Bad Cell Service Could Resurrect an 1844 Steeple in Sag Harbor

Sag Harbor mayor James Larocca hopes to finally rebuild the Old Whalers' Church steeple
Sag Harbor mayor James Larocca hopes to finally rebuild the Old Whalers’ Church steeple
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NY,52-SAGHA,4-7, Cristina Pilinko

When Mayor Jim Larocca comes into his office at Sag Harbor Village Hall, the first thing he sees on the wall behind his desk is a large framed photograph of the pride of the village, Main Street.

This picture, found in an attic, was taken in 1905 by W.G. Howard, a photographer, standing at the foot of Long Wharf looking south a half a mile along the exact centerline of the then unpaved Main Street.

Mayor Larocca pointing to his Sag Harbor Main Street photo
Mayor Larocca pointing to his Sag Harbor Main Street photo

In the distance, on that straight centerline, the towering white church steeple of the Old Whalers’ Church looms over the scene. Is this really Sag Harbor? There’s no steeple in this alignment today. The steeple got blown down in the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 (the Long Island Express) and it was never rebuilt.

However, when originally constructed in 1844, that church rose to a height of 185 feet and was declared the tallest structure on Long Island, holding that record for many years. It also happens to sit on a hill 80 feet up.

Sag Harbor is the site of Long Island’s first newspaper — Frothingham’s Long-Island Herald. Sag Harbor’s 64 ocean-going whaling ships made it one of the largest whaling communities in the world. And Sag Harbor’s Custom House was founded in 1789 as only the second federal Port of Entry in America after the Port of New York. Sag Harbor was quite something.

Vintage photo of Old Whalers Church in Sag Harbor, when it still had its towering steeple
Vintage photo of Old Whalers Church in Sag Harbor, when it still had its towering steepleCourtesy Sag Harbor Historical Society

And it is still quite something. But the lineup of wharf, street and church steeple has long been forgotten. And the church congregation, though promising to rebuild the steeple, has never raised enough money to do so.

Sag Harbor, as with other places on the East End today suffers from spotty cellphone service. Metal communication towers rise up here and there but there aren’t enough of them and nobody wants a new tower near where they live. It’s classic NIMBY. Neighbors even nixed a plan to put a tower inside a church steeple at St. Peter’s Chapel in Springs and the First Presbyterian Church in Southampton, even though the phone equipment inside would never be seen.

But you know, if we can get AT&T or Verizon to reconstruct that Sag Harbor steeple for their phone equipment up top, its great height might make it possible to take all the other steel towers down. Yes? Mayor Larocca says he’s working on it.

An interesting detail: Famed architect Minard Lefever designed a church in Brooklyn the year after he designed the Old Whalers’ Church. That church, St. Ann and the Holy Trinity, was to have an even taller steeple than the one in Sag Harbor.

It was to rise to 275 feet. Thus, his Old Whalers’ Church would be the tallest for only one year. But the steeple on St. Ann didn’t get built until 1869. And by 1906, after pieces of the steeple kept falling on passersby, it became necessary to take it down.

Turns out Lefever was good at designing churches, but not so good at designing steeples.

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