In the spring of 2018, the former Sag Harbor United Methodist Church sat shrouded in the same scaffolding and bright green building wrap that had adorned much of the building since 2015. Plans to transform the former house of worship into the private residence of a Los Angeles-based architect and gallerist abruptly stopped and the Madison Street property was listed for sale.
Now, less than a year after artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik purchased the property for $7 million with plans to create an arts center dedicated to exploration and innovation, the building’s exterior is transformed. Grey stone on the ground floor is topped with restored white panel siding and five large, aluminum clad windows span the main and second floors on each side of the 1864 building, shining bright light into the building. The windows offer unprecedented views of Sag Harbor, and many of its most celebrated historic buildings from the Old Whalers’ Church to the John Jermain Memorial Library, for whoever is lucky enough to take a peek inside.
While the exterior of the building has emerged from its cocoon after years of being cloaked, the inside is undergoing a more radical metamorphosis. The North Haven-based couple, known internationally for their art and locally for their unwavering devotion to Sag Harbor, have embarked on an ambitious project meant to create an arts incubator to complement other cultural institutions peppering the village. It’s envisioned as a center to explore maker-culture, in an interior space designed to showcase the building’s historic bones, while offering individual and communal spaces for creation and performance.
“We talk a lot about possible collaborative efforts, where we are bringing people in of different disciplines to work together on something that neither one of them would be doing elsewhere or on their own,” Mr. Fischl said while touring the building on May 13. “Or we could be bringing local people to work with specific people in craft or from the arts world.”
“With one little stipulation,” added Ms. Gornik. “The people who come here should interact with the community in some way — with the schools, through public talks. In some way, they should be interacting with this place because what we are focused on is ‘place’ and we want people who understand the importance of that.”
With most of the exterior work completed on what Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik have decided to call “The Church,” interior work is now the focus of the project, designed with the aid of longtime friend and collaborator, Lee Skolnick. Interior renovations and a landscape design conceived by Edmund Hollander are expected to take nine to 12 months.
Expected to open its doors in the spring of 2020, The Church will include a ground level workspace. The main floor will be open, used for exhibitions and programs with an upper floor covering just half of the footprint of the main sanctuary of the building — allowing one side to be completely open to the historic rafters. The upper floor will include office, library and meeting space for artists and community partners. An artists’ residence is located on the ground and main floors at the rear of the building. Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik envision a first-year residency of three to four artists working in five week stretches, workshopping, exhibiting and offering community programs. Public programs and educational opportunities for all ages will be offered year-round, although both Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik admit that the exact programming has yet to be determined.
According to Christy Maclear, who has been working with Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik on The Church project, a new nonprofit foundation will be formed to operate The Church, allowing for a full community buy-in and investment in the long-term direction of the institution. While Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik view The Church as a public facility in many ways, the artists’ residences and work spaces will be private. How the public accesses the building and what programs will be offered remains to be seen. The couple clearly don’t intend for The Church to become an ivory tower for the arts, but one that has something to offer residents of Sag Harbor without duplicating what other arts organizations are already trying to accomplish.
“This village has all of these other organizations that we just want to be a part of and add that piece that’s not here,” said Mr. Fischl.
“And to be able to work collaboratively with them, too, is really important to us,” added Ms. Gornik.
“I think what makes Sag Harbor unique is that it actually can contain all those things in a way that the other towns all have parts of, but not all of it in one place,” said Mr. Fischl.
“The more we talk about it, the more I am thinking that ‘flexible’ is the really key word here,” said Ms. Gornik. “Deliberately — not uncertainly — but deliberately creating a building with a lot of flexibility so that we can see what the needs are. Because when we start, it will not be fixed in stone. We are not going to know exactly what the programming will be, we will not know exactly where we are going with it. We have aspirations and goals and it will be about seeing how we can grow that.”
“What we are hoping to create is heat,” said Mr. Fischl. “That kind of energy that comes from heat, that draws attention to itself. It’s a high level of energy — something where you would hope people would always wonder, ‘What the hell is going on in there?’ And they have to go in and see and either their reaction is, ‘Huh?’ or ‘Wow,’ but it keeps you wondering. I think that’s the sense of a truly dynamic environment — it’s the wonder part of it all.”
And for those wondering whose faces will adorn the 20 square window panes approved to showcase the creative souls from Sag Harbor in portraits painted by Mr. Fischl, that also remains unclear and decidedly competitive. Mr. Fischl said over 150 names have come up in conversations about appropriate portraits. He has painted author and activist Langston Hughes, Olivia Ward Bush-Banks, an author, poet and journalist of African American and Montaukett Native American descent, writer James Fenimore Cooper, Lady Caroline Blackwood, feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan and artist Gordon Matta-Clark, to name a few. He recently completed a portrait of actress and singer Elaine Stritch and is planning a portrait of James Salter.
“What I like is the idea that I do the first 20,” said Mr. Fischl. “There are 150 now, so why don’t we get other artists to do the next 20 and keep it going in that way. It would make it possible to showcase different interpretations instead of the same style of portrait. I think that would be helpful. And fun.”