It might have been the historic, grey stone walls or the grand height of the ceiling. Maybe it was the etchings left by builders dating back to the 19thcentury, or the energy of a building with more than 150 years of history. Perhaps it was the sheer potential of the space.
When artist Eric Fischl walked into the former Sag Harbor United Methodist Church building on Madison Street earlier this year, he was captivated.
“I thought, ‘This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. I’ve got to get this,” Mr. Fischl said while standing next to his wife, artist April Gornik, on the ground floor of the former church in late May.
The couple is expected to close on the property on June 11 for an undisclosed purchase price. They want to transform the building into a flexible space for artisans to experiment and create, although how exactly the building is used is something that will evolve after the building is renovated, Mr. Fischl said.
Redevelopment of the former church, which was moved from High Street and reconstructed at its current site in 1846, has never come to fruition since it was first purchased from the congregation by former Southampton Town Councilman and Goldman Sachs executive Dennis Suskind in 2008 for $2.8 million.
Textile designer and artist Elizabeth Dow bought the building from Mr. Suskind in 2011 with intentions to transform the space into her textile and wall covering studio, but sold the building in 2013 for $4 million to entrepreneur Sloan Schaffer. Bates Masi + Architects designed plans to redevelop the space into Mr. Schaffer’s 13,000 square-foot private residence.
In 2015, in the middle of construction, Mr. Schaffer listed the building for $23.5 million, although most recently it was listed for $8.9 million. Since 2015, it has sat unfinished — one of Sag Harbor’s most iconic and historic structures shrouded in scaffolding.
The first order of business, Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik said, will be to finish the renovation. Touring the interior of the building last month, the couple said they planned to work with architect Lee Skolnick, an old friend who collaborated with the artists to design their North Haven home and twin studios in the late 1990s. While plans have not been finalized, Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik envision an interior that includes flexible studio spaces, offices and even artist housing.
Ms. Gornik said the interior design should take a minimalist approach — one that is focused around the building’s original materials. “There are a lot of renovations you see in Europe — in France and England — where they take a really old edifice and leave it as raw as possible, and do minimal interior work so you feel the building itself in this really powerful way,” she said.
The exterior of the building will largely be preserved. While Mr. Schaffer obtained approval to construct a swimming pool on the property, Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik said that amenity was unnecessary to accomplish their goals.
Inspired by an Authentic Village
In many ways, the concept for the space is rooted in Sag Harbor’s history as an industrial place after its whaling days that served a national and even global economy, and also as a place that has welcomed diversity and the arts.
“I used to think that the arts ran parallel to the economic community here but I have begun to wonder if in fact production and arts are intersecting here at this point in time,” Mr. Fischl wrote in an email this week. “Perhaps the next economy will come from this intersection? I don’t know what that will look like but I know what is needed to give it a chance. It will require flexible spaces conducive to letting the creative mind wander/wonder and expand. It will require collaboration among experts in different fields who are willing to cross-pollenate. It will require canvassing the community to find people who have skill sets (like weaving, violin making, model making, crocheting, boat building, etc.) that can be reorganized or reawakened and who are willing to collaborate with fine artists and designers to make something that might result in a product specifically identified with Sag Harbor. Unlocking the potential of a maker society might very well be the goal?”
Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik said they also wanted to create a space where creative people have an opportunity to develop their skills and explore ideas, including how to harness the potential of emerging virtual technology in the arts. The building may end up housing think tanks, symposiums, masterclasses, performances and installations, said Mr. Fischl. More importantly, he added, the space would join a number of other institutions that together make downtown Sag Harbor a true center for the arts. In many ways, Mr. Fischl said, it was experience watching as Ms. Gornik and members of the Sag Harbor Partnership forged ahead with plans to create the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center that had inspired him.
“I see that along with the Whaling Museum and the library, the church will anchor the south of town,” Mr. Fischl wrote in his email. “The soon-to-be-built Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center will anchor the middle of town, and the Bay Street Theater will continue to anchor the north of town. When it comes to pass, we will have created a campus, an Arts District if you will, unlike anything else around here.”
“If you want to talk community revitalization this is where we should be looking to figure out how to develop this to its greatest potential,” he added.
“This would be continuing the tradition of what Sag Harbor has been, but also acknowledging the present in an important way,” Ms. Gornik said.