- 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
“I couldn’t find it right off,” remembers Peter Stanford, who now spends most of his waking hours in a bustling, makeshift office near Schermerhorn Row. Today his title is president of the South Street Seaport Museum, and he directs and co-ordinates the diversified activities of a small paid staff and a volunteer organization numbering more than seven thousand. Four years ago he was a mildly dissatisfied Madison Avenue executive trying to fulfill his child’s wish. “We walked around for quite a while before we got to the Fulton market,” he explains, “and when we did find it, smack in the heart of the financial district, it was really exciting, though in a kind of depressing way. The whole place was run-down, and the possibilities for preservation and restoration were anything but obvious.”
Seymour’s legislative efforts fired Stanford’s enthusiasm; with a handful of friends, he had already started exploring the possibilities for a seaport project in the Fulton area. They formed the Friends of South Street in November of 1966 and started recruiting, writing letters, and raising money. One model in Stanford’s mind was the San Francisco museum on the North Waterfront, a genuine living maritime area complete with stores and restaurants and a real square-rigged ship, the Balclutha , right in the heart of a great city.
Laws do not build museums; they merely make it possible for people to do so: lots of people, making all kinds of contributions. But the leadership is usually invested in one special visionary, who provides the sustaining spark of accomplishment. In Mystic, Connecticut, it.was the late Carl C. Cutler, who engineered the salvage of the whaler Charles W. Morgan and inspired the re-creation of a thirty-seven-acre whaling port. In San Francisco it was Karl Kortum, who convinced the city officials that a maritime museum on the crumbling North Waterfront would lead to private reclamation of the whole area. In New York City the man is Peter Stanford.
The dream spread quickly from Schermerhorn Row to the entire eleven-block area of the fish market just south of the venerable Brooklyn Bridge. There would be a state maritime museum but other museums, too, and restaurants and shops and importers and tea merchants and tanners and nautical artists and craftsmen; naval historians and scholars would work in the midst of a living harbor community, complete with shipsmiths and chandlers and riggers and carvers and sailmakers. And there would be ships—sailing ships, steamships, paddle steamers, even a lightship—all restored and open to the curious public.
On April 28, 1967, the South Street Seaport Museum was formally chartered, and the work began in earnest. Stanford’s first efforts were concentrated on acquiring influential trustees and advisers, men like Melvin Conant of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey; Edmond J. Moran of the Moran Towing & Transportation Company; and Eric Ridder, publisher of the Journal of Commerce . Stanford’s prize catch that spring was Jakob Isbrandtsen, the wealthy president and chairman of the board of American Export-Isbrandtsen Industries, who began with a five-thousand-dollar contribution for office and museum space at 16 Fulton Street.
The state law authorizing the maritime museum provided power of land condemnation but no funds for acquisition. Undaunted, Stanford and his colleagues carefully worked out a forty-million-dollar plan for the restoration of the market area over a tenyear period. The plan was the easiest part. Navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth of red tape proved infinitely more difficult. But gradually an accommodation was worked out between the seaport advocates and the urban planners. What emerged is considered rare in the city’s continual process of renewal: an unassisted redevelopment project aimed at preserving an important part of New York’s past. This scheme (given final approval by the City Planning Commission in May, 1969) gave the seaport group the power to acquire the land in the project area at a fair market price—using its own funds, of course.