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Seaport Museum

by Vladimir Tchikrizov

Friends of South Street, the organization that ultimately became the South Street Seaport Museum, was formed as a committee of three (Mr. North Seymour, Jr., Peter Stanford, and Norma Stanford). In 1966 Whitney North Seymour, a New York state senator, sponsored a bill for a New York State Maritime Museum and got it through the New York State Legislature1. The group’s goals were to resist the impending development of the area and to promote the ideas of a maritime museum and the preservation and restoration of the seaport. After the creation of the museum in 1967, renovation of historic ships was immediately recognized as one of its primary duties. The organization’s membership grew rapidly to include 103 members, 68 of them related to the original 3. In 1967 the trustees of the museum convened for the first time, with Jakob Isbrandtsen as chairman and Peter Stanford as the president. As absence of guaranteed pay discouraged prospective employees, Mr. Stanford and his wife also became the museum’s original staff. By 1968, the membership of the museum reached 60,000 people2.

The museum’s plans to prevent the development of the seaport area almost floundered immediately. A crucial block of historic buildings including the Schermerhorn Row was bought by a developer, Sol G. Atlas. Plans were made for the structures on the block to be demolished and replaced with office buildings. However, before demolition could begin, in 1968, 11 blocks around the South Street Seaport were legally designated as an urban renewal area based on preservation and restoration of the historic district, and Schermerhorn Row itself was assigned a historic landmark status. Mr. Atlas sued to overturn the decision, but withdrew when a transfer of air rights (the unused development potential of a site that can be sold to the owner of a neighboring property3) allowed him to build on a neighboring block4. But as the office-space market declined, the developer decided against proceeding with construction, and the site was purchased by the city for 8 million dollars. Although this battle against development in the historic district has been won, another still rages on.

At first, the museum was intended to occupy a three-block area around the intersection of Fulton and South streets2. Jakob Isbrandtsen - a leading entrepreneur in the shipping industry and former president of the American Export Industries and Isbrandtsen Company, whose family has been in the maritime business for seven generations - provided the financial support for the museum to be able to acquire five blocks of land for its facilities: administrative offices, a visitor’s center, a children’s center, exhibition galleries, a library, and a restored Bowne & Company stationers shop5. By 1972 the museum owned all of the 68 buildings in the historic district. However, the ownership was transferred to the city in 1973, as members felt that the district should be a public space, and the city leased the land back to the museum4. In 1981 the city transferred the lease to the non-profit South Street Seaport Corporation handling the museum’s development activities. The corporation was formed because the museum’s trustees and staff did not feel that they were qualified or interested in handling the real estate or burdening the museum with business liabilities6.

The museum also faced financial problems. From the onset, Mr. Stanford secured the help of Richard Buford, director of the Office of Lower Manhattan Development and later chair of the museum’s Planning and Development Committee, who promised to adjust the city’s zoning laws, and to allow the Seaport museum to profit from selling its air rights to nearby developers. The initial plan was to purchase the land, sell the unexercised development rights, and support the museum on these profits. Under this plan “every museum bit…must compete to stay alive”1. The city did not provide the museum with any grants or subsidies, and the museum’s staffing and operations had to be reduced multiple times2. Due to constricted funds and the pressure for development from the city, the museum switched course in the 1970’s, beginning to pursue retail development to support its functions. This change of direction elicited cries that it no longer knew whether it was a museum or a real estate company.

The movement towards commercialization of the seaport caused a clash of views between the older members of the museum, and the newer members who were more ambitious in their plans for the institution. It led to Peter Stanford’s resignation from the position of the museum’s president in 1977, the same year that the 11 block historic district was officially designated, now including three piers . In the view of many of the museum’s members, the commercialization of the seaport betrayed its intended purpose. Mr. Stanford himself- according to Mr. Putnam, the museum historian- envisioned the project as a restoration of the 19th century seaport. The blending of history and modern, large-scale commerce is an idea that did not sit well with the museum’s founders, whose views could probably be summarized by Peter Stanford’s words: “The commercial development is all trash. It’s international airport-style junk”4As the museum seemingly lost its way, it also lost many members and, very importantly, donors.

In December of 1977 the museum signed an agreement with the Rouse Company for a feasibility study for the possibility of development of an urban marketplace. In 1979, a $210-million development plan was agreed on. In 1983 the Rouse Company finished the Fulton Marketplace, and in 1985 the Pier 17 mall.

For the museum, monetary troubles continued. As most of the profits from the area went to the development corporation and the city, the museum saw little of the money. In 1982 it was forced to lay off more staff, leaving only 50 employees. Despite the finished commercial development, the museum struggled : it saw no support from the real estate corporation, staff salaries were cut, and a complete shut down of the museum was considered. In effect, the museum was controlled by the corporation which was set up to channel revenues to it. Jakob Isbrandtsen stated that the corporation used the museum “…as an umbrella to make the real estate successful”6 Mr. Lowery, the corporation’s president, defended its actions, claiming that funds were needed to ensure that the real estate affairs were handled professionally, at the level of quality unachievable on a volunteer basis6.When cutbacks were instituted, the museum, not corporate, employees were let go. Pier 15 crumbled and had to close. Buildings were falling into disrepair: in 1990, after a snow storm a whole section of the upper façade of the Samuel Thompson coppersmith shop and warehouse, 347 Water St, collapsed, leaving a hole. However, just south of it a new headquarters building for the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey was being built7.By 1994 the museum’s staff numbered 12 people, and its boat-building and metal-working shops were closed8. Membership also slumped, down to just several thousand people. The defenders of the corporation’s actions stated that a part of the problem was the resilient insistence of some members on preservation of the museum’s modest scale, which impeded growth, development, and, therefore, financial success.

Despite the difficulties, in 1990 the museum was able - with a donation from a board member- to make a down payment of $212, 000 on a $3.4 million collection of more than 2000 pieces of maritime art including ship models, prints, drawings, oil paintings, carved and decorated ivory and bone, and other artifacts, as a part of its negotiations to purchase it from a federal agency9. Prior to that, the museum was already in possession of a staggering collection. In 1988, 250,000 pieces of 18th and 19th century artifacts, recovered by the London & Leeds Development Corporation in previous five years at two construction sites, were donated to the museum in the largest transfer of urban archaeological objects to a public exhibition10.

The attack on the World Trade Center led to further hardships for South Street. The number of visitors dropped from 362,959 in 2000 to 95,892 in 2001, and insurance premiums went up by 30%11. The museum suffered a $700,000 deficit in 2003. In 2004 it had to reduce its $5 million budget by $1 million and fire Norman Brouwer, museum’s ship historian, and Diane Dallal, director of the archaeology center, as it continued to suffer from reduced attendance and donations12. In view of these hardships, the city began to assist the museum by donating $200,000 and budgeting $600,000 in its support for 2005. Despite the help, in 2005 the museum had to give away its two million item collection of artifacts excavated in Manhattan to the New York State Museum in Albany11.

Real estate and profit concerns detracted from one of the South Street Seaport Museum’s major goals : preservation of historic ships. The costly upkeep and renovation of ships - in 1987 alone it cost the museum $836,33613 - simply became secondary. Lettie G. Howard, the eventual restoration of which cost $1 million, was reduced to a “rotting hulk”14 by 1988 due to neglect. By 2003, the yearly upkeep of Peking grew to $750,000, and the ship was actually offered for sale for $11 million15. Additionally, in the words of Mr. Putnam, at some point the museum’s members became divided by their interests into two camps: the “lowlands”, attracting those caring for the waterfront, the piers, and the ships, and the “uplands”, for those concerned with the historic buildings and the real estate troubles. Those in the lowlands rarely “came up” to the uplands, and vice-versa. This divide contributed to the neglect of the ships.

Recently, due to a program allowing philanthropists to adopt ships, or even parts of ships, the museum was able to remedy its troubles connected with ship maintenance, as donations, as large as 300,000 from a donor who adopted W.O. Decker, poured in11.

Currently, the museum is a home to eight 19th and early 20th century vessels.

Ambrose is a lightship built in 1908 to guide ships from the Atlantic into the lower New York Bay. It was given to the museum by the Coastal Guard in 1968.

Hellen McAllister was built in 1900, initially to tug coal barges in the New York Harbor, and continued doing so until the middle of the century. Later on it was used in the ports of South Carolina. It finally returned to New York in 1992, to dock the tall ships of Op Sail organized by the Seaport Museum.

Lettie G is a fishing schooner built in 1893 in Massachusetts. After a long service along the Atlantic coast, it was sold to the museum in 1968. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1988, and restored to its original appearance by 1993. It is now used for educational and sail training programs.

Marion M, christened after the wife of its commissioner, was built in 1932 as a small motor frigate. Originally it was employed in transporting oyster shells and seed oysters. Acquired by the museum in 2000, it remains operational, and is used in the support of the other ships of the museum, and as an exhibit.

W.O. Decker, was built as a wooden steam-powered tugboat in 1930. It was equipped with a diesel engine after 1946. In 1986 it was donated to the museum, and is used for waterfront maintenance and private charters.

The iron-hulled schooner Pioneer was built as a sloop in 1885 to carry sand from the Delaware Bay to iron foundries in Pennsylvania. It was re-rigged as a schooner ten years later. By 1930 it was equipped with an engine. In 1966 it was restored to sailing condition by Russell Grinnell, who used it in a dock-building business. After his death, in 1970, it was donated to the museum, where it sails daily and is for hire for private, corporate, and educational purposes .

The four-masted barque Peking is the largest vessel at the South Street Seaport Museum. It was launched in 1911 to conduct trade with South America, but retired soon after, in 1932. Peking was acquired by the museum in 1975. In 1996, after full restoration, it was opened to visits by the public, as well as for private rentals.

The story of Wavertree illustrates perhaps like nothing else the financial constraints of the museum. For the past 30 years it has been under continuing and never-ending restoration by teams of devoted volunteers led for a long time by Jakob Isbrandtsen. Despite their efforts, it is to this day closed to the public. Built in 1885 in Southampton, England, it was first used in the trade between Bangladesh and the British Isles, then in transporting nitrates from South America. It is representative of 19th century ships that sailed around Cape Horn and could be seen at South Street as late as World War I (Wavertree Files). After being dismasted in a storm in 1910, it was used as a storage hulk in Chile for 37 years. In 1948 the vessel began operating as a sand barge, until finally being purchased by the South Street Seaport Museum for $70 000 in 1968.

By continuing its involvement with the history and upkeep of the vessels the seaport has for a long time remained a focal point in the city’s waterfront celebrations and activities such as the international OpSail. Operation Sail drew a large number of surviving tall ships, defined as sailing ships longer than 175 feet, from around the world for the celebration of America’s bicentennial and the Statue of Liberty’s centennial. In 1976 there were 16 of them. In 1986 the number grew to 22. All were taller than the 127-foot clearance of the Brooklyn Bridge, and each cost a foreign nation around $400,000 to send. Of the 22, 6 berthed at piers 17 and 16. Taking advantage of the number of magnificent ships at its piers, the seaport recreated a scene from the days when it was the center of the city’s maritime life, with street performers and festivities. Visitors could board ships that participated in the naval parade around the New York harbor16.In recent past, fewer and fewer tall ships visit the seaport. Museum officials blamed the decline in the number of visiting tall ships on the 1995 decision of the Rouse Company’s subsidiary, the Seaport Marketplace, to allow ferryboats to dock in their former mooring site, on the south side of Pier 17. However, the Marketplace officials argued that there was still space available on Pier 16. The Coast Guard’s spokesman, Lieut. Chris Zendan, stated in 1997 that at least its tall ship, the Eagle, did not visit South Street because it held a place near the Intrepid at Pier 8617.

In recent times, the museum became increasingly involved in educational programs involving New York’s maritime history, and under Peter Neill devoted one third of its budget to work in the city’s schools18.It served 40 000 students in 1993 alone, and 10 years later participated in the foundation of the New York Harbor School. The museum’s children’s center even offers an educational exhibition “Something Fishy”, which introduces youngsters to a fish’s path from swimming in the ocean to becoming a meal6.

Continue by reading about the Milstein Family or the Seaport Plaza.


1 Peter Stanford, “One Man’s View of the Emergence of New York’s New Sea Museum”

2 James Defilippis. "From a Public Re-Creation to Private Recreation: The Transformation of Public Space in South Street Seaport." Journal of Urban Affairs 1, Vol. 19 4/1997

3 Alan Oser, “Act I of a Zoning Drama in the Theater District”. New York Times, 7 November 1982. Proquest

4 Bernard Stamler, “Rough Sailing for South Street Seaport [Chronology]”. New York Times, 29 March 1998. Proquest

5 William Grimes, “As Museum and Mall, A Seaport Lives On”. New York Times, 1 May 1992 Lexis Nexis

6 Deirdre Carmody, “Seaport Museum In Dispute On Goals”. New York Times, 1 April 1985 Lexis Nexis

7 David W. Dunlap, “Commercial Property : South Street Seaport; Delays in Redevelopment Imperil Historic Properties”. New York Times, 11 February 1990 Lexis Nexis

8 William Grimes, “Seaport Museum Reduces Operation”. New York Times, 9 August 1994 Lexis Nexis

9 Richard F. Shepard, “Seaport Getting New Art Collection”. New York Times, 25 November 1990. Proquest

10 David W. Dunlap, “250,000 Glimpses of 18th-Century New York”. New York Times, 7 April 1988 Lexis Nexis

11 Abeer Allam, “Seeking Help on Upkeep, Seaport Museum Offers Antique Ships for Adoption”. New York Times, 28 June 2005 Lexis Nexis

12 Robin Pogrebin, “Museum at South St. Reduces Staff to Cut Budget ”. New York Times, 8 July 2004 Lexis Nexis

13 Peter Neill, “Who Cares About Historic Ships? South Street Seaport Does”. New York Times, 2 August 1988 Lexis Nexis

14 Lee T. Pearcy, “South St. Seaport Ignoring Its Museum Role”. New York Times, 18 July 1988 Lexis Nexis

15 Kelly Crow, “Neighborhood Report : South Street Seaport; After 27 Years, With Money Tight, A Tall-Masted Classic Must Go”. New York Times, 18 May 2003 Lexis Nexis

16 Richard F. Shepard “How To Follow The Fleet”, New York Times, 18 May 1986 Lexis Nexis

17 Bernard Stamler, “Neighborhood Report : South Street Seaport; Ill Wind Blows Tall Ships to Wrong Side of the Pier”. New York Times, 7 September 1997

18 Russel Shorto, “ The Future of the Past”. New York Times, 12 September 2004. Proquest

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