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Sailors’ Snug Harbor

15 Feb

Man, a lot to choose from these days – the options seem to be coming fast and furious. As always there’s a few new buildings that caught my eye this past week (around Beekman & Gold Street and 8th Avenue and 30th Street specifically) and I still do want to get back to looking at different types of affordable housing. Plus there’s a few random tangents sticking around (John Tyler still seems exciting to me!) But then in writing on the Greek Revival Steele House last time, I thought it would be edifying to look into some more Greek Revival buildings – just to try to get a better understanding – and then I started reading the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation reports (in order, as promised!) and I was reminded of Sailors’ Snug Harbor and the fact that it includes “one of the most notable groups of Greek Revival buildings in the United States,” and it seemed like I had to go with that. So let’s go with that!

Now I have to admit: I’ve never been here. But can you blame me? I mean shit, it’s on Staten Island. Though it’s not just on Staten Island, it’s considered the “crown jewel” of Staten Island! So I should really maybe go. (Also, should I maybe write an old timey crime thriller called “The Crown Jewel of Staten Island”? Like a summer beach book kind of thing?) But honestly, when I think about it, what better way then Sung Harbor to get into Staten Island? We’re talking about an 83 acre park set along the shore front (of the Kill van Kull to be specific) and housing 26 architecturally significant buildings from the 19 century, the earliest finished in 1833.


As the name might suggest, Sailors’ Snug Harbor was originally a home for sailors – an old folks home, in fact, for those old salts who needed one. And it actually wasn’t intended to be on Staten Island at all. It was founded through a bequest by Captain Robert Richard Randall, who upon his death in 1801, left a stipulation in his will that the proceeds of his estate should go towards building an asylum for old sailors. The asylum was to be on his Greenwich Village farm (known as Minto Farm), some 21 acres, a mansion, and other buildings in the area today roughly bounded by 4th and 5th Avenue, 10th Street and Waverly Place – so just about the most prime real estate you can imagine. Even back then there was a sense of how prime an estate it was and, eventually, its Trustees petitioned the Legislature to change the will so the asylum could be set up else where. They were successful (see even in the good old days it was still about the real estate interests) and so, following some legal battles with some of Randall’s descendants, Staten Island was eventually chosen instead.

Those Trustees by the way were a hefty crew, composed of eight of New York’s most important men – at the will’s insistence. It ordered that Sailors’ Snug Harbor would be governed “forever” by (among others) the mayor of New York, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, the senior ministers of the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, and the chancellor of the state. (Incidentally, I guess you can just put things in your will and then people have to listen to it? That’s cool. I mean, I’ve got plans myself to endow an ice cream stand to be governed by the mayor, the highest ranking Shinto priest in the city, and whoever’s currently getting the most playtime on Hot 97 (it’ll change every month). Come check us out!) Anyway, once it was legally determined these powerful trustees didn’t have to set up Snug Harbor on Randall’s desired property – and once the will was held up in court – they purchased a 130 acre farm on the north shore of Staten Island instead and opened their doors in 1833, some 32 years after Captain Robert Randall’s death. As for Minto Farm they divided it into 253 lots and began leasing them out to interested parties; the income that earned would sustain Snug Harbor for most of its existence.

Sailors' Snug Harbor - Building "C"

The first of Snug Harbor’s prominent buildings to be completed was its Greek Revival style administration hall (officially Building C), by Minard Lafever. Finished in 1833, Lafever followed it up with two more Greek Revival dormitory buildings on either side (Buildings B and D), in 1840 and 1841 respectively. Of the three it’s Building C that’s the real show stopper, and an obvious example of what Greek Revival looks like. I mean look at it: it’s a Greek temple, basically, with an eight-columned (or octastyle) portico crowned by a classic pediment (again, the triangle thing). The columns are Ionic by the way; you can tell because they’re crowned by volutes – those spiral or scroll like ornaments at the top (aka the “capital”). The interior is just as impressive, holding a triple-height gallery with stained glass, ceiling murals and a giant skylight. The sailors must have liked it. At its heyday Snug Harbor held about 1,000 of them, with two more Greek Revival dormitory buildings (Buildings A and E) going up in 1879-1880 to complete the row of five. By the late 19th century, with its Washington Square properties yielding a surplus of about $100,000 a years, Snug Harbor was one of the wealthiest charities in New York.


And then, of course, like so many of these urban stories (and yeah, we can count Staten Island as urban I guess) it started to decline as the 20th century rolled on. There were fewer sailors in the world by then maybe, or with the advent of Social Security they weren’t as destitute in their old age; by the mid-1950s there were fewer than 200 of them remaining at Snug Harbor. With its finances in much worse same, buildings fell into disrepair or in some cases were demolished outright. By the 1960s the Trustees (who I don’t think included the mayor anymore – I’m not really sure how these things work) proposed to redevelop the site as high-rises. That’s around the time that the newly created Landmarks Preservation Commission stepped in and landmarked the row of five Greek Revival buildings (with Building C at the center) – as part of their inaugural class of preserved sites (on October 14th, 1965, to be specific). The Trustees of Snug Harbor sued, in a case they eventually lost and in 1972 they instead received permission by the court to move their operation down to South Carolina. They sold their Staten Island estate to the city and over the next decade they sold off all their real estate in Manhattan. By the mid-70s Snug Harbor was opened to the public as the Staten Island Cultural Center. In 2008 it officially became the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden.

Okay, I’ll stop here, cause this one’s running especially long I know, but man, there’s so much more to talk about! There’s a lot more buildings for one. And there’s Minard Lafever, the architect of Building C, who was an early and influential American architect in his own right. And I’m not sure I even talked that much about Greek Revival. Plus, and especially, there’s the story of all those Manhattan lots Snug Harbor leased out over the years – the organization played a huge role in the development of the Washington Square area in general. Or how about the fact that Captain Robert Richard Randall – the creator of all of this – maybe wasn’t really a captain at all? That’s definitely going to be the twist at the end of my crime thriller novel. Stay tuned….




Fifth Avenue & 44th Street

11 Oct

In addition to trying to show how everything’s connected (does that sound a tad ambitious, hehe) I’ve also come to see these writings as a kind of incidental catalog – a tiny way to make some order out of the endless and overlapping stimulus and artifacts, people and history that make up New York; a way to keep it all straight.  I often think that I should be a bit more systematic about it all: actually make lists and follow them; of neighborhoods for example, or skyscrapers or churches or certain types of buildings, certain architects or influential New York persona.  But the whole point of life I think is that it isn’t systematic; that one can casually pick up some bits of knowledge as one goes along, to be returned to or forgotten as one needs – a catalog made on the run.  That’s how it seems to really work in practice at least, and practice is reality, and reality is fun.  Well is it fun?  Most of the time.

Cornelius Vanderbilt is one of those New York persona I’ve had in mind, since touching upon him when writing on Grand Central Station.  Following the path of his life would bring you in touch with a lot of the city.  Vanderbilt’s life (as biographer T.J. Stiles notes) spanned “the presidency of George Washington through the days of John D. Rockefeller.”  Born on Staten Island in 1794, the pugilistic capitalist made his fortune in steam boats during the laissez-faire days of Jacksonian Democracy, before making an even epically huger fortune in shipping (specifically to California during the gold-rush) and railroads.  He stopped going to school at age 11, and though literate was never much of a speller.  He married his first cousin and had 13 children with her.  When she died late in his life he apparently married another cousin, 43 years his junior.  He was worth over $100 million upon his death in 1877, a record amount at the time, and left almost all of it to just one son.  (Daniel Day Lewis would probably love to play this guy…and he’d only have to shave off his Lincoln beard and keep the muttonchops).

Vanderbilt’s wealth (if not his cultured respectability) allowed him to become an early member of the New York Yacht Club – founded in 1844 by John Cox Stevens.  Stevens was the eldest son of Revolutionary War colonel John Stevens, the one-time owner of almost all of present day Hoboken.  Colonel Stevens and his second son Robert Livingston Stevens where sometime allies, sometime rivals of Vanderbilt – running steamship lines out of New Jersey and up the Hudson.  Robert L. Stevens was also president of one of the earliest railroads in the country: the New Jersey based Camden & Amboy Railroad, which began running in 1833.  That same year saw the Hightstown rail accident: the earliest recorded train accident involving the death of passengers (2 killed when the train de-railed).  Vanderbilt himself was on board and almost lost his life when his lung was punctured in the crash.  It didn’t stop him from riding railroads though, or buying railroads, or racing his steamboats against his rivals.

The New York Yacht Club was founded with racing in mind too, though specifically the more patrician-worthy sail-boat type of racing (their schooner America won the first America‘s Cup in 1851, for which the trophy was then named).  The Yacht Club’s first home was in Hoboken, on land donated by Stevens, changing locations through the years (Staten Island, Mystic Connecticut) as their membership grew.  They didn’t build their current clubhouse on West 44th Street until 1899.  The Beaux-Arts building, replete with some pretty impressive nautical decorations, was the first building designed by Warren & Wetmore (responsible for Chelsea Piers and the Con Edison tower by Union Square), the same firm that would go on design the exterior of the current Grand Central Station.  Grand Central Station: the depot for the various rail-lines Vanderbilt himself owned.  So there you go, right back to old Cornelius again….that same reminder that maybe anyone’s personal history can be a proxy for the greater history around them, although it probably helps if you were the richest person in the country.   But who knows, maybe I’ll stick with this awhile and see where Vanderbilt’s tangents take me.  Yeah, let’s get all systematical!