Spat Between Sag Harbor’s Whaling Museum, Masons Delays Repairs

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The Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, an icon and testament to the maritime trade that put the village on the map, has been deteriorating for years—its peeling paint offers the most noticeable evidence—but a spat between the two groups that use the historic building is stalling its repair.

The tall, white columned structure on Main Street is home to the museum itself, with its displays of scrimshaw, harpoons and other paraphernalia, on its first floor. On its second floor is Wamponamon Lodge No. 437, Free and Accepted Masons. Both groups have deep respect for the 1845 building, but an unusual history between them has created some friction that is nowhere more evident than in the building’s increasingly rundown appearance. Built as a home for Benjamin Huntting II, an owner of whaling ships who made a fortune in the whale oil business, and his family, and then occupied by the philanthropist Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, the Greek Revival-designed house was bought by the Masons circa 1920. The brotherhood renovated the upstairs into its lodge room and started the museum in 1936, according to the Worshipful Louis Grignon, a trustee and past master of the lodge.

In 1945, the Masons drew up a deed to sell the property to the museum—whose board, at the time, was made up of Masons—for a $7,500 purchase price, with a $1,000 down payment and no interest on the balance. The museum was supposed to pay the balance off by 1950, but did not, both sides said.

Zach Studenroth, the museum’s executive director from 2002 to 2012 and current treasurer, said the museum lacked the money back then and so the $6,500 mortgage is still owed to the Masons. The terms of the transfer of ownership to the museum allowed the lodge to continue to use the building for free for as long as any part of that sum was outstanding, Mr. Studenroth said.

In 1958, an agreement between the Masons and the museum extended the mortgage by 99 years, meaning the museum could not pay off the sum without the lodge’s written consent.

The ensuing decades ran smoothly, but over time, the Masons on the museum board were gradually replaced by non-Masons. Not much maintenance to the building had been done since the 1990s, Mr. Grignon said. Today, not only is the paint peeling, but the windows move in and out when the wind blows, the gutters and roof leak, the siding and porches are rotten, and the windowsills and trim and jambs need to be serviced or replaced. He said the Masons started asking the museum for a scheduled of maintenance around 2000, but never got one.

When Mr. Studenroth came in as museum director in 2002 with a background in historic preservation, he took stock of the building’s condition. “I saw a great opportunity to study the building and raise the funds to restore it,” he said. “It desperately needed it.”

He first got a $10,000 grant from the Preservation League of New York State to study the building. He next applied to the state for a 50-50 matching grant to do exterior carpentry and painting on the registered historic building. The museum won the grant in 2005, opening it up to receive $180,000 from the state, and raising $180,000 on its own.

When filing for the grant, Mr. Studenroth said, he wrote up its structural problems and took pictures. Prominent on the building’s facade, however, in capital letters, was “MASONIC TEMPLE.” This, he thought, might cause confusion at the state level and delay consideration of the grant, he recalled.

At that point, he approached Mr. Grignon, explained that the museum had a great shot at receiving state money to restore the building and asked him to support it and explain, in writing to the New York State Office of Parks and Recreation and Historic Preservation, the relationship of the two organizations. He did.

After winning the grant, Mr. Studenroth again approached Mr. Grignon with an additional request required by the state for the museum to receive the money: that the Masons subordinate their mortgage to the state grant, meaning the Masons would agree to give the state priority in any foreclosure or payoff.

“A basic rule of thumb,” Mr. Grignon said, “is, you don’t subordinate your mortgage.”

The state wants to ensure, when pledging public monies to a private organization, that the entity will observe certain restrictions on the money, Mr. Studenroth explained. In this case, it had to guarantee that it would remain open for at least 20 years so that the public could enjoy the investment made in the building.

The lodge voted not to sign the document and told the museum it would consider signing only if the museum’s attorney spoke with the Masons’ attorney. That did not happen, Mr. Grignon said. Dan Ross, the museum’s attorney, said the Masons agreed to subordinate and then changed their minds.

Instead, the museum took the lodge to court in 2009 to try to overturn the 1958 extension agreement the lodge gave the museum, because it felt it was an obstacle to raising the funds for needed improvements.

“Needless to say, the guys in the lodge see it as ‘no good deed goes unpunished,’” said Mr. Grignon, noting that, in 1958, the lodge could have foreclosed on the museum and taken back the building. “We want to see it succeed,” he said of the museum, “but we don’t want to see it cost us our building to see it succeed.”

“The museum regards the building itself as its largest and most important artifact,” Mr. Studenroth said. “It’s one of the crown jewels of Sag Harbor, architecturally.”

The museum historically has had a hard time raising money, Mr. Grignon said, and if it defaulted on the $180,000 loan, the state could take the building, or the Masons would end up in court with the building owner. “That would be very expensive, and that’s not a place we want to be,” he said.

The Masons could sue for the lack of maintenance, since the museum is responsible for that. “Our thing is, you always work things out,” he said. “It’s not a question of making waves—it’s making things work.”

Mr. Grignon added that the lodge is responsible for the building’s heat and so collected bids and chose a heating company to fix a cracked furnace last year. It was halted, he said, after the village building inspector rescinded a permit when the museum complained that its name is not on the deed.

The museum, meanwhile, is now in the process of completing a report to the Village Building Department and Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review to begin painting and restoring the museum in September, according to Barbara Pintauro-Lobosco, museum board president, adding that the museum is close to matching a $50,000 grant from the Century Arts Foundation and expects to make an announcement soon.

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