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South Street was a functioning commercial port, until the rise of new technologies and the development of Manhattan further inland. How, then, did South Street Seaport transform into the museum and shopping complex that it is today? Beginning in the 1960’s, the efforts of Peter Stanford and other members of the Friends of South Street Seaport restored and preserved this area to keep its history alive. By tracing the inception of the “open air” museum, you can see how South Street Seaport evolved from its primacy of commerce to a new kind of commercial— and historical— flourishing.

S.O.S: Save Our South Street

By the 1950s, in the wake of the decline period of South Street Seaport, David Rockefeller was planning a redevelopment of the area through the construction of office complexes that would compromise its historical background as a port. The automobile traffic in lower Manhattan was becoming an increasing problem due to the general trend of renovating existing buildings into administrative ones. From 1960-1962, the City of New York decided to widen parts of Water Street and Pearl Street to allow traffic to pass in two directions. In doing so, the city made a significant stride in improving traffic flow in the financial district. Despite the fact that the construction only spanned a stretch of 13 blocks, many historic buildings were demolished in the process. Many of these buildings had served as what was known as the Old Coffee and Roasting District. With the destruction of these buildings by the 1960’s, the area was no longer a center of coffee production, and the historical value of these buildings was forever lost. To preserve the other buildings in the Seaport district, new ideas emerged to restore the area in a different manner. In the wake of the establishment of the New York City Landmarks Commission, Peter Stanford conceived the idea of making South Street a “living museum.” He and other proponents of a historical South Street assembled to form the Friends of South Street Seaport in 1967. This small group, consisting mainly of Stanford’s family and friends at the time, began to grow and make changes for South Street.

On October 29, 1968, the City of New York declared Schermerhorn Row a landmark. This can be seen as one of the first true successes for the newly-formed South Street Seaport Museum. The physical restoration of these buildings did not take place for a number of years. Nevertheless, its official designation as a landmark by the city indicates its historical importance and the beginning of the process of preservation and restoration.

New zoning laws of the 1960’s fostered the development of downtown Manhattan, as indicated by real estate developer Sol G. Atlas’ plan to develop office complexes along Schermerhorn Row. This area in the midst of the Seaport, declared a historical landmark in 1968, became of crucial importance to the developers of South Street. To save and preserve the area, the museum purchased nearby buildings at high prices and effectively swapped them with Sol G. Atlas for Schermerhorn Row. The South Street proponents worked to secure the entirety of this eleven-block historic district, enclosed by the East River on one side, and Beekman, Water, and John Streets on the other three, in order to make the restored area more historically accurate.

The fight to preserve South Street only began with these land battles, as financial issues of the 1970’s became the next obstacle for the Seaport to overcome. The developers of South Street contracted the Rouse Company, based on their experience with the festival marketplaces of Faneuil Hall in Boston and Baltimore’s Harborplace in the 1970s.

Hitting a Blockade

Now with supporters in place, the South Street Seaport’s reconstruction was well underway; however, there were high demands for more commercial and residential developments from the expanding nearby financial district during the 1960s and 1970s. Economic problems plagued and halted the development of the Seaport from the onset. Initially, the Rouse Company invested $100 million into the project, $89.5 million of which was a mortgage that regularly needed to be paid back. Although the project received $61 million of public funding, continuing and rising costs strained the relationship between the Rouse Company and the Seaport Museum. The original ideal of nautical-themed retail at the Seaport was pushed aside. In an attempt to lessen the financial burden of the Rouse Company and support operation costs of the museum, retail stores were given more space in the Seaport than originally expected. When the complex opened in 1983, retail establishments inhabited three-quarters of the space initially allocated to the museum.

In addition to financial issues, certain regulations needed to be met in order to satisfy mandates by New York State. These regulations affected the functional assignments in the buildings, such as including office space, among other factors. Even fonts used in signs for historical preservation were regulated for South Street.

The Neighborhood Catch

Since the actual construction and restoration began in the early 1980’s, many maritime historians and preservationists have emerged as critics who suggest a lack of local flavor at South Street. A local community, however, indeed exists. For example, the neighborhood still provides opportunities to support seafaring peoples, such as the persevering existence of establishments like the Seamen’s Church Institute. Prior to the Restoration, there was a plethora of shops and restaurants, specializing in seafood and nautical novelties. The placement of major retailers in the area challenged some of these establishments. Today, only few of these unique-to-South Street businesses survive. However, those that remain preserve a neighborhood atmosphere in this otherwise commercialized area.

In conjunction with these shops, other cultural programs have been made to enhance the South Street environment. Street performers, or buskers, and other such outdoor spectacles have made a scene at the Seaport. Examples can be seen in the productions of Spiegelworld, which mainly specializes in burlesque theatre, as in the current production of Absinthe. There are also attractions that cater to all ages, like the Bodies Exhibition. The layout of South Street is considered ideal by these types of entertainers. Apparently the patrons of these shows agree, as these shows continue to attract people to the area.

Bringing the Plan to Life

In 1983, South Street reopened to the public. Its opening was celebrated with the 100th year anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge. Although originally slotted to be completed by the summer of 1984, the East River Shopping Mall on Pier 17 finished the area when it opened in 1985. Its location, right on the water, was much more attractive to visitors than the landlocked museum and Fulton Fish Market. The Fulton Fish Market, one of the main selling points in the original plan for the restoration because of its representation of maritime-driven commerce, rapidly lost customers to the mall. The increased interest in the mall over the market was one of the leading reasons that the Fulton Fish Market was moved to Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, New York in 2005. Since its opening, tourists and locals alike have filled the South Street Seaport during all seasons since then, prompting many tourist guides to recommend visiting it. Because of this shift toward commercial and tourist activity, debates have erupted about the Restoration’s efficacy.

Following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, lower Manhattan was in a state of rebuilding and redevelopment. Earlier in that year, the South Street Seaport Museum had begun raising money to complete the restoration of Schermerhorn Row. The events of September 11 left the Museum in a difficult state, as it had lost many of its key financial supporters as a result of the terrorist attacks. Over a period of two years, however, the restoration of these important buildings was complete. In 2003, Schermerhorn Row reopened to the public. The construction project required over $20 million worth of funding. Upon completion of the buildings' restoration, Schermerhorn Row was able to provide 30,000 square feet of public space for use within the Museum. In addition to space made available for the Museum, the restoration allowed for small retail stores to set up shop within these historic walls.

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