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Peter Stanford

Peter Stanford

Peter Marsh Stanford was instrumental in preserving the South Street Seaport and raising awareness about New York City’s maritime history.

Organizations: South Street Seaport Museum, National Maritime Historical Society, OpSail 1976, Working Harbor Committee, Save Our Seaport, Council of American Maritime Museums
Places: South Street Seaport Historic District, Schermerhorn Row
Above: Peter Stanford; Courtesy of R. Koteff and the U.S. Navy

Peter Stanford was born to Alfred and Dorothy Stanford on January 16, 1927 in Brooklyn, New York. He graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in History in 1949 and received a master’s in English literature from King’s College, Cambridge in 1951.1 In 1966 Stanford, along with his wife Norma, founded Friends of South Street to advocate for the preservation of New York City’s seaport district, significant for its 19th-century mercantile history and for containing some of the oldest remaining buildings in Manhattan. A year later they focused on creating 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 1998.2 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.3

In order to create the Museum’s unusual, community-based vision of a “museum without walls,” the Stanfords set out to preserve the buildings of Schermerhorn Row, which were constructed in 1812, and other waterfront blocks.4 They also 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.

“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 executive director, told The New York Times in 2016.5 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.

Stanford died on March 24, 2016 in Croton-on-Hudson at the age of 89.6

South Street Seaport Museum
Founding President

National Maritime Historical Society
Co-founder and Second President

Peter Stanford grew up sailing on the Saugatuck River in southwestern Connecticut and on Long Island Sound. At the age of fifteen, while a third-year student at Manhattan's progressive Lincoln School, he was the youngest contributor to the Naval Academy’s magazine, Proceedings.7 That same year Time Magazine described him as “no ordinary naval expert. He has been a seadog since the age of two, knows naval history backward and forward.”8 Stanford was too young for the draft, but he did manage to enlist in the Navy as a radioman during World War II.9

After working in advertising in the 1950s and 1960s, Stanford and his wife Norma founded Friends of South Street Maritime Museum in 1966. In 1967 Stanford and his wife both quit their jobs uptown to found the South Street Seaport Museum. Ada Louise Huxtable, The New York Times’s architecture critic, endorsed their campaign (calling it “the first really promising preservation venture that the city has undertaken in environmental terms”), and State Senator Whitney North Seymour Jr. sponsored legislation for a museum.10 Prominent preservationists, including Kent Barwick, Joan Davidson, and Margot Gayle, offered advice and support to the fledgling museum.11

Within five years of its founding the Museum had a membership of more than 20,000 people.12 Stanford’s vision led to the preservation of the counting houses of the Seaport, including Schermerhorn Row, and the acquisition and preservation of historic vessels, including the lightship Ambrose, the great sailing ship Wavertree, the four-masted barque Peking, the schooner Pioneer, and the fishing schooner Lettie G. Howard. The Seaport’s Pier 16 became a stage for Pete Seeger in the late 1960s and early 1970s, who performed to raise funds for the Museum and the construction of the Clearwater, a replica nineteenth-century river sloop.13

Stanford was eased out of the Museum in 1976 when its board brought in a wave of business-minded managers to run the institution.14 But he continued his involvement in maritime preservation efforts both in New York City and nationally. He became the second president of the National Maritime Historical Society and founded multiple national organizations under its auspices including The Council of American Maritime Museums (1972), the American Society of Marine Artists (1977), the American Ship Trust (1978), the Hudson River Maritime Museum (1979), and the National Maritime Alliance (1987).15

Stanford co-founded and supervised both OpSail 1976 for the nation’s bicentennial and the Statue of Liberty Parade of Sail in 1986.16 He authored hundreds of magazine articles and a number of museum books. His last book A Dream of Tall Ships: How New Yorkers Came Together to Save the City's Sailing-Ship Waterfront (Sea History Press, 2013) was co-authored with his wife and recounts their efforts to preserve the South Street Seaport.

  1. Sam Roberts, “Peter Stanford, Steward of New York’s Maritime History, Dies at 89,” The New York Times, 28 March 2016.
  2. Bernard Stamler, “Rough Sailing for South Street Seaport,” The New York Times, 29 March 1998.
  3. Roberts, “Peter Stanford, Steward of New York’s Maritime History, Dies at 89.”
  4. New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, designation report no. 4-12, 29 October 1968.
  5. Roberts, “Peter Stanford, Steward of New York’s Maritime History, Dies at 89.”
  6. Yannic Rack, “RIP: Peter Stanford Founder of the South Street Seaport Museum,” The Villager, 30 March 2016.
  7. Roberts, “Peter Stanford, Steward of New York’s Maritime History, Dies at 89.”
  8. “Tactically Logical Cruiser,” Time Magazine. 11 November 1942, Vol. 41 Issue 2, p. 54.
  9. Roberts, “Peter Stanford, Steward of New York’s Maritime History, Dies at 89.”
  10. Ibid.
  11. James M. Lindgren, Preserving South Street Seaport: The Dream and Reality of a New York Urban Renewal District (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 22, 25.
  12. South Street Seaport Museum, “Remembering Peter Stanford,” accessed 19 May 2020, https://southstreetseaportmuseum.org/remembering-peter-stanford/
  13. Lindgren, 83-85.
  14. Rack, “RIP: Peter Stanford Founder of the South Street Seaport Museum.”
  15. “Peter Stanford (1927-2016),” Sea History, National Maritime Historical Society, accessed 9 May 2020, https://seahistory.org/about/nmhs-history/peter-stanford-1927-2016/
  16. Ibid.