Arts Center at Church Set to Get Green Light from Village Planners

The former Sag Harbor Methodist Church. Peter Boody photo

The Sag Harbor Planning Board is set to approve the site plan and grant a “special exception” use permit for artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik to convert the former Methodist Church, an imposing mid-19th-century wood-frame structure at 48 Madison Street, into a residential arts center.
After a public hearing at which five people spoke, all in support of the project, the board voted unanimously at its monthly meeting on December 16, to have its attorney draft resolutions to approve the plan at its next meeting on January 28.
After two stalled conversion projects by previous owners had left it abandoned and exposed to the weather, Ms. Gornik and Mr. Fischl bought the building in 2018 “with the express purpose of creating an art institute that would provide the public access to the church, maintain the historic façade and encourage artists, students and residents to engage in the process of making art,” their attorney Tiffany Scarlato said at the hearing.
To be operated by a non-profit organization “dedicated to the fostering of artistry,” the building will have living space for up to four artists at a time and possibly a live-in manager, Ms. Scarlato said. The proposed art center falls within the definition of “special exception” uses allowed by the zoning code in the R-20 residential zone as a “philanthropic, fraternal, social, educational institutional office or meeting room, nonprofit.”
“The mission of the Sag Harbor Church,” Ms. Scarlato said, reading from a letter she submitted to the board, will be “to foster creativity on the East End and preserve the great history of Sag Harbor as a maker in the village. The church will celebrate old and new technologies as an incubator for future generations through collaboration, education and outreach.”
“In an effort to restore the dignity of the historic church structure” and make it an asset to the community, she said, “Eric and April’s project aims to allow artists housing, provide space to create and serve as an outlet to reach out and involve the community through educational classes, lectures and artistic performances.”
Programs will include master classes for up to 20 people with a resident artist, a small office with a staff of two to four people at busy time, and small art exhibitions open to the public, Ms. Scarlato said. After the Village Board this fall approved their request to expand the Sag Harbor sewer district to include the property, Ms. Gornik and Mr. Fischer “are actively pursuing that installation,” Ms. Scarlato reported.
Project architect Lee Skolnick told the board his main goal has been to “restore the original architecture of the church,” although an addition made by a previous owner has been retained. “In the interior, what we’re trying to do is expose the historic construction of the church structure itself” and its “a beautiful timber frame,” including 50-foot-long, single-timber oak trusses, he said.
“The building itself is going to be an expression of the creative heritage of Sag Harbor with respect to architecture,” Mr. Skolnick said. The building will be completely handicapped accessible, including an elevator. The site plan, he added, includes a terraced outdoor amphitheater on the gently sloped south side of the property.
“We’re very excited about getting it done and hope to be finished sometime in the spring,” Mr. Skolnick said.
Also speaking at the hearing was Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni of Sag Harbor, who will be a volunteer board member of the non-profit agency that will run the program. He said he knew the church well as the former home of the Rainbow School and urged the board to approve the project.
Resident Joe Fisher, who said he and his wife Cathleen Civale have lived behind the church on Main Street since 2003, said they fully supported the project. Dominic LaPierre, also a Main Street resident, said he favored the project, too, but cautioned the board “to keep in mind” the possibility that the building under future owners may not always be run by a non-profit.
In related news, the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review approved Ms. Gornik and Mr. Fischl’s request to install a three-foot, iron fence at the Church property during its meeting on Thursday, December 19. Ms. Gornik, with the aid of Jean Held, from the Sag Harbor Historical Society, was able to track down historic photos that show the church was once surrounded by a fence, before it was moved by its congregation from High Street to Madison Street in1836.
The board and its historic preservation consultant, Zachary Studenroth, agreed the fence fit in nicely with the landscape and not take away from the historic significance of the building.
Additional reporting by Kathryn G. Menu