Sag Harbor has always been a place of reinvention, not only for the people who have come to inhabit it but also for the driving forces that have created change for three centuries. Today, the village is at a crossroads and it remains to be seen if it can still grow and retain its identity as it faces pressures from the forces of greed and development.In the 1980s the village became known as the “Un-Hampton” for its New England feel and small-scale houses on narrow streets. In the other Hamptons on a summer evening people could be heard counting their money while in Sag Harbor the clicking of typewriter keys permeated the evening air. There were occasional knife fights in village bars, and it wasn’t unusual to see two pickup trucks stopped in each direction on Main Street for a not-so-quick chat. Sag Harbor, a town with a blue-collar feel, was proud of its historic heritage and the shabby chic houses that formed its National Register Historic District. The writers, artists, year-round weekenders and longtime residents were an eccentric bunch back then, happy to be isolated from the hype and glitz of other South Fork towns. They liked Sag Harbor just the way it was.
In recent years, however, a confluence of events has brought rapid change to the village. After 9/11 many families, who owned weekend homes on the East End, decided to occupy them full-time as a safety measure. School enrollments went up and the ability to telecommute enabled work to be performed away from traditional offices. Additionally, families owning large, multimillion-dollar houses elsewhere in the Hamptons started to rent apartments in Sag Harbor so their children could be enrolled in the Sag Harbor school system. With more people in Sag Harbor it has become harder and harder to find parking space on Main Street even in the off-season.
Another trend in the village involves the establishment of family compounds where two adjacent properties, bought by the same family, remain in single and separate ownership. Essentially, the two houses together form one property but they have not been legally merged. While this may be wonderful for large extended families the downside is that the smaller house, which may be a more affordable entry-level house, is effectively taken off the market.
The energy crisis along with the Great Recession caused families with larger homes in East Hampton and Southampton to consider downsizing for economic reasons, and Sag Harbor has become a popular destination for seekers of smaller homes. Of course, these smaller homes are often considered too small and require upsized additions to accommodate downsizing families.
Houses located in the National Register Historic District that undergo renovations, additions and alterations have to come before the Architectural Review Board, which reviews the design submissions for compliance with their bylaws. According to Cee Scott Brown, the chairman of the ARB, applicant proposals must relate well to the surrounding and adjacent houses. The ARB, for example, will not allow an enormous addition that would literally eat up the original house. Additionally, they are reluctant to allow character-changing transformations to smaller houses that are part of a grouping. A request for such a change was recently struck down on Bay Street near the Cormaria retreat, where the character of the grouping of neighboring houses would have been compromised. The ARB uses the Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines for making determinations of appropriateness, which is the standard used by landmark commissions throughout the country. These guidelines also require deteriorated building parts to be restored and, if that’s not feasible, the parts in question are then required to be replaced in kind.
The ARB has also been confronted with quite a few difficult issues, including proposals for energy-efficient renovations. Building products that some might consider inappropriate for a historic district have included items like photovoltaic roof shingles and powder coated aluminum clad windows that try to resemble wood in terms of muntin details and casing profiles. The use of aluminum clad units is being evaluated on a case-by-case basis predicated on window type and appropriateness. Not only are the roof shingles unusual in a historic district, but the long-term efficacy of both the windows and the shingles, when weighed against installation costs, life expectancy and energy savings, remains suspect to many in the architecture and building science communities.
The frenzy of construction in the village is progressing at a torrid pace. So many proposed projects appear bigger and bigger with little attention paid to context. The Watchcase Factory Townhouses, currently under construction, have been widely criticized as being overscaled for their immediate neighborhood. The entry porch on these units is elevated well above sidewalk level so the buildings appear to loom over the street. There is no landscaping along the street at present and the townhouses, surrounded by temporary chain link fences, are in a raw state. It may be best, nevertheless, to reserve judgment until they are completed with landscaping and sidewalks in place.
When context is ignored in a village like Sag Harbor it reveals a reprehensible lack of understanding of the very things that make the village whole. The architecture of Sag Harbor is pluralistic. Every conceivable style from every era in the history of American architecture can be found in this remarkable village. The glue that holds it all together has to do with its urban fabric woven around context and scale. The village works because Colonial houses co-exist with Colonial Revival, Arts and Crafts, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Shingle Style, Stick Style, Aesthetic Movement, Queen Anne, Bungalow Style, Federal, Egyptian Revival and Art Deco style buildings. This village is not frozen in time nor does it discriminate against contemporary buildings that relate to everything else.
What it does do on its most charming streets, such as Suffolk, is maintain the streetscape. No one house, no matter the style, sits way back or far forward or significantly higher or maintains a massing with architectural details deviating wildly in size from the others. This notion of relating has to do with maintaining the streetscape, the scale and the massing of existing structures juxtaposed against one another in a harmonious way. What doesn’t relate is when designers with no knowledge of Sag Harbor’s past seize the future by assuming that their creations constitute the fulfillment of Sag Harbor’s true identity.
So how can the village protect itself at this juncture? The mechanisms in place are often in conflict with themselves. How can the zoning ordinance, for example, call for 35-foot front yard setbacks when almost none of the houses in the historic district has such a setback?
The new, elevated, Jeffersonian McMonster recently erected on Glover Street illustrates the conflicts. Built on a large lot, now subdivided, the house had to be raised on a plinth well above grade to comply with the new Federal Emergency Management Agency’s elevation maps designed to protect buildings from flooding. While it’s possible to request a variance from the regulation in the historic district, who in their right mind would want to subject themselves to flooding from another Hurricane Sandy? This house, which is straight out of a Disney movie set and breaks rank with the long established streetscape, shows no humility in terms of scale and massing. Clearly, the current regulations governing planning, zoning and the ARB just aren’t working despite the good faith efforts of the individuals on these boards.
Perhaps it’s time for Sag Harbor to adopt form-based zoning solely in the historic district. This type of zoning is currently being used in other historic districts around the country. The concept is not about regulating a separation of uses with fixed setbacks, lot coverage percentages and height limitations. Rather, this code enables built results—i.e., facades—that are copacetic by addressing physical form, scale and mass as its driving principles. This type of code is all about the character of development. If Sag Harbor does not reinvent its codes, it will become ravaged and despoiled and a testament to a time when self-indulgence and avarice took precedence over the greater good.
Anne Surchin is an East End architect and co-author of “Houses of the Hamptons 1880-1940.”