The American Hotel – 50 Years of Understated Elegance in Sag Harbor

The American Hotel in Sag Harbor
The American Hotel in Sag Harbor
Barbara Lassen

One of the oldest communities on the East End first settled possibly as early as 1707 by colonists from New England, Sag Harbor was already a thriving village before the American Revolution and was declared the official port of entry to the United States during the second session of Congress in 1789. Now an international destination for the rich, famous, and notable, the property we have come to know as The American Hotel has been an integral part of it all along the way.

The James Howell Inn originally stood on the site of The American Hotel and British officers were billeted there during the American Revolution. In May 1777, a daring raid by 220 colonists, led by Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs, sailed across the Long Island Sound from Connecticut in 13 whaling boats and liberated the village from the British. They burned 12 British ships and took 90 prisoners without losing a man.

It is believed the original wooden structure inn burned down and was rebuilt as a brick edifice in 1824 by local cabinetmaker Nathan Tinker for his residence. With the booming whaling trade that emerged in the early-19th century, Sag Harbor was not only bustling with captains, sailors, and tradespeople, the village was named as the first U.S. Custom Port in New York. Tinker expanded his structure and added rooms above and behind, creating a boarding house. But by the mid-1800s the whaling industry was in fast decline and the property fell into disrepair and was vacated.

Purchased from Tinker’s heirs in 1876 by Captain William Freeman and Bridgehampton farmer Addison Youngs, they cleaned up the property and added a porch, bar, and dining room. They called their business either The American House or The American Hotel, the name that stuck and has remained for almost 150 years.

Although the whaling industry was long gone, the village remained a busy commerce port and the LIRR added a line to Sag Harbor in 1870 which brought visitors and summer residents, and the light manufacturing that replaced whaling made the village a destination for many traveling sales and businesspeople.

"Sag Harbor Fire Department | The American Hotel" by Viktor Butko
“Sag Harbor Fire Department | The American Hotel” by Viktor ButkoGrenning Gallery

The three-story American Hotel in the center of town with 25 rooms, a bar, and restaurant flourished.

Growing with new residents as well, Sag Harbor was bustling right though WWI. In fact, the village was used as a staging point for locally manufactured Bliss torpedo testing (with Thomas Edison observing) that occurred in the harbor a half mile north of town. Although Grumman throttle parts for WWII spitfires were manufactured in Sag Harbor, the village had begun a slow decline after WWI.

By the late 1960s the decline was palpable as most of the factories were closing with a loss of almost 1,500 jobs and the village population had dipped significantly to under 2,000 residents. As went the village, so, too, The American Hotel. The building was neglected and there had not been a room booked, a drink poured, or a meal served in decades … enter East End local Ted Conklin in 1972!

Ted Conklin & The American Hotel

For transparency’s sake, I will preface the rest of the article with the admission that this journalist actually worked at The American Hotel in 1994–95. I started as second bartender to the legendary pourer man extraordinaire Vinnie Rom and then became the general manager, a distinction for which I still take great pride. Due to a family tragedy, I left the hospitality trade.

So, scraping together every dime he had, Conklin purchased the property and with the Pilgrim work ethic that runs through his veins from his English family immigration heritage that dates back to 1631, he proceeded to renovate the bar and dining area working night and day for six months. From wallpaper to floorboards, plumbing to painting, décor to staffing, Conklin essentially took what could be described as a Main Street eyesore and transformed it into what would eventually become one of the most venerable and legendary hospitality venues in the Hamptons, if not the world.

Conklin definitely had a vision of Sag Harbor not shared by all at the time — in the early 1970s it was not considered a toney Hamptons destination like East Hampton or Southampton. In truth, it was very blue-collar, middle-class with a sprinkling of artists, mostly writers, including the likes of John Steinbeck, Lanford Wilson, and others looking for a low-key and celebrity light, albeit beautiful, destination to create. I remember it well, as my Lake Ronkonkoma high school girlfriend’s non-wealthy parents had a summer bungalow in Sag Harbor during that time.

With a Conklin bloodline that traces itself back to the American Revolution, it seems appropriate that opening day was the 4th of July, 1972. The menu was distinctly French, as was the service criteria for his staff. Along with fresh white linen tablecloth changes at every turnover, fresh flowers were placed daily at every table and the flatware and silver were stunning and always perfectly set.

Food & Wine at The American Hotel

American Hotel smoked rainbow trout
American Hotel’s smoked rainbow troutStacy Dermont

With the dock within a block for the freshest seafood, the abundance of East End farm-fresh produce and only the best selection of proteins, the restaurant’s cuisine garnered accolades across the board from the beginning, and it still does 50 years later.

In 2003, with Conklin’s enthusiastic support, The American Hotel was ground-zero for the East End’s first chapter of Slow Cook USA.

After the opening, renovating the hotel itself was next for Conklin and the 20-plus boarding house rooms were turned into eight understated, individually distinct, beautifully antiqued, luxury amenity appointed, television-free suites. Yes, television free, and they still are to this day. There is a television in the bar/dining area and one in the lobby guest lounge. The channel selection protocol is anyone’s guess, but it’s always civilized.

Perhaps a college semester in Paris instilled a Francophile passion in Conklin, hence the American’s cuisine française. If so, it also instilled a passion for wine as no profile of The American Hotel is complete without a focus on its extensive wine inventory. With a wine book as thick as a James Joyce novel, the list has a reported 2,500 selections and a wine cellar housing 25,000 bottles from every major wine producing nation in the world, including an extensive selection of our own Long Island wines. Conklin was an early supporter and activist for our local growths.

Yes, there are plenty of selections priced in the multi-thousand-dollar range, but there is a bounty of delicious and affordable choices for every taste and budget. The American Hotel holds the rare distinction of being one of only three restaurants in the world to receive Wine Spectator’s Grand Award every year since the prize’s inception in 1981.

As previously noted, as went the village, so, too, The American Hotel. Well, the village rose up the ladder of Hampton destinations, due in no small part to the realization of Ted Conklin’s vision for the American. The rich and famous from theater and film stars to major leaders in politics and industry battled for hotel and dinner reservations or just a seat at the bar. Along the way, many bought and called Sag Harbor home as either year-rounders or for their summer getaway.

During my tenure as general manager, I encountered many celebrities at The American Hotel. One of my favorite stories to share is the night regular Billy Joel was dining alone on a winter Sunday après his 1994 breakup with Christie Brinkley. He rose from his table in the bar dining area and asked me to bring his after dinner grappa and espresso into the empty front dining room that had the piano stage. It was close to the end of the evening, so I grabbed a single malt for myself.

Tray in hand, I entered the room to see Joel tinkering at the piano. I placed his after dinner treats on the table next to the piano and, perhaps seeing my drink, he said, “Join me, Doug.” I sat and expecting to hear one of his hits, to my surprise he began playing what I believe was a Chopin piano concerto. As unbelievable as this moment was for me, halfway through the piece he turned to me and said, “Doug, if I had my way, I would have preferred to make a living playing music like this.”

America’s classic Piano Man playing classical music at a classic American joint … ahh, The American Hotel!

The American Hotel is located at 49 Main Street in Sag Harbor. Call 631-725-3535 or visit theamericanhotel.com.

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