Historic Church Transformed into a Modern Center for the Arts

A church dating back to 1832 is adapted into a modern center for the arts that retains its rich heritage.

July 13, 2022
Some of the most innovative and interesting buildings have evolved in their purpose and design over time. Adaptive reuse projects like this give existing structures new life and are inherently unique, exuding a deep sense of history.

“The Church” in Sag Harbor, New York is one such example of adaptive reuse. This 12,000-square-foot former Methodist Church, built in 1832, weathered nearly two centuries with its strong bones of vaulted ceilings and heavy beams. Architect Lee Skolnick of Skolnick Architecture + Design worked with artists and community activists Eric Fischl and April Gornik to transform the church into a center for the arts.
“The conversation between old and new was the design approach,” Skolnick said. “When we encountered the building, it had already been gutted completely. It was down to the bones, timbers exposed. It gave us the opportunity to be very careful about what we added back in. My approach was, anything that we added back in was going to be modern, so you’d wind up with this conversation between history and today.”

That conversation is almost audible as you explore The Church. Pine wood framing was left exposed from the topmost rafters down through the walls and into the lower level. Original wood was also repurposed within the building, showcasing pieces of the original church as artifacts. So, not only does the historical component add to the building’s character, but the decision to maintain much of the original stock also makes this project an example of how sustainable architecture comes to life today.

Immediately upon entering The Church, you find yourself in the heart of it—a massive open atrium with 10 banks of 20-foot-tall windows stretching up two stories. Assumed to have been formerly comprised of religious stained glass, the windows had been boarded up for years. Now, given the new use of the space as a home for the arts, the windows offered an opportunity to reimagine stained glass in the modern era.

"We created something very unique with the windows,” Skolnick said. “We wanted a modern interpretation of stained glass, so Eric Fischl had this idea to paint portraits of artists who worked or lived in Sag Harbor over the years.”
Fischl’s portraits of Sag Harbor artists (e.g., Herman Melville, Langston Hughes, and Betty Friedan) fill 20 large open squares among the divided lights of the windows—a custom window design created for The Church. The portrait drawings were then transferred onto translucent film and placed in those open squares, giving the illusion that they’re hovering in the windows, which are insulated dual-pane glass. They glow with natural light during the day and are illuminated by light from within The Church at night.

“It’s just spectacular,” Skolnick said. “In this place where art is sacred, these artists are our saints.”

Meanwhile, on the exterior of The Church, the windows are clad in aluminum, a design choice that had to be brought before an architectural review board in Sag Harbor for approval. At first the board insisted the windows must have wood frames, but Skolnick demonstrated that clad window exteriors have advanced so much that today you cannot tell the difference between original and clad.
“I was very attracted to the fact that the windows could be aluminum-clad so there would be no maintenance,” Skolnick said. “Can you imagine 20-foot-high windows that need to be repainted every few years because of the climate out here, which is very harsh? We have extreme seasonality, and there’s a lot of salt in the air.”

Other spaces of note within The Church include the second-floor mezzanine where views of the town’s rooftops below are straight out of a fairy tale; the steeple of the church, now a library and study lounge; artist studios in the lower level, accessible via stairs or a glass elevator; and an outdoor amphitheater outfitted with intricate stonework.

The goal is for The Church to be a home for artists and a place for the community to gather and celebrate the arts. The open design of the interior can accommodate a variety of events, from concerts to gallery exhibitions. Truly, the adapted church is now a sanctuary for creative expression.

“If you do your work well and you try to think of everything, other good things happen that you didn’t expect,” Skolnick said. “In this project, one of those things is that, because of these big expanses of glass, when the church is lit up at night and you are outside, you get these incredible views into the inside of the historic structure. Because of all this wood, there’s this really warm glow. Walking up the street at night and seeing the church, it’s almost like a gigantic lantern. This effect is only possible because of the openness of the windows and the very delicate sight lines.”

*PHOTO CREDIT: © Scott Frances/OTTO (designed by Skolnick Architecture & Design)

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