by Amanda Wyatt
For the past century, the John Jermain Memorial Library has been celebrated as one of Sag Harbor’s most striking historic buildings. And with its handcrafted terracotta dome and stained glass lay light, it’s no surprise the library’s rotunda is often referred to as its “crown jewel.”
This week, the library’s newly restored lay light will return to its place atop the rotunda, serving as a visual marker of the massive renovations taking place both inside and outside the 103-year-old building.
Since the library embarked on its massive, multimillion dollar project last year, the building has undergone a number of repairs, particularly to the third floor rotunda.
“I think when it reopens, it’s going to be absolutely gorgeous,” said Catherine Creedon, the director of John Jermain, in an interview this week.
But it’s not just the building that’s receiving a make-over. Even as the rotunda is being renovated externally, the library is working with a number of skilled craftspeople both on Long Island and elsewhere to refurbish much of the interior, including the rotunda’s historic furniture.
The furniture, she noted, was made by the Chicago-based Library Bureau Company around the time John Jermain was built. And although these tables and chairs are technically “stock furniture,” the pieces are anything but ordinary.
“It’s just beautifully made,” Creedon said. “It’s sort of a mix of Mission style with a little bit of Art Deco thrown it. It’s got some really nice curves and some decorative carving on the base of the tables, in particular, so it’s a little bit of a hybrid.”
Still, the furniture has experienced some wear and tear over the years. So the library has turned to Ed Dombrowski, a Water Mill-based craftsman, to restore it to its original state.
Dombrowski, who had actually restored furniture for the library 40 years ago, has been working since August on numerous chairs, tables and other items that will go in the rotunda. While there was some damage — and quite a bit of used gum to remove from the bottom of the wooden tables — he said that “for the time [the furniture’s] been there, it’s in pretty darn good shape.”
Still, he pointed out that restoring antique woodwork was “a layered process,” and one that could be rather time-consuming.
“A big part of your process here is patience,” he said. “You don’t stop until you get the look you want … [You want to keep] the character it’s earned in the past hundred years of use.”
The past century had certainly taken its toll on the stained glass lay light, which was also renovated by a Long Island craftsperson.
According to Tricia Somers of Somers Stained Glass in Deer Park, the lay light “was definitely in need of restoration. The whole window was starting to bulge.”
Of course, that’s simply “the nature of the beast” for an antique window, she said. For that reason, her company needed to do a full restoration of the window, taking it apart and cleaning each piece of glass.
“After one hundred years, the glass was filthy. [The library] thought it was a darker glass than it really was. It was very opaque,” she said. “Now it sparkles.”
She added that the lay light, with its geometric design, seemed to be in the Arts and Crafts style, which was popular when John Jermain was built in 1910.
In addition to renovating inside the rotunda, the library plans to extensively re-plaster the spiral staircase that leads to the third floor, as it has been damaged by water infiltration over the years.
Creedon noted that she is also looking into purchasing various gas inserts to place inside the fireplace. And it seems that having a working fireplace is a natural fit for a space intended to serve as a reading room and will add a certain charm to the space.
“There are lots of other areas in the library where we’re able to celebrate the liveliness of our community,” Creedon said. “But the rotunda, though, will enable us to provide that most traditional of library experiences, which is a place for quiet study and exploration.”