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Beyond the Village and Back: Sailors’ Snug Harbor

In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.

Located on the north shore of Staten Island not far from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal lies an oasis like none other in New York, recognized by local, state, and federal government for its extraordinary architectural and cultural significance. Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden, sometimes just called “Snug Harbor,” is, according to its National Register of Historic Places nomination, “[a] rare surviving example of urban planning, landscaping and buildings in the Greek Revival style, [with] no equal in scale, extent or quality in America…The Sailors’ Snug Harbor, a home for aged seamen opened in 1833, occupies a spacious site on Staten Island overlooking the Kill Van Kull which leads into New York Harbor.  Buildings on the property range from an outstanding group of five Greek Revival dormitory and administration buildings through to a twentieth-century theater and recreation hall. The various structures provide a particularly rich catalog of nineteenth-century architecture.  Located on a beautiful plot…on what was 130 acres of farmland, the site is spectacular.” As its full name implies, today it is a cultural center and botanical garden, which owes its very existence to Greenwich Village.

How it got that way is an interesting story.


LJR Photography / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

From 1867 to 1884, Captain Thomas Melville, a retired sea captain and brother of Moby-Dick author Herman Melville, was the third governor of Snug Harbor. Herman Melville and the Melville family spent many days at Sailors’ Snug Harbor during Thomas Melville’s tenure. This would be the years Herman was working as a Customs inspector for the Department of Docks in a long-since vanished building on the wharf at the foot of the street named for his grandfather, Gansevoort.

According to History of Sailors’ Snug Harbor by Dr. John Rocco, Professor of Humanities and MNST Coordinator, SUNY Maritime College

Snug Harbor’s major buildings are representative of the changing architectural styles of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first buildings were built in the Greek Revival style. As the complex expanded, new buildings were erected in the Beaux Arts, Renaissance Revival, Second Empire and Italianate styles. High Victorian decorative components were also added throughout the site.

Fortunately in the 1960s, the newly formed New York City Landmarks Commission stepped forward to save the five Greek Revival front buildings and the chapel by designating them as New York City’s first landmark structures. They are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Dmadeo / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Local activists and artists worked with elected officials in the early 1970s and persuaded the City of New York to purchase the property, with the objective of transforming it into a public cultural resource. In 1975 the not-for-profit Snug Harbor Cultural Center was formed to operate the buildings, and the Staten Island Botanical Gardens managed the gardens. The two organizations merged in 2008 to form Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden.


Ysmp bkln / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

According to Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden:

Today, Snug Harbor is a place where history, architecture, visual and performing arts, gardens, agriculture, and education come together and provide dynamic experiences for all ages. It is one of the largest ongoing adaptive reuse projects in America and is one of New York City’s unique architectural complexes and historic landscapes. Majestic buildings of classic architectural styles are home to exhibitions on historical subjects and contemporary art. Snug Harbor’s Music Hall is the one of the oldest concert halls in New York City. Fourteen distinctive botanical gardens are spread across the site and include the celebrated New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden and the Richmond County Savings Foundation Tuscan Garden, based on an 18th century garden in Florence, Italy. Snug Harbor is also is home to the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, Snug Harbor Artist Residency Program (SHARP), Staten Island Museum, Staten Island Children’s Museum, Noble Maritime Collection, Art Lab, Children’s Harbor Montessori School, and Staten Island Conservatory of Music. Snug Harbor is also a proud Smithsonian affiliate.


GK tramrunner229 / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

The work of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Board of Trustees continues today by helping retired mariners in need and keeping the faith with their original Latin motto: Portum Petimus Fesse (“Wearily, we seek a haven.”).

So what’s the Greenwich Village connection?

The area of Greenwich Village approximately between Fifth and Fourth Avenues, Waverly Place and 9th Street was once part of the estate of Revolutionary War hero and ship captain Robert Richard Randall, who died in 1801.  In his will, he designated his property — then in what was mostly farmland north of New York City — to be used as a pastoral marine hospital for “the purpose of maintaining aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors” (no judgments — those were the original words!) called Sailors’ s’ Snug Harbor.

But after Randall’s death it took years to establish a board to run the hospital, and then several more years to settle several lawsuits challenging the validity of Randall’s will.  By that time Greenwich Village was far less pastoral than it had been when Randall died, as urban development began in earnest in the early decades of the 19th century, and was becoming one of the most fashionable parts of New York.  So the trustees of Snug Harbor decided to take a different tack — they decided to develop Randall’s Greenwich Village estate with some of the finest houses in New York, and use the income from that development to build and support the hospital for aged sailors on another piece of land on Staten Island. And this became the country’s first home for retired merchant seamen.

The iconic early 19th century rowhouses that flank the north side of Washington Square Park are in many a people’s minds synonymous with the early history of the neighborhood.  Originally, the whole block looked like this.  Developed in 1833 under the auspices of the Trustees of Sailors’ Snug Harbor, the row was built to house wealthy bankers and merchants from a leasehold which in turn supported retired sailors in the facilities that were located instead on Staten Island.

Washington Square North, Image courtesy of Bob Estremera

According to Robert Richard Randall and Sailor’s Snug Harbor by Kate Feighery

Snug Harbor built homes on the subdivided plots along Washington Square North, with stables running behind the homes on what today is Washington Mews.  In 1831, Sailor’s Snug Harbor used the money from the Greenwich Village leases to purchase a 160-acre complex on Staten Island for $16,000, to use as the home for the sailors.

Aside from its beautiful architecture, Washington Square North is also well known for some famous residents.  The Realist painter and printmaker Edward Hopper, along with his wife Josephine Hopper, lived in a studio on the top floor of 3 Washington Square North from 1913 until the day he died in 1967.  Henry James, one of the 19th century’s most prominent realist writers, often visited his grandmother who lived at 18 Washington Square North.  In fact, James depicts a nostalgic view of the area around the Square in his 1881 novel Washington Square.  Today, the houses belong to NYU.

Washington Mews, from the photo collection for the district’s entry in the State and National Register

The lots of the houses extended back north through to the Washington Mews, which were originally horse stables.

Again, according to Robert Richard Randall and Sailor’s Snug Harbor by Kate Feighery

In 1916, to attract artists to their property, the Sailor’s Snug Harbor organization decided to convert the former stables along Washington Mews into apartments and studios for artists.  Twelve of the stables were renovated in this fashion, and two brand new apartments were built, which still stand today.  By the 1930s, due to both the Depression and the changing demographics of the neighborhood, single-family homes like those on Washington Square North were no longer viable real estate prospects, and Sailor’s Snug Harbor planned to destroy the houses to make way for expansion.  However, the Municipal Art Society recognized the value of the architecture of the homes, and urged the organization to reconsider. New York University wanted to buy the land, but preservationists worried that they would destroy the buildings.  In the 1940s, Sailor’s Snug Harbor reached a lease deal with NYU that required NYU to preserve the façade of the buildings.

The artist studios were designed by Maynicke & Franke;  just some of the artists who lived here included Paul ManshipGaston Lachaise, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Around 1950, New York University leased most of the entire property and converted the buildings along the Mews into offices and faculty housing.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

But the beautiful Greek Revival houses of Washington Square North and the quaint pseudo-stables of Washington Mews are not the only buildings in Greenwich Village connected to Sailors’ Snug Harbor, and to which the Staten Island complex owes its existence.  In the early 1950s the trustees of Sailors’ Snug Harbor contemplated more building projects for their land in the Village to support their mission, and soon many large-scale developments were in contract with the organization. These catered to new residents who were charmed by the quaint character of the neighborhood but weren’t necessarily interested in living so quaintly themselves. So abutting the 19th century rowhouses and late-19th and early 20th century stables and studios, a mini-city of mid-century modernism sprouted.

The Brevoort hotel's beloved cafe. From the collections of the Museum of the City of New York.
The Brevoort hotel’s beloved cafe. From the collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The Hamilton (60 East 9th) was built by H.I. Feldman in 1954, followed by Feldman’s The Lafayette (at 30 East 9th) in 1955. Much like developments today, the names of the apartment houses tended to reflect, often in name only, the history of the site. The Lafayette was so named because it replaced the out-of-fashion Lafayette Hotel, which was home to a cafe beloved by older Villagers. Also demolished in the name of mid-century progress was the Brevoort Hotel, a famed Village mainstay with its own beloved cafe frequented by artists and bohemians. (Off the Grid has discussed both these hotels in previous posts.)


Development like this continued in the neighborhood and brought us, among others, Stewart House in 1960, Butterfield House in 1962, and the Brevoort East in 1964. In fact, in 1959, the construction of twenty apartment houses were underway in the neighborhood. And almost all of them were on land owned by  Sailors’ Snug Harbor. By the time those lots had all been built upon, that section of the neighborhood had been completely transformed.

If you’ve never been or are contemplating going again, Sailors’ Snug Harbor is about a 25-minute walk or a quick car or bus ride from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.  But you can also check out Snug Harbor At Home online here.

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