- 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
The problems of raising such sums from private sources were quickly complicated by a private realty company, known as Atlas-McGrath, which began buying up land in the former fish market for the express purpose of erecting a forty-story office building. Stanford counterattacked with an aggressive publicity campaign to bring public pressure on the city’s Board of Estimate, then considering the official landmark designation for Schermerhorn Row. It was granted unanimously on December 19, 1968, and the buildings have been saved. Subsequently the developer filed suit, but this suit has now been suspended pending the outcome of further negotiations. Meanwhile, the seaport sponsors—aided by a twelve-million-dollar loan floated from six major banks with the backing of Isbrandtsen—have gone ahead and commenced land acquisition. Eventually they hope to restore these properties to their original form, then lease many of them to appropriate business concerns. “The museum exhibits,” according to Stanford, “will be ‘salted’ throughout the seaport.” The income from the commercial ventures, together with funds from annual affairs like the Riverboat Ball and gifts from private individuals and corporations, will go toward making the seaport project self-supporting. Actually the seaport intends to use less than half of the renewal land for its “living museum.” The rest of the surrounding area will be developed by private companies for residential and office use. These new highrise buildings will contain more than a million square feet of floor space in excess of the amount permitted by New York’s rigid zoning code. This is because Stanford and Richard Buford, the executive director of the city’s Planning Commission, have worked out a way to “transfer” to the private developers the air rights, or unused floor space, that legally could have been built over the seaport area. The developers will either lease or buy these valuable air rights from the seaport, which means that the city’s tax base will be increased —as will the museum’s treasury.
New York was not only an enterprising port but a center of great shipbuilders, most of whose yards stretched along the East River north of South Street. Among them were such masters of the art as Cheeseman, Webb, Vail, Westervelt, McKay, and Charles Brownne, whose yard at Corlear’s Hook built Robert Fulton’s first successful steamboat, in 1807. The skill and daring of these early marine architects soon brought New York to the forefront of international commerce, a position the city still holds.
Stanford intends to include a functioning shipyard in the museum area. “This yard will be staffed by trained shipwrights,” he said. “They will build actual sailing ships, and, of course, do as much of the repair work on the seaport’s museum fleet as possible. It’s all part of our attempt to bring back to New York some of the exciting activities of the old seaport.” Many of these activities, like the shipyard, are necessarily planned for the future. Acquiring famous ships, however, began as soon as the arrangements were completed for the use of Pier 16, across from Schermerhorn Row. The first vessel to arrive (in August, 1968) was the former Ambrose lightship, sixty-one years old, a gift of the U.S. Coast Guard, which will eventually maintain a navigational museum aboard it. The following month the Gloucester fishing schooner Caviare sailed up the East River to the museum pier and was soon ready for inspection by the thousands of visitors who have already found their way into the seaport area.
The museum’s next purchase was the hulk of the Charles Cooper , the last of the famous North Atlantic packet ships and the only surviving wooden squarerigged American merchant ship. Built in Black Rock, Connecticut, the ship first put in at South Street on November 11, 1856. She was severely damaged ten years later in a storm off Cape Horn but managed to limp into Stanley in the Falkland Islands. For the next century she served there as a storeship, her timbers preserved by the icy waters. The problems of salvaging this hulk, acquired with the financial help of Bidder’s Journal of Commerce , and towing it back to South Street have not yet been resolved.
Meanwhile the seaport staff is busily making plans for the restoration of its fourth and most exciting acquisition, the three-masted iron sailing ship Wavertree . In 1910 this two-thousand-ton ship, which had been hauling cargo for twenty-four years, was dismasted in a Cape Horn gale and was finally towed into Stanley. Her usefulness, along with the age of sail, was at an end, and she was taken to Punta Arenas in Chile to spend the next thirty-seven years as a floating storehouse for wool in the Strait of Magellan. Since 1948 she has been used as a sand dredge at Buenos Aires, where Isbrandtsen, now the museum chairman, bought her for the seaport last November.
Bringing her classically designed hull back to New York is just the first leg of her long voyage of restoration. The costly task of rebuilding the Wavertree to her former square-rigged glory will take place at the Todd Shipyards in Erie Basin, Brooklyn. If the work is done on schedule, the new bowsprit of the Wavertree will cast a historic shadow on Schermerhorn Row next spring, and a section of South Street will again become, for young and old alike, the Street of Ships.