Vertical Market Focus--Public Venues: An Installation of Historic Proportions

Oct. 19, 2012
On of the oldest mansions still standing on Long Island Sound, the Vanderbilt museum got a much needed security update thanks to World Wide Security

World Wide Security, a Garden City, N.Y.-based alarm company, was awarded the contract of bringing a decade old security and life-safety system into working order. The property was the summer home, turned museum, of William K. Vanderbilt II, located on the North Shore of Long Island and consisting of nine buildings scattered across some 43-acres, now called the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum.

Working with historic structures of national importance as well as non-profits can be a challenge but the added hurdle was the security and fire alarm system had not been working consistently, so there was little protection for this turn-of-the-century property. The additional catch: there wasn’t any money in the budget for new equipment.

Eagle’s Nest, listed on the U.S. National Registry of Historic Places, was the 24-room summer home of Vanderbilts, constructed in stages from 1910 to 1936 and located in Centerport, N.Y. Planned by the same New York architectural firm that designed Grand Central Station for the New York Central Railroad, one of several Vanderbilt family enterprises, the home is a living example of a by-gone era and exemplifies the wealthy Gold Coast of Long Island during its heyday. The mansion sits on 43-acres overlooking the Long Island Sound and the property is comprised of a working planetarium, boathouse, seaplane hanger, marine museum, natural history habitats and other estate features. The project called for a working security and fire alarm system to protect this amazing historical gem while also monitoring visitors on a daily basis who tour its buildings and grounds.

The project had technological and historical constraints associated with it as well as goals to optimize existing equipment. 

Getting history back in working order

The primary goal was to provide a working system. The system had not been operating to its capacity for some time, in fact there is speculation that it never worked correctly. A breakdown in communications between the former installer and the lack of desire to continue a labor-intensive relationship killed it for both parties. In our initial meetings with our contacts at the museum and the agency that awarded us the contract, this point was brought up several times, “Can you get an old system online, will you service it and will you also keep us up-to-date on any future repairs needed?” After consulting with our in-house technical department, we assured them we could.

The system inherited was a combination of Simplex, Bosch and NVT components; great manufacturers built to last, but World Wide is a Honeywell Authorized Dealer. We demonstrated we had the proper expertise on staff including factory-trained technicians with these systems, which gave us the ability to proceed. Working with non-profits there are many channels to work through, parties to work with, each having vested interest in the outcome and keeping within a very tight budget. Our approach was to leverage our technical expertise and project management experience as to not eat up the small amount of funding dedicated to getting this project done. An endeavor of this kind requires skilled management to prevent waste.

The first step involved picking the right people to tackle the job who would systematically address each broken link in the chain. While it would have been much easier to replace the entire system and start over, this was not what the contract called for.

Our first day involved crawling around 100-year-old underground passages to locate wires, create a working set of drawings and, utilizing satellite imaging and GPS mapping, create the guide needed to navigate the underground maze.

Hours went into deciphering what was connected to what on this property.

Long labor hours

Troubleshooting what we inherited, mapping wire from point A to point B and finding camera locations became very labor intensive. We also performed a great deal of site cleanup in the underground passageways, clearing them of mounds of rat droppings and other debris. The crew painstakingly cleaned every wire with a non-corrosive cleaner while also disinfecting floors around the existing equipment with bleach.

The camera cabling drops in many locations exceeded 3,000 feet. We were amazed that the prior contractor would install a system in a manner that exceeded acceptable standards by such a large degree. We shortened the drops; installed weatherproof electric housings able to withstand the salt air and slowly each camera came alive. The property sits on one of the highest points on Long Island facing the north, overlooking the sound, this is a very harsh environment with high winds coming across open water mixed with corrosive salt air.

Blueprints of the existing installation did not exist so World Wide technicians used a propriety software program helping us to accurately geo-locate devices on the property. We utilized this program for tagging cameras back to the guard booth that would become the property’s working command center. From there we proceeded to the tunnels fixing wires in order to bring more power to the lines leading to the cameras. We relied on both the curator and the groundskeeper to guide us to each camera, some of which were very remote and covered with plant growth or years of grime.

Our technicians also had to take precautions when working. Some of the areas needing the most surveillance were abandoned and condemned. Safety procedures such as hard hats, harnesses and respirators were used. Very tight crawl spaces also posed a problem, resulting in one technician getting stuck for a short period of time. Our safety procedures also included two-man teams and long-range communications as the area did not have a strong cellular signals.

Tender loving care

There are many areas of this museum complex completely off limits to the public due to historical importance. Items so delicate their existence is in constant danger of complete disintegration that we had to take extraordinary care when working in these areas. The mansion and grounds had been hosts to many heads of state and is a treasure trove of important documents as well as artwork spanning over a century of U.S. history. Amazing discoveries included a near pristine working example of a photoelectric burglar alarm system from the 1930s. Not much attention was paid to high-tech security by the wealthy until after the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932. This event inspired the Vanderbilts to install a perimeter security system at each terrace opening, which is still visible today.

The lessons we learned during the execution of the project no one wanted was the dedication that went into making every component work became a labor of love. We were thrilled our hard work paid off as everything came online when the wiring was complete. In all we had a crew ranging from a few installers or more a day depending on where we were in the process. Much of the work took place outside or in crawl spaces and luckily this past winter was mild in New York. Our crews worked there on-and-off for months and still continue to tweak the old system when something goes down. Only a couple of cameras in the end did not work and these will be replaced in the next working phase of the project World Wide was awarded. It was a long process and we came out knowing we could do this again.