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May 14, 2019 10:47 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Sag Harbor's Old Whalers' Church, Once The Tallest Structure On Long Island, Celebrates 175 Years

Randolph Croxton lecturing about the architecture and history of the church on Sunday. ELIZABETH VESPE
May 14, 2019 11:13 AM

The pitter-patter of rain hitting the roof could be heard in the ornate and spacious Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor on Sunday, as congregants celebrated the church’s 175th anniversary at a worship service led by the Reverend Linda Maconochie.Walter Klauss, the church’s music director and organist, played hymns that might have been performed at a service 175 years ago. And Randolph Croxton, an architect who was instrumental in securing the building’s designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1994, pointed out architectural details, such as its hand-carved wood pillars, historic pipe organ and intricate plaster designs, as well as providing a history of the church’s former 185-foot-tall steeple.

With the steeple and its one-of-a-kind Egyptian Revival-style architecture and Greek elements, the Old Whalers’ Church was the centerpiece of the Sag Harbor skyline for nearly 94 years. It was the tallest building on Long Island, not including Brooklyn and Queens, Mr. Croxton said.

Then the Hurricane of 1938 knocked the steeple off its tower and into the adjacent Old Burying Ground cemetery.

“There are many people who are still alive who were there and remember what happened,” Mr. Croxton told the congregants. “They saw the steeple not fall over but take off into the air.”

Witnesses told Mr. Croxton that the steeple had been leaning into the direction the wind was pushing it. The wind then broke a device that was meant to open a lower section of the steeple for wind to enter and allow the air to move through freely.

Then, Mr. Croxton said, the steeple “literally shot off like a cork out of a champagne bottle, directly into the graveyard.”

Remnants of the landmark steeple, including its weather vane, are on display inside the church, near one of its winding staircases, and in the lobby.

The oldest known record of the original Presbyterian Church of Sag Harbor was on February 24, 1766. At that time, the congregation met in a wooden building known as the Old Barn Church, which was built on the northeast corner of Church Street and Sage Street.

No pictures of the old church exist, although the Reverend Nathaniel S. Prime, the minister from 1806 to 1809, described it as a “mere frame and outward covering, without either ceiling or plaster.”

Rev. Prime married Julia Ann Jermain, daughter of Major John Jermain, who served in the Revolutionary War. Rev. Prime and his wife lived in the minister’s house at the corner of Sage Street and Madison Street, where, in 1809, Julia Prime started one of the first Sunday schools in the nation.

In 1816, when the congregation decided to build a larger church on the same property, the Old Barn Church was torn down and its lumber used to construct the new church, according to Mr. Croxton.

In spite of a devastating fire in 1817 that damaged much of Sag Harbor, work on the new church continued, and it was dedicated in 1818.

A religious revival in 1842 started a movement to build a new church, with support from wealthy ship owners, captains, local businessmen and church members. The property on Union Street was purchased for $2,000; without furnishings, the building itself cost $17,000.

To help pay for the church, pew seats were auctioned, raising about $15,000. Whaling officers, shipyard owners, ship owners, ship’s chandlers and outfitters were among the many of those who donated, according to historical records.

“That was the height of prosperity in the whaling industry in Sag Harbor,” Mr. Croxton told the congregants on Sunday, adding that whaling ships used Sag Harbor as their home port and that more than 1,800 men were employed in the whaling industry, which brought millions of dollars to the village.

Minard Lafever, one of the nation’s leading architects, was commissioned to design the Old Whalers’ Church, and many of his handcrafted details still survive to this day.

The church was dedicated on May 16, 1844, and it is estimated that a thousand people attended, Mr. Croxton said. He added that several whaling vessels postponed sailing for one day so that captains and crew members could attend the dedication.

Mr. Croxton said that Lafever was trained as a carpenter and was entirely self-taught architecturally, but that he emerged as a leading architect in America. From 1843 to 1844 Lafever had two major church commissions underway: the massive Gothic-style Church of the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights, as well as the unique Egyptian Revival style of the Old Whalers’ Church.

Since its construction, the Old Whalers’ Church has undergone a series of renovations and restorations, Mr. Croxton said. Around 1950, the ceiling was found to be unsafe and the church was closed for several months to address that. More modern electric light fixtures were removed and replaced with a chandelier and sidelights designed to look like whale oil-burning fixtures of the time period. A restoration beginning in the 1990s, which included updating the windows, received state funding because of the building’s historic significance.

Today, pieces of the Old Whalers’ Church’s history remain on the walls—including signatures on the second floor that date as far back as the mid-1800s and represent those who served the church as well as those who painted and restored it over the years. The original bell is preserved in the church’s front hallway. Blubber spades, which were used to cut up whales, are placed throughout the building to commemorate an industry that once fueled Sag Harbor’s economy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Croxton hopes to someday see the steeple restored and raised again, which it is estimated would cost at least $2 million. Fundraising, which began in 1952, is still underway.

“I’ve always wanted to do this,” Mr. Croxton told the congregation, “Once we have the steeple up, have a video connection up there with a 360-degree view … it would be a phenomenal draw for people to come and see the story of the church.”

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