Surviving Tree Seen as Symbol of Village’s Resiliency

The tree was covered in ice during the December 16 fire. Stephen J. Kotz photo
The tree was covered in ice during and after the December 16 fire. Stephen J. Kotz photo

By Stephen J. Kotz

When fire swept through the Sag Harbor Cinema on December 16, an American elm tree that had been planted in front of the building stood in harm’s way. That afternoon, after the blaze had been extinguished and firefighters were collecting their equipment, the tree, its branches coated in ice, sparkled in the sun against the stark backdrop of an abandoned Main Street.

The tree had been planted in 2011 by the village Tree Committee in memory of David Neal Hartman, who had been an active member of the committee for many years and died in 2010, according to his partner of 40 years, David Bray.

Given that Mr. Hartman had danced on Broadway and been an extra in “The French Connection,” it was fitting that the memorial tree was planted in front of the theater, he said.

Now, Mr. Bray is leading the effort to keep the tree alive. “The odds were not good. After that fire, I thought that tree is gone,” Mr. Bray said on Tuesday, adding that he was grateful firefighters had not simply cut it down to make room for their trucks.

This spring, Mr. Bray kept an eye on the tree, worrying that maybe its leaves wouldn’t open and it would have to be cut down. Eventually, though, the leaves did return, if a bit thinner than before the fire. The tree is also missing a major branch that firefighters had to chop off that fateful Friday.

Mr. Bray said he had contacted the village and offered to underwrite the cost of saving the tree — a Dutch elm disease-resistant variety — that is marked with a plaque on the ground next to it which reads, “David Neal Hartman, A giving and gentle man, 2011.”

Enter Matt Davidson, an arborist with Bill Miller and Associates, who cautioned that even though the tree’s leaves returned this spring — pardon the pun — it’s not out of the woods yet.

“The tree definitely looks stressed,” he said. “I’m concerned.”

Besides pruning it and hoping for the best, there was little that can be done for the time being, he said.

“It’s hard to say how much damage was done,” he said. “It was subjected to a lot of heat and there could be unseen damage.”

Mr. Davidson said he had initially recommended that the tree be removed and replaced. “But everyone sees this tree as a survivor,” he said.

The tree will likely face more serious challenges in the months and years ahead as construction work begins on the cinema and the Meridian building next door, which was razed days after the fire, he said.

Mr. Bray said April Gornik of the Sag Harbor Partnership had offered to take the tree to her property in North Haven and plant it there until the construction was finished, but landscape architect Ed Hollander had cautioned that moving the tree twice could kill it.

Mr. Bray said he would not be “an obstructionist,” and if the tree must come down, it must come down; but he said he wanted to save it not only because it was planted in Mr. Hartman’s memory, but because it is symbolic of the village’s recovery from the fire.

“I want this tree to do well,” added Mr. Davidson, “because there are a lot of hearts involved.”