landscape and taking an understated architectural approach. “It’s kind of fun to do that. Maybe I should have done it earlier — to temper one’s aspirations.”

With this restraint in mind, Mr. Pedersen said he designed the new history center structure as “a mediating piece” between Havens House and the barn.

“The relationship between the two structures had to be one that was totally sympathetic,” he said. “This wasn’t an issue of me doing an avant-garde structure, to proclaim my creativity. The intention was to do something that totally knit this together and, frankly, something that people liked.”

Unfortunately, Ms. Pedersen never got to see the center open to the public. She died last Thursday, just four days after the historical society’s annual “Black and White” fund-raiser, held under tents on the property, where she used to preside. Ms. Pedersen left in her will a gift for the center’s education program that is to be called the Elizabeth Pedersen Educational Fund.

“The percentage of people who make it four years is about 10 percent,” Mr. Pedersen said of those with metastasized pancreatic cancer, “and we’re very grateful.”

That said, “it would have been nice if she could have lasted a little longer,” he added, surveying the four Chinese Elms that shade the courtyard — “to see more of this in action.”

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