Hosannas For the Grand Illusion at Old Whalers’ Church

Rev. Christopher Mergener, Nancy Cory and Geoffrey Steward at the presentation of the SPLIA Award.
Rev. Christopher Mergener, Nancy Cory and Geoffrey Steward at the presentation of the SPLIA Award.

It is a very convincing “trompe l’oeil” — the French expression for a “trick of the eye” — that creates the optical illusion of a grand Sag Harbor space that doesn’t actually exist.

But the restoration of the original 1844 trompe l’oeil mural in the Old Whalers’ Church has just won a real-life award, and a very prestigious one at that, from the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities.

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SPLIA presented the congregation with the Award for Project Excellence for the recreation of the 35-foot-by-25-foot mural, which rises behind the pulpit and implies the presence of a curved apse and towering Corinthian columns that support a cofferdam ceiling, architectural features that do not in fact exist in that space.

The iconic Egyptian Revival-style church, designed by architect Minard Lafever to inspire both awe and worship of God, has in recent years undergone several repairs and restorations to preserve its beauty, historic integrity and architectural grandeur. Restoring the eye-catching mural, which has graced the massive south wall of the sanctuary for the past 172 years, was a capstone of those efforts.

The trompe l’oeil had been painted over at least three different times between 1871 and 1902, obscuring and altering its original design, according to Old Whalers’ Church officials. Completing the restoration project and recapturing its original 1844 glory marked the culmination of what had been a 24-year overall rehabilitation of the church sanctuary.

“It has long been the missing piece in the sense of the whole for this grand gathering space,” said Randolph Croxton, an architect and member of the congregation.

Efforts by the congregation to raise funds to research and execute the mural restoration “contributed to the betterment of a landmark that is significant to all Long Islanders,” wrote Jason Crowley, SPLIA’s director of development, in a letter notifying the church of the award.

At a presentation on April 2 at SPLIA’s headquarters in Cold Spring Harbor, the award was accepted by the Reverend Christopher Mergener, pastor of Old Whalers’; Geoffrey Steward, the owner of International Fine Arts Conservation Studios, whose artisans performed the restoration, and congregation members Nancy Cory, Susan Blair and Mr. Croxton.

In a citation accompanying the award, SPLIA noted that this “scientific, sensitive approach to restoration of historic finishes at the Old Whalers’ Church meets the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for restoration, and provides a stunning replication of the original work without destroying any historic materials that may yet reveal more information about this national landmark.”

Reporting by Douglas Feiden