New Whaling Museum Exhibit Explores Roots of Sag Harbor’s Past

The Cornerstone by Peter Solow.
The Cornerstone by Peter Solow.

By Dawn Watson

From working-class whaling port to upper-crust vacation destination, Sag Harbor has witnessed its share of societal changes over the years. And even though its fiercely loyal local inhabitants have fought hard to retain its core identity, this quaintly charming waterfront village has evolved, for better or for worse.

The metamorphosis can be seen not just in the appearance of the people who live, work and summer here, but in even in the actual bricks and mortar that comprise the village’s structures. To that end, the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum is putting up an “Every Village Has a Story” exhibit, which explores the changing façades and uses of the buildings and how they reflect the transformation of the community. The group show, curated by Elise Goodheart, features nine local artists—Reynold Ruffins, John Capello, Paul Davis, Erica Lynn Huberty, Joan Tripp, Scott Sandell, Peter Solow, Carolyn Conrad and Michael A. Butler—who have been invited to explore the roots and underpinnings of Sag Harbor’s past through its buildings and places, and reflect upon how those past parts of the village inform their present points of view.

Ms. Goodheart says that she wanted to have the artists focus on the “largely unexplored” time span that has occurred since the end of the whaling industry and up to the present day. She tasked them with researching the period, finding an archival photo to serve as inspiration in creating a piece of artwork based on their findings, and writing a short blurb about it.

Their journeys, as well as her own, were eye-opening, she says.

“We all know that Sag Harbor is a super creative place now. But it’s been that way, actually, throughout its history, and especially around the turn of the century,” she says. “Before the artists, it was inventors and entrepreneurs. There have been lots of surprises here, from even the earliest of times.”

Culture Shock and Awe

The curator’s husband’s inspiration for his piece, which is on the Pierson building, was personal, he says. One of the main reasons Mr. Solow and Ms. Goodheart moved out to the East End from Greenwich Village was in order for their children to have access to a good education and the benefits of small-town life. Both of their children, Kathryn and Stephen, are Pierson graduates.

The couple bought a house in Noyac sight-unseen 26 years ago. They wanted to move to a more family-friendly place than the city, plus Mr. Solow needed a usable studio space for his work. So they met with a real estate agent at Pennsylvania Station and picked their future home out of a stack of photographs.

The move out to the East End from the West Village was a culture shock, remembers Mr. Solow.

“We had no idea what we were getting into. The only things I knew about Sag Harbor were that one of my running buddies lived there and that I remembered seeing the sign with an arrow pointing to it from family trips to Montauk,” he recalls. “We went from Houston and Lafayette to a place where we had to buy pizza from the 7-Eleven when it was the middle of the winter because no restaurants were open.”

But an even more dramatic shift, says Mr. Solow, is how significantly the village has changed during the relatively short period of time that he and his wife have lived here.

“Now, sadly, a year-rounder can walk down Main Street on a summer weekend and not even recognize a single person that they know,” he says.

The artist chose what is now the Pierson High School building because he feels it’s a nearly perfect physical manifestation of the soul of the community. That particular structure, one of the few in the village that has stayed true to its original purpose, embodies both the area’s history and its progress. From its erection in 1907, the century-plus-old building has come to exemplify the village’s strong roots and its inevitable change, he says.

Originally built as an educational home for working-class kids, over the years it become known as one of the best public schools in the state, and is a prestigious local base for the offspring of the wealthy and famous. Transforming over and over again, current restorations include the gutting of the gym and creation of a state-of-the-art performance space, says Mr. Solow.

“The school has profound and significant meaning. It’s more than just a school. It’s a symbolic representation of the American Dream for the working class,” he says, adding that Pierson was built as a place for the village’s working-class children to be educated, as a result of the country’s compulsory education laws and child labor laws. “It’s an incredible commitment to the egalitarian ideal.”

His mixed media artwork is based on a photograph that ran in The Sag Harbor Express in 1907, as it looks as if the entire village has come out to witness the cornerstone being laid for the school. In the picture, society ladies sporting decorative hats and parasols mix with the hoi polloi and construction crew. It’s a specific moment in time that manages to perfectly capture not just the makeup of the village then, but can also be seen as a reflection of what it has become today.

Where are the Silver Linings?

Mr. Butler also felt a strong personal connection to his inspirational image. He chose a photo of the Alvin Silver Co. office building, not for what it once was but for its biggest moment in history—New Year’s Day, 1925.

“My birthday is New Year’s Eve and I’ve always felt a close connection to the date,” he says, noting the former Main Street building was destroyed in a fire that most likely had begun quite late the night before.

The hand-made silver business, founded as the Alvin Mfg. Co. in 1886 by William H. Jamouneau in Irvington, New Jersey, moved to Sag Harbor in 1895 and began making historical silver patterns at that time. The company changed its name to Alvin Silver Co. in 1919. Six years later, the epic fire of 1925 devastated its new home base. In 1928, the company’s silver dies and patterns were acquired by Providence, Rhode Island- and Manhattan-based Gorham Silver, which was one of the premier silver manufacturers in America at the time.

The brick structure that housed Alvin’s here in Sag Harbor was located on Main Street, approximately where Conca D’Oro and Sylvester & Company now stand, says Mr. Butler, who is also the associate manager of the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum. Alvin’s was consumed by a blaze that began across the street, where the Capital One bank now stands, when a general store named Ballen’s on Washington Street caught fire. Discovered at 3 a.m. on the cold and windy night, the entire structure was brought down by 3:30 a.m., thanks in part to gale-force winds.

The Ballen’s shop fell quickly, sending sparks and embers to neighboring structures. Soon thereafter, ammunition that had been stored at Ballen’s exploded, spreading flames all around. The heat was reported so intense that it cracked Alvin’s windows across the street, and the fire quickly leapt inside, flames licking up its yellow pine interiors.

The wrecked shell of Alvin’s stood in place on that spot for more than two dozen years after the building had been gutted. Until then, its decorative façade remained, with wooden panels constructed and used as an honor roll for those who served in World War II.

“It was an eyesore, but it remained that way for 25 years,” says the artist, who captured the beginnings of the conflagration in his acrylic-on-canvas painting. In his artwork, the orange and yellow flames have just started on their destructive path through the windows of the third story of the beautiful brick building as dark grey smoke pours from the shop next door.


Mr. Butler’s research into the disastrous event gave him pause. Exploring the past forced him to consider what might have been.


“It made me think about the forgotten history of Sag Harbor and how it’s changed over the years,” he says. “This would have probably been a very different streetscape today had that fire not occurred.”

Stitching Up Funds for Survival

Calamity also plays a part in Ms. Huberty’s site-specific interpretation of the time period. Her artwork is a kind of memorial to the women who had limited means for survival on their own during the latter part of the previous century and earlier part of this one.

“After the whaling boom, women sewed for money; there were always items of clothing or drapery that needed to be made or embellished,” she says in her artist’s statement. “But if one wasn’t lucky enough to be talented with the needle, there were at least two houses of ill-repute where one could find employment—on Bay Street and on Seely Lane in North Haven—and it was often skill with a needle that could keep a woman from having to turn to this.”

Paying homage to the women who hand-sewed in their own homes to raise enough money to support themselves and their families, and also those less fortunate who had to earn their keep in a more physical fashion, the artist pieced together her work using silk and scraps. Her contribution to the exhibit, “Memoria: Women’s Work, Sag Harbor” is a multi-media piece that uses embroidery, watercolor, ink, Kantha stitch, silk and muslin. The two-part work—a tapestry and a veil that hangs in front of it—symbolizes and explores the realities of working-class women, from the plights of the skilled sewers to those forced into prostitution.

“Despite all of this freedom that we like to think about, at that time there were really and truly not many options for women,” says Ms. Huberty. “They had to rely on the necessity of materials and resources at hand, especially as the story was typically something like, ‘My husband just drowned out at sea and I have six children, how will I feed them?’”

Happy Endings and New Beginnings

Sag Harbor’s history hasn’t been all bad though, reminds Ms. Tripp. Tourism, in its many forms, has been a strong suit of the village dating back to the later 1800s, says the artist, who is also the founder of the Sag Harbor Historical Society.

“Once the whaling trade diminished, one of the industries that flourished was tourism,” says the native village resident. “One such business offered ‘side-wheeler’ excursion trips from Long Wharf to New York City and Connecticut.”

The side-wheelers, which were akin to paddle boats, were quite popular with the moneyed set who had summer homes in the area and came out to enjoy all that our quaint waterfront community offered. Boating out to Sag Harbor was de rigueur at the time.

During the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, the Greenman family of Mystic, Connecticut, who owned the New York and Montauk Steamboat Company, moored their three boats—the Shelter Island, the Montauk and the Shinnecock—at Long Wharf and sailed the Sag Harbor-to-New York route. According to the history that Ms. Tripp uncovered, the company ran a very profitable business for many years.

The sidewheeler industry eventually died out after railroad service extended to the East End and people took to the rails and roads for their vacation commutes, reports Ms. Tripp. But the new developments that were brought by the road improvements and train travel eventually led to other opportunities for the village, she adds. After all, time marches on and evolution is an inevitability.

“Sag Harbor has changed greatly over the years, but it’s always been a changing village. And, even with all that’s happened, it’s still one of the few villages anywhere that pretty much has remained intact,” she says. “At the end of the day, you have to change if you want to survive. It’s HOW you change and fit in with what’s preexisting that ultimately matters.”

“Every Village Has a Story: Places” will run through June 27 at the Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum, 200 Main Street in Sag Harbor, and will have an opening reception on Friday, May 27 from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, visit