Sag Harbor was already a thriving village in the days of the crown prior to 1776. It was for a brief time the port of entry for the state of New York. The original Customs House still stands although it has been moved to its present site. In the days before the revolution The James Howell Inn stood on the site of the present day American Hotel. During the revolutionary war, British officers were billeted there. In a daring 1778 raid across open water in small boats, a small detachment of patriots under the command of Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs seized control of the harbor by capturing the British Officers before they could set foot outside the Inn.
It is unclear what happened to the original inn, but the indications are that it burned during one of the periodic fires that raced through the old wooden structures in the crowded village. In 1824 a local cabinetmaker by the name of Nathan Tinker began construction of a brick edifice. It was probably used primarily as his residence.
By 1845, the whaling was near its economic peak and cultural nadir! Sag Harbor was filled to capacity with sailors, chandleries, the stench of rendering whale oil, and profligacy. Melville’s Quequeg, en route to Ahab’s Moby Dick, briefly stayed at Sag Harbor and concluded the heather way superior to that of the Christian! Whaling, three-masters and prosperity was subsumed by the gold rush of 1849-1850 in California, and Sag Harbor receded to a charming if impecunious backwater for over a century. As a business proposition, Nathan Tinker, Sag Harbor’s master cabinet maker, made a catastrophic mistake. He set to work adding onto his original brick structure for the purpose of providing mercantile space and housing to the whale trade. We may imagine immense stocks of hemp and tar, harpoons, sailcloth, barrels of hard tack and dried cod piled at the ready. A boarding house operated above and in the rear of the structure. It didn't last long.
The whaling industry suffered a rapid decline after 1846. Ships had to travel much greater distances to find their catch. Steamships were replacing the wooden sailing vessels, and half the local fleet, over 20 ships were reportedly lost in the stormy winters of 1847 and 1848.
Captain William Freeman, whaler and ferry boat owner and Bridgehampton farmer Addison M. Youngs bought the building from Tinker’s heirs in 1876, built a porch, installed a bar and dining room, and named it The American Hotel or “The American House.”
With a busy port and a rail terminus, Sag Harbor was a natural site for light manufacturing. From handmade silverware in the early days – The Alvin Silver Company - to the Bliss Torpedoes for World War I and the Grumman parts employed in the spitfires of World War II and the throttle assemblies for the lunar lander, the products of Sag Harbor manufacturing reflected important historic events of the day. The American Hotel also reflected the cosmopolitan nature of the busy little village. In the surrounding towns accommodations were available in country inns or stage stops, but Sag Harbor boasted a downtown brick-face, three-story hotel with a bar, a restaurant and 25 rooms for travelling salesmen, the ‘drummers.’ Sag Harbor entered a period of slow and gentle decline after World War One. Change slowed as well preserving many of the older homes and storefronts from violent "improvement". This somnolence deepened in the years immediately following World War II. The fortunes of the hotel were tied to the fortunes of the village, which reached a low water mark in the early nineteen seventies when most of the factories closed and 1500 jobs we lost; Sag Harbor’s population dropped to under 2000!
In 1972 the present owner, Ted Conklin, acquired a neglected building. It hadn't taken guests since the early 1930s, had not sold liquor (legally) since before World War I, and hadn't served a meal in decades. The coal stove was rusted, the privies were collapsed and the nonagenarian owner, Will Youngs, years a widower, had long since dedicated the dining room as his living quarters. Conklin proceeded to return the hotel to a semblance of its former dignity. He enlarged and modernized the kitchen facilities and brought back the faded elegance of the dining rooms. Guestrooms were slowly restored, the restaurant reopened July 4th, 1972, and The American Hotel has since been a location to be conjured with on the Main Street of Sag Harbor.
A popular start-up in the early 1970s, the focus turned to fine-dining and proper wine, cigars and accommodations - what one described as, the ‘necessities of life.’ By 1981 The Hotel had been awarded, with 14 other establishments world-wide, (4 extant in 2013,) the Wine Spectator Grand Award Wine list for the best in the world! The DiRona and other culinary titles followed, along with numerous professional and client reviews.
The restoration of The Hotel is an ongoing project. The work to improve cuisine and service continues. The substantial capital efforts, much unseen – like repairing the ribs on a boat - is dedicated to preserving and improving the building, but, far more important, the effort is made to provide a proud home for Sag Harbor’s incredible breadth of people, local and international, poor and wealthy, ascendant, struggling, famous, (occasionally) unsavory, accomplished and powerful, published and unpublished, beautiful and ordinary – vital, every one of us.
The Center of the Universe..