South Street Seaport CB1 Preservation Committee Statement of the Historic Districts Council

Statement of the Historic Districts Council

Community Board 1 Manhattan

December 10, 2014


The Historic Districts Council is the advocate for New York City’s designated historic districts, individual landmarks and structures meriting preservation.  We thank you for this opportunity to voice our opinions on the future of the South Street Seaport, one of the city’s oldest and most distinctive neighborhoods.

Schermerhorn Row

Built in 1810-12, Schermerhorn Row represents the earliest commercial-style architecture in New York City.  Commerce in New York City began here, and for over two centuries, this group of buildings has survived as the heart of the Seaport.  HDC is disturbed by the proposal to convert these rare spaces into housing of any type—affordable or not. Home to the South Street Seaport Museum, this conversion would effectively divorce the museum from its history, including the time capsule gem: the Fulton Ferry Hotel spaces. Not long ago this remarkable collection of buildings received expensive and publicly funded interior renovations to be able to operate commercially and as a museum. This functional use remains relevant and constructing a new building for the museum is unnecessary. Residential conversion will erase these spaces and leave behind only a shell.

Tin Building

Together, the Tin Building and the New Market Building are the city’s last remaining riverfront market halls. With only two buildings of this type left in New York City, the redevelopment and adaptive reuse of the Tin Building should preserve it in its original form, unadulterated. Accretions to the Tin Building are not merited as there is abundant space, both in the historic existing buildings and in the impending new construction. Further, HDC feels that moving a landmarked structure compromises its context:  this building type is characterized by its location along the shore’s edge – directly over the water on piles.

The buildings and context of the South Street Seaport have precedence over what is proposed to exist, just as the public’s demands have precedence over the profit-making ambitions of the latest lease-holder.  It is important to remember that most of the district, including the buildings in question, are not private property.  They are owned by the City of New York, and its citizens have the right to help determine their future.


8 Responses to “South Street Seaport CB1 Preservation Committee Statement of the Historic Districts Council”
  1. Ann Marie Flynn says:

    I agree. Enough with the commercial developers out for the almighty buck. Let’s preserve what history we have left. NYC has not been great about preserving its history … tear down, build up is the usual mantra. Those photos of Penn Station in all its glory are hard to view. Let’s not keep making the same mistake.

  2. Linda Mariano says:

    Landmarks Commission : Are you real estate developers ? Are you abusing your moral and ethical responsibilities – Do you sell New York’s History and Heritage for $$$$? I believe it is the mission of LPC to protect and honor our beautiful city with all of its different patterns and designs – which contain many architecturally significant buildings that built this city – we must work to preserve rather than sell the history to the developers -please do not give the developers the right to transform our neighborhoods into artificial landscapes – we must protect and preserve the past for the future!

  3. Norman Brouwer says:

    The interiors of Schermerhorn Row need to be valued. The Rouse-scrubbed exteriors convey only one aspect of their story. Within the walls there is so much more to be experienced of the rich history these buildings represent. The history can be seen in the scale of the spaces, the evidence of handling and storage of goods, the remains of over a century of waterfront hotels, the worn floors and weathered beams, the grafitti of long dead workers. The South Street Seaport Museum is far more than some changing exhibits that can be stuck into an unwanted modern space. The extensive collections the Museum assembled over almost half a century, which are now stored in part of Schermerhorn Row, need to be exhibited in this historic environment, where their surroundings will reinforce and enhance the story they are telling of the rich maritime and commercial history of the City of New York.

  4. I agree too: specificity is the key here. This is not a “nowhere place” in a “nowhere town” but a historic neighborhood with multiple layers of memory and private and public investment manifested in the architecture and urban environment.
    Any smart developer wanting to be part of the Seaport’s future would be smart to work WITH the existing buildings and neighborhood as a positive asset as opposed to IMPOSING a pre-set, ill suited, development matrix.

  5. DHBrown says:

    It is inspiring to read the above comments — made by thoughtful, well-informed people who can see through the smokescreen that the NYCEDC and Howard Hughes Corporation have conjured up to deceive and distract. The ‘vitality’ they claim to offer is a superficial scheme meant to — first and foremost– boost the developer’s bottom line. Sacrificing the irreplaceable historic treasures of centuries is an unacceptable price to pay, just because the NYCEDC has mismanaged the South Street Seaport, its precious Museum, and noble ships–leaving the piers to rot and the buildings to decay. The proposed ‘improvements’ will most likely go the way of the last round of development. New York is a wealthy city. We can and should fund a better solution to improve the area now, and leave as a proud legacy.

  6. Birgitta Birgersdotter says:

    The South Street Seaport Museum, chartered by NY State in 1967 as a maritime museum, is the marrow of the historic district. Its creation established a foothold that preserved the surrounding area and buildings. Shortly after it was founded, the museum began the arduous process of saving a number of historically significant vessels from America and abroad.

    In its first decade, the South Street Seaport Museum was developing as a repository for artifacts and a center for the study of things maritime. It was a place where ship restoration and the meticulous research and skilled workmanship that such tasks required were widely respected. The museum’s library became notable as a place where general maritime information and details about various ships could be found. It also became a serious research venue that was the go-to place for national and international queries on hard-to-find answers to maritime questions. During this time, the museum had other commendable features including an active book and chart shop, a ship model room and an art gallery with rotating exhibits. Regularly scheduled lectures and book readings were held in the exhibit spaces. The museum also offered boat-building courses to the public in a small temporary structure located in what is now the corner lot on John & South St. An active membership and volunteer corps rounded out public participation while the surrounding tightly-knit community, composed of various professionals, artists and tradesmen, took a keen interest in the fledgling museum and its future success.

    All this is gone or vastly withered. The current plight of the museum is not solely the result of man-made or natural disasters, but rather the short-sighted actions of those who, over the years, led the museum astray with foolish, easy-money pipe dreams. In collusion with developers were city agencies who, rather than further the creation of a world-class maritime museum, sacrificed all else for pie-in-the-sky economic projections. It is perplexing why the city has never provided a portion of the museum’s operating funds as it does for other similar institutions. There is no rational argument against New York City boasting a first-rate maritime museum. It is not the South Street Seaport Museum of the past that should be lamented, but the loss of what the museum could be in the future.

    One needs to look no further for inspiration than the accomplished maritime museums that flourish in other great world ports. Anything but stodgy or quaint, they are dazzling jewels of education and history that provide their citizens with a tangible link to their maritime heritage. Examples of notable maritime museums abound in our country as well, but while our great port city should be at the forefront, we lag far behind.

    The current relationship between the developer, the city and the museum, and therefore the fates of Schermerhorn Row, the ships, the library, the art and the archeological collections, appear to be unknown. Perhaps, with an assertive plan, the museum could reverse its current decline and declare itself the trusted guardian of our city’s maritime history. And, perhaps, the city might recognize and embrace the need for such an institution. Clumsy and gullible leadership, the cryptic museum board and other obscure relationships do not, however, inspire confidence for success. It appears that the true mission of the South Street Seaport Museum has no champion.

    So the difficult question remains: can the museum be an independent, well-respected and robust institution firmly rooted in its subject, or must it be simply a mediocre appendage on the hip of the developer? And what of the museum’s 1967 NYS Charter? Does it remain valid or have the well-defined terms been disregarded?

    Those calling the tune are presenting the public with little more than over-advertised shopping, too-loud concerts and an embarrassment posing as a maritime museum. Indeed, it is quite clear that only the public’s purse is being mined, and not its curiosity.

    The Titanic Memorial Lighthouse, once perched on the parapets of The Seamen’s Church Institute at 25 South Street, now stands in a small park adjacent to the museum. In contrast to the surrounding ballyhoo and indifference, the lighthouse remains a silent tribute to those lost on the great ship. That the words South Street Seaport Museum are mounted on the lighthouse’s base gloomily suggests that the museum’s fate may parallel that of the 1912 tragedy.

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