Community members, including a few noted writers, turned out on Tuesday to support a proposal before the Southampton Town Board to use $11.2 million from the Community Preservation Fund to purchase the Sag Harbor Village property where the author John Steinbeck lived and worked and to create a writer’s program to inspire a future generation.
The Nobel laureate’s modest home and his unique gazebo-like writing studio at 2 Bluff Point Lane, on a peninsula overlooking Morris Cove and Upper Sag Harbor Cove, has been on the market for nearly two years and an effort has been underway just as long to preserve it.
“Having known John, there was nothing he would have wanted more than his property to become a writer’s retreat,” said Nada Barry, who owns the 55-year-old Wharf Shop in the village and was a close friend of the Steinbecks.
The Sag Harbor Partnership, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of the quality of life in the village, has entered into a contract to purchase the property for $13.5 million, and while money was privately raised for the acquisition, the bulk of the funding is expected to come from Southampton Town’s Community Preservation Fund (While the property is located in Sag Harbor Village, CPF revenues go to the town).
The town board held a public hearing Tuesday afternoon to on whether to spend $11.2 million on the 1.8-acre property, as it is considered of historic value under the preservation program. Though real estate has begun to decline after a booming few years during the COVID-19 pandemic, Southampton Town’s fund took in more than $80 million in 2022.
The purchase would be a “unique gift to the community that will grow with each generation,” said Colson Whitehead, author of Sag Harbor and the honorary chair of the Sag Harbor Partnership’s project, in a letter read at the Southampton Town Board’s public hearing on the potential purchase.
Twice a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction himself, Whitehead noted that Steinbeck, who also won a Pulitzer, stands out as the sole Nobel Prize winner from Sag Harbor.
While he died 54 years ago, his wife Elaine lived in the cottage until 2003 and the property has remained mostly as it was when he wrote The Winter of Our Discontent, his last novel, published in 1961.
“I can’t think of a writer who better embodies the true historical spirit of this place than John Steinbeck, because that’s what he wrote about. . . . he represented humanity in a most rich and complete way,” said April Gornik, an artist and Sag Harbor Partnership board member.
After the closing, a non-profit would be created to oversee the John Steinebeck Writer’s Retreat program, according to Susan Mead, the co-president. The Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin, Elaine Steinbeck’s alma mater which already boasts a collection of her husband’s papers, would run the program.
Bret Johnson, a faculty member at the Michener Center and the author of the internationally bestselling novel Remember Me Like This, called it a “once-in-a-lifetime gift.”
“Writing does not happen in isolation, it happens in solitude and it happens in community and that is the model that John Steinbeck has given us and that is the model we want to continue,” Johnson said, noting that each writer that spends time at the retreat would engage the community in a different way.
Jay McInerney, the novelist, screenwriter and editor, spoke of how the East End has a rich history of celebrated writers, by noting that the first weekend he spent on the East End was at the Sagaponack home of George Plimpton, whose neighbors included John Irving, Peter Matthiessen, Kurt Vonnegut and Truman Capote.
Sag Harbor, in particular, has been home to “an extraordinary parade of authors,” said McInerney, who had a home there and now lives in Water Mill, “None more distinguished than John Steinbeck — it’s impossible to overstate his position.”
About 12 years ago, he had a chance to tour the property “and I couldn’t believe what a magical spot it was. I felt Steinbeck’s presence. I felt something very special there,” he said, noting the octagonal writer’s cottage, which Steinbeck called Joyous Gard, after Lancelot’s castle, and where he wrote The Winter of Our Discontent. He said he also feared news one day would come that a McMansion would be built there.
Keith Reddin, a playwright who has a house in East Hampton, told the board that he is looking forward to a chance of being on the Steinbeck property, a place that for 30 years he has wanted to visit.
“For many of us, it was like being in Kansas looking at the wonderful world of Oz,” he said. “It’s just been a place where we always looked at it from a distance . . . the fact that we can take in that magical space is a really a dream come true.”
Neighbors also pledged their support.
Luke Babcock, who has lived in Sag Harbor for 20 years, said he had sat through several meetings about the project and reported there had been “a lot of compromises by all the stakeholders.”
He pointed out that while there has been a lot of discussion about access to the property, he felt the viewshed from the water that will be protected was also of importance. “This is a relatively trafficked waterway here,” he said pointing to a map. CPF money has protected viewsheds in terms of land, and with this purchase, anyone who comes into Morris Cove by boat will see a relatively wooded property, ospreys on the trees and the writers’ studio.
David Florence agreed, noting it is “the most spectacular property on the entire cove,” that has not changed as much as the rest of the shoreline. However, he said, even if it were “a double-wide next to the dump, this program would be worth pursuing.”
Tracy Mitchell, whose home on Bluff Point Lane looks out onto the Steinbeck property, told the board via Zoom that she was initially very concerned about the neighborhood since it is a private street on a cul-de-sac. “But I have to say, I have come around fully. I’m in complete support of this as a neighbor and I think, as Luke Babcock said, I think you have the full support of the neighborhood.”
Mitchell, who lived in the Steinbeck home for about eight weeks one year after Elaine Steinbeck’s sister inherited the property, serves as the executive director at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. She pointed out that Elaine Steinbeck, the first female stage manager for a Broadway play, had been an original member of Bay Street’s board.
Cee Scott Brown, a Compass real estate agent who lives immediately to the east of the Steinbeck property in a house called “East of Eden,” a nod to another Steinbeck novel, also offered his support, joining the meeting by Zoom. He had become friendly with Elaine Steinbeck in the last few years of her life and even helped her obtain a permit for a bulkhead during a village moratorium on building bulkheads in order for her save the glass gazebo, which was in jeopardy of falling into the water. “I think she would be extremely supportive of this,” Brown said.
“I really want to thank the board for their vision and for working hard to get to where we are today,” said Kathryn Szoka, an owner of Canio’s Books in the village, who called the property “a jewel and a crown.” She started a petition soon after the home went on the market for $17.9 million, gaining 33,000 signatures, before the Sag Harbor Partnership got involved.
No one spoke out against the purchase, though one resident, Robert Remkus, raised concerns about limited public access and the price, which he felt was overvalued given the comps in the area.
Still, he applauded the effort, adding that since the town board was in “a giving mood,” that it should consider purchasing the former 7-Eleven building on Long Island Avenue in Sag Harbor. It had been the proposed new home of Bay Street Theater, but has been listed by the Friends of Bay Street earlier this month for $25 million, and, Remkus suggested, that the property could be used to expand the adjacent John Steinbeck Memorial Park.
Jacqueline Fenlon, the town’s acting CPF program manager, reported to the town board that the property does qualify for landmark status, not only within the town but on the state and federal registries. A public access and outreach agreement are being worked out with the Partnership, an important “balancing act,” she said.
The plan is to have the property open by appointment only on Saturdays, from noon to 4 p.m., in the spring and fall, and every other Saturday during the summer months. There would be extended hours on holiday weekends. The sticking point seems to be accessible during the winter months.
Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said he had hoped the agreement could be hammered out ahead of the public hearing, and the Partnership’s co-president said she was confident all parties were close to doing so. The hearing has been left open until the town board meeting on February 14 so that the public has a chance to review the agreement.
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