Tag Archives: Sailor’s Snug Harbor

“The Row” (Washington Square North)

7 Mar

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.

Greenwich_Village_map_circa_1760_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_16907

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.

similarity_by_nycinphotographs

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.

WSNbob

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.)

wsp2-lg

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?

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.

23Oa

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.

SailorsSnug1-1024x523

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….

 

 

Ithiel Town

25 Jan

That’s a person by the way, not a town.  I mentioned him before as tangent number one when I wrote about the tangent inspiring Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street a couple months ago and I thought it was about time to take another look.  And in the spirit of tangents I thought that I would just look at Ithiel Town in the broad sense, rather than choosing one of his buildings and rolling with it deeper.  It’s kind of fitting: I actually wanted to talk this time about all the unspecified things I’d do to fill my life if I didn’t ever have to worry about working, though unspecified isn’t quite the right word.  Maybe I mean unspecialized things I’d do to fill my life (you know, besides just hanging with my wife and baby – I’m pretty good at that).  Like all the different things I’d try to specialize in a little bit but never enough to actually be specialized in.  It’s kind of the same with living a certain lifestyle isn’t it?  I’ve always thought it would be cool to be the kind of person who goes and sees old foreign films in arts houses, in the middle of the day, but then I realized that to actually be that kind of person I’d actually have to go see foreign films in art houses in the middle of the day.  You know what I’m saying?  Even the (almost) great book The Moviegoer wasn’t really about going to the movies all that much.  That kind of disappointed me actually.

Ithiel Town is considered one of America’s first great native born architects, making his start in the first quarter of the 19th century around the time of America’s first great native born writers – Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper (one of my dream unspecialized skills would be writing about writers).  Born in Thompson, Connecticut in the north-east corner of the state (another one would be writing about towns, just different towns all over America) Ithiel left a slew of buildings across Connecticut – some solo and some from his six year partnership with Alexander Jackson Davis.  He also built a number of buildings in New York City – some of which still survive today.  One of the ones that doesn’t is the original Church of the Ascension, built on Canal Street around 1827.  That was just a few years before Colonnade Row went up, on the newly laid out Lafayette Place (now Avenue).  Town likely had a hand in Colonnade Row, with his partner Davis, though the exact architects still remain a matter of debate.  Regardless the 9 connected row houses were pretty striking, more London than New York at the time, and they represented some of the most desirable real estate in the city.  Today 4 of the buildings still survive; they were amongst the first 20 sites to be landmarked by the newly formed Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965.

11862497494_47cf6343bc

Another of those 20 initial sites was the Sailor’s Snug Harbor on Staten Island.  Ithiel Town didn’t design it, but the AIA Guide to New York calls it one of the “institutional stars of New York’s Greek Revival.”  The other star is Federal Hall, which Town did design, again with Davis.  Federal Hall National Memorial as it’s now known was actually built (in 1842) as a custom house, though it stood on the site of the original Federal Hall, where Washington took the oath of office as the first president, and where the Bill of Rights was formally proposed.  Before housing the federal government the originally Federal Hall was New York’s City Hall.  When the federal capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790 Federal Hall again became City Hall, until the new and still current City Hall was completed in 1812.  I kind of have the feeling that I’ve said all this before, but oh well – even if I didn’t have to worry about work I wouldn’t spend time on a comprehensive catalog of everything I’ve ever written; that seems too specialized.

FederalHallMemorial_V1_460x285

And speaking of things I’ve said before: it turns out that Julia Gardiner was actually a resident of Colonnade Row at the time she married then President John Tyler (I would definitely spend time writing about historical political figures).  She married President Tyler, you might recall, in the Church of the Ascension, though the second one, not the one that Town designed.  The second one was designed by a young Richard Upjohn, some years before he designed Trinity Church sitting in its prime spot on the base of Wall Street not too far from Federal Hall.  Oh, Ithiel Town also designed the spire for Saint Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery (with Martin E. Thompson) in 1828, though the church itself dates from 1799, making it the second oldest extant church in the city, and something I’ve definitely written about before (I would also continue to develop lists and then stop looking into them almost at once but maybe pick up the idea again someday).

st._marks_church_in_the_winter

Anyway, as long as I’m daydreaming I would also write about old movies and also musicians – not so much their music as their lives and lifetimes – like a little novella about each one regarding what it might have felt like to be cutting it back then.  Which would of course be impossible to actually write and would mostly probably be pretty terrible.  But that’s the beauty of daydreaming about something: writing about daydreaming about something almost imparts the same feeling I want to impart if I actually where to write in depth about something.  I mean, going to see foreign movies in art houses in the middle of the day is kind of a metaphor for a certain kind of feeling right?  I don’t know.  If it’s not apparent already I basically think of this blog as the equivalent of clicking on a lot of links on Wikipedia – but maybe just cutting out the boring stuff.  Though if you’re curious (or maybe really high (curiously high?)) nothing has to be that boring.  I don’t know.  This one wasn’t really about Ithiel Town that much, was it?