Bringing History to Life for Kids

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Janet Sygar at the Custom House web

By Annette Hinkle

This Saturday, September 10,  while most of Sag Harbor gets down to the serious business of celebrating HarborFest with events like whale boat races and clam shucking, a little further up Main Street, the Custom House will be offering a diversion for the younger set that is both historical and artistic.

“Walk, Talk and Sketch” is geared for children ages 8 to 12 and is led by architectural educator Janet Sygar. During the two and a half hour stroll, kids will learn a little bit about the Custom House and other historic homes and buildings in the village before sitting down to sketch their facades or an architectural feature of the structures.

“We always do the Custom House,” says Sygar. “It’s the perfect starting off point because it is so basic. I tell them to look for shapes when sketching. They get the basic building down then add the extra ornamental details.”

It’s all part of Sygar’s plan to get children to observe that which is right in front of them.

“Adults can go on walking tours and you can just talk about the buildings,” explains Sygar. “But with kids, you have to teach them how to look at things. Kids walk by these places every day. They will not have seen a column, a bracket or any of these things until you get them to sit down and sketch one.”

“Sketching makes them actually look and see things, which is important,” she adds. “It cements it and they make it theirs.”

During the school year, Sygar leads architecturally based projects for students at the Anderson School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But she spends summers in Sag Harbor and this is the third year she has offered “Walk, Talk and Sketch” through the Custom House. She finds that the children who take part in her programs, particularly those on the younger end of the spectrum, jump in with enthusiasm, having not yet become self-conscious about their artistic ability.

Sygar knows she’s made an impact when a child who has been in her workshop reports back to her later with details of architectural elements they have found on their own.

“They’ll say, ‘I went to Washington D.C. and counted 270 brackets or this many columns, or there were pediments everywhere,” she grins. “They’re just so excited. You get them to look at things and sketching is a really good tool for that. It’s important they sketch.”

And once she has kids noticing what’s around them, Sygar can take the next step.

“Then you bring in the history,” she says.

While adults can delve deeper into the historical record, and pay attention to the mundane details, kids, notes Sygar, are a much different audience and have to be fed their history in a different way.

“I like fun facts,” she says. “If the history is too dry, then they get turned off.”

Luckily, there are many buildings in Sag Harbor that come with interesting stories and people attached to them.

From the original purpose of the Custom House and the story of two little boys buried in the Old Burying Ground, to a secret message etched onto the glass of a window pane on Main Street and a story about why the owners of saltbox houses benefited when it came to paying taxes in colonial times, Sygar shares with children little tidbits that bring Sag Harbor’s past alive.

One of her favorite tales involves Samuel L’Hommedieu who lived in Sag Harbor in the pre-revolutionary war years. According to Sygar, the story goes that when L’Hommedieu heard the British were coming he took his 40 head of cattle and headed out to Montauk along with other local men.

“There they saw three British Man-of-Wars off the coast,” she says. “So they went up on a hill and marched in a big circle and kept going around. The British thought there were so many people, they turned and left and didn’t land there.”

But of all the stories related to Sag Harbor, one that children particularly enjoy, notes Sygar, is the story of the 1938 hurricane which took off the tall steeple off the Old Whalers’ Church — it’s a particularly poignant tale in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

The Whalers’ Church is a favorite among the kids for other reasons as well.

“They love sketching the church because it’s Egyptian and has an unusual style,” says Sygar. “They love to learn the history of what happened with the significance of the steeple when it was there. Then there’s the sad fact it hasn’t been replaced after all these years.”

Beyond the historical tales, plenty of architectural terms are worked into the program as well and with houses dating from the colonial period on, Sag Harbor offers a time line of American building styles. Sygar shows children how to tell the difference between a Federal and Georgian style house, she describes a three bay vs. a five bay home and delves into the very decorative touches that can be found in houses like the Hannibal French House – an Italianate form popular at the end of the whaling era.

Sygar finds that parents also enjoy the program and most of them stay with their children, learning and sketching alongside them. Many of the adults know as little about Sag Harbor history as the children do when they sign up. But Sygar notes, it’s not just tales of the past that she’s sharing.

“The great thing about using architecture with children is you tie it into art, history, and then into math as the level goes up,” she says.

“My satisfaction is kids coming back and saying I saw a Juliet balcony or a balustrade,” adds Sygar. “They’re so excited they now have this vocabulary and they love that their parents are impressed.”

“It’s the joy they have in learning something and being able to use it.”

“Walk, Talk & Sketch” will be offered by the Custom House this Saturday, September 10, 2011 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The cost is $10 which includes sketching materials. Participants will meet at the Custom House at the corner of Main Street and Garden Street in Sag Harbor. For more information call 725-3229.

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