Sag Harbor ARB Tells Owners: Go Slow

155 Main Street, Sag Harbor. Courtesy of The Society of the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA) and the Sag Harbor Historical Society.
155 Main Street, Sag Harbor. Courtesy of The Society of the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA) and the Sag Harbor Historical Society.
155 Main Street, Sag Harbor. Courtesy of The Society of the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA) and the Sag Harbor Historical Society.

By Douglas Feiden

Homeowners who beseech the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review to let them alter, expand, rebuild, demolish or otherwise transform homes in Sag Harbor’s Historic District and its environs have been hearing an unambiguous message of late: “Not so fast!”

Under the stewardship of Anthony Brandt, its founding chairman, who returned to lead a revamped and tougher ARB in July 2015, the board’s more muscular posture was on display at its meeting on Thursday, May 26, when it gave the go-slow signal to plans for properties on Main Street, Hampton Street, and Bay Street.

The yellow light first started flashing over the issue of pilasters at 155 Main Street, the big white Corcoran Building that is directly to the south of the granite Civil War monument in the mini-park by the Y-shaped corner of Main and Madison streets.

Pilasters? Yes, the board was exercised over pilasters, which are the column-like structures often found on neo-Classical building exteriors, protruding slightly from a façade, that serve a purely ornamental architectural function and are not load-bearing.

Property owner Sag Harbor Pooh LLC had applied for a Certificate of Appropriateness, which is needed to obtain village building permits, to replace rotted exterior woodwork and repaint it the same color, white, essentially altering some of the original pilasters, which had clearly sustained water damage.

“Everything is rotten and falling apart,” said Rory Knight, a builder and contractor for the project.

The problem was that the board wasn’t satisfied with the details in the drawings he submitted and felt it couldn’t approve a scope of work that could potentially expand during construction without more clarity about both existing issues and proffered solutions.

“We’ve had whole buildings disappear because someone said that something was rotten,” said board member Dean Gomolka.

And the Corcoran Building isn’t just any edifice: Originally known as the Stanton House, it was the home of Admiral Oscar Stanton, who accompanied Commodore Matthew Perry on his historic visit to Japan in 1853, which resulted in the opening of Japan to the West, according to the 1975 edition of “Guide to Sag Harbor: Landmarks, Home and History.”

Built in 1840, it is a Greek Revival treasure with a lacy gingerbread Victorian porch added on decades later, a street-facing gable, delicate triangular windows, prominent pediment, striking front doorway with a leaded transom and sidelights, and, as the guide points out, “The corner boards are pilasters.”

It is those pilasters that caught the attention of Zach Studenroth, the architectural historian and historic consultant to the ARB who may be one of the only scholars on the East End fluent in the distinction between fluted pilasters, which have inward-curving channels, and reeded pilasters, whose channels protrude outward from the surface.

“Each of these pilasters is different,” said Mr. Studenroth. “Each presents its own little story in terms of what happened here…

“But none of these details are in the drawings, so it’s a little hard to see exactly what’s being proposed … and it is difficult for this board to approve a scope of work not indicated in the drawings.”

In other words, the message is that the ARB doesn’t want a close approximation of what’s being proposed. It wants the minutiae.

Mr. Knight seemed a tad perplexed by the board’s demands — and that was before members asked him about the shutters. “If it’s structurally sound, it stays,” he said simply. “Whatever is preservable, we’ll preserve.”

At that point, Mr. Brandt provided a macro-view of what the newly empowered ARB is all about: “This is one of the more magnificent buildings that exists in Sag Harbor,” he said.

“And when it gets to be that important, we’ll be watching very carefully. So while it may seem like a pain in the neck to you for us to go into this immense detail, we have to do this. That’s our job.”

Mr. Knight was asked to come back with details. The application was tabled.