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Support for Steinbeck House Preservation

Wed, 01/25/2023 - 17:33

As writing center agreement nears, the public has its say

Kathryn Szoka urged the Southampton Town Board to use the community preservation fund to buy John Steinbeck’s house on Bluff Point Road in Sag Harbor Village.

Those interested in preserving John Steinbeck’s Sag Harbor home as a writing center must have been buoyed on Tuesday afternoon as the proposal coasted through a public hearing during a Southampton Town Board meeting, with nary a single comment against it.

“It’s been a deep and broad community effort to honor a master writer who was an early environmentalist, social activist, and lover of Sag Harbor and all the good embodied in our community,” Kathryn Szoka, a co-owner of Canio’s Books in the village, wrote by text. “Today all the good in our village and town was on display.”

Ms. Szoka has been active in efforts to preserve the house from the moment it hit the market two years ago.

The property’s development rights would be bought for $11.2 million with a mixture of town community preservation fund money, funds raised by the Sag Harbor Partnership, and a state grant. A retreat, managed by the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, would provide for one aspiring writer in the fall, and another “late career” writer in the summer.

The list of those speaking in favor was impressive, a mix of 28 writers, artists, librarians, teachers, neighbors, lawyers, and even a friend of the late John Steinbeck himself. Others, including Thomas Gardella, the deputy mayor of Sag Harbor Village, and Colson Whitehead, the honorary chairman of the committee seeking to preserve the property, himself a Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote letters in support.

If there was a sticking point, it was over public access to the site during the winter months, when the Sag Harbor Partnership expected the house to close. The town board would like continued public access during that time.

Susan Mead, co-president of the partnership, and Supervisor Jay Schneiderman agreed to finalize details by early next week, with both saying they were “pretty close” to an agreement.

Mr. Schneiderman said balancing a secluded writers retreat with enough public access to justify the use of community preservation fund money was a challenge, but that the basic framework was set.

The idea is that the house would be open to the public on Saturdays, “most of the year by appointment only,” from noon until 4 p.m. Because the house is down a narrow cul-de-sac, visits would be capped at 10 people per hour. During the summer months, the Steinbeck House would be open only biweekly, to avoid traffic in the area.

Additionally, there would be three holiday open houses — on Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Columbus Day, “by reservation only” to avoid “throngs” of people coming to the property.

John Avlon, a Sag Harbor resident, writer, and political commentator who has been involved in preserving the house since the early stages, said if the town board completed the purchase, it would “carry forward the literary character of our community.” The board would be able to look back and know “we did the right thing.”

“The business structure is the same we used for the cinema, which you also helped us with,” Ms. Mead said of the Sag Harbor Cinema. “We think you’ll be pleased, and we won’t let you down.”

She said she already had two volunteer docents ready: Catherine Creedon, a former director of the John Jermain Memorial Library, and Mr. Avlon. “We probably have 10 others in the room as well,” she joked.

“There’s a strong vein of humanity that runs through Sag Harbor. This is a tolerant area, it’s not a perfect area . . . and I can’t think of a writer that better embodies the true historical spirit of this place than John Steinbeck,” said April Gornik, also with the Sag Harbor Partnership.

The author Jay McInerney talked about the literary history of the South Fork, staying at George Plimpton’s house in Sagaponack, and having writing greats such as John Irving, Peter Matthiessen, Truman Capote, and Kurt Vonnegut as neighbors. Yet none was more distinguished than John Steinbeck, he said. He had spent some time on the Steinbeck property and “felt something very special there. I thought how much I would love to write in his little octagonal cottage, and also feared someday I would read a McMansion was being built on this beautiful spot.”

Kathleen Mulcahy, a former mayor of Sag Harbor, spoke instead as a mother of two children who went through the local school system. “I see a future where the kids of Sag Harbor and all the East End schools can come and see where John Steinbeck wrote, and won a Nobel Prize,” she said.

“We heard earlier that Jay McInerney has dreamed of writing in that space,” Bret Anthony Johnston, the director of the Michener Center, said over Zoom. “Jay, we can make that happen, fingers crossed!” Mr. Johnston said preserving the house was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and one that the center wouldn’t be interested in pursuing were it not “vested in the community.”

A neighbor on Morris Cove, Luke Babcock, acknowledged all the tweaks and compromises made in setting the parameters of the writers retreat, adding, “On behalf of the neighborhood . . . what has been agreed upon is something we can all be proud of, that everyone is really excited about, and I think it will be a huge asset to the greater community.”

“Having grown up around, and on, and even in the cove, this is the most spectacular property on the upper cove,” another neighbor, David Florence, said. “You see it from everywhere . . . it would be a spectacular doubleheader to not only preserve the legacy, but also the property.”

Nada Berry, the owner of the Wharf Shop in Sag Harbor, said her late husband, Bob Barry, was Steinbeck’s best friend here. “Having known John Steinbeck, there is nothing he wouldn’t have wanted more than his property to become a writers retreat. Thank you.” Loud applause followed her back to her seat.

Mr. Schneiderman said details of an agreement they hope to reach by early next week would be made public well before a continuation of the public hearing, set for Feb. 14 at 1 p.m.

This article has been altered to reflect that the hearing was held during a regular town board meeting, not a work session.

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