By Karl Grossman
More than a century ago, my father’s father came from Hungary to America and worked at the watchcase factory built by Joseph Fahys in Sag Harbor. Engraving was a major art among Hungarian Jews and Fahys and his agents would seek out Hungarian Jewish engravers when they arrived at Ellis Island and take them by boat to Sag Harbor.
It was in Sag Harbor where my grandfather met my grandmother. She lived with a sister who married into the Spitz family, several of whose members also worked at the watchcase factory.
We have a photo in our house of my grandfather and grandmother in Sag Harbor after they met — he sporting a straw skimmer hat and she in Victorian Era dress, gazing at each other appearing very much in love. On one side of the photo is an engraving by him, probably done in his off-hours at the watchcase factory. Etched in metal with flourish: “Stephanie Spiegel, Sag Harbor.” On the other side is a photo of him on a ship on one of his several trips back to Hungary to see his family. They would all be murdered in the Holocaust.
My father and I were born and raised in New York City where my grandparents later moved. My grandfather died before I was born; my grandmother when I was two. Nearly 40 years ago, I ended up settling with my family in Sag Harbor.
Tens of thousands of times since I’ve passed the watchcase factory, the biggest building in Sag Harbor and still in operation when we got here (then owned by Bulova). Last week, for the first time, I went into the four-story building which is being expertly and creatively restored, being converted into a luxury condominium apartment complex.
What struck me immediately were the windows — hundreds upon hundreds of them. You see them from the outside, of course, but only when you get inside the 1881 brick structure can you appreciate what all 700 were for. “Light,” explained my guide, David Kronman, project manager for Cape Advisors. “The factory opened with no electricity.” The windows, each topped by a graceful arch, provided illumination for the workers at benches next to them. Their machines ran on steam power generated at the factory.
Moreover, it’s not a big box of a structure, but built around a huge courtyard. This allowed for many more windows to provide light from the courtyard.
Then there are the beams! The building’s ribs, its skeleton, are of wood — beautiful beams and very large (many 18 by 10 inches). “Southern Yellow Pine,” said Mr. Kronman about what they’re made of. Cape Advisors had them expertly analyzed and the conclusion: they’re in superb condition. Indeed, the building itself, as I heard through the years, is solid.
As we weaved through it, with workers busy all over, Mr. Kronman spoke about the plans for the 65 apartments. The building’s special features — interestingly shaped little rooms here, sweeping spaces there — will be fully utilized, he emphasized. Beams will be left exposed. Even the old factory chimney will be put to use, linked to a fireplace in the lobby. There’ll be underground parking and a recreation center with a pool. We went up to the roof for the best view in Sag Harbor. There was Shelter Island and the waters of the East End and the North Fork, and unfolded below, in seeming miniature, the picturesque village of Sag Harbor. Manhattan-based Cape Advisors specializes in restoring historic structures like this one. The project is in good hands.
It was with a warm feeling I walked the stairs that my grandfather tread many years ago. America has been good to his family. His engraving tools are with my cousin, Dr. Martin Grossman, professor of business management at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. Stephanie’s name lives through my brother, Stefan, and our cousin Steve, world-class musicians. Stefan is a blues guitarist, this week performing in Norway under sponsorship of the U.S. State Department. Steve is a Julliard-educated jazz saxophonist whose career has included playing with Miles Davis.
My grandparent’s great-grandson, our son Adam, graduated from Pierson High School, also an impressive brick structure, a few blocks from the watchcase factory. A lawyer, he is vice chairman of the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals and previously Riverhead Town attorney. I remember, just after we moved to Sag Harbor, the call by some to raze the historic high school (which opened in 1907). Happily, instead it was restored — as the watchcase factory is in the process of being now.