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South Street Seaport

July 2024
8min read

Today a living maritime museum is taking shape on New York’s historic waterfront, where a century ago a thousand bowsprits pointed the way to commercial greatness

A century ago South Street was world famous. It was the “Street of Ships,” a destination scrawled on cargo from a hundred foreign ports. For millions of immigrants in search of opportunity, South Street was a point of debarkation, a beginning of hope. From the end of the American Revolution until the post-Civil War replacement of sail by steam, the street functioned as the commercial nerve center of a young nation with international aspirations.

Along its bustling wharves strolled New York’s business elite—men like Astor and Gouverneur and Lenox and Ogden and Rutgers, who provided the city with much of its astonishing vitality and, later, with some of its historic street names. The bowsprits of countless ships protruded across South Street, over the milling stevedores and teamsters and porters and shipwrights and sailors and clerks and roustabouts. Clippers, barks, brigs, sloops, packets, and frigates crowded its piers, and from their main trucks fluttered the pennants of every renowned shipping line from the immortal Black Ball to the Collins to the Red Star. The docks were piled high with freight, and the rhythmic shouts of the auctioneers echoed along the quay and through the hemp forests of rigging.

Opposite the ships were the commercial houses, row after row of owners, agents, lawyers, importers, brokers, ship chandlers, sailmakers, distillers, and riggers. To the author of Goodrich’s Guide in 1828, South Street

… in its whole extent, is exclusively occupied by the merchants owning the shipping, and by those connected with that line of business, and it forms a range of wharehouses, four and five stories in height, extending from the Battery to Rooseveltstreet, facing the East River. Front and Water Streets, together with the various Slips intersecting them from South Street, are occupied by wholesale grocers and commission merchants, iron dealers, or as wharehouses for the storage of merchandise and produce of every description. Pearl Street, is the peculiar and favorite resort of wholesale dry good merchants, earthenware dealers, etc. from Coenties Slip to Peck Slip; and in it also, are the auction stores. Sales at auction are also made in Wallstreet, between Pearl and Water Streets. Wall Street commences at Broadway, and leads to South Street, and comprises the Custom House and its appendages, the principal banks, insurance offices, brokers, and bankers …

In our time the expanding financial district has almost consumed the city’s old seaport. The one exception is the Fulton Fish Market. Established in November, 1821, and once known as the American Billingsgate, Fulton hasfor a century and a half processed and sold the sea harvest—first to the generations of New Yorkers who flocked to and from the nearby Brooklyn and Williamsburg ferries; later, with the advent of refrigeration, to the nation. The fishing smacks discharged their perishable, strongsmelling cargoes and went with the next tides, oblivious of the towering city gradually rising around the market.

Then, in the early 1960’s, New York began constructing a massive modern food center at Hunts Point, in the Bronx. The plan was to relocate the city’s scattered markets there. Fulton’s long tenure in the heart of New York’s high-rise financial district was clearly at an end. This news was eagerly received by the real-estate interests, the land developers, the urban planners. And what they envisioned for the area was as drab and predictable as the design of the next office building that will inevitably go up in Manhattan.

Other people, with other ideas and other concerns, heard the same reports. To them the impending departure of the historic waterfront market represented a final opportunity to save part of New York’s fast-disappearing seafaring heritage. The first group to act was the Municipal Art Society, which set out to preserve the nine buildings along Fulton Street between South and Front streets known as Schermerhorn Row. These narrow, slope-roofed structures, built about 1812, are considered the finest examples of Federal commercial architecture still extant in the United States.

The society’s objectives were soon incorporated in a bill introduced in the state legislature on February 22, 1966, by State Senator Whitney North Seymour, Jr. His proposal went beyond protecting Schermerhorn Row and called for the establishment of a state maritime museum in the market area. As Seymour later described it, he intended to “create an urban Mystic Seaport, with emphasis on the exciting commercial days of sail following the opening of the Erie Canal and including the high days of the Yankee clippers.”

The bill soon cleared the legislature, and on August 1, 1966, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller signed it into law. The state had acted. Now it was up to the city. It is quite possible that the museum proposal might have aborted at this stage had it not been for a thirty-eight-year-old advertising man who, a year earlier, had been pressed by one of his children for a Sunday afternoon visit to the New York waterfront.

“I couldn’t find it right off,” remembers Peter Stanford, who now spends most of his waking hours in a bustling, makeshift office near Schermerhorn Row. Today his title is president of the South Street Seaport Museum, and he directs and co-ordinates the diversified activities of a small paid staff and a volunteer organization numbering more than seven thousand. Four years ago he was a mildly dissatisfied Madison Avenue executive trying to fulfill his child’s wish. “We walked around for quite a while before we got to the Fulton market,” he explains, “and when we did find it, smack in the heart of the financial district, it was really exciting, though in a kind of depressing way. The whole place was run-down, and the possibilities for preservation and restoration were anything but obvious.”

Seymour’s legislative efforts fired Stanford’s enthusiasm; with a handful of friends, he had already started exploring the possibilities for a seaport project in the Fulton area. They formed the Friends of South Street in November of 1966 and started recruiting, writing letters, and raising money. One model in Stanford’s mind was the San Francisco museum on the North Waterfront, a genuine living maritime area complete with stores and restaurants and a real square-rigged ship, the Balclutha , right in the heart of a great city.

Laws do not build museums; they merely make it possible for people to do so: lots of people, making all kinds of contributions. But the leadership is usually invested in one special visionary, who provides the sustaining spark of accomplishment. In Mystic, Connecticut, it.was the late Carl C. Cutler, who engineered the salvage of the whaler Charles W. Morgan and inspired the re-creation of a thirty-seven-acre whaling port. In San Francisco it was Karl Kortum, who convinced the city officials that a maritime museum on the crumbling North Waterfront would lead to private reclamation of the whole area. In New York City the man is Peter Stanford.

The dream spread quickly from Schermerhorn Row to the entire eleven-block area of the fish market just south of the venerable Brooklyn Bridge. There would be a state maritime museum but other museums, too, and restaurants and shops and importers and tea merchants and tanners and nautical artists and craftsmen; naval historians and scholars would work in the midst of a living harbor community, complete with shipsmiths and chandlers and riggers and carvers and sailmakers. And there would be ships—sailing ships, steamships, paddle steamers, even a lightship—all restored and open to the curious public.

On April 28, 1967, the South Street Seaport Museum was formally chartered, and the work began in earnest. Stanford’s first efforts were concentrated on acquiring influential trustees and advisers, men like Melvin Conant of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey; Edmond J. Moran of the Moran Towing & Transportation Company; and Eric Ridder, publisher of the Journal of Commerce . Stanford’s prize catch that spring was Jakob Isbrandtsen, the wealthy president and chairman of the board of American Export-Isbrandtsen Industries, who began with a five-thousand-dollar contribution for office and museum space at 16 Fulton Street.

The state law authorizing the maritime museum provided power of land condemnation but no funds for acquisition. Undaunted, Stanford and his colleagues carefully worked out a forty-million-dollar plan for the restoration of the market area over a tenyear period. The plan was the easiest part. Navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth of red tape proved infinitely more difficult. But gradually an accommodation was worked out between the seaport advocates and the urban planners. What emerged is considered rare in the city’s continual process of renewal: an unassisted redevelopment project aimed at preserving an important part of New York’s past. This scheme (given final approval by the City Planning Commission in May, 1969) gave the seaport group the power to acquire the land in the project area at a fair market price—using its own funds, of course.

The problems of raising such sums from private sources were quickly complicated by a private realty company, known as Atlas-McGrath, which began buying up land in the former fish market for the express purpose of erecting a forty-story office building. Stanford counterattacked with an aggressive publicity campaign to bring public pressure on the city’s Board of Estimate, then considering the official landmark designation for Schermerhorn Row. It was granted unanimously on December 19, 1968, and the buildings have been saved. Subsequently the developer filed suit, but this suit has now been suspended pending the outcome of further negotiations. Meanwhile, the seaport sponsors—aided by a twelve-million-dollar loan floated from six major banks with the backing of Isbrandtsen—have gone ahead and commenced land acquisition. Eventually they hope to restore these properties to their original form, then lease many of them to appropriate business concerns. “The museum exhibits,” according to Stanford, “will be ‘salted’ throughout the seaport.” The income from the commercial ventures, together with funds from annual affairs like the Riverboat Ball and gifts from private individuals and corporations, will go toward making the seaport project self-supporting. Actually the seaport intends to use less than half of the renewal land for its “living museum.” The rest of the surrounding area will be developed by private companies for residential and office use. These new highrise buildings will contain more than a million square feet of floor space in excess of the amount permitted by New York’s rigid zoning code. This is because Stanford and Richard Buford, the executive director of the city’s Planning Commission, have worked out a way to “transfer” to the private developers the air rights, or unused floor space, that legally could have been built over the seaport area. The developers will either lease or buy these valuable air rights from the seaport, which means that the city’s tax base will be increased —as will the museum’s treasury.

New York was not only an enterprising port but a center of great shipbuilders, most of whose yards stretched along the East River north of South Street. Among them were such masters of the art as Cheeseman, Webb, Vail, Westervelt, McKay, and Charles Brownne, whose yard at Corlear’s Hook built Robert Fulton’s first successful steamboat, in 1807. The skill and daring of these early marine architects soon brought New York to the forefront of international commerce, a position the city still holds.

Stanford intends to include a functioning shipyard in the museum area. “This yard will be staffed by trained shipwrights,” he said. “They will build actual sailing ships, and, of course, do as much of the repair work on the seaport’s museum fleet as possible. It’s all part of our attempt to bring back to New York some of the exciting activities of the old seaport.” Many of these activities, like the shipyard, are necessarily planned for the future. Acquiring famous ships, however, began as soon as the arrangements were completed for the use of Pier 16, across from Schermerhorn Row. The first vessel to arrive (in August, 1968) was the former Ambrose lightship, sixty-one years old, a gift of the U.S. Coast Guard, which will eventually maintain a navigational museum aboard it. The following month the Gloucester fishing schooner Caviare sailed up the East River to the museum pier and was soon ready for inspection by the thousands of visitors who have already found their way into the seaport area.

The museum’s next purchase was the hulk of the Charles Cooper , the last of the famous North Atlantic packet ships and the only surviving wooden squarerigged American merchant ship. Built in Black Rock, Connecticut, the ship first put in at South Street on November 11, 1856. She was severely damaged ten years later in a storm off Cape Horn but managed to limp into Stanley in the Falkland Islands. For the next century she served there as a storeship, her timbers preserved by the icy waters. The problems of salvaging this hulk, acquired with the financial help of Bidder’s Journal of Commerce , and towing it back to South Street have not yet been resolved.

Meanwhile the seaport staff is busily making plans for the restoration of its fourth and most exciting acquisition, the three-masted iron sailing ship Wavertree . In 1910 this two-thousand-ton ship, which had been hauling cargo for twenty-four years, was dismasted in a Cape Horn gale and was finally towed into Stanley. Her usefulness, along with the age of sail, was at an end, and she was taken to Punta Arenas in Chile to spend the next thirty-seven years as a floating storehouse for wool in the Strait of Magellan. Since 1948 she has been used as a sand dredge at Buenos Aires, where Isbrandtsen, now the museum chairman, bought her for the seaport last November.

Bringing her classically designed hull back to New York is just the first leg of her long voyage of restoration. The costly task of rebuilding the Wavertree to her former square-rigged glory will take place at the Todd Shipyards in Erie Basin, Brooklyn. If the work is done on schedule, the new bowsprit of the Wavertree will cast a historic shadow on Schermerhorn Row next spring, and a section of South Street will again become, for young and old alike, the Street of Ships.

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