SANS Is Sag Harbor’s Newest New York State Historic Landmark

A gathering at the hand built Ninevah home of James and Barbara Brannen, former town trustee. Photo courtesy John Pickens

Sag Harbor’s newest state landmark isn’t one place in the village.

It’s actually three places with more than 300 individual buildings: the village’s historically African American neighborhoods of Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah.

The three communities, which go by the acronym SANS, are officially on the New York State Register of Historic Places as of Thursday afternoon. SANS residents received word they earned the unanimous support from the New York State Board of Review for Historic Preservation.

“It’s official. I’m so excited. It was such a long journey,” said Renee V. H. Simons, a Sag Harbor Hills resident who has led the landmarking efforts over the last few years on behalf of the communities, as she reported the news by phone on Thursday.

Along the way, SANS had to self-fund an in-depth survey that documented the cultural, architectural and historical significance of the three subdivisions.
In 2017, they sold “SANS 11963” hats as a fundraiser and received a grant from Preserve New York. The residents also got help from the National Organization of Minority Architects, which sent 25 volunteers to help with photographing and cataloging the 306 houses in the area over the course of a weekend last fall.

“Today’s efforts once again underscore and document the drive and existence of African American contributions in the long history of America,” Ms. Simons later said in a news release. “It recognizes extraordinary success at a time of immense downward pressure both legally and in practice to debilitate and deny human and legal rights as full citizens of America. The resourcefulness and ability shown in SANS Sag Harbor to collaboratively rise above the economic currents and develop an American experience, against the odds, is historic.”

Gaining landmark status on the state’s historic register does not correlate to inclusion in Sag Harbor’s historic district. That means properties in SANS won’t be subject to the same restrictions regulated by the Sag Harbor Board of Historic preservation and Architectural Review — unless the village includes SANS houses as “contributing structures” in its next historic resource survey — but there are some advantages to state and national register designation. Jennifer Betsworth, an historic preservation specialist with the State, told an audience of SANS residents in February that recognition on the New York State Register of Historic Places is an honor that allows communities or property owners to access grants or tax credits for preservation or restoration projects.

In her presentation in February, Ms. Betsworth said the SANS communities date back approximately 70 years; Azurest was founded as a distinct subdivision between 1948 and 1949, Sag Harbor Hills around 1950 and Ninevah in 1952.

Over the years, SANS transitioned from a resort community for African Americans to a place where many lived full-time. A large number of houses remain in the hands of families that originally owned and built them. It has also become a more racially diverse place, and a place that faces challenges. Investors and developers have scooped up quite a few properties — some in SANS say it’s in the neighborhood of at least 20 — to flip or maintain as income-generating rentals, and many agree that has impacted the camaraderie and closeness for which the communities had become known.

Dr. Georgette L. Grier-Key, executive director of the Eastville Community Historical Society, traveled upstate to the Board of Review hearing to witness the vote. She later said in a statement the successful efforts of the SANS community represents “the everyday citizen making a way out of no way.”

“Striving to cut a slither of the world out for themselves, making it their own and for their families, and creating a sense of community — that’s what SANS did during a dark period in our country,” she said, calling the landmarking vote “a recognized breakthrough among great many other layered histories residing within the SANS community.”

Sag Harbor Mayor Sandra Schroeder on Thursday said she was happy to hear the news, and called it an important day for SANS and for Sag Harbor.

“I think it’s wonderful that another part of our local history will be included and not forgotten by future residents and our great, great grandchildren,” Ms. Schroeder said. “I’m very proud of all the work that they put into that. It’s phenomenal, and in a short period of time. It only adds to the charm of our village. It’s another part of history that would have been lost.”