By the early nineteenth century New York City had developed as the largest port in the United States and one of the largest in the world. This growth of New York City also coincidentally overlapped with the era of the “Second Great Awakening,” when evangelical organizations throughout the United States and abroad were working to improve the social and moral welfare.
Many of these religious reformers believed that the vices of sailors in waterfront port areas were threats to the general moral order. The American Seamen’s Friend Society (ASFS) was established in New York City on May 5, 1828 “to improve the social, moral and religious condition of seamen; to protect them from imposition and fraud; to prevent them from becoming a curse to each other and the world; to rescue them from sin and its consequences, and to save their souls . … [and] to sanctify commerce, an interest and a power in the earth, second only to religion itself, and make it everywhere serve as the handmaid of Christianity.”
In ASFS’s early years, South Street along the East River was New York City’s primary port. In order to provide “alternatives to the dives, dance halls, saloons, and the sailors’ boarding houses” that lined the waterfront, ASFS opened their first sailors home in a rented property in 1837 at 140 Cherry Street near the East River docks. Two more homes, one for “colored seamen,” were opened over the next few years. In 1841-42, ASFS built a new Sailors’ Home at 190 Cherry Street, which was called by the organization “the first sailors’ home in the United States to be erected and maintained by a welfare society.” This building held sleeping quarters for around 300, a bank, library, chapel, and reading, dining, and recreation rooms. This home was closed in 1903 when the property was acquired by the city to construct the Manhattan Bridge.
By the 1890s, the west side had surpassed the east side as the center of port commerce in New York City. In 1902 The New York Times described the section of piers between Houston and West 14th Street as “the resort of outcasts, drunkards, dissolute people, and a dangerous class of depredators and petty highwaymen.”
The ASFS selected a location midway point between Piers 1 and 91, and in January, 1905, a lot for a new sailors’ home was acquired at the northeast corner of West and Jane Streets for $70,000.
This site was close to the new Gansevoort Piers (built 1894-1902) and Chelsea Piers (1902-10) both of which profoundly impacted this stretch of the Hudson River waterfront. These long docks accommodated the new huge ships, turning this area into a hub of activity, with half a million seaman of all nationalities arriving at the harbor each year.
In April 1907, Olivia Sage, the widow of Russel Sage and one of the wealthiest and most philanthropic women at at the time, donated $150,000 to ASFS. This was reportedly the largest single gift for seamen’s work at that time. The cornerstone was laid on November 26, 1907 and the American Seamen’s Friend Society Sailors’ Home and Institute was dedicated and opened on October 7, 1908.
There were 170 single rooms for sailors and firemen, 32 rooms for officers and engineers, and a dormitory for twenty-four cooks and stewards. There was a swimming pool, bowling alley, restaurant, auditorium/concert hall, offices, rooms for reading, writing, and billiards on the first story; an interdenominational chapel, officers’ billiard and lounging rooms, a bank, postal service, showers, library, laundry, cooperative clothing store, and a baggage room.
Following the Titanic tragedy, surviving crew members were brought to the Sailors’ Home and Institute, where they received care and clothing. It was the site of the first legal inquisition into the sinking as well as the site of the first unofficial memorial service attended by surviving Titanic crew members, held on April 19, 1912.
By the 1920s, there were two other seamen’s welfare organizations operating on the Greenwich Village-Chelsea waterfront. The agencies decided to cooperate rather than compete. In October 1928, ASFS made an agreement with the YMCA that it would sell its Sailors’ Home and Institute building and tum over the proceeds for the construction of a new facility to be operated by the YMCA. The Seamen’s Christian Association made a similar agreement.
The American Seamen’s Friend Society Sailors’ Home and Institute building was officially closed when the new Seamen’s House was dedicated on November 2, 1931 at 550 West 20th Street.
But rather than being sold as originally intended, the building soon became the Seamen’s Relief Center annex, where free beds and meals were provided to indigent seamen during the Depression and World War II.
The YMCA removed the beacon from the tower in 1946, symbolically signaling the end of its institutional history (the ASFS disbanded in 1975). After 1960s, the Manhattan waterfront rapidly declined following the introduction of containerized shipping and the shift from ocean liners to airplanes. The former ASFS hotel became one of Manhattan’s many single room occupancy (SRO) hotels, where individuals lived in single rooms, often with shared bathing and toilet facilities, with a series of bars and clubs in its ground floor. One of the more colorful residents of the hotel during this period was a young drag performer who went by the mononym ‘RuPaul’ (which was actually his given name), who lived in the hotel tower.
Many of the piers and buildings associated with Greenwich Village’s maritime history have been demolished. But the ASFS Hotel survives (as do four other former sailors hotels along the Greenwich Village waterfront — the Keller Hotel, the Hudson Hotel, and what is now Bailey House at Christopher and West Streets), and was designated a New York City landmark on November 28, 2000. As a New York City Landmark, the American Seamen’s Friend Society Sailors’ Home and Institute building will remain a significant reminder of when New York City was one of the world’s busiest ports. In 2008 the Jane Hotel opened in the restored building.