The Watchcase Factory In The Whaling Village

By Kate Lemos McHale
July 29, 2014

Amidst much press and anticipation of the completion of the rehabilitation of the Watchcase Factory into housing, Beyer Blinder Belle’s architectural historian Kate Lemos McHale reflects on the historic Village of Sag Harbor and her personal connections to the project.

A Personal Connection

I am really looking forward to returning to the village of Sag Harbor to see BBB’s rehabilitation of the Bulova Watchcase Factory site. Sag Harbor became a second home for me during the design and review process for this project, when I spent many days walking its picturesque streets to study and analyze the historic architecture and Village context, and pouring over historic photographs, maps, and plans in its local library and town hall. And of course there was the unforgettable weekend during the summer of 2007 when my (now) husband of five years asked me to marry him at The American Hotel. I grew up in a small coastal village in Maine that shares some characteristics with Sag Harbor in terms of its architectural character and development history. Having lived and practiced historic preservation in New York City for 15 years, the time spent in Sag Harbor was a wonderful respite from the city and a great chance to apply the theory and practice of historic preservation to a context closer to my coastal, rural heart.

Architecture of Sag Harbor

The architecture of Sag Harbor reflects its early history as a whaling port, as well as subsequent waves of development. Architectural landmarks surviving from the whaling heyday include the 1843 Old Whaler’s Church, and the 1845 home of whaling merchant Benjamin Huntting II, now housing the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum. Both were designed by the renowned builder and architect Minard Lefever, who, through his buildings and especially his pattern books and builders’ guides, was a driving force behind the spread of the Greek Revival style along the East Coast. Many of Sag Harbor’s houses constructed during the whaling period were in the Federal and Greek Revival styles, some in high style and many in vernacular versions. Because of the widespread use of builders’ guides such as Lefever’s with similar references, many of the houses share characteristics of style, form and materials. In the later-19th century, many charming houses were constructed in the Queen Anne, Second Empire, Folk Victorian, Italianate and Gothic Revival styles, with their assorted rooflines and façade configurations animating the residential streetscapes. Commercial construction on Main Street followed similar stylistic trends, and Greek Revival, Italianate, and Victorian styles all coexist peacefully along its sloping curve through the center of town.

From Cotton Mill to Watchcase Factory

Throughout its history, port-related activities have driven Sag Harbor’s development and defined its character. The village was settled in the early 18th century because of its wide and deep harbor, and by the 19th century had become an important commercial whaling port engaged in the trade of whale oil used in lamps. When its last whaling boat, the Myra, departed in 1871, Sag Harbor’s heroic whaling period officially ended. By that time a new industry had been established to help fill the void: the site of the present Bulova Factory, located on Division Street, had been developed in 1850 as a cotton mill, establishing an industrial use and character in this part of the Village.

1880s postcard of the Watchcase Factory.

A devastating fire destroyed the cotton mill in 1879, but the following year a French immigrant and watchcase manufacturer named Joseph Fahys selected Sag Harbor for his operations, constructing a new watchcase factory on the site of the former mill in 1881. The Fahys Watchcase Factory operated until 1931, and then sat vacant for six years. In 1937, the Village leased part of the second floor to a subsidiary of the Bulova Watch Company. Local citizens formed a committee to raise money for renovations and new machinery for the watchcase industry. Once production increased to around 30,000 watchcases per week, many new jobs became available, and Bulova occupied the entire building.

Factory + Housing

Local industry associated with the Watchcase Factory and the mill it replaced accounted for a good deal of the development and economic vitality in the Village in the later-19th and early-20th century. Indeed, house construction in the late 19th and early 20th century was often directly linked to the Factory. Between 1885 and 1915, approximately 80 small factory workers’ houses were constructed in Sag Harbor. Houses identified as once belonging to Fahys employees range from simple, austere residences to more elaborately ornamented Victorian homes. Most were simple, two-story houses, with four rooms on each floor and ample natural light inside, usually clapboard or shingle sided, and front gabled. Many were Sears and Roebuck catalog houses; they rented for $10-15 a month or workers built their own for around $750 (with an additional $60 for indoor plumbing). By the 1920s approximately 60 percent of the Watchcase Factory employees owned their own homes in the Village.

The relationship between the factory and nearby houses is a significant part of Sag Harbor’s history. The Watchcase Factory, a prominent industrial building constructed in brick with architectural details in keeping with the late-19th century styles of the town, added to the Village’s eclectic mix of architectural styles and building typologies. It will be wonderful to see the historic watchcase building be rehabilitated as housing and its large central site return to life and re-engage with the Village in the 21st century.

More information about the project is available at the project’s website: watchcasefactory.com