East Hampton’s 36-Foot-Tall Christmas Angel Fondly Remembered

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It was a sight to behold. Standing tall at 36 feet, blowing a trumpet, an angel made of celastic, chicken wire and paint stood unapologetically at the head of Main Street in 1956.

The Christmas decoration was one of a kind. Its sheer height had all of East Hampton talking. Some were delighted, and others were appalled. But one thing’s for sure, East Hampton Village hasn’t had anything like it since.

After prodding from the East Hampton Chamber of Commerce, John Lonero, who was the head art teacher and school board president at the East Hampton School District at the time, worked to decorate the village’s Main Street for Christmas, according to Hedy Lonero, his wife. He and artist Ralph Carpentier, who were both in their late 20s and art teachers for the school district, set to work on the figure, which from Thanksgiving to Christmastime grew to an unbelievable height.

At first, they were going to use a windmill as the angel’s skirt, but there wasn’t a crane tall enough to construct the angel that way. Over the course of a month, from late afternoon into the evening, Mr. Lonero and Mr. Carpentier, with help from friends and neighbors, put the angel together in several parts—the skirt, the upper body, the head, the arms, the bugle and the wings—in Walter Hackett’s garage. They used large sheets of chicken wire, which were welded to rods, and celastic, which is a plastic-impregnated fabric that becomes pliable and floppy. After it was set, the angel was painted.

According to Mr. Carpentier, who is 84 now, the angel’s gown was blue, its wings and trumpet were metallic, and its face and arms were pink.

“It was quite sensational,” he said. “People were just dazzled by it and some people thought it was God-awful. It was something you could sit down at the bar and listen to people talk about.”

He said while it took a lot of work, the art teachers took pride in decorating the village for the holiday.

“Part of the problem nowadays is that teachers don’t do that sort of thing anymore. We were the old school,” he said. “We represented art to the whole community. The art teacher doesn’t just do art class. You’re the art man.”

Ms. Lonero, who was an art teacher at the Southampton School District, supplemented the angel with her own decorations. Twelve panels, each 3 by 9 feet, depicted the 12 days of Christmas. Using plastic sheets and chicken wire, she painted what looked like stained glass. The “windows” fit between the columns of the Veterans of Foreign Wars building—now London Jewelers—and were backlit each night. Christmas music was played from a hidden source in the background.

“We were delighted,” Ms. Lonero said about the projects’ completion. In 1983, Ms. Lonero, now 84, and Mr. Lonero, now 89, moved to Tryon, North Carolina, to retire. Ms. Lonero said they still vividly remember the angel.

Mr. Carpentier, who lives in Springs and works full time as a landscape artist, said he was pleased with the outcome, but not so pleased with some of the residents’ take on the project. He said it could’ve had to do with how it looked—like “a huge piece of folk art with no real sophistication or elegance about it”—but it was charming, he said.

“The guys liked to work together and have a good time,” he said. “The hardest thing to do was put it up and listen to the comments. We didn’t give a damn. It was done and done and up there.”

According to Ms. Lonero, the angel was taken down piece by piece and stored at Mr. Hackett’s property until the next year, when it was assembled again.

On Christmas Eve, however, there were very high winds and the 36-foot-tall angel blew apart, Ms. Lonero said.

“We were coming home from Bellport and when we came in, I was furious,” she said. “When we got there, the wings and the bugle were broken off. It was broken at the waist.”

She said that those who put the angel up that year didn’t put it up correctly. The pieces were again stored at Mr. Hackett’s garage, but were never seen again.

“It may still be in the barn,” Mr. Carpentier said. “I think there’s something sad about it. It didn’t have to be cherished, but it was done in the Christmas spirit.”

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