Salvaging the Past: Society Rebuilds Historic Whaleboat Shed

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A replica of the 18th century whaleboat shed behind the Annie Cooper Boyd House. Photo by Mara Certic.

By Mara Certic

Almost a decade ago, plans fell by the wayside to refurbish a dilapidated coal shed, built out of material salvaged from a 19th century whaleboat shop. Now, this Saturday the Sag Harbor Historical Society will open the doors to a replica whaleboat shop, thanks in part to the hard work of local historians, the many detailed paintings by Annie Cooper Boyd, and one very expensive ring.

For years the Sag Harbor Historical Society has used the Annie Cooper Boyd house has their headquarters, and is always looking for ways to increase their outreach and preserve and honor the past. On Saturday, May 30, the group will unveil the newest addition to the house, a likeness of the backyard whaleboat shed where Ms. Cooper Boyd’s father and grandfather built harpoon boats in the mid-19th century.

By the time Ms. Cooper Boyd was born in Sag Harbor, her father and grandfather were no longer in the professional whaleboat-building business, and throughout most of her life the shop where they used to work stood largely unused in the backyard. The boat that used to sit in front of the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, they explained, had been built by William Cooper, and probably in the shop in question.

“We do know that Annie was truly devoted to this whaleboat shop,” Jean Held, a member of the historical society, said in the living room of the Annie Cooper Boyd house last week. In her diaries, Ms. Cooper Boyd referred to it as the “dear” shop of “sacred memories.”

#Q William Cooper's whaleboat shop framed
A painting of the whaleboat shed by Annie Cooper Boyd

“She painted it over and over again,” Ms. Held added. Around the turn of the century, Ms. Cooper Boyd returned to Sag Harbor and relocated into the house now named for her. She began fixing up the place, which she called “anchor to windward.”

Around that time, Ms. Cooper Boyd had someone take down that whaleboat shed, which by that time had begun to fall into disrepair. She salvaged all the lumber and nails (some of which were hand-forged hundreds of years ago) and used the reclaimed materials to build a small coal shed.

Now, 118 years later, the shed is falling apart, with wood in some places just not withstanding the wear and tear over the years. Using all of Ms. Cooper Boyd’s paintings of the whaleboat shop, the historical society, with the help from local architect Jim Laspesa, drew up plans for a beautiful, but very expensive, facsimile.

“I had seen the plans,” said Barbara Schwartz, another member of the historical society. “And I thought, I really would like to see something built while I’m still around,” she said.

“She called me up from Florida and said Jack, I’m going to donate $50,000 to build the Whaleboat shed,” recalled Jack Youngs, also a member of the group. “That’s when I fell off my chair and had to pick the phone up,” he added. “So that was the inspiration, and the reason why we have in the back, the reason why it became a reality, because of Barbara.”

Ms. Schwartz got the $50,000 from selling a ring that her mother had given her, just before she passed away. “And my mother would love to know that this is what it was being used for,” she added. Her mother, who had grown up in Brooklyn, was herself the daughter of her boat maker and spent a lot of her time racing in Sheepshead Bay. “The rougher the weather the better she liked it,” her daughter recalled.

Since that phone call from Ms. Schwartz in February 2014, the Sag Harbor Historical Society has been hard at work constructing the building in time for the beginning of the summer. Local resident, Chuck Latanzio won the bid to build the museum using the plans drawn up by another Pierson graduate, Mr. Laspesa.

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Mr. Zaykowski salvaged hand-wrought nails from the old shed.

Joe Zaykowski, a retired shop teacher, who calls himself a sort of pioneer of recycling antique materials, has been hard at work dismantling the old coal shed that Ms. Cooper Boyd had made out of the old whaleboat shop. The beams of wood that he can salvage from it will be used as rustic interior paneling in the new shop.

Mr. Zaykowski is also preserving the nails used to build the old shed, some of which he believes date back to the 18th century, and they will be on display in the new space, along with other old tools used in the construction of these boats.

The finishing touches will be put onto the whaleboat shop in time for the official ribbon-cutting ceremony at 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 30. Plans to build the facsimile fireplace (using salvaged bricks) in the shop will probably be realized in the next few weeks. A TV on the wall will play a video of people building a whaleboat, and activities have been prepared for the younger historians.

“This is what we tried to replicate,” said Mr. Youngs, holding up a painting of the shop by Ms. Cooper Boyd. “And I think we’ve done a pretty good job.”

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