Hand Over Hand: Final Book Returns to John Jermain Memorial Library

People pass the last book to go into the newly renovated John Jermain Memorial Library down Sag Harbor’s Main Street last Saturday
People pass the last book to go into the newly renovated John Jermain Memorial Library down Sag Harbor’s Main Street last Saturday, Photo: Tom W. Ratcliffe, III

At exactly 10:30 a.m. last Saturday, a librarian at the temporary Sag Harbor library, on West Water Street around the corner from the 7-Eleven, came to the front door with a book and handed it to an eager local resident. This resident turned and handed it to the next resident in line. And that resident turned and handed it to the next resident.

Thus it was that the hardcover book Sag Harbor, An American Beauty, written in 1991 by Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski, made its way, one person handing it off to another, bucket-brigade fashion, down the steps of the temporary library, across to Main Street and through the center of town until an hour later, having been handled by hundreds of people, it made its way to the front door of the newly restored John Jermain Memorial Library, across from the Whaling Museum, to the waiting hands of library director Catherine Creedon. This was the final book to leave the temporary library. And with the book’s arrival, the John Jermain Memorial Library, originally built 106 years ago with money supplied by a rich woman named Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, re-opened to the public. All of the books that had been in the library in its crippled state 5 years ago, before the reconstruction began, were now back on the shelves.

This event Saturday morning absolutely riveted the attention of the entire population of Sag Harbor. When this book brigade got underway at 10:30 a.m., there were 300 people ready to pass it along hand over hand, not enough to get even a tenth of the way to the library. To solve this problem, when the book was handed forward by the back of the line, the person who handed it forward ran to the front of the line to receive it for a second time—and then a third. But by the time this human chain got as far as the Emporium Hardware Store, hundreds more people had arrived, and by the time the book got to the renovated library, with traffic now shut down in both directions to allow the crowds to complete the work and with the Sag Harbor Community Band playing John Phillip Sousa marches, it had been touched by almost 1,000 people. It was one of the greatest days in the history of Sag Harbor.

Sag Harbor was founded in 1707, about 70 years before the Declaration of Independence was written. Its heyday came in the first half of the 19th century when it became—along with New Bedford, Lahaina, Hawaii and Nantucket—one of the four major whaling ports in North America. More than 100 oceangoing whaling ships docked in Sag Harbor in the 1840s. And great fortunes were made, leading to the construction of many ship captains’ homes in the village.

By 1849, however, the demand for whale oil had declined, as kerosene became the way to light your home after dark. The whaling economy collapsed. The accumulated wealth of the community remained, however, and it wasn’t until about 1920 that the descendants of the whaling captains finally finished spending the great bulk of it. After that, Sag Harbor went into a serious economic decline, only to be restored to its former greatness as a tourist town in the 1990s. It thrives today, proud of its heritage. And proud of itself as a close-knit, small town.

In 1907, however, when wealthy people still dwelled in Sag Harbor, Mrs. Sage, the widow of financier Russell Sage, paid to have Pierson High School built and Mashashimuet Park developed. She also donated a huge sum of money to build a glorious, classical-style marble and granite library on Main Street—a public building worthy of a small city. The library was designed by architect Augustus N. Allen, and its great dome was of copper, iron, terracotta and stained glass. The dome was designed by the R. Guastavino Company, which also designed and built the domes at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan, at Grand Central Station, at the University of Virginia library and at the Boston Public Library. The library was a wonder for the age. And it was named in honor of Major John Jordan Jermain, a revolutionary war militiaman and hero.

But it was not something that could be kept up, even with a good-sized endowment from the Sage family in later years.

By 2000, the library was a dark, gloomy place with out-of-date lighting and plumbing. And when it rained, the dome leaked. Pails would have to be set down on the floor to catch the drips. Something had to be done. But it would cost a fortune to fix.

In 2004, the board of the John Jermain Library proposed to build a smaller wood-shingled library out at Mashashimuet Park, a bit of a long walk from the center of town. There would be lots of parking there. The old library could be made into a meeting hall. A $6.4 million bond was voted upon by the townspeople. It failed to pass. People overwhelmingly wanted the downtown John Jermain Memorial Library restored to its former glory.

There is a long story about an old wooden mansion adjacent to the John Jermain Library that two sisters owned and fought over for years. It was falling to ruin. The library wanted to buy it to create a much-needed extension to the library there. But nothing came of that effort.

A year or two later, the library board figured out a way to design an extension without having to bother buying the ruined adjacent mansion. And with that, they went back to the people for a vote, asking the townspeople to give $10 million for the renovation of the John Jermain Memorial Library where it stood. This time the town voted yes.

With that, the library prepared for the reconstruction. There were 22,000 books at John Jermain. Soon it would shut down and construction barriers would be going up around it. The library board packed up 2/3 of the books and put them in storage. The remaining 1/3 was then taken to the temporary library and put on metal shelves there. The library and the services it provides, much reduced, would continue at the temporary location for as long as it would take.

It took five years. And it didn’t cost $10 million. It cost $15 million, with the additional $5 million raised privately by the library board, one donation at a time.

And so, finally, with new facilities at John Jermain—an expanded lecture hall for films and programs and community organizations, a new children’s room, a multi-purpose space for classes, a teen area with a content creation lab, a scholar’s study which can be reserved by authors and researchers, a staff kitchen and break room, a staff office, gallery spaces for art shows, an IT office and a climate controlled local history archive—the books in storage and at the temporary library were brought back to their original home and placed back on the restored shelves. All but one.

And so, Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski’s book was handed down the street bucket-brigade fashion last Saturday, in time for the grand opening of the restored and very beautiful library at noon.

This, I think, was more than just about a library. It marked the final validation of the decision by the townspeople to maintain and restore and preserve all of historic Sag Harbor. The citizens of this old whaling town, this close knit community now numbering 2,000 or so people, nearly all of whom know one another, will not let one bit of out-of-character construction go on within its borders. That was the real meaning of the book brigade that morning. And it is something about which all of Sag Harbor can be proud.

John Jermain Memorial Library (under construction)
John Jermain Memorial Library (under construction), Photo: Oliver Peterson

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