Newly Restored Jailhouse Museum Tells a Piece of Sag Harbor History

The Old Jailhouse Museum in Sag Harbor, New York, photographed on February 5, 2018. Michael Heller photo

If an argument could be made that Sag Harbor was a salty kind of village back in the day, then its old jailhouse, erected in 1916, was a salt shaker of sorts.

A too-rambunctious night at the Sand Bar, the Black Buoy or Murf’s — or any one of a seemingly endless list of illegal activities, of course — might land you behind the tiny building’s iron bars. Those bars, once in pretty rough shape, were restored last year along with the rest of the building thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation to the Sag Harbor Historical Society, which matched Sag Harbor Village’s funding for the project.

“I think the thing is that it’s not a museum. It’s real,” said Jean Held, a Sag Harbor Historical Society trustee who volunteers as the jailhouse’s main tour guide and advocate. “Go in and see, and when you sit down on one of those benches, try to imagine what it was like — it’s real.”

VIDEO: Go behind bars at Sag Harbor’s historic jailhouse

Built at a cost of $1,815, Sag Harbor’s jailhouse was used until 1985, Ms. Held said. That year, the jailhouse survived an attempt by the village to knock it down, a plan that would have yielded a few extra parking spaces and a gaping hole in Sag Harbor law enforcement history. That’s when the historical society presented a plan to preserve it.

Longtime Sag Harbor resident Priscilla Ciccariello was involved in the preservation effort. She called the jail “an example of the changes and improvements” required for the humane treatment of prisoners, for which laws had been enacted during the Progressive Era.

“The investment of Sag Harbor’s board was important since it allowed them to build a jail … that fulfilled rules for prisoners,” Ms. Ciccariello said. “Sag Harbor was a working village and had a lot of sailor and women problems — prostitutes and crime and drinking, a lot of bars.”

Sag Harbor’s 1916 jailhouse is actually the village’s third jail. The first was in the old community house, now the Sag Harbor Antique Fire Truck Museum, and is still visible from Sage Street. According to documentation maintained by the historical society, while several old East End jailhouses are intact, Sag Harbor’s is the only one on the South Fork to remain on its original site.

“These buildings offer a view into an era that no longer exists,” Kathryn Curran, executive director of the Gardiner Foundation, said in an email. “They are a testament to a village’s commitment to the safety and structure for growth for their community.”

Inside the jail, guests can stand inside the cells, and frequently do — Ms. Held has observed children are either very scared or very eager to do so — but she warns her visitors not to get their hands pinched in the doors as they close.

“The fun part is when they get locked in,” she said, quickly adding that “of course” there’s a way to unlock the doors.

The first restoration took place in the 1990s, but Ms. Held pressed the village to take it up again after leaks were discovered, and the village helped the historical society apply for a grant. Dee Yardley, Sag Harbor’s superintendent of public works, led a village crew that performed the restoration work over four days last fall after proposals from contractors came in too expensive. He said the work probably would not have been done without support from the Gardiner Foundation.

“Everything’s all original in there,” Mr. Yardley said. “The same iron door is still there. We had to do a little grinding so that Jean could open it up. It was getting pretty stiff. Everything is in pretty good shape. I think we’re good for another 25 years.”

The historic jailhouse is a far cry from the solid-walled door of the cell in the neighboring modern-day police station.

“The village feels it’s important to maintain the building and use this as a museum,” village clerk Beth Kamper said. “It tells a little bit of Sag Harbor’s history. We’re happy to help out.”