This week-before-Christmas started out so beautifully for the eastern end of Long Island. In a sudden outpouring of good cheer, many public works moved wonderfully forward. In Montauk, the Army Corps of Engineers patched up the breach in the oceanfront dune project protecting downtown. In Bridgehampton, the citizens there approved a $24.7 million bond issue to expand the Bridgehampton School—a remarkable thing considering the school building had not been expanded since it was built in 1930. What a gift to the students. East Hampton was voting to approve a plan to develop the mill cottage at 36 James Lane, recently purchased by that village, as a museum for fine art from the 19th century. This completes a remarkable assemblage of historic structures in the very center of town extending down Main Street an entire mile from Hook Mill to the Thomas Moran House, adjacent to Woods Lane. Finally came the news that the Trustees in Sag Harbor had approved a preliminary plan to create lighting, a boardwalk and a railing up and down historic Long Wharf.
All of this, it seemed to me, was just so extraordinary to have happened in the same week.
But then, to cap off the week, there occurred one of the worst imaginable things to ever happen to the eastern end of Long Island.
Just before dawn on Friday morning, a fire on Main Street in Sag Harbor grew out of control and into a terrible conflagration that tore the heart out of the business district, ultimately destroying six businesses including the lobby to the iconic Sag Harbor Cinema and, in the demolition that followed, its façade. The roof collapsed into the lobby and is entirely gone, but the theater’s auditorium is still standing, though damaged by smoke and water. Also gutted out were the real estate office for Brown Harris Stevens, the clothing store Matta, the consignment shop Collette, Henry Lehr, SagTown Coffee, the Corner Closet, the Richard J. Demato Fine Arts Gallery with paintings burned up that could, some said, be worth in the millions, and the real estate office for Compass. (Brown Harris Stevens and Henry Lehr have already relocated within the village.) The brick and clapboard façades of the buildings, including the theater, remained, however, and continued to stand, at least while the firemen did their work.
A village police officer called in the fire around 6:30 a.m. after smelling smoke, while stopping at SagTown Coffee. The temperature at that time was 17°, and the winds were gusting at more than 28 miles per hour. In that wind, the fire quickly spread to the adjacent theater and stores, and more than 300 firefighters from 20 different departments were on the scene, fighting desperately to contain this fire which, with those high winds, was feared might consume the entire town.
Among the equipment used were four cherry-picker platforms rising to 80 feet to permit firemen to spray water onto the flames from above on that bitter cold morning. A special white foam was directed onto adjacent buildings to contain the fire. The fire raged on, sending flames and smoke high into the sky, and it wasn’t until noon that the fire was considered under control, pending walks through the debris by firemen to see that it was done. A flare-up did occur later in the afternoon but was soon put out.
There were no casualties, and those living in apartments upstairs successfully evacuated, but one resident, asleep, had to be rousted out of his bed above Compass Real Estate and rushed off to safety. Needless to say, nearly the entire length of Main Street was shut down on what should have been one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Much of Main Street remained shut for the rest of the day, even though the fire was out, and that’s because the white two-story façade of the movie theater was considered in imminent danger of falling. It was finally knocked down late Friday night.
The townspeople in Sag Harbor are in a state of shock. During the time the fire raged, some people standing behind the yellow tape were seen to be softly crying. Others commented on the heroics of the volunteers. There was the danger from the fire itself, from the fire truck water freezing the streets and sidewalks into ice-skating slicks, falling flaming sparks and timbers, and icicles that formed on the limbs of trees.
Thanks to the volunteer fire departments and emergency medical workers from as far away as Eastport and Montauk. Local retail stores and restaurants—Baron’s Cove, 7-Eleven, Schiavoni’s, Grindstone Coffee and Donuts, Harbor Market and many other establishments offered food and coffee to the firemen.
When you think of Sag Harbor, what comes to mind are its Whaling Museum, Long Wharf, the Old Whalers’ Church and the American Hotel. Dominating downtown for 80 years, however, defining the center of downtown, has been the enormous red neon sign reading SAG HARBOR attached to the white façade of the Art Deco movie theater.
How strongly people felt about this sign was demonstrated some years ago when Brenda Siemer, the wife of actor Roy Scheider, came out of a yoga class and saw, directly across the street from the studio, two workmen with a pickup truck and ladder removing the red neon sign and preparing to put up small plastic letters in its place. A crowd gathered and they simply forced the workmen to hand over the neon so they could squirrel it away somewhere safe from harm until they could raise enough money to put it back up. The workmen left, having not put up the plastic letters.
It took a year, but the money was raised to make an identical neon sign to replace the old one—it was coming down because it was rusting away—and, with the blessing of the theater’s owner, put back up.
Rest assured, when the men with the wrecking equipment came to take down the theater’s two-story façade on Saturday, the neon sign was again carefully removed and put into storage.
Sag Harbor may be down, but it will rise again. People are already thinking about what to do where the theater and the sign and these five buildings, now gutted and weak, remain.
My own feeling is that this sign is a key element not just for the theater, but for this town itself. I think that sign with its signature SAG HARBOR, should return to where it was, mounted on a new white façade, similar to the old, as a gateway to a small park that could occupy that 140 foot stretch of Main Street that has been burned out.
In my suggestion, a waterfall gushes down the outside sidewall of the Sag Harbor Variety Store that has survived this fire. A small annex building houses a changing display of scrimshaw and other whaling artifacts that acknowledge the unique heritage of the town. Sag Harbor was one of only four villages in America founded as a whaling town—the others are New Bedford, Nantucket and Lahaina, Maui. Yet, the main depository for all things whaling is a block away at the Whaling & Historical Museum. Artifacts from that should be featured in this park.
Also in this park is a new art film movie theater. It would not seat 472 as before. It would instead consist of two 100-seat screening rooms in a new building at the back of the park. A stairway would lead from the park to the parking lot in the back. And the sign, 20 feet up on its façade, would be bolstered in the back by an antique wooden whaleboat, welcoming people to the sitting area.
Anyway, this is just suggestion, and I am sure there will be others. Not only the village, but also the adjacent towns and county, state and federal officials have unambiguously declared their full support for whatever Sag Harbor decides to do.