Tag Archive | "preservation"

Sylvester Manor Educational Farm Receives Historic Gift from Descendants of the Sylvester Family

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Sylvester family descendants Eben Fiske Ostby and Bennett Konesni toast with personnel of the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm to the official transfer of land at the Farm to Table Dinner Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

Sylvester family descendants Eben Fiske Ostby and Bennett Konesni toast with personnel of the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm to the official transfer of land at the Farm-to-Table Dinner Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

By Tessa Raebeck

Growing up, Eben Fiske Ostby visited his aunt Alice and uncle Andy on Shelter Island several times a year. Playing on the grounds of their family’s estate, Sylvester Manor, he had no idea that the hundreds of acres of woods, wetlands and farms would one day be his.

“When I learned of the inheritance,” Mr. Ostby said in an email Monday, June 30, “I started learning about ways we could preserve it and its lands. The Peconic Land Trust was very helpful in advising me about ways to do that. Eventually we set about forming a nonprofit to preserve it.”

On June 23, Mr. Ostby capitalized on all he had learned, donating the 1737 manor house, its grounds and barns, the 1810 windmill, farm fields and woodlands—a total of about 142 acres—to the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, a nonprofit he and his nephew Bennett Konesni founded four years ago in hopes of putting their land to the best possible use.

The land gift, the largest in the history of Shelter Island and one of the most significant land transfers on Long Island, brings the family’s donation to Sylvester Manor Educational Farm to a total of 225 acres.

Spirits were high at the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm's Farm-to-Table Dinner Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

Spirits were high at the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm’s Farm-to-Table Dinner Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

“Last week was a big one for Sylvester Manor,” said Cara Loriz, executive director of the nonprofit.

“By whatever measures you might come up with, it is among one of the very most significant outright gifts ever made anywhere,” said Sara Gordon, the nonprofit’s strategic director. “Now that it has been passed on by the family, we have just a blessed opportunity.”

Mr. Ostby, who upon his aunt and uncle’s passing became the 14th lord of the manor, is a direct descendant of Nathaniel Sylvester, who co-purchased Shelter Island in 1651 and was its first white settler.

Over its 363-year history, Sylvester Manor has given shelter to persecuted Quakers, operated as a slaveholding plantation with African and Native American laborers, and housed 11 generations of Sylvester descendants.

Throughout that history, the Sylvester family’s ownership of Shelter Island has shrunk from the entire island to several hundred acres, but the land continued to be passed from generation to generation, ultimately ending in Mr. Ostby’s hands.

Rather than let the manor fall into disuse or allow the Sylvester land to continue to be parceled up in order to maintain the manor grounds, Mr. Ostby, with some convincing from his nephew Mr. Konesni, decided on forming a nonprofit as the best means of preservation.

“The idea was to find a use for the manor that would fit in with the culture of Shelter Island,” said Mr. Ostby. “My nephew Bennett was and is passionate about food, so we chose that as a focal point.”

“Bennett at that point,” said Ms. Gordon, “had decided on this vision for this educational farm that would also revive the agrarian culture and agriculture and seek to create a working environment that was joyous and fair and really explore and celebrate the culture of food in all aspects.”

“And to upon up the gates at this place to the community—to make it a place that welcomes everyone,” she added.

Mr. Ostby first donated a 22-acre conservation easement to the Peconic Land Trust in 2009 and then gifted an additional 83 acres of historic fields and pastures, preserved indefinitely as farmland through town, country and federal conservation programs, in 2012. The total value of property gifts from Mr. Ostby is valued at approximately $22 million, with the most recent 142-acre gift appraised at $12.3 million. Of the nonprofit’s total 225 acres of land, 103 acres are now preserved.

In accordance with the wishes of his aunt Alice Fiske, Mr. Ostby also gave the manor’s longtime caretaker Gunnar Wissemann a small cottage he and his family have resided in for over 20 years.

The crowd gathered behind the manor house at the Farm-To-Table Dinner at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

The crowd gathered behind the manor house at the Farm-To-Table Dinner at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm Saturday, June 28. Photo by David Vaughan.

In similar stories across the East End, family land is sold to developers and divvied up into subdivisions of Mcmansions, but the Sylvester descendants weren’t going to let that happen on Shelter Island.

Now, Mr. Konesni said, “The nonprofit organization owns its own land. It owns the land that it’s preserving, owns the land that it’s stewarding and sharing—and that’s a big deal.”

“It’s not just my family anymore,” he added. “It’s really a community organization now.”

Having ownership of the manor house, buildings and grounds enables the nonprofit to raise money for restoration of the buildings, which it couldn’t do before. They can now move forward on restoring the manor house, the windmill and the barns.

“It’s really a new beginning,” said Ms. Gordon. “That’s how it feels in a way, we feel now the work really starts.”

Mr. Konesni’s motivation to transfer the land came from three impulses: the precedent of other estates that were successfully turned into educational farms, such as the Rockefeller estate in the Hudson Valley and the Vanderbilt estate in Vermont; the notion that a nonprofit would share the burden and make sure professionals are at the helm; and stopping “the pattern of chopping up and selling off land in order to fund the place,” he said.

“We used to own the entire island,” he said, “and then we split it up and sold it off and that has helped fund the next generation of dwellers and to me, actually, that pattern can only go on so long before everything’s gone.”

“This place deserved to be around and to have the stories told for another 363 years and the only way that was going to happen was to really share the burden,” added Mr. Konesni.

Mr. Konesni and Mr. Ostby will continue to be involved in the management of the nonprofit. Mr. Ostby, who lives in California and works at Pixar, is acting as president of the board of directors. Mr. Konesni, a Maine native, is staying on as founder and special projects advisor.

“I focus on the long-term vision in making sure that our operations really fit with the original intention of the gift and the non-profit,” Mr. Konesni said of his role.

The family is retaining 11.7 acres of wetlands and woodland along the creek, which cannot be built upon without town approval of a formal subdivision.

“I also wanted to retain a family connection to the island, thus the retained lot,” said Mr. Ostby, who will give the parcel to his daughter Fiona.

“They’ve been here since the purchase of the whole island in 1651 and it’s important to all of us that the Sylvester descendants continue to have a role here—it’s a big part of the story,” Ms. Gordon said.

One of the nonprofit’s visions, she added, is that the day will come when kids who are biking home from school naturally turn their bikes into the Sylvester Manor driveway.

“It’s a rare thing to be in a place or to work in a place where you can feel that—when you know that what’s happening today is historic, in the sense that it’s going to be part of this long unbroken story here,” said Ms. Gordon.

A Long History of Wind Power in East Hampton

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Historic photo of the Hook Mill on North Main Street in East Hampton. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Historic photo of the Hook Mill on North Main Street in East Hampton. Courtesy Library of Congress.

By Tessa Raebeck

With the reemergence of wind power on the East End, the area has come full circle, harkening back to the days as early as 1650 when early settlers relied heavily on the wind to help grind their grain into flour.

“They started right at the beginning,” East Hampton Town’s historic preservation consultant Robert Hefner said of windmills in the town, which was one of the first English settlement in New York.

Watermills were not suitable for the region’s flat topography, so the windmill became the logical choice for energy. Although modern windmills—wind turbines—are used to generate electricity, windmills were originally developed for milling grain for food production, evolving to supply power for many additional industrial and agricultural needs until the early 20th century.

East Hampton’s colonial settlers came from an area of England that used windmill technology for grinding grains. Although most windmills in early East Hampton were used as gristmills, grinding wheat, corn and rye, there were also a handful of wind-powered sawmills in the town.

The inside of the Hook Mill in East Hampton. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The inside of the Hook Mill in East Hampton. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Mr. Hefner estimates there were some three windmills in the Village of East Hampton and two or so in Amagansett at any given time.

Gardiners Island, which was given as a gift to Lion Gardiner in 1639 by the Montaukett people, had its own windmill.

Out of 43 traditional windmills built in New York State, 33 were on the East End. Fourteen of those were in East Hampton. Sag Harbor has had two in its history.

The English-style windmills of the East End, which vary from the Dutch style used on the western part of Long Island, are smock mills. They use sails that are pitched so that when the wind strikes them, they turn. As the sails turn, they rotate what’s called a wind shaft, a giant wooden timber the sails are passed through.

Mounted on the wind shaft inside the cap of the mill is the brake wheel, a large wooden gear some 7 feet in diameter. That gear, in turn, rotates another gear, transferring the motion from a horizontal to a vertical direction down into the mill. In the center of the mill is an upright vertical shaft that turns and on top of that timber another gear is mounted, which, in the case of a gristmill, turns the millstone.

“The gears are calibrated so that…they don’t turn very fast,” Mr. Hefner said Tuesday. “But the gears are set out in such a way that the slow motion of the sails eventually produces a faster rotation of the millstone.”

A “very famous craftsman,” according to Mr. Hefner, Nathaniel Dominy built the Hook Mill in East Hampton in 1806 and the historic Gardiners Island Mill in 1795.

Samuel Schellinger of the Amagansett Schellingers, a family that has lived in East Hampton continuously since colonial times, was another skilled millwright in the town.

“It was definitely a specialized skill, which came from England to America, and then on Long Island, they sort of developed some things themselves that are different here than anywhere else,” Mr. Hefner said of Mr. Dominy, Mr. Schellinger and other local craftsmen. “There are little things that sort of develop in each particular region.”

The sails must face into the wind in order for the windmill to operate, but the wind, naturally, comes from all different directions. So, the cap on top of the tower needs to be turned to face the sails into the wind.

Settlers first turned the cap—and thus the sails—using a big pole and lever, but Mr. Dominy of East Hampton invented a way to turn the cap using gearing inside of the mill itself instead.

The inside of the historic Hook Mill in East Hampton. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The inside of the historic Hook Mill in East Hampton. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Many gristmills fell out of use in the 1850s, when flour started to be made in steam-powered mills, one of which was built in Bridgehampton.

“It was easier, less expensive,” Mr. Hefner said.

Gristmills were pushed further out of use when the railroad was extended to the East End during the 1870s and flour began being shipped out from New York City.

“But the mills operated here—some of them into the 1920’s for animal feed,” Mr. Hefner said. “And then some people, just by habit I guess, preferred to grind their own wheat in the windmill, so it did hang on for quite a while after manufactured flour was available from the steam-powered mills.”

Some of the first summer colony houses in the town, Mr. Hefner said, had their own wind pumps, “little towers with a water tank and a little windmill on top that would pump the water up for household use.” That technology was also commonly used on farms.

Mr. Hefner estimates gristmills, the original East Hampton windmills, were still in use in East Hampton until about 1920. The iconic Hook Mill on North Main Street operated regularly until 1908.

“There was a period then when electricity took over for electrical pumps, and then there’s the interval where there really were no windmills, before the most recent use of them to generate electricity,” he said.

After a nearly 100-year hiatus, it appears wind power is coming back to East Hampton.

“It makes sense, right?” said Mr. Hefner. “There’s a lot of power in the wind, so it makes sense.”

Rededication Celebrates Family Committed to Conservation

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Family members David Mulvihill IV, his son Liam and Mary Ann Mulvihill-Decker plant a Prunus Virginiana native cherry tree in memory of Dolores Zebrowski during the re-dedication ceremony for the Anna and Daniel Mulvihill Preserve on the grounds of the preserve on Friday, May 9. Photo by Michael Heller.

Family members Daniel Mulvihill IV, his son Liam and Mary Ann Mulvihill-Decker plant a Prunus Virginiana native cherry tree in memory of Dolores Zebrowski during the re-dedication ceremony for the Anna and Daniel Mulvihill Preserve on the grounds of the preserve on Friday, May 9. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Kathryn G. Menu

Long before Anna and Daniel Mulvihill purchased what would become known in the Mulvihill family as “The Farm” off Brick Kiln Road in 1921, a native cherry tree had taken root in front of the home.

“By the time I played here in their front yard, the tree was huge, strong, solid and like one of the family,” said Anna and Daniel’s granddaughter, Mary Ann Mulvihill-Decker, last Friday. “My cousins, sisters and I all played up in its labyrinth of thick branches.”

Ms. Mulvihill-Decker spoke these words at a rededication of the Anna and Daniel Mulvihill Preserve on Friday, shortly before she joined three generations of family members in planting a new cherry tree in the same location the old tree once stood. The new tree was dedicated in memory of the late Dolores Zebrowski (the daughter of Anna and Daniel Mulvihill), and was nourished with water from a holy well in Ireland where her great grandfather, Patrick Mulvihill, was born.

Friday’s rededication ceremony celebrated Ms. Zebrowski’s efforts to preserve 85 acres of land off Brick Kiln Road—land that was home to generations of her family. Ms. Zebrowksi worked with Southampton Town and the Peconic Land Trust to establish the original 75-acre preserve and, according to family members, worked tirelessly until her death in October 2012 to preserve the remaining acreage as well as the Mulvihill farmhouse, which is now a historic landmark. In December 2013, the house and remaining 10 acres of land were purchased by the town through the Community Preservation Fund.

Ms. Zebrowski’s dedication to conservation was matched by her brother, William P. Mulvihill, who preserved 34 acres adjacent to the Anna and Daniel Mulvihill Preserve in the Great Swamp in 2006.

The 300-acre Great Swamp is bounded by Brick Kiln Road, the Bridgehampton Turnpike and Scuttlehole Road, linked to the Long Pond Greenbelt and a part of the Peconic Bioreserve. Centered on the Bridgehampton moraine, according to research gathered by William Mulvihill and fellow conservationists, the Great Swamp contains a host of vernal ponds and freshwater wetlands, untouched stretches of red maple-hardwood swamp and pitch pine oak and mixed mesophytic forests, providing a sanctuary for a number of animal and plant species, allowed to grow wild under the stewardship of the Mulvihill family.

On Friday, Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming, the board’s liaison to Sag Harbor, said the board was unanimous in every effort to help preserve the acreage, but gave much of the credit to the Mulvihill family’s conservation ethos, and to New York State Senator Ken P. LaValle and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., the architects of the Peconic Bay Regional CPF, which has enabled towns on the East End to preserve vast acreage over the last 15 years.

“This year alone we have expended over eight million CPF dollars to preserve more than 44 acres and there is much more to come,” said Councilwoman Fleming at the rededication. “With the addition of these 10 acres and the landmarking and preservation of the farmhouse, we have accomplished the vision of Bill Mulvihill, Dolores Zebrowski and the whole Mulvihill family to assemble all 110 acres, which is now preserved in perpetuity as wild lands for the benefit of the public and in support of the wildlife and natural resources of this beautiful place.”

According to Assemblyman Thiele, within the next two years over a billion dollars will have been collected through the CPF for preservation purposes during the program’s 15-year history.

“To put that in context, that is more money than the State of New York has spent on open space preservation across the entire state,” he said.

“That being said, CPF or private conservation, it doesn’t work without one thing—you have to have a family that has the conservation ethic and sees the bigger picture, a family that realizes the stewardship of the land is not just important for the family but critical for the future and that is something the Mulvihill family recognized.”

“I think his legacy was really his children,” Daniel Mulvihill III, the grandson of Anna and Daniel Mulvihill and nephew of Ms. Zebrowski, said of his grandfather. “They inherited from him and my grandmother a love for this land and the desire to keep it this way for future generations.”

Daniel’s father, Daniel Mulvihill II, would introduce his own children to “woods walks,” days spent meandering the acreage around the farm.

“I think my grandfather imbued in his children a great sense of conservation and William and Dan were great disciples,” he said. “And then there was Dolores. I really think Dolores was the most remarkable woman I have ever met. When she died I think she was Sag Harbor’s most beloved person.”

“She wanted to complete this puzzle,” he added. “And she literally worked on this project until the day she died. I think in my mind, and for a lot of people in the family, this is a tribute to the dedication of Dolores.”

Editorial 1/26/11: Protecting Preservation

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When financial times are good, elected officials take their jobs seriously. They work hard and utilize public money to improve the lives of their constituency through projects that are not only responsible, but forward thinking.

From the building of roads and museums to improved transportation systems or the cleaning of polluted waterways, when there’s enough to go around, no one bats an eyelash at these expenditures.

And when financial times are tough, elected officials still take their jobs seriously. But in this economic climate, more often than not legislators are facing down an angry and questioning constituency that’s backed them into a corner, demanding to know why so much money is being spent on projects they don’t understand and don’t feel they need. History has shown that in times like this, any and all expenditures are fair game for the legislative chopping block.

This is exactly what seems to be happening at the county level right now. In a recent meeting of the Suffolk County Legislature, the focus of debate was the county’s purchase of just over 57 acres of farmland development rights at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island for just under $5 million. The purchase is a partnership between Shelter Island and the county (which will kick in $3,277,000) and represents phase II of a total 241 acre acquisition at the manor. At the session, several legislators also took issue with the county’s planned acquisition of a parcel of farmland in Riverhead

Though the contracts have been drawn up and the purchases were approved through a public referendum back in 2007 that gave county legislators the power to preserve open space, several legislators balked at the spending of such large sums in the face of such dire financial circumstances. So while the session should have, in essence, been the equivalent of the closings for the properties, instead, county and town partnerships for the preservation of open space are now under fire.

Diverse Suffolk County bears little, if any, resemblance to counties in upstate New York that are fairly homogeneous. Suffolk is densely populated in its western portion — and has all the conveniences and problems that go along with such urban and suburban sprawl — while the rural eastern portion of the county is less populated and derives much of its economic power from it’s ability to preserve its farmland and open spaces for tourism and commerce.

For legislators to the west whose constituents are struggling — and in many cases failing — to make ends meet, it can be difficult to see the value in preserving open space on the East End — a place they see as simply a playground for the wealthy. Saving vistas that most of them will never visit seems like a huge waste of money — and they are willing to go back to the public to ask whether we should continue to spend millions of dollars to preserve what has long made the East End special.

Which is why it’s important that East End residents pay attention to this debate – and weigh in heavily on it. With land purchases in both Shelter Island and Riverhead now being questioned, we can only assume it will be a matter of time before sites are set on land acquisition efforts in Southampton and East Hampton as well.

So get involved, make a call, and remind the Suffolk County Legislature of what we’re fighting to preserve.


Preserving Library’s Past For the Future

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By Kathryn G. Menu

Sag Harbor’s John Jermain Memorial Library has received a grant for almost $6,000 to aid its efforts towards historic preservation. This comes as the library embarks on an expansion that will allow the 100-year-old institution to expand its archives for researchers and residents alike.

During the John Jermain Memorial Library (JJML) Board of Trustees meeting on December 15, JJML director Catherine Creedon announced that history librarian Jessica Frankel was awarded a Preservation Assistance Grant for Smaller Institutions by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The organization funds small to mid-level institutions, such as libraries, museums, historical societies, archival repositories, municipal records offices and cultural organizations, as well as colleges and universities.

The foundation grant was specifically geared towards institutions and organizations looking to enhance the preservation of their humanities collections. The NEH provides grants up to $6,000 through the program and in her application, Frankel secured the full $5,9777 she requested.

“It is worth noting that in an age of reduced governmental funding for the humanities, the John Jermain project and local history collection has attracted this level of federal support,” said Creedon to the board last Wednesday.

The grant will enable the library to hire Rolf Kat, the director of planning and development at the Conservation Center for Arts and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia.

According to Creedon, the grant Frankel secured will bring Kat to JJML for a study on the library’s current historical collection. It includes photography, works once owned by William Wallace Tooker, a collection of Bibles, historical records from the village, county and state, material on the whaling industry, personal history and artifacts from some of Sag Harbor’s celebrated families, as well as some items yet to be specifically identified, like a child size cap from the Civil War.

“Artifacts like that are so wonderful because they allow us to imagine,” said Creedon. “We don’t have documentation about why this is in our collection, so we begin to ask ourselves, was this a young child piper? Was it passed from generation to generation? How did it wind up here?”

Creedon said the expansion will include a dedicated room for historic artifacts that encompasses the kinds of temperature, humidity and light controls the current collection lacks.

“Going forward, one of the things I want to do is craft a mission statement about what the nature of what our collection is all about,” she said, noting the library might ultimately decide focusing on village history, rather than state and county records is its priority.

“Even in out new space, we will have a finite amount of room,” she said.
Creedon said she would like to see JJML expand its holdings of whaling related materials, as well as oral histories of current residents with stories about Sag Harbor’s culture and history, as well as relics pertinent to village history.

“I am also interested in collecting materials to the history we are making now,” said Creedon. “A lot of our history is wrapped up in whaling or the Custom House, but what we don’t think about is the history we are making now. We have this amazing sustainable food movement taking place on the East End. Our vineyards are accomplishing so much, Mecox Bay Dairy is looking at traditional ways of life. That reinvention of classical material is ripe for our archive.”

Creedon would also like to document the wave of immigrants, both past and present, that have descended on the East End. For Sag Harbor, she noted, immigration has been a constant and continues today.
“What is fascinating is 100 years from now people will want to know what was the culture of Sag Harbor in 2010,” said Creedon. “And we will be able to show them.”

Double or Nothing

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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.

Remain Visionary

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It’s unfortunate that the debacle concerning the Community Preservation Fund’s mismanagement in East Hampton Town is now distracting our lawmakers from a glaring truth: land is disappearing.

As much as we would like land to be able to reproduce and never ever be completely gobbled up by development, it’s simply not the case. The same thought process must be applied in noticing that land is also being preserved at a mind-boggling rate. While we’re aware that none of the East End towns have said “we’ve preserved all the land that’s out there,” the truth of the matter is that one day soon they will; perhaps not in Riverhead and Southold, but without a doubt in the two South Fork towns.

Last year we interviewed Fred Thiele and as one of the forefathers of CPF, he excited us by entering into discourse about moving in a new direction, about one day focusing more on, for example, historic preservation as a result of the fact that open space is indeed an endangered commodity. There was much talk in public by many parties on perhaps one day altering the course of CPF. We feel that talk is now overshadowed by the CPF Task Force’s recommendations to hold steadfast to the true intent of the law as they see it: preserving land.

Open space is only one aspect of preserving a community.

There is the opportunity to not recoil and not overreact to the recent fiasco concerning the law and to continue to be visionary. Being visionary, by the way, is what got us here in the first place.

What about purchasing land and restoring it to its natural state? How about purchasing lots with looming, dilapidated buildings and turning the space into a park? How about not preserving every parcel of open space so as to hinder the possibility of one day having real, affordable housing east of the canal so people, young and old, can remain in the community they have always cherished or have grown to cherish?

The phrase “community character” appears very high up in the original legislation and part of our community’s character, part of Sag Harbor’s charm, is its historic appeal. Quite frankly, there isn’t a lot of open space to be had in this village — but we all know that doesn’t mean there is nothing in Sag Harbor worth preserving. We sincerely ask all the players in this re-drafting of one of the most successful community preservation programs in the country to remember that, as they have their round-table discussions and as the amendments make their way to the legislature floor in Albany, to keep Sag Harbor in mind.