In Memoriam: Peter Stanford
May 18, 2016
Article from the Spring 2016 Newsletter
Peter Stanford, instrumental in preserving the South Street Seaport, passed away in March at the age of 89. In 1966, soon after the enactment of the New York City Landmarks Law, Stanford and his wife, Norma, founded Friends of South Street to advocate for the preservation of this area, significant for its 19th-century mercantile history and for containing some of the oldest remaining buildings in Manhattan.
A year later the Stanfords quit their jobs to focus on these efforts and their plan to create the South Street Seaport Museum. “We saw the barren, windswept plazas that were being built downtown, and we knew we were racing the bulldozer,” Stanford told The New York Times in 1998. Ada Louise Huxtable, the Times’s architecture critic at the time, endorsed the Stanfords’ campaign as “the first really promising preservation venture that the city has undertaken,” and New York State Senator Whitney North Seymour, Jr. sponsored legislation for the creation of the museum. But according to James M. Lindgren, author of Preserving South Street Seaport: The Dream and Reality of a New York Urban Renewal District, although Huxtable may have brought additional attention to the campaign and Seymour authored the legislation, “Peter Stanford made the Seaport Museum happen.”
In order to create the Museum’s unusual, community-based vision of a “museum without walls,” the Stanfords set out to preserve the early 19th-century buildings of Schermerhorn Row and other waterfront blocks, and acquired a variety of ships to be used as “exhibits” for the museum. Due in part to their advocacy efforts, the area was eventually designated a historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1977. Despite successes, the history of the rebirth of the South Street Seaport has been tenuous, ebbing and flowing with real estate market booms and collapses, controversial developments, and often conflicting efforts by preservationists, developers, bankers, politicians, and museum administrators. The museum has particularly struggled to recover after the September 11th attacks, the recession, and Hurricane Sandy. However, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation recently announced a $4.8 million grant to repair storm damage to the museum and this month the institution opened its first new exhibition since 2012, entitled “Traces and Tides of the Seaport” by artist Filipe Cortez.
“The Seaport Museum exists today because of the Stanfords’ vision in the 1960s, a time in which development pressures nearly destroyed this New York treasure,” Jonathan Boulware, the museum’s current executive director, told The New York Times. We also have the Stanfords to thank for undertaking the complex struggle to save many of the historic structures that today constitute the South Street Seaport, and expending the energy to retain a tangible connection to New York City’s maritime past for future generations.