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Sailors’ Snug Harbor

Sailors’ Snug Harbor

Also known as Sailors’ Snug, or the Snug Harbor Cultural Center

One of the first landmarks designated in New York City, preserving Sailors’ Snug Harbor required years of sustained commitment on the part of individuals, cultural organizations, and public servants.

Location: Staten Island, NY  |  Google Maps
People: Paul Byard, Terence Benbow, R. W. Gibson, Harmon Goldstone, Minard Lafever, John Lindsay, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Jan Hird Pokorny, Robert Richard Randall, Richard P. Smyth
Public Policy: Sailors’ Snug Harbor v. Platt, New York City Landmarks Law
Above: Sailors' Snug Harbor, Dormitory C & Administration Building, 1933; Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Sailors’ Snug Harbor is a unique landmark-designated area in the borough of Staten Island in New York City. 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 New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation report 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 1880s.2 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 Manhattan’s Washington Square.

Five Greek Revival buildings (Buildings A, B, C, D & E), were designated New York City Landmarks in 1965. In addition, the Veterans Memorial Hall and Sailors’ Snug Chapel were also designated New York City Landmarks in 1965. Sailors’ Snug Harbor was designated a National Register Historic District on March 16, 1972. Furthermore, the Perimeter Iron Fence and North Gatehouse of Sailors’ Snug Harbor were both designated New York City Landmarks in 1973. The interiors of both the John J. Marchi Exhibition Hall: Building C, and the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Chapel was also designated New York City Interior Landmarks in 1982. The site is now called the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and is home to the Staten Island Museum run by the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences.

1965: Five Greek Revival buildings (Buildings A, B, C, D & E) are designated New York City Landmarks. In addition, the interior of the John J. Marchi Exhibition Hall, Building C; and the Veterans Memorial Hall, Sailors’ Snug Chapel, are also designated New York City Landmarks.

March 1967: The New York State Supreme Court rules that designation of the buildings of Sailors’ Snug Harbor constituted an "unlawful taking of property without just compensation." The New York Appeals Court would reverse this decision in favor of preserving Sailors’ Snug Harbor.

February 2, 1971: Mayor John Lindsay announces that the City would buy the six designated buildings and the surrounding 13.3 acres of Sailors’ Snug Harbor for use as the Staten Island Museum

March 16, 1972: Sailors’ Snug Harbor is designated a National Register Historic District

1973: The Perimeter Iron Fence and North Gatehouse of Sailors’ Snug Harbor are both designated New York City Landmarks

September 1973: Sailors’ Snug Harbor sells 65 acres of the campus to a developer and the City of New York purchases 15.4 acres of the property for $1.8 million

1976: Sailors’ Snug Harbor begins restoration to transform the home into the Snug Harbor Cultural Center

July 1976: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis generates publicity for Sailors’ Snug Harbor when she visits as a representative of the Municipal Art Society

1982: The interiors of both the John J. Marchi Exhibition Hall: Building C and the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Chapel are designated as New York City Interior Landmarks

1984: A renovation of the buildings by William A. Hall Associates is planned

1992: Jan Hird Pokorny is hired to perform a $1.7 million restoration of buildings that are part of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center

The Greek Revival buildings in Sailors’ Snug Harbor were among the first 20 sites to be designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).3 Along with the designation came a one-year grace period for the buildings that gave the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission time to devise an alternative plan for the buildings at Sailors’ Snug Harbor.

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 the 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 Harbor 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 Harbor from carrying out its charitable purpose: providing housing to retired sailors.5 The Trustees of Sailors’ Snug Harbor 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 New York 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 Byard, prepared the case to go before the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division.8 The appeals court reversed the previous year’s original decision in favor of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor trustees. The decision was a victory for proponents of preserving the dormitories at Sailors’ Snug Harbor and for the New York City Landmarks Law, as the case reinforced the "constitutional authority of the commission to save landmarks."9 Shortly after the decision, an editorial in The New York Times 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 Lindsay, who held a spot on the board of trustees. LPC Chair Harmon Goldstone pleaded with Mayor Lindsay to do something, so Lindsay 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 Harbor.11 Mayor Lindsay announced on February 2, 1971 that the City would buy the six designated buildings and the surrounding 13.3 acres for use as the Staten Island Museum.12

Sailors’ Snug Harbor 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 However, 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 Kennedy Onassis generated publicity for Sailors’ Snug Harbor when she visited as a representative of the Municipal Art Society.15 In 1976, Sailors’ Snug Harbor began restoration to transform the home into the Snug Harbor Cultural Center.

Saving Sailors’ 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

  • Municipal Art Society Minutes
    Archives of American Art
    1285 Avenue of the Americas
    New York, NY 10019

  • Oral Histories with Frank Gilbert and Leonard Koerner
  • New York Preservation Archive Project
  • 174 East 80th Street
  • New York, NY 10075
  • Tel: (212) 988-8379
  • Email: [email protected]
  1. 
Carolyn Pitts, Sailors’ Snug Harbor National Register Form: Prepared for the National Park Service – Historic Sites Survey, 3 August 1976.
  2. 
Ibid.
  3. 
Farnsworth Fowle, “First Official Landmarks of City Designated,” The New York Times, 7 November 1965, page 37; Thomas Ennis, “Disputed Landmarks,” The New York Times, 7 November 1965, page R1.
  4. 
Thomas Ennis, “Disputed Landmarks,” The New York Times, 7 November 1965, page R1; Russell Kirk, “At Last, Rescue for Landmarks,” Los Angeles Times, 21 December 1965, page A6.
  5. 
Gregory F. Gilmartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1995).
  6. 
”Snug Harbor Saved by Court Decision,” The New York Times 23 March 1968, page 21; Gregory F. Gilmartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1995), pages 376-377.
  7. 
”Snug Harbor Saved by Court Decision,” The New York Times, 23 March 1968, page 21.
  8. 
Gregory F. Gilmartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1995), pages 376-377.
  9. 
”Snug Harbor Saved by Court Decision,” The New York Times, 23 March 1968, page 21.
  10. 
”All Snug in the Harbor,” The New York Times, 16 February 1971.
  11. 
Gregory F. Gilmartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1995), page 377.
  12. 
”City is Purchasing Five S.I. Landmarks From Snug Harbor,” The New York Times, 23 February 1971.
  13. 
Mayer Liebowitz and Michael Evans, “Snug Harbor Tract Bought By City as Center for Arts,” The New York Times, 23 September 1972, page 35; Walter H. Waggoner, “Surrogate Approves Relocation Of Sailors Snug Harbor to South,” The New York Times, 14 November 1972.
  14. 
Wendy Schuman, “Snug Harbor Faces Cash Shortage as Cultural Center,” The New York Times, 6 June 1976, page 1; “Snug Harbor,” The New York Times, 22 June 1976, page 34.
  15. 
Edith Evans Asbury, “Jacqueline Onassis Goes to Snug Harbor,” The New York Times, 31 July 1976, page 17.
  16. “Snug Harbor Restoration,” The New York Times, 9 February 1992, page R1.