Steinbeck's Sag Harbor Home Will Be Preserved After Southampton Town Approves CPF Funding - 27 East

Steinbeck's Sag Harbor Home Will Be Preserved After Southampton Town Approves CPF Funding

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The Sag Harbor home of the Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck will be preserved and turned into a writer's retreat with a combination of funding from the Southampton Town Community Preservation Fund and private donations raised by the Sag Harbor Partnership. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

The Sag Harbor home of the Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck will be preserved and turned into a writer's retreat with a combination of funding from the Southampton Town Community Preservation Fund and private donations raised by the Sag Harbor Partnership. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

Kathryn Szoka of Canio's Books in Sag Harbor, who launched the effort to preserve John Steinbeck's Sag Harbor home, urged the Southampton Town Board once more on Tuesday to make it a reality. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

Kathryn Szoka of Canio's Books in Sag Harbor, who launched the effort to preserve John Steinbeck's Sag Harbor home, urged the Southampton Town Board once more on Tuesday to make it a reality. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

Ken Schnaper called on the Southampton Town Board to provide for more  public access to the John Steinbeck home in Sag Harbor.  STEPHEN J. KOTZ

Ken Schnaper called on the Southampton Town Board to provide for more public access to the John Steinbeck home in Sag Harbor. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and Councilman Rick Martel listen to testimony at a Town Board hearing on the preservation of the Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck's Sag Harbor home. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and Councilman Rick Martel listen to testimony at a Town Board hearing on the preservation of the Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck's Sag Harbor home. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

authorStephen J. Kotz on Feb 15, 2023

Two years after the modest Sag Harbor home of the Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck went on the market, spurring fears that it would soon be replaced with just another so-called McMansion, the Southampton Town Board voted unanimously on Tuesday, February 14, to preserve it.

Working in conjunction with the Sag Harbor Partnership, the town will pay $11.2 million for the development rights to the 1.8-acre waterfront property at the end of Bluff Point Lane in Sag Harbor. The partnership will contribute $2.3 million to purchase the underlying property itself.

The partnership will, in turn, spin off another nonprofit that will take title to the property and enter into a long-term lease with the University of Texas to operate a writer’s retreat at the site.

“Every once in a while, we get to do something historic. I believe this is historic,” said Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, when the board prepared to vote on the purchase later in its meeting. “John Steinbeck was really a gift to this community, a gift to our nation, and really a gift to the world. What an extraordinary writer, a literary giant, we had here, living in our town.”

Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni, who played a major role in the more than year-long effort to preserve the property, thanked a litany of individuals and groups who had lent their support. But he took a minute to single out one in particular: Kathryn Szoka, the co-owner of Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor, who was the first to call for preservation, and the only one who stuck around to hear the deal be made official three hours after the hearing had been closed.

“The first phone call I got was from Kathryn Szoka,” Schiavoni said. “And I think it’s kind of ironic that you are here for the vote.”

Schiavoni said when the Steinbeck property first came on the market, many local officials thought it was worthy of preservation, but they wanted to find a good steward “to make this place an institution on the East End that would ring true to the life of John Steinbeck and the literary history on the South Fork.” That was achieved, he added, when the Sag Harbor Partnership brought the University of Texas to the table.

There was overwhelming support for the purchase when the board opened its hearing last month, with only details of the public access agreement left to be hashed out.

On Tuesday, Jacqueline Fenlon, the acting manager of the town’s Community Preservation Fund, went over that agreement, which will offer a number of by-appointment-only options for visitors. There will be three open house weekends over the Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Columbus Day holidays when visitors can tour the house from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and access to the grounds, including Steinbeck’s writing gazebo, Joyous Garde, will be offered between noon and 4 p.m. most Saturdays except from June through August, when the property will only be open two Saturdays a month.

The number of visitors will be limited to 20 per hour, including those who would arrive by boat if the Village of Sag Harbor follows through with a proposal to allow its launch service operator, Ken Deeg, to ferry passengers to the site overlooking Morris Cove.

Writers who stay at the house will be required to offer at least a one-day writing workshop for high school students in Southampton Town, although University of Texas officials have said they expected those in residence to engage in a range of outreach activities.

Although most speakers were again in favor of the purchase, some criticized the access agreement as inadequate.

Ken Schnaper of Westhampton said Steinbeck was “an everyman” whose work addressed the downtrodden in American society. Why, he asked, was access limited to only a handful of people each weekend?

He suggested the site might be better run as a museum, with some of Steinbeck’s papers on display and educational opportunities for a broader public.

“I’d read it again,” he said of Steinbeck’s work if it were offered as a class. “I think I’d get more out of now than I did in high school.”

David Nelson of Sag Harbor said the purchase was being rushed and had not been well thought out.

“A two-page public access plan raises more questions than it answers,” he said. “It is insufficient. It’s a plan to have a plan sometime in the future.”

Nelson said more care should have been given to addressing traffic, parking, the need for public facilities and other environmental concerns, and he said $11.5 million was too much for the town to spend on the property.

Instead, he said, the town could have used money from the CPF to purchase the Water Street Shops building, which had been slated for redevelopment as a new Bay Street Theater but has since been put back on the market for $25 million. Buying that property would double the size of John Steinbeck Waterfront Park, he said.

“Steinbeck’s writing gazebo, which is the only item of historic interest on the property, could be moved there, making it accessible to literally hundreds of times more people with a far greater community benefit,” he added.

That comment apparently touched a nerve with Councilwoman Cynthia McNamara.

She said she had originally opposed the purchase because she thought the access agreement was too limited — but a recent visit to the property with her daughter when they were able to see the setting where Steinbeck worked had converted her that it was worthy of preservation.

“I’m sorry, but taking that gazebo and sticking it in a park and not having the experience of that would be a tragedy,” she said. “That park comment today was actually what put me over to ‘this has to be preserved as it is for people to see.’”

Susan Mead, the co-president of the Sag Harbor Partnership, said her organization was checking off things that had to be completed before the site could be placed in operation. Among those chores, she said, is raising about the $200,000 it still needs to close the deal. Donations can be made by visiting the partnership’s website, sagharborpartnership.org, or through a new GoFundMe account, Help SAVE John Steinbeck’s House! At gofund.me/5f5c5b3b.

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