AdmissionsAcademicsStudent AffairsAlumniDiscover FordhamResourcesAthleticsLibraries



Initial Considerations for Architectural Design and Restrictions at South Street Seaport

by Shane Skowron

The preservation and restoration of any historic district requires consideration of architectural designs and rules to ensure that the historical goals are actually achieved. Architectural designs must be appropriate for the time period and atmosphere that the historic district attempts to preserve or portray. Similarly, the plan for restoration of the historic South Street Seaport district explicitly outlined these architectural and considerations from the plan's inception in the early 1970s. In 1973, the South Street Seaport Museum commissioned a master architectural assessment and plan under the guidance of urban planner Jonathan Barnett and architect Edward Barnes. This architectural plan analyzed the area encompassed by Peek Slip, Burling Slip, Front Street, and South Streeti. According to the initial design plan, South Street's architects and engineers allocated resources and money to deal with historical accuracy, existing building conditions, mechanical and electrical concerns, stringent legal requirements, and space limitations. While the success of the restorative process is subject to debate, the intention for these considerations was to strike a balance between historical preservation and financial feasibility.

Historical Intentions

The original intent of the preservation and the restoration of the South Street Seaport district was, of course, to preserve and restore the historic nature of the district. However, the intent of the Friends of South Street Seaport and of the architects was not to create the seaport exactly as it existed in colonial times, as was the case in Williamsburg in Virginia or Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. Rather the idea was to combine the atmosphere of the old seaport in a community replete with restaurants and shopsii. The architects intended to accomplish this simply by restoring the old Federal buildings, particularly Schermerhorn Row. Each addition or renovation was designed so that it would enhance the district's structural health without damaging the historic nature of the buildings. According to the architects themselves, the Seaport Museum was not supposed to be the sole attraction for a visitor. The modern-day shops, restaurants, residences, offices, and theaters were supposed to create a vibrant South Street community, where the visitor would experience combination of a historic past and a lively present.

Perhaps the most interesting consideration to preserve historical accuracy was the so-called graphic policy, the plan to unify the lettering that appears throughout the Seaportiii. Plans were made for two categories: first, graphics, which would encompass signs for exhibits, identification for those entering from outside the Seaport, and signs for direction and information; the other category is streetscapes, which covers lighting, seating, and other recurring elements. All of the signs used within the historic district were required to conform to a font which was similar to the ones used during historic South Streetiv. While there was no single typeset established, appropriate fonts share similar characteristics, which are easier understood in a picture than through a description. Nonetheless, each of the fonts have a wide, block face, without much ornamentation. They may or may not have serifs, small strokes which embellish the tip of a letter, such as in a capital F. While they may be solid-colored or only outlined, the appropriate fonts are all very wide in comparison with standard fonts found in textbooks or newspapers. While the average person may not be familiar with the specific name of a South Street-appropriate font, the fonts are similar in appearance to those used in the athletic logos of major American universities such as Indiana, Notre Dame, or Utah.

Condition of Buildings Already Existing

The South Street historical district has always been a relatively small region – small enough to traverse its length in a matter of minutes. In 1968 the New York City Planning Commission declared a 11-block area along the East River as an urban renewal area, winning South Street its first step toward preservation. Despite the small land area, the seaport district comprised a large number of buildings. By 1972, the South Street Seaport Museum had acquired all 68 buildings located within the district, though not all of these buildings were up for renovation. The architectural plan only considered 19 buildings located in Blocks 96W and 96E. At the time of the plan, the buildings in the district served a number of different purposes: residences of artists, offices, restaurants (including the notable Sweets and Sloppy Louie's), remnants of the Fulton Fish Market, and food stores. All the buildings were in some sort of disarray or repairv.

On a more fundamental level, all of the buildings in the South Street district had been in existence since the late 1700s to the mid-1850s. Most of them were constructed of brick as the primary building material, and exhibited the Federalist style of architecture which became popular in America during the early 1800s. James Vander Pool claimed Fulton Street's Schermerhorn Row to be “the finest example of Federal commercial architecture surviving in America.”

The buildings on John Street, built in the first half of the 19th century, were mostly 5 and 6-story buildings. Though some were unoccupied and appeared to be run-down, all of them were structurally sound. In comparison, the buildings on Front Street were gravely in need of repair, as were the adjacent buildings on Fulton Street. In fact, all of the buildings on the north side of Schermerhorn Row were structurally unsound. They had cracked masonry, rotting lintels, unsafe fire exits, among other deficiencies. The two buildings on 92-91 South Street were considered structurally sound. vi

It must also be mentioned that the South Street historical district was located directly adjacent to New York City's financial district, which also gained prominence in the 1970s. The two towering structures of the World Trade Center were completed in 1976, shortly after the architects began their planning. In one respect, the small buildings of the South Street district were anomalous to the large financial towers located only a few blocks away. The tallest historical buildings of the seaport stood at 6 stories, in comparison to the 110 stories of each of the WTC towers. The Friends of South Street Seaport were eager to ensure that South Street did not turn into another skyscraper of the financial district.

Mechanical and Electrical Considerations

The architectural design of every building in a modern setting is dictated by more practical considerations – those that deal with structural implementations and requirements. South Street's location within the temperate weather part of the United States, along with a desperate need to upgrade existing implementations, were factored into the basic structural engineering plan. The architects and engineers working on the project analyzed the district's systems for heating, ventilation, air conditioning, plumbing, drainage, electricity, and fuel.

The evaluation of the existing systems described the conditions as inadequate, but also indicated fixes were possible. Most of the heating systems were gas-fired cast iron radiators, which were considered inadequate. Many unoccupied regions were not heated at all. None of the buildings had central air conditioning, and only a few had old window systems. Ventilation was achieved through informal measures such as through windows and doors, whereas some rooms had no ventilation access. Though every building had water and gas service, plumbing systems were considered inadequate and antiquated. Drainage systems were also problematic, as overflow from the East River occasionally caused flooding in the Seaport district during storms; some buildings were fitted with sump pumps as a result. The architects recommended the City of New York considered the historic district in its sewer construction to avoid this problem in the future. Electrical and telephony systems existed in each of the buildings, though they were non-uniform and in need of repair. Access to cable television and broadband Internet was not considered, because the year in which the plan was completed. With regard to every one of these implementations, the architects recommended that the existing systems be removed. In every case, South Street's internal systems were inadequate.

Despite these shortcomings, the architects were relatively optimistic about development in their analysis. The architects noted that there were no problems that could not be solved, even in the most run-down buildings. The tin building near Block 96W was considered to be the most difficult to preserve and restore.

The plan outlined the new mechanical and electrical systems that would be installed. The plan divided the components of the historical district into four categories: museum, commercial, office, and restaurant. The heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems would be controlled by a central mechanical room. Additionally this room would be located near the steam, electrical, gas, and water systems. Each building in the historic district would draw heat, ventilation, and air conditioning from the main mechanical room. This would provide maximum flexibility for all zones of the district and the changing nature of the museum exhibits. The plumbing system would require new pipes in all the buildings, and would also use a central system to pump both hot and cold water to all buildings. The electrical system also included a central service which would have different usage meters so that each tenant could use electricity at a variable rate. The architects also made recommendations for lighting.

The energy for these new services would come from a fuel system that relied on steam and electricity exclusively. The projected annual cost for the system in 1973 was $94,956. The alternative system that was rejected used mostly electricity and a small amount of gas, a projected $154,414 annuallyvii.

Adherence to Building Codes

Despite South Street's ambition to preserve and restore a part of America's history, the designers were still required to comply with building codes and restrictions. The designers had to consider either the codes of New York State or of New York Cityviii. Because all of the buildings in the design were created before either the latter codes were created, complying with the codes proved to be rather difficult.

Under the New York State building code, the main problem that the architects faced was that the South Street buildings had to be classified as “Business,” “Mercantile,” and “Assembly.” Because the old Federalist buildings are considered Type 4a (Ordinary Construction), the state laws prohibited more than 2-4 stories in those three categories – an obvious difficulty.

However, the project could be completed as planned according to the New York City building code, with some small modifications. Under this code, the buildings were mostly zoned as “Assembly.” Buildings of this type could have 6-7 stories, which meant that none of the buildings had to remove any floors. Among the other elements that had to be modified to comply were vertical exits, areas of refuge, lobby areas, safe areas, sprinkler systems, street facades, and fire ratingsix.

Space Limitations

As in most areas of New York City, limitations of space were a major factor in the architectural design. Both the architects and the Friends of South Street Seaport were interested in maximizing space that would provide annual revenue, while still being able to have space available for education and museum exhibitions. Whereas developers in other parts of New York City expanded vertically to gain more space, this was not an option for South Street, as skyscrapers were simply not a part of its history. The architects had to find more space horizontally than vertically.

This 1973 architectural plan encompassed 19 buildings, totaling 118,594 square feet of space available for use. Of that space, only 8,344 square feet was open space, and about one-third of that open space was found between buildings. The buildings with the most space were 167-171 John Street, which had almost 20,000 square feet, followed by 181 Front Street which had about 12,000 square feet. Each of the remaining buildings had a total area of about half of the latter. These figures included space on all floors of the buildings. It is important to note that all of the buildings were between five and six floors, with only 4 of the 19 buildings having six floorsx.

In the then-existing conditions, only two floors total were dedicated to museum space. The most space was allocated to light industry, followed by residential, and then commercial use. As would be expected, Barnett's 1973 plan allocated much more space for activities related to the museum. In total 42,000 square feet is available to the museum, museum shops, and the theater. Most of the remaining developed space was to be used for subsidized residential housing. The intention for subsidized housing was to create a vibrant community that did not leave to go home at night, as would be the case if the area was zoned for office space. The area on the piers totaled about 250,000 square feet, but this space was to be open for public usexi. Ultimately, the plan called for about half of the total building and pier space to be used for museum and subsidy purposes. This struck a balance between non-revenue space (the museum and subsidized housing) and revenue-generating space (offices, commerce, restaurants, and industry), so that South Street would not struggle to make money.


Barnett's 1973 plan for preserving and restoring South Street Seaport was comprehensive, and considered most of the factors necessary for a successful restorative process. The architects successfully addressed measures to provide for the needs of the museum, tenants, businesses, restaurants, and tourists. However, the plan did not completely come to fruition. The reasons for the departure from the plan are numerous, though mostly can be attributed to financial infeasibility.


Barnett, Jonathan, The South Street Seaport Development Plan. (New York: South Street Seaport Museum, 1974), 1-40.

Cavaglieri, Giorgio, New York State Maritime Museum at the South Street Seaport. (New York: 1973).

Isbrandtsen, Jakob. South Street Seaport Museum: A Proposal to recreate the historic “Street of Ships” as a major recreation and cultural resource in the heart of New York City. (New York: South Street Seaport Museum, 1967), 1-27.

Metzger, John, “The Failed Promise of a Festival Marketplace: South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan.” Planning Perspectives 16 (2001): 25-46.


i Barnett, Jonathan, The South Street Seaport Development Plan. (New York: South Street Seaport Museum, 1974), 2.

ii Isbrandtsen, Jakob. South Street Seaport Museum: A Proposal to recreate the historic “Street of Ships” as a major recreation and cultural resource in the heart of New York City. (New York: South Street Seaport Museum, 1967), 5.

iii Barnett, Jonathan, The South Street Seaport Development Plan. (New York: South Street Seaport Museum, 1974), 40.

iv Ibid.

v Cavaglieri, Giorgio, New York State Maritime Museum at the South Street Seaport. (New York: 1973), 13.

vi Ibid.

vii Cavaglieri, Giorgio, New York State Maritime Museum at the South Street Seaport. (New York: 1973), 15-21

viii Cavaglieri, Giorgio, New York State Maritime Museum at the South Street Seaport. (New York: 1973), 28.

ix Cavaglieri, Giorgio, New York State Maritime Museum at the South Street Seaport. (New York: 1973), 29.


xi Metzger, John, “The Failed Promise of a Festival Marketplace: South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan.” Planning Perspectives 16 (2001), 32.

© 2005 Fordham University
Rose Hill Campus Bronx, NY 10458 (718) 817-1000
Lincoln Center Campus New York, NY 10023 (212) 636-6000
Marymount Campus Tarrytown, NY 10591 (914) 631-3200