Sag Harbor is fortunate to have its long history reflected in its bounty of 18th century buildings, a rarity in most American towns. The proposal to demolish 125 Main Street begs the question; does Sag Harbor want to remain the embodiment of real American history? Or does it want to begin the slippery slope toward becoming a reconstructed approximation of American history? Sag Harbor’s Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review (ARB) will soon answer these questions.
125 Main Street is a colonial style building dating from the 1750’s, and is in the Sag Harbor Historic District. As such, it is historically and architecturally significant. It is therefore unfortunate that last year the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees issued a license agreement to the current owner, developer James Giorgio, to excavate the three feet of village-owned land in front of the building to make way for a new street level entrance. The ARB subsequently approved raising the building as part of a restoration campaign that would include installing a new foundation and retail entrance at ground level.
Last May, the owner’s architect, Chuck Thomas, approached the ARB about demolishing the building and reconstructing it in-kind using new and salvaged materials, citing unsound conditions. If they could demolish, Thomas offered, they would no longer seek to excavate and install new retail space at the basement. Instead, they would seek to lower the building 18” to improve accessibility to the retail space.
The real reason they want to demolish 125 Main Street is because this building is a 250-year-old wood frame structure and it is delicate. Too delicate to make their previous plans (lowering, raising, take your pick) cost effective. It’s easier to start from scratch with a building that looks the same and has a few salvaged shutters on it. The good news is that the previous ARB approval was conditional upon the other elements of the restoration. It’s now null and void, and should have no impact on the new decision.
The ARB has two issues to consider: the dangerous precedent of allowing the demolition of a building within the Sag Harbor Historic District; and the reality of what an accurate reconstruction would entail, both architecturally and from a regulatory stand point.
Sound preservation practice dictates that one intervenes as little as possible to avoid damage to the fabric of a historic building. A proposal to demolish a serviceable building from the 18th century solely for a commercial purpose is therefore horrifying. If the ARB approves this proposal, it will set a precedent that could jeopardize the future integrity of the historic district. Developers would henceforth be able to reference 125 Main Street when seeking to make their property more commercially viable by tearing down instead of restoring.
The building has not been deemed structurally unsound by the village. If there are problems stemming from its original method of construction or age, they do not necessarily justify demolition. Documentation supporting their argument that rehabilitation is not possible must be furnished to the ARB. The ARB must employ an independent professional with experience in historic structures to conduct the conditions assessment at the owner’s expense, as is within its purview according to village code. If the ARB rejects the proposal, the owner may appeal based on financial hardship. He would have to demonstrate that the building is not financially viable without being raised or lowered. Considering that the building is in service with at least one commercial tenant, the ARB cannot in good conscience find that 125 Main Street is not already making a reasonable return.
The ARB should encourage the owner to just build an access ramp and abandon these convoluted plans. The relationship between the stone terracing, the stoop, and the porch is architecturally important. Would the reconstruction maintain this important relationship? How could it be replicated if the building is being lowered?
And reconstruction would not be easy. If done right, it will be difficult and costly, and require scrupulous oversight. The Sag Harbor Historic District is listed on the state and national registers of historic places. As such, the proposed work must meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. The threshold required for a completely accurate reconstruction under those standards is challenging.
If the ARB were to enter into a legally-binding agreement allowing demolition and reconstruction, the board would have to monitor and enforce the agreement, requiring significant time and resources on its part. The agreement would need to explicitly state that each building element would have to be dismantled by hand, numbered, stored appropriately, treated according to certain standards, and re-installed. Any replacement member would need to match the original in material, dimension, profile, and finish. It would also have to require review of architectural drawings at certain phases, i.e., 50 percent completion, 75 percent, and 90 percent. Does the ARB have the resources to do this type of review?
Additionally, the owner would need to give specifics about exactly how much fabric he intends to re-use.
Finally, the ARB would need to have legal resources to support them. Anecdotes abound of historic buildings being dismantled and put in storage, and then never reassembled, or being lost or stolen. For instance, the infamous story of the Liang Stores, a prefabricated cast iron building designed by James Bogardus in 1849, and also known as “the building so nice they stole it twice.”
Aside from the regulatory challenges, there is also the practical complexity of reconstruction to consider. Regarding the difficulty that would be involved in reconstructing 125 Main Street, Richard Pieper, Director of Preservation at Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, said “Even for a cast iron building, which is as modular as you can get (except for Quonset huts) reconstruction is problematic. But for a 1750 building?” Hopefully the ARB and the developer will realize that this isn’t a practicable option for either of them. I urge concerned Sag Harbor residents to let the ARB know how they feel before their next meetings on July 14th and 25th.
Jackie Peu-Duvallon is a Long Islander and holds a masters degree in historic preservation from Columbia University. She is currently a preservation consultant working in New York City and Long Island. She previously worked for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.