Historic Optical Illusion In Sag Harbor Church To Get Face-Lift


On one side of the Old Whalers’ Church sanctuary sits the oldest known organ of its kind still in use. Across the sanctuary sits a relic of another kind: an example of a painting technique called trompe l’oeil, often used in the 20th century to make a room seem grander than what physical constraints would allow.But unlike the organ, which remains in fine condition, years of deterioration and botched restorations have left the parish of the Sag Harbor church looking at a comprehensive plan to rejuvenate the back wall, which is flat but was designed to trick the eye into seeing it as a curved apse. In fact, the phrase trompe l’oeil is French for “trick the eye.”

In 2007, Nancy Cory and her late husband, Dave, church parishioners and members of the church’s historical society, went to Cape Cod, eventually making their way to Provincetown. When they stumbled upon the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse, built three years after the Old Whalers’ Church was built in 1844, the Corys ventured inside. To their amazement, not only was there a similar trompe l’oeil at the back of the church, each of the four walls included similar features.

The two were amazed by how nice a well-kept trompe l’oeil looked, and took pictures that showed the quality of the walls. When they returned home, they started doing research to restore the feature at their own church.

“You would have had to go up to the wall and bump your head on it when leaning in to know it wasn’t actually curved,” Ms. Cory said, of the Provincetown church.

Ms. Cory’s husband wrote to the church in Provincetown to find out who restored their treasured walls. Then in April 2008, the artist, Geoffrey Steward, CEO of International Fine Arts Conservation Studios Inc. of Atlanta, Georgia, agreed to come to Sag Harbor and give an estimate to restore the Old Whalers’ Church’s prized wall—the glaring missing link in an otherwise completely restored and pristine sanctuary.

Later in 2008, church officials gave the historical society the go-ahead for the project, but a lack of fundraising during the nationwide recession stalled the project. Then, earlier this year, the Reverend Mark Phillips, pastor of the Old Whalers’ Church, went to the parish and asked for donations again.

“And this time, people came forward,” Ms. Cory said, declining to name any of the individual donors. “It was a blessing.”

The restoration will take place in two phases.

Phase one is a detailed inspection of the trompe l’oeil and the wall itself. The IFACS team will drill into the wall, and be able to create a proper color palette to replicate the original look of the art, which is more than a century old. This phase will cost $4,500.

Phase II is the actual painting of the 35-foot-high-by-25-foot-wide wall. This phase of the project, which will cost approximately $45,000 and is almost fully funded, is expected to last another hundred years, according to Mr. Steward.

The sexton of the church, John Burns, whose job it is to oversee every bit of housekeeping and maintenance work, in addition to climbing to the top of the building on old wooden ladders with eager visitors, said he couldn’t be happier that the project came full circle.

“Now, when you walk in, your eyeball will go right to this beautifully deceptive piece of art,” Mr. Burns said. “It’s the icing on the cake for this decades-long restoration, and when it is done, it’ll just be a joy.”

“This project, when it is done, will be an accomplishment in the sense that we have a responsibility to this room, and now we’ve completed the restoration of the sanctuary,” said a smiling Ms. Cory. “It’s hard to put into words what it means, but we all have a connection to our past, and we’d like to see it taken care of.”

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