Main Street: Sag Harbor, New York


Main Street has undergone many changes since its beginning in 1745, from a cosmopolitan global thoroughfare at the height of Sag Harbor's whaling days in the 1820s and 1830s to its days as a scruffy blue-collar enclave in the 1950s. Today, village officials, business owners, residents, and visitors converge on Main Street as they go to work, do errands, shop, get coffee, eat a meal, or simply sit and watch the comings and goings of pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers.

Designated Area

Nine blocks between Long Wharf to the north and Jermain Avenue to the south.

Sag Harbor Cinema. Photo by Flickr user Doug Kerr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Planning Excellence

There is an unmistakable aura of old wealth, culture and history about flag-lined Main Street where the vestiges of the whaling industry, the village's role in several wars, and the outcomes of four devastating fires are still legible.

Since 1972, the village's planning board has been tasked with ensuring that any new development adheres to the requirements of the village's zoning ordinance.  Since a large portion of the village was designated a national historic district in 1973, the village's Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review has been responsible for ensuring the integrity of historical and cultural landmarks along Main Street and elsewhere in the village. The village also approved measures in 2009 to keep the size and style of new development along Main Street compatible with its historic buildings.

Nonetheless, rising property values throughout the village have led to discussion about potential changes to the character and ownership of commercial properties along lower Main Street. In 2012, The Sag Harbor Express weekly newspaper brought together a group of local business owners to discuss how to balance private property interests with community values and concerns that commercial properties on Main Street remain affordable to small businesses.

As rent and real estate prices have risen, the village government, community leaders, and residents have taken steps to assist local businesses along Main Street. Community groups promote the local economy by reminding people that they can make a difference and support local merchants. A new law allowed several restaurants to set up outdoor tables along Main Street’s sidewalks, and the community donated funds to pay for Wi-Fi throughout the street. Most importantly, local businesses prosper because they know their customers and make adjustments to meet their preferences and create a personalized shopping experience.

Residents also are working with the village Architectural Review Board to refurbish and transform some of the street's historic mansions — such as the Gingerbread House — into functional retail spaces for commercial use. Without these historic buildings, wrote the New York Times's Peter Applebome last year, many residents believe Sag Harbor's Main Street would be "like Earth without gravity."

The American Hotel. Photo by Flickr user Doug Kerr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Defining Characteristics, Features

History and Character

  • Main Street, established in 1745, follows a circuitous route south to avoid marshy areas
  • During the Revolutionary War, British troops set up naval blockade and garrison to prevent Sag Harbor's port from receiving or sending supplies to the American army
  • On July 31, 1789 Congress selected Sag Harbor over New York City as first U.S. official port of entry  
  • War of 1812 brought whaling industry to a standstill; British navy blocked Sag Harbor's Long Wharf
  • First major fire in village occured (1817); 1845 fire started in Oakley's Hotel and destroyed more than 50 stores; two more fires occur in 1877 and 1881  
  • Gas mains buried under Main Street (1859); Sag Harbor is the first village east of Brooklyn to have gaslights
  • Main Street is surfaced with gravel (1898); covered with a surface of oil and 60 percent asphalt (1914); resurfaced with concrete (1922)

Historic and Cultural Landmarks

  • Herald House, between Spring and Garden Streets (1735); believed to be early settler John Foster's house
  • Whaling Museum, 200 Main Street (1845); originally whale ship owner Benjamin Huntting residence; later converted to a museum (1936)
  • American Hotel, 49 Main Street (1846); originally the residence of cabinetmaker Nathan Tinker; the stately structure features both Victorian and Gothic design elements
  • Municipal Building, 55 Main Street (1846); contains Gothic Revival and Italianate design elements
  • Hannibal French House, 189 Main Street (1875); designed by architect Minard Lefevre in the Italianate style
  • Sag Harbor Cinema, 90 Main Street (1890); originally for vaudeville, burlesque; art deco with neon sign  
  • John Jermain Library, 201 Main Street (1910); Classical Revival style; current restoration to be completed in 2014

Planning Studies and Milestones

  • Area settled late 17th century with village incorporated 1846; three-fifths of village located in Town of Southampton and two-fifths located in Town of East Hampton; Main Street located in Southampton
  • First comprehensive zoning plan addressing Main Street is "Zoning Ordinance and Zoning Map" (1949); Carol Williams creates Sag Harbor's first official map (1972)
  • Large area of Sag Harbor, including Main Street, designated as a national historical district (1973)
  • Local Waterfront Revitalization Program developed  to protect and enhance the maritime character of Sag Harbor and its waterfront (1986)
  • Village commissioned a planning study of its business district; provided an inventory of existing uses to identify the character of the commercial district on and around Main Street (2007)
  • Village enacts a zoning code, based on the planning study, aiming to preserve Main Street while stimulating economic development (2009)
  • Small office district created around periphery of village's business district; provides place for new office space  without compromising historic integrity of Main Street (2009)
  • Suffolk County sells Long Wharf to Sag Harbor for $1, giving village full control of Long Wharf (2012)

Shops and local businesses along Main Street. Photo by Flickr user Pamela V White (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Citizen Participation

  • Village trustees appoint 10 citizens to Sag Harbor Preservation Commission to maintain and preserve the aesthetic and educational value of Sag Harbor's buildings (1972)
  • Save Sag Harbor's first meeting took place in 2007; community-based organization seeks to protect economic sustainability of Sag Harbor without depending on national chains or big box stores
  • Sag Harbor Express sends survey to 2,000 people to gauge how the community feels about current state of Main Street; results show community's devotion to local businesses  (2012)
  • Sag Harbor Art Walk and auction organized by the Tulla Booth Gallery; every gallery on Main Street participated and more than 60 local artists donated pieces to help raise money for Sag Harbor