By Annette Hinkle
For more than four years, photographer Michael Heller spent a great deal of time documenting a transformation — one that has permanently altered the face of Sag Harbor.
From 2011 to 2015, he shot more than 10,000 individual images, which collectively tell the story of Watchcase — Cape Advisors’ construction project to transform the crumbling and abandoned Bulova factory into luxury condominiums.
Regardless of how you feel on a personal level about the reuse of a building that once employed legions of local workers, Mr. Heller had a unique opportunity to document what will one day be part of Sag Harbor’s history. It’s a restoration that, years from now, may be considered a turning point which ushered in a new era in the village.
Twenty photos from Mr. Heller’s time at Bulova are now on view in “Watchcase: The Story of a Rebirth,” an exhibition at Sag Harbor’s John Jermain Memorial Library. The show takes its name from a book Mr. Heller has created using 200 images from the project, which he shot pro bono.
“This is an iconic village,” he said. “I knew the renovation would be a very important part of its history because of everything Bulova was. I also knew that 20 years or 100 years from now, people would pull these photos up and say back in 2011, there was this renovation.”
“It’s a piece of Sag Harbor history. To have my name associated with that, I felt would make me feel good,” he added, “and as any photographer will attest, you want your work to be appreciated by people.”
Mr. Heller admits that he had a secondary motivation as well in shooting the project —the opportunity to gain access to a fascinating, old and decrepit building.
“Like Pilgrim State,” said Mr. Heller, citing as an example the abandoned psychiatric hospital in Brentwood which many an urban explorer has snuck into and documented over the years.
“As a photographer I knew I’d get some cool images.”
Indeed he did.
Mr. Heller began shooting at Bulova in November 2011, just as construction was getting underway and in the years that followed, he made 115 visits to the site, stopping by every two weeks or so to document the progress.
The scenes Mr. Heller captured not only document the feats of engineering and individual manpower that went into transforming Bulova into what we see today, but many of his photographs also embody the eerie beauty of neglect and unrealized potential.
“It was almost as cool as I thought it would be,” Mr. Heller said. “I was a little dismayed, but not surprised, to see kids had snuck in and painted graffiti, or obviously had hung out and partied. When I got access to the building, Cape Advisors had already started taking out the metal radiators, so it’s not like it was untouched.”
But there was still plenty of transformation to document.
Early in construction, the windows of the factory still had plywood covering them. One of Mr. Heller’s images shows workers sandblasting the wooden beams with crushed walnut shells to remove years worth of paint. The effect makes the room appear foggy in the dim interior while stark shafts of light slice through the haze from gaps in the boarded up windows.
“Back when the factory was built, in order to bring in the most light they intentionally built it with heavy roof beams so they would not have internal walls or posts,” explained Mr. Heller. “All those windows were boarded up at that point. There was kind of this cool light in there where some light was getting in but not much.”
Another unique photo op came early on with a partial collapse of the floor of the old building. Fortunately, it happened early in the morning and no workers were in the vicinity of the collapse. But it afforded a rare view of the entire vault — a massive granite structure three stories high in which precious metals were kept during the watchcase days.
“Each floor had its own door to the vault,” said Mr. Heller. “You could see all three floors of the vault, with the three doors to access it. It was impressive to see.”
Because Bulova was a renovation and reuse project rather than a full gut job, much of the building’s original material, including the bricks and massive support beams, was repurposed. That meant workers had to install new and refurbished material by working around architectural features that weren’t being replaced. As a result, during his time on the site, Mr. Heller witnessed some fascinating feats of engineering.
“They had to take out old beams that were rotted and replace them with new,” he said. “Because of the way the building is set up, it all had to be done by hand. These beams are 30 feet long. They’re massive and workers would pull up to a window with a crane, poke one end in the window. Then they had to muscle this beam through the hallways to where it had to be installed. They used a jack lift to crank the beam up and slide it into place.”
Though Watchcase was a distinctly 21st century renovation, because so much of the work had to be done by hand, Mr. Heller notes that techniques sometimes resembled 19th century construction methods with scaffolding and ropes used to move beams up and down.
Mr. Heller admits that the intricate system of scaffolding and netting around the building site during construction often thwarted his efforts to quickly get the shot he was looking for — sometimes to comic effect.
“It’s funny in hindsight, but it reminded me of the game Donkey Kong,” said Mr. Heller. “To get from level A to level B, you’d have to go up these stairs, down this scaffolding and up another. It was frustrating at times. I’d want to get there and it’s only a few feet, but there would be a big gap so I’d have to go all the way around.”
History is like that sometimes.
“Watchcase: The Story of a Rebirth,” will be on view through early June at the John Jermain Memorial Library, 34 West Water Street, Sag Harbor. A reception will be held on Thursday, May 19 from 5:30 to 7 p.m., with a Q&A Session to follow.