By Kathryn G. Menu; Photography by Michael Heller
The Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum is a treasure. Literally. A registered historic structure, the Whaling Museum building dates back to 1845 and is one of the village’s most iconic properties, even as the paint on its façade is peeling, leaving it pock marked with grey spots.
For members of the board of trustees of the museum, the disrepair of the building’s exterior is directly linked to an ongoing dispute with members of the Wamponamon Lodge No. 437 Free Masons.
The Lodge, on the other hand, argues it only wants to protect the building it has called home for close to 100 years, while also ensuring it is legally protected from losing the right to continue to reside in the second floor of the museum.
While the dispute between the museum and the Lodge is — in part — currently being hashed out in state Supreme Court through a 2012 lawsuit filed by the museum against the Lodge, on May 9 the building’s upkeep became a public discussion.
After a complaint was lodged with Sag Harbor Building Inspector Timothy Platt this winter, Platt requested the Sag Harbor Historic Preservation and Architectural Review Board (ARB) take up the matter. Specifically, he asked the ARB to weigh in on what exterior repairs and maintenance were necessary to bring the building back into code compliance.
Under the village code, “no owner or person with an interest in real property designated as a landmark or included within a historic district shall permit the property to fall into a state of disrepair so as to cause, in the judgment of the board, a detrimental effect upon the character of the landmark or historic district.”
Under that section of the code, the ARB is allowed to require the building inspector to issue a repair order, specifying the minimal repairs required to bring a property owner back into compliance.
ARB Chairman Cee Scott Brown opened the discussion by noting he hoped the board would be able to discuss the repairs they felt were necessary, but also shine a light on one of Sag Harbor’s most beloved structures — a building in need of community support.
“The intention here is not at all mean spirited or punitive, but it is a discussion about how we can help the museum,” said Brown.
As of the May ARB meeting, Platt’s two concerns were the exterior repairs and maintenance to the building, as well as maintenance of the heating plant, which according to the property’s deed is actually the responsibility of the Masons.
According to Mattituck attorney, Dan Ross, who represents the museum, the museum’s board of trustees had raised $75,000 of the $150,000 necessary to prepare and paint the façade of the building.
Last week, the museum also hosted the opening season fundraiser for “A Whale of a Show” featuring art by Dan Rizzie, Donald Sultan, Eric Fischl and April Gornik, among others. According to museum board president Barbara Lobosco, the event drew over 400 people with a number of paintings sold in benefit of the museum, which has received a $50,000 grant from the Century Arts Foundation for repair work.
During the May 9 ARB meeting, Ross noted that while the museum has mounted a capital campaign for repairs, for many years it had hoped to be the recipient of a $180,000 state matching grant which then museum director Zach Studenroth — now a member of the board — earned for the museum from the New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation office in 2004.
However, because of an ongoing dispute regarding the mortgage agreement between the Lodge and the museum, the museum was never able to access those grant monies — grant money that has since been dispersed to another institution.
In 1945, the Lodge entered into an agreement where it sold the premises to the museum for $7,500, payable through $1,000 in cash and $6,500 by a purchaser’s bond and money mortgage. The bond was meant to be for five years and the sale was approved by the state.
According to the Lodge’s 1945 petition to the court, one of the reasons it sold the building was it found it increasingly difficult to maintain the building, with “no repairs of any consequence have been made for about fifteen years, and the building is now sorely in need of extensive repairs, which the petitioner cannot afford to make, without fairly well depleting its treasury.”
Thirteen years later, with no record of the museum paying off its $6,500 mortgage despite the five year deadline, an extension was inked requiring the written consent of the Lodge to pay off the mortgage for 99 years. In that deal, the Lodge will have to pay annual rent of $260 if the mortgage is paid off.
When the museum filed for the state grant in 2004, Studenroth noted it was with the Lodge’s support. However, once the grant was received and the state asked the museum have the Lodge subordinate its position on the mortgage — taking a second place behind the museum — the two entities came to an impasse.
The NYS Office of Parks & Recreation requires all property owners and grant recipients sign a preservation covenant/conservation easement to ensure its investment is protected in the case of an entity going bankrupt or selling a property.
Without the Lodge willing to subordinate the mortgage, Ross said the museum lost out on funding it would have used for necessary repairs. The Lodge also refused to accept payment on the remainder of the mortgage from the museum.
In the meantime, in 2012 the museum filed suit to vacate the amendment to the mortgage in an effort to be able to pay off the mortgage and therefore be eligible for state grant monies, said Ross.
On May 9, Brown asked the museum board to provide the ARB with documentation laying out a timeline for when the museum intends to complete its work.
According to Lobosco, the museum has already hired INCE Painting Professionals, a firm that completed painting at the Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton, as well as at the Hannibal French House. Structural repairs, to the porch, are also expected to be completed at that point.
It intends to begin painting on September 15.
On May 9, Brown said he thought that was a good place to start.
“And I think that a building as important as this building, such a wonderful, quirky space, so Sag Harbor, I would think this would be something not difficult to raise money for,” he added.
After the heating system — not an ARB matter — was broken, according to Lodge member Lou Grignon, the Lodge has sought the right to replace it since this time last year. Lobosco and Studenroth said they are fine with the furnace being replaced, but as the deeded property owners of the museum building, stressed they would like to see plans before the work begins.
Grignon noted he believes the Lodge has the right to approve any construction to the building, including repairs to the exterior.
Grignon said the Lodge asked the museum for a maintenance schedule 10 years ago, but has never seen one. He added the reason the Lodge did not agree to subordinate the mortgage was in an effort to protect its stake in the building. If the museum were to accept the grant and later go bankrupt, under the covenant the state could seize the museum forcing the Lodge to fight for its occupancy with the state.
He added the mortgage agreement gives the building back to the Lodge if the museum goes out of business, and that the mortgage also demands the museum take care of the building.
Grignon said the Lodge did offer to subordinate its position on the mortgage provided they were given a $180,000 bond to protect their interest in the building.
“We have always maintained we will sign that, but it has to work for both parties,” he said. “Now we are in court, so it is out of our hands.”
Studenroth said the museum tried, unsuccessfully, for years to reach an agreement with the Lodge, but was never able to come to an agreement that would allow the museum to become eligible for state funding.
The suit over the second agreement came after those negotiations failed, he said.
“With that in place, it becomes very disadvantageous for us to find any public support for this building,” he said.
For Lobosco, she is focused on the task at hand — raising money — and on Wednesday said she was grateful the community has come out in support of the museum.
Lobosco noted the museum recently hired Greg Therriault as its museum manager, Vanessa Petruccelli as its business manager and Richard Doctorow as its collections manager.
“This is such a vital place,” she said. “We care about this building and are committed to it. We will get this done.”