Stepping back in time during HarborFest, or any time of year, really, is as simple as setting foot inside one of the historic churches of Sag Harbor. So when I was asked to write about these classic spots, three in particular sprang to mind: Old Whalers’ Church (Presbyterian), Christ Episcopal Church and St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church. Clustered around Union and East Union Street, these churches were all constructed in the mid-to-late 1800s. The prosperity of Sag Harbor as a whaling town is reflected in the relative grandeur of these churches and in their distinctive features.
Old Whalers’ Church, dedicated in 1844, was designed by architect Minard Lafever. Seen from the front, this imposing structure can seem a little odd, until you realize that it lost its steeple in the hurricane of 1938, and what you’re seeing is only half the picture. The Egyptian-inspired shape and details (Old Whalers’ is one of the prime American examples of the Egyptian Revival style) contribute to the unique quality of the structure. Most unusual is the blubber-spade trim, patterned after the then important tool. Inside, the most remarkable feature is the fresco behind the altar, a trompe l’oeil that tries to create the appearance of a bigger space (although Old Whalers’ is already quite large). Also of note is the historic pipe organ, installed in 1845, the oldest pipe organ on Long Island still in use. It is housed in its own Egyptian Revival case, reflecting on a small scale the design motif of the church as a whole. Old Whalers’ Church is open for tours on Saturday, September 10 as part of HarborFest
Christ Episcopal Church, also open for tours during HarborFest on Saturday, is a more traditional structure than Old Whalers’, but no less interesting to visit. Old photographs of the building show a colorful exterior with artful shingling and crosses on every pinnacle, but the 1965 covering of aluminum siding has obscured much of this. On the inside, however, Christ Church is very well preserved. The ceiling is of long stained wood boards, showing the skilled craftsmanship of Sag Harbor’s boat builders. The tile mosaic that decorates the floor of the altar should look familiar to anyone who has visited John Jermain Library. In the side chapel, there is a beautiful early stained-glass window by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and the large stained-glass window in the nave is by Tiffany Studios.
St. Andrew’s Church, completed in 1872, has its share of gorgeous stained-glass windows too. Also of note is the Gothic-style marble altar, designed by McBride Studios and built in Italy in 1922, combining many different types of colorful Italian marble.
Besides Old Whalers’, Christ Episcopal and St. Andrew’s, there are several other churches or church buildings in Sag Harbor worthy of note. In fact, the oldest surviving church in the village is the St. David A.M.E. Zion Church on Eastville Avenue, which is currently being used by the Triune Baptist Church until they can erect their own building. The former Bethel Baptist Church on the corner of Madison and Henry Streets is the private home of art dealer Ruth Vered, and the old Methodist Church on Madison Street also recently passed into private hands. Additionally, the brick building on the corner of Division and Latham Streets was originally built as a Pentecostal Church, although it lasted only briefly as such and is now a private residence.
“A Walk Through History and Sag Harbor Churches” is brought to you by the Gail Shoentag Gallery. You can visit the gallery at 112 Hampton Street in Sag Harbor during HarborFest and online at www.gailschoentag-gallery.com.