A thousand people turned out on Union Street in Sag Harbor on May 16, 1844 for the dedication of the First Presbyterian congregation’s third building in the village, the massive Egyptian Revival edifice funded by wealthy captains and ship owners giddy with the riches of the whaling trade that is now known as the Old Whalers’ Church.
This Sunday, May 12, at 11 a.m., the public is invited to join the congregation in celebrating the 175th anniversary of the event, for which the captains of several whaling ships delayed departures so their crews could attend.
Randolph Croxton, the noted architect who helped lead past restorations and the effort to win national landmark status for the building in 1994, will talk during the service — and in more detail afterward — about the building’s self-taught architect, Minard LeFever, and what church records reveal about the last-minute shortcuts in the construction process. Church musical director and organist Walter Klauss will offer a program of 18th- and 19th-century American compositions.
The church’s bell choir will perform two pieces; all hymns will be played, as usual, on the church’s original 1845 pipe organ; and Pastor Linda Westerhoff Maconochie will read from historic past sermons, including the one given for the 100th anniversary of the dedication in 1944, when World War II was raging overseas.
During Mr. Croxton’s longer talk after the worship service, he will offer a PowerPoint slide show to tell “the story of the church, the steeple and LeFever,” he said.
One aspect of the story will focus on the effort in the early 1990s to confirm that LeFever, a native of the Finger Lakes region of New York, was, in fact, the architect for the church, Mr. Croxton said. He’ll also talk about ornamental details that show how the congregation — running far over budget and missing many deadlines for completion because of the many frills and additions it had ordered along the way —tried to save time and money in the end.
He’ll also describe how a past “repair” of the structure’s legendary 185-foot-high steeple made it far more vulnerable to wind damage. Making the church the tallest structure on Long Island when it opened in 1844, the steeple was lifted from its mounts during the hurricane of 1938, smashing into the adjoining graveyard. A fund-raising effort to rebuild the steeple more than a decade ago was close to achieving its target when the fiscal crisis of 2008 struck, killing the campaign.
Pastor Maconochie estimated the current congregation includes about 100 people and about 30 typically attend services in the sanctuary, still one of the largest of any church on Long Island. In obvious need of paint, the building has urgent problems in its foundation and other problems that require attention, she said.