Dan Rattiner's Stories

April Gornik at It Again: But Can Sag Harborites Handle All the New Cultural Events?

The artist and her husband buy Methodist Church to offer more art and culture.

April Gornik, the Sag Harbor painter, is back at it again. She and her husband, Eric Fischl, bought the 15,000-square-foot, 40-foot-tall former United Methodist Church next to the Il Capuccino restaurant on Madison Street and say they will convert it into a cultural center for the arts. The Village seems inclined to let them go for it.

Ms. Gornik is a hero of Sag Harbor for what she has done for culture there. After the great downtown fire destroyed the Sag Harbor Cinema in 2016, she spearheaded the $8 million drive for the Sag Harbor Partnership to buy that property, which that group will restore to what it was and then some. The Cinema, before she led the drive for the money, had been an 80-year-old movie theater with 480 seats that had never undergone a full renovation.

Sag Harbor Cinema
Photo: Oliver Peterson

For years and years, people went there to watch either old classics or interesting indie films selected by the owner, Gerry Mallow, amidst a musty and sometimes nasty smell that pervaded the place. The prices were cheap, Mr. Mallow had an impeccable eye for such films, and the whole experience was just a treasure. For live performances, there was Bay Street Theater on Long Wharf just down the street. For this intellectual experience, there was the Sag Harbor Cinema.

As it happened, it was only in 2014 that some fumigators and carpenters got rid of the smell. And then came the fire. The great neon sign out front reading SAG HARBOR was only saved from the blaze by brave firemen in 30-foot hoist buckets who cut it away from the front wall just before it collapsed.

And then April Gornik took the lead and got private donors and public funding to raise the $8 million necessary to buy the property from the saddened Gerry Mallow. Now Gornik is underway to raise another $6 million to build the new theater from the architect’s plans.

The plans show not just the main theater, but also a second theater, a lecture hall, a screening room, a gallery and a rooftop terrace with an outdoor seating area.

Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center plan
Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center plan, Photo: Sag Harbor Partnership

Since it will likely take a year or so to rebuild this expanded theater, Gornik and others have put together a film series, a once-a-month screening of an important old film, introduced by one of our many celebrities, to take place in other venues around town, including, most often, the auditorium of Pierson High School in Sag Harbor.

By the way, last week, the giant SAG HARBOR neon sign, out in the barn where it is being restored, was successfully lit up for the first time.

And now comes the purchase by Gornik and her husband of the old church on Madison Street, which will become a cultural center for the arts. There’s no specific plan yet about what will take place there. But one would imagine painters’ studios, art classes, lectures, art shows of those who participate and maybe even dance classes and performances there. What there won’t be there, it is believed, will be a rooftop café with an outdoor seating area. The upper roof was once the platform for the long-gone steeple to this church. You could get maybe six people upon it. Perhaps an easel, some paints and palette, a painter and a teacher. That’s it.

The church was built in 1835. Those were the raucous years for Sag Harbor when the community was thriving as a whaling port—one of the four major whaling ports in the country, the other most famous being in New Bedford, Nantucket and Lahaina, Hawaii. More than a hundred whaling ships docked down at the wharf. There were bars and taverns all through town, also houses of prostitution, ship repair and wooden cask construction facilities.

Plan for Sag Harbor United Methodist Church
Plan for Sag Harbor United Methodist Church, Photo: Compass

As the whalers sailed all over the world from Sag Harbor, the town was swarming with people from all different cultures speaking all different languages, including from the Pacific Islands, South America, China and Sumatra. Many authors wrote about Sag Harbor in this era, the most famous being Herman Melville in Moby Dick. One author from that era, James Fenimore Cooper, wrote while living in Sag Harbor but not about it. His Leatherstocking Tales were about American pioneers in upstate New York.

Anyway, the existence of this church is the reason today that access to the next-door Il Capuccino restaurant is from a door in the alley on the side of that restaurant farthest from the church. There was a law on the books in Sag Harbor that no establishment that served liquor could be entered within 500 feet of a church. There were many churches in Sag Harbor. And so when the restaurant was later built, they came a cropper of this law but found that the far wall of the restaurant building was 501 feet away from the church. You could enter from there. So you do.

The church thrived for more than a 150 years, but by 2007 there were only 40 parishioners attending, and those numbers were declining. And so it was decided the best thing to do would be to sell the property. It was listed. A month later, the pastor of the church, Tom McLeod, had an offer from Dennis Suskind, a former Southampton Town Councilman and partner of Goldman Sachs, to buy it for $2.4 million. That was a lot of money. And with it, they could build a smaller church nearby. The congregation approved the sale and the Suskinds moved to begin converting it.

After six months, the Suskinds decided not to move into it, which was the original plan. Instead, they put it back up for sale and sold it to a woman who wanted to convert it into an art and interior design studio, who then sold it to Sloan Schaffer, an art collector, who wanted to turn it into a private home. After that, it came into the hands of a developer who hired architect Bates + Masi to design the property as one of the most luxurious private homes imaginable—6 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms, pool, indoor spa, you name it. It was priced for sale at $23.5 million in 2015 but never sold. Finally the price dropped to asking $9 million and Ms. Gornik and her husband bought it for $7 million on June 1.

I was 15 when my dad moved our family out to live in Montauk. Before that, I lived in one house in the suburban town of Millburn, New Jersey. That town and those that surrounded it comprised my world. There were busy streets. The combined population of that area was about 100,000 people. For that reason, it came as a sort of shock to move to the community of Montauk, in the sense that maybe 900 people lived in Montauk at that time. Everybody knew everybody. I liked that. Today, the permanent population of Sag Harbor is about 2,300 people, and everybody knows everybody.

April Gornik in her North Haven studio
April Gornik in her North Haven studio

What I am wondering is, with April Gornik on the loose, the community might simply not have enough people interested in culture to fully flock to all that she is creating. As a result, it will fall to those 2,300 people to go to everything to keep it all going.

I imagine a man and woman at home, perhaps on Garden Street, having lunch and discussing the situation. Everybody has to do their part.

“So what’s next?” the man asks.

“Well, there’s a seminar about art in the cultural center this afternoon and then a preview of a movie in the screening room at the theater.”

“Can’t we just stay home?” he asks. “I’m exhausted. This morning was the acrobats, yesterday was the dance recital, the day before the speaker about his trip to Nepal, and the day before that the fundraiser for the poor people of Bangladesh.”

“Can’t stay home,” she says. “It’s the art seminar or the movie preview. Or that new play at Bay Street. You decide.”

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