L'Hommedieu, at 258 Main Street, then.
L'Hommedieu, at 258 Main Street, now.
The Malloy building, then.
The Malloy building, now.
The Morpurgo House at 6 Union Street, then. MICHAEL HELLER
The Morpurgo House at 6 Union Street, now.
The American Hotel at 45 Main Street, then.
The American Hotel at 45 Main Street, now.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Sag Harbor Village historic district, the Sag Harbor Historical Museum has published a book that celebrates the village’s record of reuse and preservation.
Titled “Preserving Sag Harbor: The Historic District After 50 Years, 1973 to 2023,” the book is written by Zachary Studenroth, who is the historic preservation consultant to the village’s architectural review board, though this book grew out of another one of his roles: vice president of the museum’s board of trustees.
Studenroth noted on Friday that the village had printed a book in 1973, when the planning to create a historic district was moving along. The author, Robert Pine, wrote about more than 100 houses and other buildings of historical interest in Sag Harbor.
“He was a professional urban planner who worked for Suffolk County, and he happened to live in the village,” Studenroth said. “And he and a bunch of other folks got together and began to do the research toward creating a historic district.”
The book has been a treasure for the architectural review board, because it contains photos of historic houses as they looked 50 years ago or earlier.
Studenroth said he was looking at his own copy of Pine’s book in October last year and realized it would be the 50th anniversary of the historic district in 2023 — which inspired him to write a book to commemorate the occasion.
“Being on the board, I went to the board of the Historical Museum and asked if they would be willing to sponsor this project, and they were,” he said. “So I’ve been working on the book ever since.”
His fellow board member Bryan Boyhan, the publisher-emeritus of The Sag Harbor Express, designed the book’s layout. “As editor of the paper all these years, he wrote a lot of the articles that I’d be researching from the ’80s or ’90s,” Studenroth said.
A Century of Preservation Projects
Well before the creation of the historic district, the Village of Sag Harbor had a long track record of preservation.
“There’s a hundred years worth of interesting preservation projects, starting with the 1871 conversion of the Nassau House, which was a hotel, into the Union School, and that is today’s municipal building — the village hall,” Studenroth said.
That kicked off a 100-year period prior to the creation of the historic district when a series of very interest preservation protects took place, he added.
The book contains many example of buildings that were recycled into new uses, including the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, which started as an 1845 private home built for Benjamin Hunting, then was acquired in 1920 to become the Masonic Temple, he said. It became the Whaling Museum in 1935, and the Masons also continue to use it today.
“The village experienced this business of historic preservation — adaptive reuse — of ordinary little houses, monumental buildings such as the Whaling Museum, over those 100 years leading up to the beginning of the historic district,” Studenroth said.
He said he was captivated by this and began to wonder why this had occurred in Sag Harbor specifically.
“For one thing, there were some rather monumental buildings being constructed, and so that lends itself to the potential options for reusing them for other purposes,” he said. “But I thought there was probably more to it than that. And I came up with a theory … which is that Sag Harbor, in terms of its population, is a very unusual, somewhat unique community in the sense that it has a long history of people coming here from different cultures, different religions, different customs, etc., etc. …”
“The village has experienced a constant changing of its population over the years due to the fact that it’s a port town,” he continued. “And so its actual history is accepting people from various countries, cultures, socioeconomic circumstances, etc. And this constant influx of new people … feeds this tradition of repurposing the buildings.”
Another example underlining this point is the original Presbyterian meeting house, built in the early 1800s. When the congregation grew, a new church was built: the Old Whalers’ Church.
The old meeting house was sold to the Episcopalians, who used it for 20 years or so before building their own church, Studenroth said. “They, in turn, sold it to the Masons, who transformed it into a venue called the Atheneum, a large meeting space, that was moved so the Fahys Watch Case people could acquire the land next to the factory.
“The building burned in the 1920s, but until then found several purposes that perpetuated its usefulness past that of its original congregation.”
“Preserving Sag Harbor” also traces the lineage of the grassroots organizations that sprouted up over the years in the village to save Sag Harbor’s historic character.
In the 1940s, historically minded people calling themselves the Old Sagg-Harbour Committee had the idea of acquiring the Custom House, which by that point was located behind the Roman Catholic church. It was originally the home of Henry Packer Dering, a customs collector.
“Long after customs were no longer collected in Sag Harbor, the building stood,” Studenroth said. “It was converted for use as a boarding house.”
He related how the committee convinced Charles Edison — who served as governor of New Jersey from 1941 to 1946 and was the son of inventor Thomas Edison — to help them financially to acquire the building and move it to its present site, in the backyard of the Hannibal French House, which Edison owned. Edison gave them his land.
The lineage of grassroots groups also includes the Sag Harbor Historical Museum, which until last year was named the Sag Harbor Historical Society. Sag Harbor native Joan Tripp founded the Historical Society in 1985 out of concern the historic district was not large enough to encompass all of the historic buildings. She worked with the Eastville Historical Society to expand the district, which was done in 1996, Studenroth said.
Founded in 1993, the Coalition of Neighborhoods for the Preservation of Sag Harbor, known as CONPOSH, successfully fought for the protection of Cilli Farm, a 10-acre site, from development.
CONPOSH later disbanded, but then in 2007 Save Sag Harbor was founded to combat large-scale projects and advocate the preservation of historic structures.
Studenroth said Save Sag Harbor was limited because, as an advocacy organization, it could not acquire property. But in 2012, the Sag Harbor Partnership, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, grew out of Save Sag Harbor. The Sag Harbor Partnership could take tax-deductible donations for property acquisition.
Recently, it worked with the Southampton Town Community Preservation Fund to purchase and preserve author John Steinbeck’s former Sag Harbor home.
A Cautionary Tale
Studenroth wrote in the “Preserving Sag Harbor” acknowledgments page that the book is not only a celebration but also a cautionary tale.
“The pressures on real estate development will only increase in proportion to the success of managing the scale and authenticity of Sag Harbor’s architectural treasures,” he wrote. “Just as Robert H. Pine’s Sag Harbor Past, Present and Future signaled a new future for preserving Sag Harbor’s unique character in 1973, it is hoped that the present work will inspire residents to continue protecting what is unique about the village in future decades.”
He said preservation is always an effort and battle. “We’re seeing in the village now a great acceleration in property values, and people are always wanting to improve their properties,” he said. “And so there’s tremendous pressure nowadays.”
Working with the architectural review board, he has witnessed firsthand the “incredible pressure on modest-size houses.”
“Preserving Sag Harbor: The Historic District After 50 Years, 1973 to 2023” is available from the Sag Harbor Historical Museum, 174 Main Street, Sag Harbor.
One fine body…