Another Way to Save a Sense of Place

A wide gulf between where the local historical societies leave off and the community preservation fund picks up

A happy outcome appears assured for the Springs General Store, whose operator was faced with the prospect of shutting its doors due to a pending sale of the property. Now, as the last minute neared, an “angel” buyer apparently has emerged who will allow Kristi Hood to keep the store open. This welcome denouement may be the exception to the rule, where places and properties important to the community are threatened about as fast as real estate prices rise. And, thinking about it, there is a wide gulf between where the local historical societies leave off and the community preservation fund picks up into which places like the Springs General Store can fall.

This preservation gap is not unique to East Hampton. In Sag Harbor a while ago when the Bay Street Theater was threatening to decamp to Southampton, for example, the question was raised if the C.P.F. could be tapped to help keep it on Bay Street. The answer was no — perhaps wisely, since the more latitude public officials have to dip into such dedicated funds the more excuses they are likely to find to do so. Still, the problem remains, because the preservation fund is more or less precluded from being used for commercial ventures.

On Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., one can find a model of how important assets that may not meet the criteria for environmental or historical protection can be saved. Since 1975 the island’s private, nonprofit preservation trust has acquired, preserved, and managed endangered landmarks. These have included a general store, a chapel, a carousel, a grange hall, a former library, and even a catboat, one of three remaining by a renowned island designer. Funds have come from donations as well as from rentals of some of the properties for weddings, parties, concerts, and theater and dance performances. Other properties owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Trust include a working farm with affordable housing, a newspaper office, a gallery, and a shipyard chandlery.

This is something that would be terrific to see here. If there were a wish list of places we would think worthy, it might include an example of a Montauk Leisurama house, the Gwathmey houses on Bluff Road in Amagansett, the Sag Harbor Cinema, examples of the working waterfront, any of the little-used chapels scattered here and there, certain farm stands, artists’ studios, and houses in Amagansett’s Devon Colony and the Seven Sisters in Montauk. The list could go on.

Mind you, this is not to impugn the good work of community minded individuals or the existing historical societies and the managers of the community preservation fund. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that there is more to maintaining a sense of place than the most obvious and significant properties. It is something to think about as time and real estate pressure surge ever onward.