Sailors' Snug Harbor
Greek Revival buildings at Sailors Snug Harbor. Photo by Wikipedia user Dmadeo. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Sometimes listed as Sailors Snug, Sailors’ Snug, Snug Harbor Cultural Center.
The National Register designation summary calls the buildings at Sailors’ Snug Harbor “complex remains of a rare surviving example of mid-19th-century urban planning, architecture, and landscaping, scarcely equaled in the nation."1
The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation report for the city states that Buildings “A” through “F” of Sailors’ Snug Harbor were determined to have “a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage, and cultural characteristics of New York City.” The buildings were also designed to be “Notable example[s] of the Greek Revival Period whose design is marked by fine proportions and details and that this building is an essential component of a unique group of buildings which are a superb manifestation of their background and time.” Sailors' Snug Harbor was established by Captain Robert Richard Randall as a “home for the aged, decrepit and worn-out sailors” and consisted of 40 acres of Greek Revival dormitories dating from the 1830s to 1880s2. The dormitories were designed by Minard Lafever and Richard P. Smyth, and the chapel was designed by R.W. Gibson. Until the late 1960s, the home was supported by income generated from prime real estate rent on the north side of Washington Square.
New York City Landmarks, Five Greek Revival buildings (Buildings A, B, C, D & E), 1965;
New York City Landmark, Interior of the John J. Marchi Exhibition Hall, Building C; New York City Landmark, Veterans Memorial Hall, Sailors’ Snug Chapel, 1965, interior designated in 1982;
New York City Landmark, Perimeter Iron Fence, 1973; New York City Landmark, North Gatehouse, 1973;
National Register Historic District, listed March 16, 1972
Now the Snug Harbor Cultural Center is home to the Staten Island Museum run by the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences.
The Greek Revival buildings in Sailors’ Snug Harbor were among the first 20 sites to be designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.3 Along with the designation came a one-year grace period for the buildings that gave the Landmarks Preservation Commission time to devise an alternative plan for the buildings at Sailors’ Snug.
Less than a month after the buildings were designated, the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Board of Trustees also became one of the first entities to oppose its property’s landmark designation and publicly question the legality of the property’s regulation by the LPC, citing that designation would interfere with the profitability of the designated property.4
The trustees of Sailors Snug sued to negate the designation using the argument that the designated dormitories were functionally obsolete and the forced preservation of the buildings would keep Sailors' Snug from carrying out its charitable purpose: providing housing to retired sailors.5 The Trustees of Sailors’ Snug brought suit against the city (Sailors’ Snug Harbor v. Platt) to reverse the landmarks designation, stating that the “burden of designation" on the owner “outweighed any public benefit".6 At first the NY State Supreme Court ruled in March of 1967 that designation of the buildings of Sailors’ Snug Harbor constituted an "unlawful taking of property without just compensation".7 A pro-bono legal team assembled by the Municipal Art Society, including Terence Benbow and Paul S. Byard, prepared the case to go before the NY State Supreme Court Appellate Division.8 The appeals court reversed the previous year’s original decision in favor of the Sailors’ Snug trustees. The decision was a victory for proponents of preserving the dormitories at Sailors’ Snug and for the Landmarks law, as the case reinforced the "constitutional authority of the commission to save landmarks".9 Shortly after the decision, a New York Times editorial stated "There is no longer any doubt that the concept of preservation is not only in the public interest but is a decisive factor in the quality of the environment".10
Following the reversal of the Supreme Court’s decision by the Appellate Division, the trustees contemplated further legal action, but the day was saved by Mayor John Lindsey, who held a spot on the board of trustees. LPC Chair Harmon Goldstone pleaded with Mayor Lindsey to do something, so Lindsey joined a meeting of the trustees and announced that he would resume his ex-officio spot on the board, from where he blocked the vote on the sale of Sailors’ Snug.11 Mayor Lindsey Announced on February 2, 1971 that the city would buy the 6 designated buildings and the surrounding 13.3 acres for use as the Staten Island Museum.12
Sailors’ Snug sold 65 acres of the campus to a developer and The City of New York purchased the 15.4 acres of the property in September 1973 for $1.8 million. The Sailors’ home was relocated to North Carolina.13
The preservation of the buildings in the Snug Harbor Cultural Center hit a snag due to the mid-1970s fiscal crisis.14 In July of 1976, Jacqueline Onassis generated publicity for Sailors’ Snug when she visited as a representative of MAS.15 In 1976, Sailors’ Snug Harbor began restoration to transform the home into the Snug Harbor Cultural Center.
Saving Snug Harbor required years of sustained commitment on the part of individuals, cultural organizations, and public servants.
In 1984, renovation of the buildings by William A. Hall Associates was planned.
In 1992, Jan Hird Pokorny was hired to perform a $1.7 million restoration of buildings that were part of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center.16
Archives, Personal Files, and Ephemera
Municipal Art Society Minutes. Housed at the Archives of American Art.1285 Avenue of Americas New York, NY 10019
- 1. Carolyn Pitts. Sailor's Snug Harbor National Register Form. Prepared for the National Park Service - Historic Sites Survey. August 3, 1976.
- 2. Carolyn Pitts. Sailor's Snug Harbor National Register Form. Prepared for the National Park Service - Historic Sites Survey. August 3, 1976.
- 3. Fowle, Farnsworth. "First Official Landmarks of City Designated," New York Times, Nov 7, 1965 p.37; Ennis, Thomas. "Disputed Landmarks," New York Times, Nov 7, 1965, p. R1.
- 4. Ennis, Thomas. "Disputed Landmarks," New York Times, Nov 7, 1965, p. R1; Kirk, Russell. "At Last, Rescue for Landmarks," Los Angeles Times, Dec 21, 1965 p. A6.
- 5. Gilmartin, Gregory. Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 1995.
- 6. "Snug Harbor Saved by Court Decision." New York Times March 23, 1968. P.21; Gilmartin, Gregory. Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 1995. p. 376-377.
- 7. "Snug Harbor Saved by Court Decision." New York Times March 23, 1968. P.21.
- 8. Gilmartin, Gregory. Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 1995. p. 376-377.
- 9. "Snug Harbor Saved by Court Decision." New York Times March 23, 1968. P.21.
- 10. "All Snug in the Harbor," New York Times February 16, 1971.
- 11. Gilmartin, Gregory. Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 1995. p. 377.
- 12. "City is Purchasing Five S.I. Landmarks From Snug Harbor." New York Times. February 23, 1971.
- 13. Liebowitz, Mayer and Michael Evans. "Snug Harbor Tract Bought By City as Center for Arts." New York Times Sept 23, 1972, p. 35; Waggoner, Walter H. "Surrogate Aprroves Relocation of Sailors Snug Harbor to South," New York Times November 14, 1972.
- 14. Schuman, Wendy. "Snug Harbor Faces Cash Shortage as Cultural Center." New York Times June 6, 1976 pg. 1; "Snug Harbor." New York Times June 22, 1976, p. 34.
- 15. Evans Asbury, Edith. "Jacqueline Onassis Goes to Snug Harbor," New York Times July 31, 1976. p.17.
- 16. “Snug Harbor Restoration,” New York Times. February 9, 1992. p. R1.