Sailors' Snug Harbor Board of Trustees
Sailors’ Snug Harbor consists of a 130-acre plot of land overlooking the Kill Van Kull in Staten Island, which was an important maritime route established between New York and New Jersey in the 18th century. The property originally belonged to Captain Robert Richard Randall, Revolutionary War soldier and ship master. Upon his death in June 1801, he deeded the estate, which also included farmland in Manhattan, to a board of trustees who would be responsible for creating a retirement community for "aged, decrepit and worn out seamen1." Since merchant marines were historically considered the lower prongs of society, Captain Randall wanted to ensure that they would be taken care of for their contributions to the economic vitality of New York City2. According to the will, drafted by Alexander Hamilton, the board of trustees would include the mayor of New York City, President and Vice President of the Marine Society, Senior Ministers of the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches, Head of the Chamber of Commerce, and Chancellor of the State3.
In the 1830s, this board, referred to as the Sailors' Snug Harbor Board of Trustees, set to work on building dormitories to house retired sailors. The first six structures reflected a Greek Revival style. In 1890, Gustavus G.D. Trask, governor of the Harbor, embarked on a building project that included the Randall Memorial Chapel and a music hall; both were designed by Robert W. Gibson. The Renaissance Revival style chapel was later demolished in 19524. At the turn of the century, Sailors' Snug Harbor had an admittance of 900 residents, and the complex expanded to 50 structures containing a mix of Beaux Arts, Second Empire, and Italianate styles.
However, by the 1940s the retirement community experienced an economic downturn due to the low admittance of only 375 retired sailors. Sailors’ Snug relied heavily on the financial funds from the 22-acre plot of land in Manhattan, which originally functioned as the 1790 Randall farm5. The Sailors' Snug Harbor Board of Trustees leased the property to three businessmen: James Boorman, John Johnston, and John Morrison. Today the area is located north of Washington Square Park between Fifth Avenue and University Place, which was ripe for residential development in the early 1800s.
A block of 13 row houses was constructed in 1832-33 in Greek revival style. The first group of row houses, One through Six, feature red brick exteriors distinguished by Doric capitals on the columns and pitched lintels, while row houses Seven through Thirteen featured Ionic capitals and rectangular lintels6. These houses, referred to as “The Row,” were a fine example of high style homes for wealthy families. The businessmen reached an agreement with the trustees to place restrictions on the exterior of the houses to retain their elegance in order to attract wealthy families7. The revenue from the rents reached approximately $100,000 a year and was used to fund the Sailors’ Snug Harbor residence8. In the 1930s, architect Harvey Wiley Corbett converted the row houses into apartment houses by gutting the interior9.
Greenwich Village at this time was vulnerable to new development and destruction of historic houses as New York University expanded. The Board of Trustees announced it would demolish the “Row” in 193610. However, the Municipal Art Society was able to persuade Snug Harbor against destruction of the row houses.
In 1967, the six Greek Revival houses at Sailors’ Snug Harbor were designated as New York City Landmarks11. The Board of Trustees sued the city, arguing that the regulations infringed on the functionality of the retirement homes. The appellate court upheld the Landmarks Law. The property was eventually bought by the city in 1971. The Sailors’ Snug Harbor Trustees used the profit to relocate the community to North Carolina were it functioned as a retirement home for merchant marines until 2005 when it was purchased by private investors.
Sailors' Snug Harbor on Staten Island now functions as a cultural center and museum.
Involvement with Preservation Campaigns
The Board of Trustees of Sailors’ Snug Harbor was involved in two major historic preservation controversies: "The Row" houses at Washington Square Park North and the Sailors' Snug Harbor retirement complex in Staten Island.
The group of row houses on the north side of Washington Square Park between 5th Avenue and University Place were among the most distinguished examples of high style Greek Revival represented in Greenwich Village. The 21 acre lot was deeded to the Sailors' Snug Harbor Board of Trustees’ in 1801. The trustees leased the land to three esteemed businessmen who took advantage of the prime real estate by developing row houses in 1832-3312. The trustees and the developers had a contract to maintain the exterior of the row houses in order to attract wealthy families, and only had a few minor alterations in the late 1800s13. The revenue generated from high rents primarily funded the Sailors’ Snug retirement complex in Staten Island.
In the 1930s, Washington Square Park became a center for new development, which included Robert Moses' traffic plans, real estate development, and New York University expansion. As a result, the Sailors' Snug Harbor Board of Trustees announced that the row houses would be demolished. In a letter to the Sailor's Snug Harbor Board of Trustees, the Municipal Art Society urged the trustees to protect the row houses by not demolishing them and maintaining their architectural beauty14. Talbot Hamlin, head of the Avery Library, also encouraged the preservation of these significant row houses because their presence in the park contributed to the distinct character of the Village15. The trustees relented and preserved the row houses.
Yet this was not the end of the battle. In the 1940s, New York University was expanding its campus and sought to lease the houses from Sailors’ Snug Board of Trustees. Preservationists feared this may lead to either the demolition or alteration of the façade of the houses. Sailors’ Snug Trustees were able to reach an agreement in the lease that NYU must maintain the historic exterior of the buildings16.
Sailors’ Snug Harbor
By the 1940s, the retirement complex suffered from an economic decline as residents dropped from 900 to 37517. The buildings were in poor condition due to neglect. Harmon Goldstone, Landmarks Preservation Commissioner, had a special fondness for the Greek Revival structures18. At this point, the trustees had taken a laissez faire attitude toward the retirement facility and relied on the executive administrator Frank Hickok for maintaining the buildings. Hickok, described by some as a “curmudgeon,” had other plans for the complex that did not include preserving the original structures19. By the early 1960s, plans were in the works for a massive alteration to the complex, including a three-story apartment house, several one-story townhouses and a new community center. The plans also included the demolition of five of the six Greek Revival structures. With the Landmarks Law having been passed, Goldstone worked quickly to designate the structures. They were among the first 20 buildings designated20.
The Board of Trustees filed a lawsuit against the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (Snug Harbor v. Platt) arguing that the law had placed too many restrictions and had resulted in a ‘taking’ of property21. When the case reached the appellate court, the Municipal Art Society provided a pro-bono team of lawyers including Terence Benbow, Ralph Menpace, and Paul Byard. The amicus brief they submitted argued that ruling in favor of the trustees would “eviscerate” the Landmarks Law22. The court upheld the Landmarks Law because it provided a public benefit, however, the ruling drew concerns about the economic hardship of the owners. The court wanted to investigate whether the restrictions imposed would prevent the owners from "carrying out its charitable purpose23.
Harmon Goldstone sought the help of Mayor Lindsey who had recently resigned from the Board of Trustees. After Goldstone filled the mayor in on the issues surrounding the Snug Harbor court case, Lindsey was intent on rescuing the buildings from the fate of demolition. He saved the day when he burst into a meeting of the Sailors' Snug Harbor Board of Trustees and resumed his position on the board. He announced his vote against the demolition, and declared that the city of New York would buy the six buildings and the surrounding property24. The board agreed to sell the property and used the money to relocate the retirement complex to Nelson Bay in North Carolina.
Archives, Personal files, and Ephemera
Sailors' Snug Harbor Archives
Stephen B. Luce Library
State University of New York
6 Pennyfield Avenue
Throngs Neck, NY 10465
Original Board Minutes
Snug Harbor on Nelson Bay
272 Highway 70 East
P.O. Box 150
Sea Level, NC 28577
- 1. Pitts, Carolyn. Sailors’ Snug Harbor National Register Nomination Form. August 3, 1976.
- 2. Barry, Gerald J. The Sailor’s Snug Harbor: 1801 – 1976. Fordham University Press, New York 2000.
- 3. Ibid.
- 4. Gray, Christopher. “Streetscapes/The Music Hall at Snug Harbor Cultural Center; A Low –Budget Revival for a Grand 1890 Theater.” The New York Times. April 7, 1996.
- 5. Fowle, Farnsworth. “First Official Landmarks of City Designated.” The New York Times. October 18, 1965.
- 6. Barry, Gerald J. The Sailor’s Snug Harbor: 1801 – 1976. Fordham University Press, New York 2000.
- 7. Ibid.
- 8. Gray, Christopher. “Streetscapes/The Music Hall at Snug Harbor Cultural Center; A Low –Budget Revival for a Grand 1890 Theater.” The New York Times. April 7, 1996.
- 9. Gilmartin, Gregory F. Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. New York: 1995.
- 10. Wood, Anthony C. Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks. Routledge: 2008.
- 11. Fowle, Farnsworth. “First Official Landmarks of City Designated.” The New York Times. October 18, 1965.
- 12. Barry, Gerald J. The Sailor’s Snug Harbor: 1801 – 1976. Fordham University Press, New York 2000.
- 13. Ibid.
- 14. Wood, Anthony C. Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks. Routledge: 2008, p.173.
- 15. Talbot Hamlin letter to the editor. The New York Times May 1, 1936.
- 16. Staff. “Lease Widens Hold of NYU In ‘Square.’” The New York Times. April 12, 1949.
- 17. Ennis, Thomas. “Snug Harbor Due for Big Changes.” The New York Times. June 11, 1967.
- 18. Gilmartin, Gregory F. Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. New York: 1995.
- 19. Ennis, Thomas. “Snug Harbor Due for Big Changes.” The New York Times. June 11, 1967.
- 20. Fowle, Farnsworth. “First Official Landmarks of City Designated.” The New York Times. October 18, 1965.
- 21. Staff. “Snug Harbor is Saved by Court Decision.” The New York Times. March 23, 1968.
- 22. Gilmartin, Gregory F. Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. New York: 1995, 377.
- 23. Ibid., p. 377.
- 24. Ibid.