By Stephen Longmire
This week marks the first time in 35 years that Sag Harbor’s village board has designated an individual structure—the Art Deco sign on the Sag Harbor Cinema—a local landmark. The reasons why make one wonder if those in charge of the village’s architectural history remember its political history. The sign is already protected to the full extent of the law, as the scuffle over its replacement four years ago attested. A little history may help.
In 1973, when Sag Harbor’s historic district was listed with the National Register of Historic Places, the village had no architectural review board to protect its newly landmarked building. The Historic Preservation Commission, formed a year earlier to create the historic district, became part of village government, but in an advisory capacity.
“You could still knock a house down,” Dorothy Sherry, a member of the Commission, told me a few years ago. “The legislation did not have teeth.”
So the village designated 14 local landmarks, including most of the churches and cultural institutions, the factory, and two private homes (with the consent of their owners), vowing these buildings would not be changed without civic approval. When the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review (ARB) was formed in 1985, it was given the authority to review the “appropriateness” of “any exterior alteration” to buildings throughout the village, paying particular attention to the historic district. This made the list of local landmarks redundant, since all structures in the historic district were protected in the same way. Yet this list has survived in the code—even in the revision proposed this year—giving some people the notion that an additional layer of landmark protection is available.
Village attorneys have found some fine points of Sag Harbor’s code in which individually named landmarks are treated slightly differently from other structures in the historic district, but these are anomalies, probably worth addressing. According to Julian Adams, coordinator of the Certified Local Government (CLG) program in the State Historic Preservation Office, “The cinema and its sign already have all the protection the local law provides, as contributing elements of the local landmark district.”
When Sag Harbor joined the CLG program in 1989, bringing its preservation program under the oversight of New York State, the state insisted that the ARB be given the authority to create new landmarks and landmark districts. (Unlike many CLGs, Sag Harbor’s ARB needs village board approval to do this.) The ARB has only flexed this muscle once before, when the historic district was expanded to include the majority of the village in 1994. Who would have guessed that its next use of this power would be on behalf of a structure in the historic district?! And why single out a feature of a building whose exterior is protected? Because the cinema is for sale, and fears abound about the prospect of its red, white, and blue “SAG HARBOR” sign presiding over a shopping mall—a fate no landmark status can prevent. The debate has caused some confusion as to whether the cinema had any landmark protection before. Even its owner of 30 years, Gerald Mallow, seems unclear, protesting any encroachment on his property rights.
“Look how well protected it was before,” ARB Chairman Cee Scott Brown remarked, when I asked how the new landmark designation would affect the board’s treatment of the sign. “It was on the street about to be thrown out.” But surely this was a problem of enforcing the law, when maintenance—which the board approved in 2004—turned into replacement. After residents raised the funds to replace the sign, it’s hard to believe any future board or building inspector would fail to recognize the importance of this neon nametag, our coat of arms
Should every structure we’re worried about in the village be made a local landmark? One doesn’t have to go far to find other examples of protected structures that have come close to being lost in Sag Harbor’s recent construction boom. There have also been many cases where buildings were modified with sensitivity to their surroundings. The preservation process isn’t designed to preclude change, only to manage it, protecting the community’s historic resources and proportions. But compromises happen. To cite just one, there is a house on Main Street, right across from the Historical Society, that used to be small and that is now quite large. It was a shock to many, not long after the drama of the movie house sign, that the ARB approved this highly visible expansion of one of the last small houses on lower Main Street. “That one got away from us,” Tom Horn, Sr., who was Chairman at the time, acknowledged when I asked about it in 2005. Across the lawn sits another small house that used to be its twin, where a much-loved local lady lived until this past year, dying in her 90s. Her house is now for sale. Should it be given local landmark status because its neighbor got away? Or should we hope the law works better next time? If we feel safer with extra protection, why stop with the sign?
Sure enough, I gather the ARB hopes to commission an annotated map of the historic district, noting which properties are preservation priorities and which might be modified with appropriate plans. Such a tool could become a shopping list for developers, highlighting the properties where they’d face least resistance. This hardly seems consistent with the goal of preserving a landmark district, or a neighborhood, as opposed to a list of structures. In communities with preserved districts, individual landmark status is usually reserved for properties outside the district boundaries. Interestingly, the ARB proposed designating John Steinbeck’s former home a local landmark when it first raised the issue of the cinema sign last summer, but dropped this idea noting that Steinbeck’s house is outside the historic district.
It’s heartening to see the ARB looking ahead to future challenges, but unfortunate that it feels the need of extra layers of landmark protection to bolster the current law. There are other ways to improve Sag Harbor’s preservation code. The village might consider adopting the model law provided by New York State as the basis for its new preservation code, freeing itself from such anomalies; it could drop or minimize the residency requirement for ARB membership, enlarging the pool of potential board members (residency isn’t a CLG requirement); and, perhaps most important, it could hire a skilled preservation consultant, as both East Hampton and Southampton Villages do, and as Sag Harbor used to, so preservation priorities could be set on a case-by-case basis. These steps might help to clarify the workings of the East End’s largest historic district.
Stephen Longmire’s book Keeping Time in Sag Harbor (2007) contains a history of the village’s historic preservation program. An exhibition of photographs from the book is on display at South Street Seaport Museum in New York through January 4, 2009.