Shocked at Bare Earth
I am a member of the Sag Harbor Tree Fund and would like you to include this letter regarding the cutting of boxwoods on Division Street last week
It was a shock to see bare earth where the ancient, billowing boxwoods used to be in front of each of the Rysam /Sleight houses. These are the two white painted houses — one built in 1740, the other in 1820 — on Division Street, near Burke. These boxwoods were a distinctive part of the Sag Harbor cultural landscape — and approximately 150 years old.
The Zoning Code states that historic trees or plantings at Landmark houses may not be removed without permission of the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review. The older house a designated historical and cultural landmark. Did the new owner actually receive such permission? — This is difficult to believe. Or were the new owners simply oblivious to the value of these plants to the Village and to the existence of the code?
Trees and shrubs are as important a part of the character of a historic village as its architectural elements. These distinctive lost boxwoods were a case in point. More attention needs to be paid to inventorying the significant historic trees and plantings in this village, and to enforcing and clarifying the laws that are on the books. If this does not happen soon, Sag Harbor will become just another town without a history or a soul.
I think that the destruction of these historic boxwood require that the village, its Trustees, the ARB confront a problematic contradiction in how we are functioning as a community. There are ordinances in place. Historical trees are within our mandate. Either we take seriously that we are a ‘historic village’ and preserve our heritage or we will be inexorably abandoning that project. There are many people who can make the case for the importance of trees as part of heritage and part of a community most useful resources. There are economic, aesthetic, ecological and social arguments for tree protection.
But that is all beside the point if the political infrastructure in Sag Harbor remains indifferent to this issue. We have ordinances. We have clear guidelines for the protection of historic tree stock. There is no will to enforce these ordinances. And apparently no commitment within the ARB or the village to protect trees. Without that determination, Sag Harbor is truly and irrevocably altered. Is this truly what the community wants?
“Public Asked to Speak About Harbor Heights.” What an exaggeration. This was the headline on the Sag Harbor Express article announcing the meeting of the Village Planning Board, later postponed to February 7.
The meeting went like this. After “setting the record straight” regarding the front page story in the February 2 East Hampton Star quoting him as having said he was in favor of the Harbor Heights project, Richard Warren stated that as a paid consultant to the Planning Board it was not his place to approve or disapprove.
He then set the boundaries for the “community forum.” He stated that it was the purpose of this meeting to address the environmental aspects of the application, only, moving toward the SEQRA review, not to discuss whether anyone was for or against the project. He then passed out a double page, single-spaced list of the questions that were already under consideration. The invitation for the public to participate was pre-empted by the qualification that they speak only if they should have a new point to be added to the list.
I don’t know whether the “forum” was structured in this way by the consultant or whether it was the will of the board to keep things moving and leave the matter to those who are charged by the Village with this responsibility, but it was no forum. It is so easy for those who know how to play this game to fake out citizens who care so much about the village but have to start from “there are 52 cards in the deck …”
I had come wanting to talk about the elephant in the room — that we remember Sag Harbor is not just anyplace USA, but that it is SAG HARBOR. Unique. Historically significant. Physically beautiful. Irreplaceable. When my late husband, Robert and I first came to Sag Harbor in 1976, we were amazed that the village was still so intact from earlier times. Particularly, that the scale of the streetscape had not yet been violated. It was of a whole cloth. We stopped that day at Sag Harbor Antiques where Otto Fenn showed us the photographs he had taken of early Sag Harbor houses for the BiCentennial publication, a survey which had been guided by an architectural historian. Robert had grown up in Washington, DC at the time of the restoration of Capital Hill, and he had held a lifelong passion for preservation. That afternoon we passed a tiny house on Hampton Street, a few blocks from the site now in the hands of the Planning Board. It was described in Nancy Willey’s guide book as “looking as if it had been made of gingerbread, standing in an enchanted wood.” But in the realtor’s advertisement, it was described as a derelict ruin. It looked so early, and so fragile, that we thought someone must save it. We bought it that same day. It was not only the idea of saving one early house, it was that we thought there were other like-minded people in Sag Harbor and that we would join them to help save this interesting, beautiful icon of American history not just for ourselves, but for future generations.
It turned out that the tiny house we had saved (it was leaning forward, almost going into the ground) had been a ship’s store on the waterfront for John Hulbert’s sloop Mehitable, which was doing business with the West Indies before the Revolution. The architectural historian Daniel Hopping told us it had been built in the 1750 period. The Southampton Town records for 1774 grant permission for one Ichabod Coles to improve Hulbert’s store to be his dwelling with the provision that when he, himself no longer lived in it the structure would be moved off and the beach rights would revert to the town. The senior John Hulbert died in 1774 and Coles, in 1790. It was then, that the house was moved from the waterfront to Hampton Street.
The house we had bought had to be lifted by movers while a crawl space was dug, footings poured, a foundation made and the bottom of the house repaired. A plaster ceiling came down in the process and my curiosity was aroused when I saw an object between the lathe. I reached up and pushed it over to the wall and an iron ball dropped into my hand. A molded iron ball, Revolutionary period grapeshot such as that shot by cannon. Of course. The Hulbert/Coles house was still standing near the wharf at the time of the Meigs raid when the patriots were destroying goods on the wharf against their being used to break the Boston Blockade, and they were being fired upon by the British ships in the harbor.
Until then, for me, the Revolution lived only in dry pages. Up there in a little separate compartment: Santa Claus, God and the American Revolution. Maybe. But when that iron ball dropped into my hand, the Revolution was real.
I hope I am making the point that Sag Harbor is not just anyplace and that the entire, valuable experience of the streetscape should be preserved.
I also, had wanted to ask a question. If the town code is disregarded and variances are given to enable this project to go forward, what effect will the precedents have on the future of Sag Harbor?
What’s Next? Movie Night?
As a Sag Harbor resident and owner of a home in the Village’s Historic District I feel compelled to offer my opinion on the LEGS brouhaha.
I feel it would be a grave mistake if the ZBA allows the LEGS structure to continue to exist at it’s present location on Madison Street. That section of Madison Street is in the town’s historic district and it is important that the town defends the regulations that have enabled our village to maintain what’s left of it’s historic character. If the ZBA allows this exception you can be assured that the historic look of our village will slowly but surely, year after year, be eroded. Allowing this will set a precedent that will make it near impossible to deny similar out of character applications.
When my wife and I purchased our home on Main Street, we were happy to comply with the Historic Preservation and Architectural Review Board’s guidelines; happy to in some way help preserve the look of our historic village.
I disagree with the self serving statements printed in this paper and attributed to the owners of LEGS that they have “overwhelming support” for their side. How can you call a petition with a few hundred signatures in a town of several thousand “overwhelming support?” Where is the petition for those who are against it to sign? A one sided vote will always appear like it has “overwhelmingly” support.
This issue is truly not about “freedom of expression” as Vered and company are arguing. It is 100% about setting a dangerous presedent that will be near impossible for the Village to reverse.
The argument that Lehr and Vered are not in some way benefiting from the LEGS controversy is also a stretch: Well known Art Dealers positioning themselves as preservers of freedom of expression (and the ZBA and Village as close minded ogres) seems like a perfect horn to toot to garner massive amounts of free press and publicity. Please! Business 101 tells you that it pays to advertise. Especially when that advertising comes for free. And in this case to the detriment of the ZBA and those silent voices in the Village that are against the current placement of LEGS for reasons that have nothing to do with freedom of expression.
Do Vered and Lehr not have a back yard to display the LEGS? I am a filmmaker by profession; if Lehr and Vered are allowed to keep the LEGS where they are on the side of their building perhaps I would have a green light to project my films day and night on the side of my house. And since showing films could not be construed as a structure I wouldn’t even need a variance or permit!
Flag & Constitution
At the rate of which my flag-worshiping, constitution-worshipping friend, Bill Jones, is progressing, he will soon have no place left for God.
In friendship & fear.