Historic Sag Harbor Church Bell Will Ring Once Again

The project to renovate the old Methodist Church at 48 Madison Street in Sag Harbor, New York, photographed on May 1st, 2019. Michael Heller photo

Late last winter, when people repeatedly began to ask her what would become of the bell that used to hang in the belfry at the former Sag Harbor Methodist Church on Madison Street, April Gornik heard a message loud and clear.

The bell needed to ring from the tower once again.

Ms. Gornik, an artist who now owns the property along with Eric Fischl, her husband and a fellow artist, hadn’t yet made a decision on what to do with the bell, which was sitting under a tarp at the time. But they eventually directed the construction crew to return the bell to the belfry as part of the restoration and renovation project that will see the former house of worship become The Church, a nonprofit arts incubator. Last Saturday, using a large crane — and making two separate attempts — the crew accomplished that task.

Mr. Fischl rang the bell that day without Ms. Gornik there to hear its first toll. Then, she said, she rushed over and rang it herself.

“It just filled me with joy,” she said this week. “It was a synchronous moment of happiness. It was the feeling you get when you know a milestone has been reached. It was a mini-milestone, but a milestone nonetheless.”

Jean Held, a Sag Harbor Historical Society trustee who has delved into a variety of local history projects, was the first to inquire about the bell with Ms. Gornik.

“I had heard the last toll when they were striking it. For some reason, I knew it was the last,” Ms. Held said of the former Methodist Church, which the original congregation sold in 2008. “It was beautiful. I love the sound of bells.”

According to the book “Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty,” by Dorothy Zaykowski, the Methodist Church was completed on High Street in 1836 and was moved to Madison Street in in 1863. In 1864, an addition was completed and dedicated. A bell hung in the clock tower at the High Street church — a tower that, according to Ms. Zaykowski, “didn’t quite meet with the approval of some of the church members” with what villagers said at the time were “squatty proportions and dry-good-box shape.”

The bell, which weighed over a ton, broke in 1843, Ms. Zaykowski wrote. A new one was reportedly cast out of the broken pieces. However, a history compiled in 1910 by the Methodist Church on the occasion of its 100th anniversary indicates that “a great fire in 1845” that destroyed much of “lower Main Street” also “consumed” all of the church’s records. “We are deprived of many invaluable facts necessary for a correct and comprehensive history,” the church history says.

Ms. Held and Michael Heller, the staff photographer for The Sag Harbor Expresswho frequently photographs the progress of The Church for Ms. Gornik and Mr. Fischl, have been doggedly researching the bell’s history. They identified it as a Veazey and White bell from East Hampton, Connecticut, though Ms. Held had initially hoped it to be a Meneely bell from one of the Hudson Valley foundries. Meneely manufactured the bell that sits in front of the historical society’s Annie Cooper Boyd House on Main Street.

Mr. Heller said it’s likely the broken bell pieces were melted down and recast into a new bell. “It doesn’t look like there are any seams,” Mr. Heller said. “It’s all one piece. I don’t see anywhere where it looks like the pieces were welded together.”

Ms. Gornik had to do some research, too, before the bell was hoisted up by crane last week. It was missing its clapper, so she had to figure out exactly what kind of clapper and how long it had to be in order to have a new one fabricated. She explained the clapper has to be a particular length to strike the bell “toward the bottom, where it’s fat. There’s a certain place where you want it to be struck for the best sound and for its longevity.”

It’s hidden behind louvered panels — a nod to the past — rather than the windows Ms. Gornik and Mr. Fischl initially pitched to Sag Harbor’s Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review. Simply put, the review board did not like the window proposal.

“We’d hoped to have some sort of viewing platform, but got so much pushback,” Ms. Gornik said, adding that the review board “has been wonderful. When they were very insistent, we were happy to comply with their historical preference.”

She rang the bell on Tuesday for a visitor. It was at once a nostalgic sound and a hopeful sound — a sign of the past and of things to come.

“I think maybe when something very happy or maybe very sad occurs, it would be nice to ring it,” Ms. Gornik said. “I could imagine working it into some kind of piece of art, or ringing it for someone who misses its sound and wants to hear it ring, like Jean.”

Ms. Held said hearing the bell at The Church will be like hearing a sound directly from a different era.

“It brings back history to ring these old bells, doesn’t it?” she said. “It makes you feel like there is something that speaks to us from the past.”

The project to renovate the old Methodist Church at 48 Madison Street in Sag Harbor, New York, photographed on May 1st, 2019. Michael Heller photo