by Kathryn G. Menu
It has been several months since residents in Sag Harbor have heard word on the progress of plans by Amagansett artist and businesswoman Elizabeth Dow to transform the former United Methodist Church building on Madison Street into a textile studio, design center and showroom.
Until last week, that is.
Dow presented plans for her adaptive re-use of the former church building to the Sag Harbor Village Historic Preservation and Architectural Review Board (ARB) last Thursday. According to Dow and her attorney Tiffany Scarlato, pending approval from the village boards, as well as the health department, Dow hopes to begin her construction this fall.
“I am on board and very passionate about the adaptive re-use and overall design of this building,” said Dow in a separate interview on Tuesday. “Working with (architects) Bates Masi + Architects has been fantastic and I think our vision is one. I am waiting for the permits and hopefully construction can happen in November.”
In the fall of 2010, Dow contracted to buy the church building from former Southampton Town councilman Dennis Suskind, who bought it from the church congregation in 2008 with plans to turn the space into his own private residence. After contracting with Suskind, Dow proposed to move her company –Elizabeth Dow Mixed Media , a textile and wall covering design firm and studio – to Sag Harbor, where in addition to her studio and retail space she would also host her internship program.
Community members, as well as Sag Harbor village boards quickly supported the project. Dow’s work is celebrated in the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, as well as The White House where her wall coverings adorn The Oval Office, as well as the bedrooms of President Barack Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia.
Village board members also praised the semi-public use of the building under Dow’s proposal, that it had an educational component and that the artist planned to celebrate the church’s history in the lobby of her business, making the loss of an important, historic structure to private hands less painful for some community residents.
In December, the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees even agreed to let the zoning on the property convert from residential to village business for Dow’s project, although that change in use won’t become official until she secures final approval from the village planning board.
For Dow the warm welcome from the village and its residents only adds to her passion for the project.
“I feel like I am coming home and I wasn’t even counting on that when we first started,” she said.
Last Thursday, after presenting an exhaustive amount of research on the adaptive re-use of historic buildings, and in particular churches, across the country, Dow and architect Paul Masi floated their plans for the renovation of the building to the Sag Harbor ARB.
Dow noted adaptive reuse of historic buildings is seen by many as a key factor in modern day conservation. Preserving the historic integrity of a church, in particular, is critical, said Dow. One of the reason’s she was drawn to 48 Madison Street, she said, was because she would not have to drastically alter a building that holds a special place in so many hearts to accomplish what she needed as a businesswoman.
One of her biggest goals is to ensure the construction will guarantee the stable, and long-term use, of the former church building.
Noting that many early churches were not historically painted white, Dow has proposed to remove the existing white, vinyl siding and replace it with cedar, which Masi said would weather into a grey color.
The windows, many of which are covered from the exterior, will also be replaced, and an existing residence at the rear of the building will be renovated to compliment the rest of the building, said Masi.
Dow also proposes to commemorate the history of the building through a sign between the parking area and the entryway that details the history of the building since it was first moved from High Street. She also showed the board wallpaper she had crafted that afternoon, out of historic images and text about the church, which she may paper the building’s lobby with.
“Very cool,” said board chairman Cee Scott Brown.
To achieve a second means of egress, as required by the building department, Masi has proposed a transparent staircase in the rear yard of the building, which will be covered in climbing plants that keep foliage year-round, becoming a part of the overall landscape plan for the lawn adjacent to the building.
That structure is the only aspect of the project that will need a variance from the village’s zoning board. Brown said Scarlato could inform that board that the Sag Harbor ARB stood firmly behind the concept, relieved Dow didn’t propose a fire escape instead.
Sag Harbor resident Sam Patton is designing the landscape for the property.
“We are trying to make it non-architectural and more of a garden piece,” said Masi.
“This is really a great project because it will bring the building back to life,” said Scarlato.
“This is very thoughtful and researched,” said Brown. “I think it is fantastic.”