Back to Snug Harbor! Or, more specifically, all that land they owned in Greenwich Village. Or really, even more specifically, one small portion of all that land they owned in Greenwich Village. (I’ve maybe gotten in the bad habit of explaining my selections too much, so I’m trying to cut to the chase.) As you may recall, the creation of Snug Harbor was stipulated in the will of “Captain” Robert Richard Randall, upon his death in 1801. It was his desire to house the asylum for old sailors on his estate, Minto Farm – some 21 acres of Manhattan in the area today bounded by Fourth and Fifth Avenue, 10th Street and Waverly Place (aka, Washington Square North). His trustees had other ideas however and successfully petitioned the state legislature to allow them to build Snug Harbor elsewhere (specifically, on Staten Island). And who could blame them? The land value of Minto Farm and its neighbors was rising so precipitously that they simply couldn’t resist; by leasing out the land instead and building Snug Harbor elsewhere they would ensure that it became, by the late 19th century, the wealthiest charity in New York. And to be honest, for Snug Harbor’s sake at least, it probably was the wiser move – there’s no way those 21 acres of farmland could have survived as an intact estate anyway, once shit really started getting developed.
Who knows if Robert Randall could have imagined that when he purchased the property, acting as his father’s agent, in 1790, for the sum of $12,500. His father, Thomas Randall, was a well known, and wealthy, sea captain and merchant who’d first made his name as a privateer during King George’s War in the 1740s. (King George’s War, by the way, was one part of the War of the Austrian Succession, an all out European battle royale running from 1740-1748, and coming just two years after the five year long War of the Polish Succession ended and only six years before the Seven Years War (aka The French and Indian War) started. This, incidentally, is part of why I never buy it when people say we live in violent times. Uh, every country in Europe used to fight every other one every fricking decade! Shit’s pretty cool now really.) Thomas Randall’s success apparently let Robert Randall live the life of a gentlemen, and, at age 40, with his father’s purchase of Minto Farm, Robert settled down to enjoy some country living in what was then a bucolic setting 2 miles north of New York City – albeit a decidedly elite bucolic setting, made up of large family estates. His closest neighbor for example, Henry Brevoort, was the fifth of that name, living on the land his family had farmed for the past 150 years, running from (today’s) 10th to 16th Street. Incidentally, his refusal to let the city cut through his land to implement the 1811 street grid plan (despite two city ordinances to that effect) is why 11th Street doesn’t run between Fourth Avenue and Broadway today.
It was a neighborhood made up of powerful and wealthy people, is what I’m saying, and they likely got a lot wealthier as the boundaries of New York City began creeping north. They were surely helped along in that pursuit when, in 1826, what had been an old potters field (ya know, a common grave for the burial of poor people) was turned into a military parade ground named after George Washington – soon to become Washington Square Park. Snug Harbor/Minto Farm happened to border half of the northern portion of the newly created grounds, and, incidentally (though, I’m sure, not entirely coincidentally), it was mayor Philip Hone who proposed and oversaw the creation of the park – a man who, by dint of simply being mayor (as per the stipulations of Robert Randall’s will), was also president of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Board of Trustees. So yeah, I’m sure it helped them make more money.
Case in point, in 1832 that stretch of – now more desirable – Snug Harbor property was leased out to three socially prominent businessmen (James Boorman, John Johnston and John Morrison) who erected a row of Greek Revival mansions, number 1-13 Washington Square North. Eventually dubbed “The Row,” they were judged by the Landmarks Commission (some 130 something years later) to be “the most important and imposing block front of early Nineteenth Century townhouses in the City.” Snug Harbor gets some credit; in leasing out the land they stipulated that any houses built were to be “good and substantial, three or more stories…of brick or stone.” What they got were a unified group of houses: red brick with high basements, a uniform roofline pierced by small attic windows, marble porticos – some with Doric columns, some with Ionic (again the whole Greek Revival thing) – 12 foot deep front yards, and a block long iron fence topped with Greek anthemions (kind of like flowers), lyres and obelisks.
Part of the idea, of course, in requiring “good and substantial” houses was to attract a wealthy and distinguished clientele, and in that they surely succeeded; amongst some of The Row’s first notable occupants were six of the founders of New York University. Officially incorporated by the New York State Legislature in 1831 as the University of the City of New York, New York University (NYU) started off holding its classes in rented rooms downtown, near city hall. But, perhaps from knowing the spot so well, in 1833 land was purchased on the east side of Washington Square Park and construction began on the “Old University Building,” a kind of grand Gothic-Revival castle that would house all of the functions of the school (visible on the left in the lithograph below.)
The founders of NYU must have been dreaming big, as they made the University Building much larger than their requirements actually dictated. When it opened in 1835 it was too large for the student body and so its extra rooms were rented out as studios and residences for artists and inventors – including Samuel Morse, creator of the telegraph, and Samuel Colt, inventor of the six-shooter. NYU has obviously come a long way since then, outgrowing the University Building eventually (it was torn down in the 1890s) and moving on from there to gobble up more and more of the neighborhood – including The Row. After World War II, Snug Harbor leased the entire block bounded by Washington Square North, Fifth Avenue, Eight Street and University Place (including the amazing Washington Mews), to NYU for a period of 200 years, with options to renew. And frankly today they might even own the land outright – I believe Snug Harbor sold all their Manhattan real estate when they moved their whole operation down to North Carolina. Sorry I can’t tell you more but this is very long already and it’s honestly more research than I can stand to do at the moment – the real estate holdings of massive “non-profit” (I know what that means, but, come on, what does that really mean?) organizations that got their start in large part because wealthy people bought land on this tiny island a long time ago. And to think, one of them actually thought he could leave the land as a home for old sailors! But that’s a little too non-profit, right?