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Sep 11, 2018 9:42 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Eric Fischl And April Gornik Look To Revitalize Methodist Church Building As Center For Artists

Eric Kischl and April Gornik. KYRIL BROMLEY
Sep 14, 2018 7:25 AM

Historically speaking, the South Fork villages of East Hampton and Southampton were created and defined by their farming and fishing traditions.But Sag Harbor? That’s a different story, and this village has a very different past—one centered on the making of things like rope and barrels during the whaling era, watchcases in the late 19th century at the Fahys and later the Bulova factory, and, in the 20th century, torpedoes and even portions of the lunar landing module, which came out of factories on Long Wharf.

But, today, Bulova is home to luxury condos, and Long Wharf sees more tourists than torpedoes. Which is why artists and North Haven residents Eric Fischl and April Gornik are looking to build a space that will restore Sag Harbor’s reputation as a village where people make things—not manufactured goods, but rather handcrafted items and the types of products that writers, artists, inventors and poets have contributed to the intellectual enrichment of the village for generations.

This past June, Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik closed on their purchase of the old United Methodist Church on Madison Street, and they have come up with an ambitious goal for the nearly 14,000-square-foot building. Their vision is the Sag Harbor Church, an arts lab and center where artists, writers, musicians, craftspeople and makers of all sorts, including those involved in digital media like virtual reality, will live together in residence, where they can create, commune with fellow artists, and share their work with the wider Sag Harbor community.

“The DNA of Sag Harbor is a producing culture. It’s always been cosmopolitan,” Mr. Fischl said during a recent visit to the old church, where he and Ms. Gornik shared details about their plans for the space.

“I wanted this building because it’s basically the last large space in Sag Harbor. It seems like when we start losing the big spaces, it narrows what Sag Harbor becomes, which is what the other Hamptons are. This is a way of slowing down what’s happening in Sag Harbor and using the arts to do it.”

“Not just slowing it down,” Ms. Gornik added, “but integrating it and allowing it to be identifiable not just as a place where you come and get ice cream and leave and gawk at what used to be.”

It’s a big undertaking, and Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik are proceeding with intention and care. Just after Labor Day weekend, the couple launched sagharborchurch.org, a new website dedicated to the project, and in recent months they have been circulating the Great Sag Harbor Creativity Survey in order to gauge the community’s interest and talents in terms of the maker culture on the East End.

For many Sag Harbor residents, the couple’s commitment to renovating and preserving the space comes as something of a relief. In recent years, the church, which was built in 1835, has primarily been a visual eyesore and a mostly idle construction site with a questionable future.

The story began in 2008, when, with a dwindling congregation and mounting expenses, the Methodists sold the building for $2.4 million and built a smaller church on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike. The buyer of the old church was former Southampton Town Councilman and Goldman Sachs founding partner Dennis Suskind, who planned to turn it into a family home. But he changed his mind and four years later sold the property to artist and textile designer Elizabeth Dow.

Ms. Dow envisioned putting her showroom and wallpaper design studio in the church, but her plans never came to fruition. In 2013, the church changed hands again; this time it was purchased by art dealer Sloan Schaffer for $4 million.

Mr. Schaffer enlisted Bates Masi Architects to transform the church into his home, and work—including construction of a new two-story addition at the back of the building—soon began. But in 2015, in the midst of the project, Mr. Schaffer, too, abandoned his plans, and the church went back on the market.

That’s when Mr. Fischl began thinking about the value of the church—not as a private home but as something that could enrich the entire community.

“I definitely looked at this building and thought it looked magnificent from the outside and couldn’t imagine what it would bring to the community as an expensive residence,” he said. “When I heard it was for sale, it was beyond prohibitive. He wanted to sell it for $23 million with the Bates plan carried out. When that didn’t fly, they brought the price down, but it was still exorbitant.”

In the end, Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik were able to buy the building for a little less than three times the church’s original selling price. But it didn’t come without personal sacrifice.

“We’re selling all our holdings in the city to do this,” Ms. Gornik explained. “We’re not billionaires throwing our cash around. We’re doing this from our hearts. … This is our legacy project.”

“We’re investing in this community,” Mr. Fischl added. “This is not a vanity project.”

To realize their vision, Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik have enlisted Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership to come up with the plans. During a walk-through of the space, Mr. Fischl pointed to the rear addition and explained that it will be transformed into housing for four resident artists or craftspeople.

As for how long artists will stay in the space, Mr. Fischl—who was involved in the establishment of the artist-in-residency program at Guild Hall in 2016—said: “We feel five or six weeks is the right amount of time for a residency, especially for people with a family or who work other jobs. We’ve been advised that that amount of time works well. But it’s all up for a test or trial.”

The massive main part of the building, now divided into three floors, is where the artisan workspaces will be located, and Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik are looking to make the area functionally flexible as they consider what the needs of the various residents might be.

“If you have writers, they need quiet but not a lot of room. But composers need space where they don’t drive people crazy,” Mr. Fischl said. “Then you have painters or people working on virtual technology. We’ll feel it out, but I love the cross-pollination of the arts and the idea of them coming together to share a meal at the end of the day.”

“I want to keep it simple. The bones of the church are so beautiful,” Ms. Gornik said. “I don’t think we need to be so proscriptive at this very second. We want people to fill out the creativity survey. The more we talk to people in this area, and the longer we’ve lived here, the more people we’ve run into who can do amazing things. They have, to us, hidden talents that deserve to be celebrated, explored and encouraged.

“The survey will help us locate them and know what people are interested in.”

Though the interior of the church and its stained glass windows were removed at some point after the initial sale, the smaller dedication windows, which were paid for by generations of parishioners, were given to the Methodist Church congregation when they moved to their new space. But in 2017, church services were suspended due to dwindling attendance. Mr. Fischl is now reaching out to the Methodists to see if they would like those windows incorporated back into the original building.

“We want to see if they want to have those stay with the village,” Ms. Gornik said. “We’re trying to be sensitive to those people’s memories.”

“We’re looking for ways to honor their history,” added Mr. Fischl, who sees this project as a way to help define Sag Harbor as a destination driven not by tourism but by the arts and its artisans.

With cultural institutions like the John Jermain Memorial Library, the Custom House, Canio’s Books, the Whaling Museum and soon, the Sag Harbor Church anchoring the south end of the village, a revitalized Sag Harbor Cinema and a collection of art galleries situated in the heart of Main Street, and, Bay Street Theater on Long Wharf, Mr. Fischl sees Sag Harbor setting itself apart from neighboring villages.

“You’ve created an arts district that will, hopefully, impact the type of decisions retailers will make,” he said. “If you provide a year-round vitality to the town, it will discourage pop-ups. If we can create an artistic or maker-culture, they might be selling those products as well.”

“It’s to celebrate maker culture so people come to associate Sag Harbor with that and expect a product like that,” Ms. Gornik added. “It’s expanding the sense of possibility for everybody. It’s also acknowledging the past. We’ve talked endlessly about all the people who defined Sag Harbor—like Betty Friedan, John Steinbeck, Wyndham Lewis, Prentice Mulford, Spalding Gray, James Salter and Ephraim Byram, the clockmaker.”

Though Salter lived in Bridgehampton, he enjoyed Sag Harbor, where he and his wife, Kay Salter, rented for a couple of summers. Sag Harbor is also where he is buried. The author died in 2015 and the words on his tombstone in Oakland Cemetery now grace the homepage of the Sag Harbor Church—“Art is life rescued from time.” In bringing their vision to life, Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik are hoping to do exactly that.“It’s a magnificent space. You could do so much with this,” Mr. Fischl said, looking up into the highest reaches of the church. “This is a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of space.”

To learn more about the Sag Harbor Church and weigh in with your own thoughts and talents about the project, visit sagharborchurch.org and follow the link to the Great Sag Harbor Creativity Survey, which is offered in both English and Spanish.

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