Dignitaries squeezed into the narrow space between Brown Harris Stevens real estate and the new Meridian Building on Main Street in Sag Harbor on Saturday, June 16, as a crowd of onlookers pressed forward as if eager to catch a glimpse of a Hollywood star on the red carpet at the Academy Awards.
The occasion was a ceremonial groundbreaking for the new Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, which, if everything goes according to plan, will be rebuilt and ready to open its doors next year.
“We all want to go to the movies. We all miss that and we all deserve that,” said Nick Gazzolo, the partnership’s president, in an interview on Sunday. “It’s part of what makes Sag Harbor the cultural destination it is.”
The new center, which will have three screening rooms and a café, as well as classroom and office space, will replace the Sag Harbor Cinema, widely known for its classic neon sign and white stucco facade, which was heavily damaged by fire on December 16, 2016.
That fire also caused heavy damage to the surrounding buildings and cast a pall over the village’s business district in the middle of the holiday shopping season. It came just a few weeks before the partnership was ready to close on the purchase of the property from long-time owner and cinephile Gerald Mallow, who had run it as art house theater, where offbeat documentaries or highly-regarded foreign films drew a sometimes small, but dedicated, audience.
A fundraising drive, anchored by a $1 million pledge from artist Eric Fischl — who just happens to be married to April Gornik, herself an artist and vice president of the partnership, and a driving force in the effort to preserve the building — raised $8 million, allowing the partnership to buy the remnants of the building last year. The purchase included the famous sign, which was salvaged the night of the fire and has been in storage ever since.
On Saturday, Gornik said more than 2000 people had made donations to the fundraising effort. It was also buoyed by a $1.3 million state grant.
Gazzolo estimates it will cost $6 million to fully renovate the building, and $1.5 million for that phase of the project is already in hand.
“We are working on fundraising all the time,” he said. “We’ve been appealing to individuals, to foundations, applying for grants. It’s a big job, but we’ve raised over $9 million so far.”
At Saturday’s groundbreaking, where members of the partnership’s board and a number of elected officials sidestepped rocks and the odd piece of lumber, Gornik thanked members of the board, politicians, and donors, large and small. “If talent could raise a building up, we’d already be done,” she said. “But, of course, we still need your dollars and cents to fully realize this dream.”
“I’m very happy to be here today to thank everybody for making this a reality,” said Sag Harbor Mayor Sandra Schroeder. “None of this could have happened without you.”
For Gazzolo, at least, “you” meant Gornik. “If you ever want to save anything, the first step is to call April Gornik,” he said.
Gazzolo said work will begin on the Main Street side of the building in the coming days. The goal, he said, is to pour the foundation and footings this month, so that the sidewalk and street will be free of construction disruptions during the busy months of July and August. At that point, workers will move to the rear of the property.
“This is just the first leg of the journey. We own the property. We are starting the building,” Gazzolo told the crowd as the ceremony concluded. “We are going to need your support going forward so our cinema can have cool features like four walls and a projector and some seats.”