Pictured Above: John Steinbeck’s writing gazebo, which he named Joyous Gard after King Arthur’s castle, overlooking Sag Harbor Cove. |. Southampton Town photo

The Southampton Town Board voted unanimously Valentine’s Day afternoon to use $11.2 million of Community Preservation Fund money to buy the development rights to Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck’s house overlooking Sag Harbor Cove.

The property is slated to become a writer’s residency location for the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, which will do outreach as well to the local community.

Preserving the property was a labor of love, said a steady parade of community leaders who spoke about the work being done by volunteers, non-profits and the town to make the dream of continuing this property’s literary legacy a reality.

“This is a legacy moment for everyone on the town board and for all of us in the community that will reverberate through generations to come,” said Canio’s Books co-owner Kathryn Szoka, who spearheaded the effort to preserve the property two years ago. “What we preserve reflects what we value, and serves as a building block for what we are as a community.”

Ms. Szoka said John Steinbeck lived his life at the intersection of the values of community and creativity, and was a prophetic voice on issues ranging from community to ecology, social justice and small-d democracy and that the preservation of the property “preserves the values that Steinbeck holds us all accountable.

Mr. Steinbeck’s home in Sag Harbor, where he lived in the later years of his career, figures prominently in the books “Travels with Charley: In Search of America,” an account of a journey with his standard poodle Charley across the United States that was published in 1962.

Steinbeck embarked on the journey from Sag Harbor, and Charley is buried under a willow tree on the property, said Ms. Szoka.

Sag Harbor is also considered to be the source material for the seaside village of New Baytown in Steinbeck’s 1961 novel “The Winter of Our Discontent,” about a store clerk working at grocery store owned by an Italian immigrant modeled after Angelo Schiavoni’s Schiavoni’s IGA, which is still the village’s grocery store.

Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni, a grandson of Angelo Schiavoni, helped spearhead the town’s preservation efforts.

“We had to go out to the community in many different ways” to make the preservation possible, said Mr. Schiavoni before casting his ‘yes’ vote on the development rights acquisition of the property at 2 Bluff Lane. “I wasn’t kidding when I said we had public meetings at the grove at the end of the cul-de-sac with 50 to 60 people.”

Mr. Schiavoni said the town board, the Michener Center and the Sag Harbor Partnership have gone over six different public access plans for the site before settling on one this month.

The property, which will be occupied by working writers selected by the Michener Center, will have open houses by reservation on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays of Memorial Day, Labor Day and Columbus Day weekends between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. During these times visitors will be able to visit all of the property with the exception of writers’ sleeping quarters.

In addition, the public will be able to visit the property but not access the primary residence, by appointment, from noon to 4 p.m. two Saturdays per month in June, July and August and, and every Saturday in the off-season between September and May, with the exception of Nov. 15 through Dec. 1 and Dec. 15 through Jan. 3, when there will be limited volunteer staff.

Access by boat will also be allowed by appointment during the public access times. There would also be an annual one-day writing class for students at high schools in Southampton Town at the property.

Here’s the full access plan.

Sag Harbor Partnership Co-President Susan Mead said the volunteers have created the bylaws for the non-profit “Steinbeck House Inc.,” and have asked seven groups to join the effort. Ten docents have signed up to give tours of the property, and the Partnership is working with Pierson High School in Sag Harbor to see if students there can earn community service credits for becoming docents.

They are also working to launch a website by May 1.

She said the Partnership still has to raise $199,000 to reach its goal of preserving the property, but she believes that goal is achievable. They’ve already received a $700,000 grant from New York State.

“We’re racing, but we would not be here today if we were not confident,” she said.

“It is our conscious duty to save this incredible place,” said Sag Harbor Historical Society President Nancy French Achenbach. “Sag Harbor is developing fast, and some of us are scared. It’s turning into a cultural center, not a whaling town, and that’s all the more reason we should have the Steinbeck property preserved and used,” she said.

Writer and therapist Maggie Bloomfield said that, even though she lives ‘west of the canal’ in Wsthampton Beach, she thinks of Sag Harbor “as the cultural Mecca of the East End.”

“I understand during the time of Steinbeck, there were meetings at the old Baron’s Cove that rivaled the Round Table at the Algonquin,” she said. “We have to preserve this legacy, because that’s what Sag Harbor has always stood for.”

She added that she would like to see an occasional writer’s workshop added to the public use of the site.

“It really is a sacred place, and we’ve got a sacred trust,” said journalist and author John Avlon, who lives near the property. “It’s been a labor of love. We work on this because we care about it. We have a love for this place that could not be replaced if we lost it. It’s also about love for the future. We want to be good ancestors, and the actions you take today will ensure we carry forward that love and literary heritage.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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