By Douglas Feiden
Question: What happens when a strong-willed architect and a strong-willed attorney butt heads with a strong-willed member of the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review over the future of a 162-year-old home within the confines of the Sag Harbor Historic District?
Answer: A series of sharp and testy exchanges — interspersed with a smattering of choice insults — that underscore the gulf between a board mandate to preserve a historic house and streetscape and the efforts of an expansion-minded homeowner to redevelop and add on to his property.
At issue in the ARB meeting of Thursday, June 23 was a hotly debated proposal to expand the two-story, three-bay frame residence at 136 Jermain Avenue, which the board considers a small-scale Sag Harbor charmer that meshes neatly with the character and historical integrity of the village.
Every element of the existing historic house — from its clapboard cladding, side-gabled roof, six-over-six wooden sash widows, molded door surround and bracketed entrance hood bearing the date “1854” — would be retained under the plan advanced by homeowner Julian Ellison.
But it would get bigger, broader and bulkier: A 1994 description in the National Register of Historic Places calls the structure a “half-house.” Now, it would become a full house, swelling from 1,600 square feet to 2,710 square feet, a size permitted by current zoning, though subject to ARB approval.
Mr. Ellison’s application for a Certificate of Appropriateness, needed to obtain building permits, calls for erecting “additions,” as well as new windows, new foundations, a new driveway, retaining walls, swimming pool and the removal of a back section of the house. “Maintain existing historical structure,” the application says.
But is that visually, aesthetically and architecturally possible in light of expansion? Board members had doubts: They variously described the new additions as “overwhelming,” “burying” or “swallowing up” the old house.
“The rear section completely overwhelms the front section,” said ARB member Christopher Leonard.
“That’s your opinion,” retorted Anne Sherry, a Sag Harbor native and project architect who has designed, restored and built homes on the East End for 30 years.
“Well, it’s not an opinion, I daresay it’s a fact,” Mr. Leonard said.
Ms. Sherry said she “holds true to the square footage” she’s allowed to design by, and that the addition is “tucked behind hedges, and no one will ever see it,” a point Mr. Leonard disputed.
Sag Harbor attorney Alex Kriegsman, who represents the owner, said the proposal conforms to the new code, and that when an earlier version was presented at a prior ARB meeting, the panel objected and suggested it be redesigned to “go straight back,” which is exactly what Ms. Sherry did, to “preserve and honor the existing house.”
Yet the ARB still objected — despite dramatic changes and a complete redesign made to satisfy board concerns, Mr. Kriegsman said.
The scale remains “excessive,” said ARB Chairman Anthony Brandt, adding, “We’re trying to preserve a historic house, trying to keep it from being buried by additions.”
At one point, Ms. Sherry said her “frustration was super-clear.” The fireworks began at another point when she turned to Mr. Leonard and said, “Nothing is good enough.”
“No, it’s not that nothing is good enough,” he snapped. “You just haven’t designed anything that’s good enough.”
Ms. Sherry’s response: “Your arrogance is really, really unbelievable, and you should tone it down a little, Chris.”
“I’m old and cranky,” he said. “Yes, you are,” she said. “I have known the Sherry women for many years,” he said. “Well, this one’s not taking any s-h-i-t anymore,” she said.
Mr. Kriegsman then asked, “Is this a personal thing, do you need to recuse yourself?” Mr. Leonard said he did not.
After a contentious 35 minutes of debate, the owner’s representatives said they’d return with a model of proposed add-ons. The ARB tabled the application.