The Art Shop Is Razed, But A Promise Is Made That It Will Be Rebuilt

Gene Rhodes outside his Sag Harbor workshop. COURTESY RHODES FAMILY

To Sag Harbor newcomers, it was just a dilapidated red shed that sat close to Jefferson Street across from the John Jermain Memorial Library. Some may even have mistaken it for an old summer cottage. But to older residents, it was known as the Art Shop, a tiny store dominated by a multi-paned picture window, where artists could pick up a tube of paint, a sketch book, and a couple of brushes — and maybe write their signatures on the low ceiling, if they were so inclined.

To Craig and Curtis Rhodes, whose father first fixed up the shed to repair antiques and do other odd jobs, it was a piece of their early memories of growing up in Sag Harbor.

Those memories were dealt a blow — at least temporarily — the week after Christmas when the little shed was torn down by the property’s new owner, a limited liability corporation called MULG 2020.

“It made me feel like another piece of the past had gone,” said Craig Rhodes, an architect, who lives on Howard Street. His brother, Curtis, a photographer who now lives outside Seattle, said he had used an old photo of the building for his Christmas card this year. He, too, lamented the loss of “a bit of history.”

Craig Rhodes said he came upon the scene on December 29. “I called the building department and asked if they had gotten a demolition permit, but they did not,” he said.

Rhodes said he has a copy of the federal Department of Interior report that was used to identify which buildings in the village were considered “contributing” to the historic district, and although the house, which was built circa 1790 and fronts on Main Street made the grade, the shed, which sits on a portion of the lot backing onto Jefferson Street, did not. That’s because it was built in the 20th century and had undergone a number of alterations over the years, he said.

Gene Rhodes in his Art Shop. COURTESY RHODES FAMILY

But the architect for the project, Christopher Coy, who lives just a short block away on Union Street, said the shed was taken down by mistake and that the plan was, and remains, to restore it, using as much of the original material as possible.

“It’s going to be rebuilt,” Coy said. “The owner basically wants to save that little red structure. There was no question about changing it.”

Coy said he had spoken to the builder during a recent site visit about the need to remove sections of the building, so siding could be planed and rotten wood removed, but the contractor assumed he wanted the building completely disassembled. Fortunately, he said, the contractor stacked the pieces of the shed on the property and covered them with a tarp.

Coy said he would never have directed work to be done without the proper permits and added the project will be discussed when the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Reviews meets at 5 p.m. on Thursday, January 13.

Sag Harbor Village Building Inspector Christopher Talbot said the property owner had been cited for removing the building without a permit and would have to address what the plans are for the shed with the ARB.

In a phone interview this week, Curtis Rhodes said that his parents, Gene and Myrian Rhodes, discovered Sag Harbor and moved from Whitestone, Queens, in 1947, packing their belongings onto an old Ford Model A pickup truck.

The locals “thought they were gypsies, according to my father’s recollection,” he said.

Craig Rhodes said his parents bought what was called the Hedges House for $3,000 from the Catholic Church, which had received it in the will of the previous owner. He said his father soon converted what had been a chicken coop into his workshop.

The Rhodes brothers both described their father as a jack-of-all-trades, who made friends with many of the artists, writers, and editors who were also discovering the East End at that time.

He worked at what is now the Emporium True Value Hardware store, which was owned by Bob Barry at the time, and later for Barry’s brother, Frank, at Barry’s Department Store, which was in the building now occupied by The Wharf Shop toy store.

Craig Rhodes said his father started and managed an arts supplies department in the store, and later, after a falling out with Barry, left to open his own shop in the little shed behind his home.

The shop had low ceilings, and Rhodes liked to ask customers to sign it. Among those who did so were Willem de Kooning, Karel Appel and Alfonso Ossorio. The actors Robert Montgomery and Hurd Hatfield also added their signatures, as did Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck and Ludwig Bemelmans, the author and illustrator of the “Madeline” series of children’s books.

The Rhodes family sold the house to the Waring family in 1966 and moved one house north, to the Van Scoy house on the corner of Main and Jefferson. When the Warings, in turn, sold the property, a family member called Craig Rhodes and told him he might want to save the ceiling panels from that shed.

“I had them in my office for a long time,” he said, “but the sheetrock was crumbling.” He offered them to the Parrish Art Museum and the Sag Harbor Historical Society, but neither was interested. A friend suggested he ask the artist Eric Fischl if he had any interest in them.

He did, and today the ceiling panels, mounted behind plexiglass, are on the walls in the bedrooms of the artists-in-residence at The Church.

“The Art Shop was a hope for my father that he might be able to do something fun and interesting,” said Curtis Rhodes. “It just didn’t pan out.”