- Historic Sites
South Street Seaport
Today a living maritime museum is taking shape on New York’s historic waterfront, where a century ago a thousand bowsprits pointed the way to commercial greatness
October 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 6
A century ago South Street was world famous. It was the “Street of Ships,” a destination scrawled on cargo from a hundred foreign ports. For millions of immigrants in search of opportunity, South Street was a point of debarkation, a beginning of hope. From the end of the American Revolution until the post-Civil War replacement of sail by steam, the street functioned as the commercial nerve center of a young nation with international aspirations.
Along its bustling wharves strolled New York’s business elite—men like Astor and Gouverneur and Lenox and Ogden and Rutgers, who provided the city with much of its astonishing vitality and, later, with some of its historic street names. The bowsprits of countless ships protruded across South Street, over the milling stevedores and teamsters and porters and shipwrights and sailors and clerks and roustabouts. Clippers, barks, brigs, sloops, packets, and frigates crowded its piers, and from their main trucks fluttered the pennants of every renowned shipping line from the immortal Black Ball to the Collins to the Red Star. The docks were piled high with freight, and the rhythmic shouts of the auctioneers echoed along the quay and through the hemp forests of rigging.
Opposite the ships were the commercial houses, row after row of owners, agents, lawyers, importers, brokers, ship chandlers, sailmakers, distillers, and riggers. To the author of Goodrich’s Guide in 1828, South Street
… in its whole extent, is exclusively occupied by the merchants owning the shipping, and by those connected with that line of business, and it forms a range of wharehouses, four and five stories in height, extending from the Battery to Rooseveltstreet, facing the East River. Front and Water Streets, together with the various Slips intersecting them from South Street, are occupied by wholesale grocers and commission merchants, iron dealers, or as wharehouses for the storage of merchandise and produce of every description. Pearl Street, is the peculiar and favorite resort of wholesale dry good merchants, earthenware dealers, etc. from Coenties Slip to Peck Slip; and in it also, are the auction stores. Sales at auction are also made in Wallstreet, between Pearl and Water Streets. Wall Street commences at Broadway, and leads to South Street, and comprises the Custom House and its appendages, the principal banks, insurance offices, brokers, and bankers …
In our time the expanding financial district has almost consumed the city’s old seaport. The one exception is the Fulton Fish Market. Established in November, 1821, and once known as the American Billingsgate, Fulton hasfor a century and a half processed and sold the sea harvest—first to the generations of New Yorkers who flocked to and from the nearby Brooklyn and Williamsburg ferries; later, with the advent of refrigeration, to the nation. The fishing smacks discharged their perishable, strongsmelling cargoes and went with the next tides, oblivious of the towering city gradually rising around the market.
Then, in the early 1960’s, New York began constructing a massive modern food center at Hunts Point, in the Bronx. The plan was to relocate the city’s scattered markets there. Fulton’s long tenure in the heart of New York’s high-rise financial district was clearly at an end. This news was eagerly received by the real-estate interests, the land developers, the urban planners. And what they envisioned for the area was as drab and predictable as the design of the next office building that will inevitably go up in Manhattan.
Other people, with other ideas and other concerns, heard the same reports. To them the impending departure of the historic waterfront market represented a final opportunity to save part of New York’s fast-disappearing seafaring heritage. The first group to act was the Municipal Art Society, which set out to preserve the nine buildings along Fulton Street between South and Front streets known as Schermerhorn Row. These narrow, slope-roofed structures, built about 1812, are considered the finest examples of Federal commercial architecture still extant in the United States.
The society’s objectives were soon incorporated in a bill introduced in the state legislature on February 22, 1966, by State Senator Whitney North Seymour, Jr. His proposal went beyond protecting Schermerhorn Row and called for the establishment of a state maritime museum in the market area. As Seymour later described it, he intended to “create an urban Mystic Seaport, with emphasis on the exciting commercial days of sail following the opening of the Erie Canal and including the high days of the Yankee clippers.”
The bill soon cleared the legislature, and on August 1, 1966, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller signed it into law. The state had acted. Now it was up to the city. It is quite possible that the museum proposal might have aborted at this stage had it not been for a thirty-eight-year-old advertising man who, a year earlier, had been pressed by one of his children for a Sunday afternoon visit to the New York waterfront.