Behind the Walls, New Cinema Arts Center Is Coming Together

House 1, one of two new auditoria taking shape in the former single-screen Sag Harbor Cinema. Michael Heller photo

Thirty-two months after its was ruined by fire, and 14 months after reconstruction began, a state-of-the-art, three-screen movie theatre, arts center and community gathering place is steadily taking shape behind the reincarnated façade of the old Sag Harbor Cinema.

Supported by donations large and small, a $1.4-million state grant and $4 million from the Southampton Town Community Preservation Fund, the non-profit Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center still needs to pay for equipment, some interior features, the expanded third-floor with its virtual reality system, staffing and initial programs. But the building itself is on track to open in late December or early January, according to construction foreman Scott Tucker.

“It is construction and there are always delays,” said Mr. Tucker. “There are always things that happen, things that don’t ship when they’re supposed to. You know, it’s a snowball effect that affects everything. But it is possible” to finish the job around Christmas “and we’re really pushing to do it.”

During a tour of the project last week that he and the center’s executive director, Gillian Gordon, gave a reporter, Mr. Tucker said that all the rooftop HVAC and other equipment had been installed and that all the utilities — water, gas, and electric — would be connected within a day.

All the window frames and glass had been installed a week earlier, including “a beautiful 180-degree wrap-around view” on the third floor, he reported.


Construction foreman Scott Tucker in House 1. Peter Boody photo

“We’ve got guys coming next week to paint the whole exterior,” added Mr. Tucker. Walls on the second and third floors, which are new to the old cinema building, will be stuccoed, like the Main Street façade with its “Sag Harbor” neon sign, which was unveiled in late May. “But otherwise, the existing building is going to get painted white to leave the façade as it was,” he said.

Inside, interior details are coming together in House 1 and House 2, the two downstairs auditoria being created inside the newly reinforced exterior walls of the former single-screen theatre. A third, smaller screening room for 40 will be on the second floor.

House 1 will seat 228 and House 2 will seat 98. The drywall is up, the observation and multiple projection ports are in place on either side of the overhead projection room between the two first-floor theatres, and in House 1 — where the screen will be larger than the old cinema’s — there’s a new floor with a steeper slope than the old one. The House 2 screen will be the same size as the old cinema’s.

With no one’s head in anybody’s way thanks to the slope, “There won’t be a bad seat in the house,” said Ms. Gordon.

Bare wood stairs built of two-by-fours currently stand under a skylight in the roof, providing access to the second and third floors for construction workers. They will be replaced by mid-level landings and curving staircases leading to the second and third floors.

Scott Tucker and Gillian Gordon, executive director of the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, look up the shaft under a skylight where a curving staircase will be erected soon. Peter Boody photo

A major step is due to be taken within a month, when the audio-visual equipment is due to be delivered. It will include both 16mm- and 35mm-film projectors, digital projectors, computer servers and the dozens of speakers for the Dolby Atmos sound system.

“It’s already wired and roughed in,” said Mr. Tucker, “but the equipment itself needs mounting and testing and the RLP” — reference listening position — “has to be what every speaker faces for the Atmos system to be licensed and to actually perform the way that it’s supposed to.”

The rear or west end of the cinema building stands on long-ago reclaimed wetlands, which architect Allen Kopelson has said is the reason for the musty odor so familiar to cinema patrons. Changes he made in the design should eliminate that problem.

Sump pumps that ran 24 hours a day to keep the auditorium dry are no longer necessary because the foundation at the rear of the building has been raised 13 inches on the northwest corner and 24 inches on the southwest corner. Also, a waterproofing membrane has been added below the foundation “that bonds with it integrally so no hydrostatic pressure can come in,” Mr. Tucker explained. “It’s basically like an upside-down bathtub.”

The northwest corner has been reconstructed because it “was probably eight or nine inches out of plum” after standing in saturated land for more than 80 years. It was formerly held together by two steel plates mounted on each exterior wall, secured with rods and turn buckles “going all the way across” the interior, “keeping that wall from falling down,” Mr. Tucker said. “We could not leave it like that. But everything that was safe to leave, we just did and reinforced it as necessary.”

In about a month, heavy construction equipment will no longer be needed inside the building. It will be removed through the large open rear passageway at the northwest corner, after which watertight flood doors will be installed.

“You could have seven feet of water back there and it won’t come through those doors,” Mr. Tucker said.

Inside the front of the building, a semicircle on the floor in orange crayon shows where the curved point-of-sale counter will be located in the entryway. There moviegoers will buy their tickets and head through the interior doors into the lobby, passing the restrooms, the grand staircase and a concession counter before they reach vestibules leading to House 1 and House 2.

Some visitors may want to hang out at the café to buy coffee and treats. That space, inside a bank of doors that will replicate the old cinema’s recessed main entrance, was formerly quite narrow, but it no longer includes the built-in retail area that was last occupied by an art gallery.

“All those people waiting for busses can peek in now” and spend some time checking out the digital display cases that will highlight upcoming films, screening and events, said Ms. Gordon.

“I think that people don’t entirely understand how complicated a building like this is,” she added. “This isn’t just like putting in a restaurant, it isn’t like building a house, it isn’t like even a museum … It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, complicated in a really interesting way. It’s certainly a work in progress but what’s so heartening is to see the walls, the real shape of it; I think that’s what’s exciting.”

The theatre will have “really incredible sound and an incredible picture and there’s nothing east of the city that I know about that has this state-of-the art quality,” Ms. Gordon said.

But it’s not just a movie theatre, either.

“It really is a community center,” Ms. Gordon said. “There’s going to be education and outreach, there’s going to be something happening here all the time, not just from 6 o’clock onwards.”