Portraits in Windows Proposed at Former Sag Harbor Methodist Church

A likeness of how the proposed portraits in the windows of the former Sag Harbor Methodist Church may appear. Christine Sampson photo

A proposal by artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik to overhaul the windows at the former Sag Harbor Methodist Church on Madison Street might give new meaning to the term “picture window,” but it was met with a mixed reception at last Thursday’s meeting of the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review.

Concerned about cooler, harsher weather on the horizon — and no actual windows in place on the sides of the building — the artists asked permission to change the windows in the renovation plan they inherited when they bought the partially renovated property from entrepreneur Sloan Schaffer in June.

The approved windows are steel-framed casement windows, but Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik want to change them to dark gray, aluminum-clad windows that display portraits Mr. Fischl is painting of historical Sag Harbor figures.

“We’re operating under the existing permit for those windows,” he said of the approved steel-framed casements, “but we can’t afford to pay the price of those windows,” Mr. Fischl told the BHPAR before explaining the unique features he and Ms. Gornik have proposed.

He described them as “fixed-panel windows that have portraits of historical writers, figures connected to Sag Harbor, poets, playwrights, philosophers and inventors.” He is painting the portraits himself, he said, and the idea is to digitize the images and sandwich them between the panes of glass in the new windows. They have proposed two portraits for each of the 10 vertical windows, five on each side of the former church.

The board came to the consensus that it needed more details on the previous approval as well as the actual windows the artists wanted to install, regardless of their portrait proposal, and voted to table the window request to its October 11 meeting.

In their discussion, board members focused initially not on the portraits but the material. They have had more than a few conversations in the past about aluminum-clad windows not being appropriate for historic buildings. The former Methodist church is more than 150 years old, dating back to 1846 at its current site, having been moved there from its previous site on High Street.

John “Chris” Connor, who has said in the past he is a strict advocate for the retention of original and historically accurate windows whenever possible, disliked the idea of aluminum-clad windows. “There are composites that are attainable that are equally weather resistant,” he said.

Zach Studenroth, the board’s historic preservation consultant, said the approval of the previous plan’s windows was “immaterial” if the new owners were choosing to call for new ones. He said he found it “a little challenging” to go in a new interpretive direction into “a very large art object.”

“The windows are really so large they’re such a prominent architectural feature,” he said. “One argument that’s often used with sashes on a house is that they are often impractical for heat retention purposes, but I think what the board is looking at here is an artistic reinterpretation of the fenestration.”

Ms. Gornik called it “an updating of a stained glass window. I think it’s a clever way of restoring kind of a stained glass quality.” In response to a question from board member Judith Long, Ms. Gornik said the portraits will include a diverse group that includes both men and women, and people of various races and ethnicities.

Board chairman Anthony Brandt said “it’s an attractive idea to have these medallions in the windows,” and said he was generally in favor but needed more information.

Board member Dean Gomolka agreed. “I think it’s an interesting idea … but composite material is much more attractive than aluminum clad.”

Mr. Fischl and Ms. Gornik are up against time in their application. In a letter to the BHPAR, attorney Tiffany Scarlato wrote that “it becomes imperative that the building be properly secured to prevent further deterioration. For the lead time necessary … the windows must be ordered as soon as possible…”