“While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when the happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize — sometimes with astonishment-how happy we had been.” – Nikos Kazantzakis
Those were simpler times. I’m not sure there was a Michelin star rating that could have captured the simplistic beauty of the Whalers Motel, right on Long Island Avenue in Sag Harbor. For many years the sign read, “Whalers Motel-TV-Heated.”
My father, Joseph ‘Choe’ Remkus, a fisherman, born in Sag Harbor in 1913, designed the motel to look like a ship with a porthole window in each door. He and his brother Jimmy bought the property in the 1940s for $4,700. The property stretched from where K-Pasa sits now all the way to the house next to Cove East Marina, covering a good portion of Sag Harbor’s waterfront.
From 1964 until 1984, the Whalers Motel was our livelihood, and our customers were like family returning as the swallows do to Capistrano and requesting the same room each year. There were nine rooms, each with two double beds, a television with rabbit ears and a $20 million view. We looked forward to seeing our guests year after year. We celebrated their accomplishments, watched their children grow, looked forward to their Christmas cards and became part of their lives.
The Whalers Motel wasn’t known for its amenities. Aside from television and heat, it was known for its cleanliness and its friendliness. The motel became our second home for most all of my young life. My family was dedicated to its upkeep-tidying rooms when I was just a youngster. My mother, a registered nurse, trained at Southampton Hospital, had an unrivalled standard of cleaning. She taught us hospital corners, how to fold towels just right, and how to make bathrooms fixtures shine. We brought drinking glasses home to wash in our dishwasher and once cleaned, we packed them in sterile paper bags. We cleaned rooms on holidays, on weekends and even on the day my father was buried. It was a business that required our attention 365 days a year.
I can close my eyes and picture the layout of each room: the mustard color vinyl chairs, the orange-checked bedspreads, the coffee makers, and the outdoor furniture that we set out each morning. When we opened the door for each new customer, they were startled by the beautiful view, and everyone made sure they were in their rooms for the extraordinary sunsets.
We didn’t live on the property, but we kept a dime taped to the payphone in the phone booth for patrons without reservations, to call us if they were interested in renting a room. There was a red rotary desk phone in our home: “the hotline,” and when it would ring, one of us would hurry down to the motel from our home in North Haven to rent a room. If you did have a reservation and we weren’t able to be there to check you in, your key would be under the mat, ice in your ice bucket, heat turned up and a welcome note on the office door.
Among others there were the Raleighs, the Thortons, the Pierces, the Headamans, the Papes, and of course Mr. Kaplin, the fisherman who was always in room four. He cooked his fish on a hotplate and rented boats from my Uncle Jimmy who had “Remkus Fishing Station” next door. We watched from the motel windows as my father swung on the hammock at the corner of the fishing station and shared fish stories with his brother. Another of their brothers, my uncle, Tony Remkus and his wife, my aunt Ruby, owned and operated the Seaside Restaurant next door. The Seaside has its own rich legacy and volumes of stories to tell.
All of my family, three sisters and two brothers, mom and dad, often gathered at the motel each morning to help with cleaning and maintenance. As a special treat someone would take a bakery order and run up to Sag Harbor Bakery on Main Street for jelly donuts, apple turnovers, crawlers, and éclairs. Running back to the motel with a sugary white bakery bag, we’d all sit in the tiny office sharing the sweets before we had to get back to work.
I learned a lot about life at that motel. Mr. Greenfield taught us about UFO’s as he was writing a book on the subject. The Penske racing team would give us sets of company glasses or ashtrays and invite us to come to Bridgehampton racetrack to see the races. During the Whaler’s Festival, international whaleboat-racing teams would take an entire floor of the building and post their country’s flag on each of the doors. The Scarfuto family would stay with us when their carnival came to town, and each year they let us pick out a special prize from the gaming booths. I’m not sure how many years I kept that enormous stuffed poodle. We housed authors and artists, actors and athletes, and many wonderful folks just looking for salty-air and sunshine.
During the summer, the motel ran at 100% occupancy, and rooms went for about $14 a night. Long before Airbnb, when the motel was full and tourists visited without a reservation, we helped to rent rooms in the homes of local people who were offering guests a clean place to stay.
After my father died, and most of my brothers and sisters had grown and moved on to their own careers, my mom decided to sell the motel. It was heartache to watch it bulldozed and taken away to make room for the building that would come to be known as the the 1-800-LAWYER building, a reference to its new owner, Bruce Davis.
We are now watching Jay Bialsky developing the land into three luxury condos and can feel the sands of Sag Harbor shifting once again. Surely these condos will have television and heat, along with rooftop pools, parking garages, docks and premium price tags. Gone are the $14 dollar a night rooms, the fishing boats for rent, the hammock and the jelly donuts. Blessed is my family to still live in Sag Harbor and to enjoy all of the amazing beauty it has to offer. But the Whalers Motel will always live on in me-as will the time when life seemed just a little bit softer and more beautiful.