By Kathryn G. Menu & Douglas Feiden
When the Sag Harbor Cinema façade fell Friday night — in front of a hushed crowd huddled in small groups behind yellow police tape — one of village’s most recognizable architectural features was gone, leaving a void on Main Street, and unanswered questions about the future of one of the community’s most beloved cultural institutions.
As the rubble from the cinema building — the front portion was destroyed in a fire on Friday that tore through several Main Street building — was being carted away, many of those questions remained, as residents wait to hear from building and cinema owner, Gerald Mallow.
When reached by phone this week, Mr. Mallow said he was not prepared to talk.
“I would say the cinema is the beating heart of our village,” said North Haven artist April Gornik, a community organizer and member of the Sag Harbor Partnership among other non-profits. “It is just a part of our history, and more than any part of our village is really an example of our character — old and new, avant-garde and independent.”
“I think Gerry deserves an enormous amount of credit for keeping the cinema going, for keeping the program going for 38 years, and for his devotion to the most interesting kind of movie-making, even when attendance is low,” she added.
Ms. Gornik is a part of an ad-hoc group of community members interested in the preservation of the cinema.
“It’s a group who wants to preserve the cinema and expand it to become a cultural arts center for the community and local schools,” said Ms. Gornik in an interview on Wednesday morning. She said the group has had discussions with Mr. Mallow.
“It’s a group of people in the community that have been trying to piece together a way to buy the cinema,” said Robby Stein, a member of the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees and a part of the ad hoc cinema group. “Gerry does have a wish to preserve the cinema.”
Sag Harbor has had a movie theater on the cinema property since 1915, when George’s Theater opened. It would be followed by the Elite Theater, Glynn’s Sag Harbor Theater, and the Sag Harbor Theater, before Mr. Mallow purchased the property in 1978 and renamed it the “Sag Harbor Cinema.” Remaining a single-screen theater throughout its history, the cinema earned a following of devoted patrons with its independent and foreign film selections — drawn from the tastes of Mr. Mallow, a film aficionado, and his wife, Françoise.
Mr. Mallow has put the theatre up for sale at least twice over the years, first in 2008 and most recently in 2016, when he listed it for $14 million with Saunders & Associates.
Zoning would allow a 21,000 square foot, three-story structure on the site, listing agent Ed Bruehl told The Express in February.
According to building inspector Thomas Preiato, for the Cinema — or any of the other buildings that suffered damage in the fire — reconstruction would require a building permit, and the new structures would need to meet the latest codes. After the Easter fire of 1994, the Emporium True Value Hardware store was reconstructed with sprinklers and elevators, he noted.
“If any changes to the use, size or design are proposed, it will need to go before the required boards,” Mr. Preiato added. “I will need to see plans of the rebuild, and/or changes, to actually determine the path it will take.”
In terms of the Cinema’s façade, in November of 2008, the Sag Harbor Historic Preservation & Architectural Review Board passed a resolution about the importance of the sign and the façade, and how it would be detrimental if removed, said Mr. Preiato.
“The Board finds and concludes that the failure to cause the designation of the sign ‘Sag Harbor’ on the facade of the Sag Harbor Cinema would be a loss of a landmark for the property owner and the community, a loss that Article 15 of the Village Code was enacted to prevent,” states that resolution.
According to the zoning code, the Sag Harbor Cinema sign itself was designated a historic and cultural landmark by the village board.
The art-house cinema was also identified in 1994 as a “contributing resource” in the village’s historic district, although the building inspector said he was consulting legal counsel to determine whether or not that would require the façade or sign be replaced in-kind.
“I can’t say with certainty, as we are consulting with our attorney to see if the facade must be replaced,” Mr. Preiato said.
“I can state with certainty that, with approval, the use can change,” he said. “The ARB may seek to have [the façade] replaced, as they will approve what goes in there once something is approved.”
“I want what everyone wants, to have our theater back, in its iconic form, with the sign back,” Anthony Brandt, the chairman of the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review, said. “The sign was saved so that should be possible. The theater itself was hardly damaged. We have reason to hope.”
“I’d like to see what the whole community would like to see: a landmark restored to us,” he added. “I hope it can happen.”
“My desire would be for someone to tear the building down and have the face of the building rebuilt exactly the same way but built better and stronger,” Mr. Mallow told The Express in February. “I don’t want the face of Sag Harbor to change.”
Additional reporting by Peter Boody.