By: JUDY D’MELLO
A former Methodist church repurposed as a multidisciplinary space may be the greatest example of how the arts can change a community.
It has often been said that art spaces are our new places of worship. A literal version of this intriguing notion stands in Sag Harbor, N.Y., where a former Methodist church, built in 1832, has been repurposed as a vibrant nonprofit center for creativity. Simply called “The Church,” the 12,000-square-foot, white clapboard building near the center of the village is the latest salvation project of the acclaimed artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik, longtime residents of Sag Harbor. For many, The Church is the manifestation of the old adage “art is not a thing; it’s a way.”
Far from a traditional white cube gallery space, The Church boasts architectural features such as a Greek Revival entry, 20-foot-high unadorned windows, and a restored belfry that includes the original church bell. Meticulously repurposed by Sag Harbor architect Lee Skolnick, the interior is all drama. Exposed original rafters in the main sanctuary highlight the space’s divine origins. A mezzanine practically floats between the stone floor and the soaring roof trusses in the main gallery. Various staircases connect the building’s three stories, as does an ultra-modern glass elevator, offering access to various creator spaces, exhibition galleries, and a resource library. At the rear of the building, a modest cube-like, two-story unit offers on-site accommodations for the artists-in-residence program while a lovely public garden extends to one side. But perhaps the most exquisite representation of this past-meets-present vibe is the portraits of notable local artists — Betty Friedan, Langston Hughes, and Herman Melville, to name a few — painted by Fischl, transferred to translucent film, and mounted within the panes. They serve as a modern interpretation of traditional stained-glass windows.
Shuttered as a religious institution in 2008, the building was first acquired by a real estate developer, then an interior designer, and next by a couple with dreams of building their fantasy home. Alas, they fell out of love and parted ways before their luxury abode was realized. Property developers with condominium dreams continued to circle and speculate. Celebrities eyed it with keen interest but were daunted by the scale of necessary renovations.
It was then, in 2018, that Fischl and Gornik stepped in and bought the sacred digs because they were, according to a New York Times article, “loath to see yet another local building become an opulent private home.” The couple is known in this Great Gatsby land as dedicated crusaders of preserving their historic village, once known as a haven for artists and writers. Now, after selling their city loft to help raise money for their latest project, they’ve deepened their commitment to Sag Harbor’s creative community by transforming The Church into a place of worship for the arts. With the ubiquitous desire to maximize the village’s real estate charm, their long-term goal of persevering cultural identity may be even more inspiring.