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South Street Seaport

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Once port and fish market, now historic district, museum, and tourism center

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Place Matters Profile

Reprint from District Lines newsletter, Spring 2007, Historic Districts Council. Used with permission.

Louis Morino, the proprietor of Sloppy Louie’s Restaurant at Fulton and South Streets in Manhattan, was talking about his building to the writer Joseph Mitchell. It was 1952, and Mitchell was working on what became the title story of his collection of The New Yorker stories, “Up in the Old Hotel.” Louie, who was not sloppy at all but came by the name from the previous owner of his restaurant, learned about his building from a title searcher at Title Guarantee & Trust Company, saying that other sources had not yielded much information about its history. “It seems all this end of South Street used to be under water,” he told Mitchell. “The East River flowed over it. Then the city filled it in and divided it into lots. In February, 1804, a merchant by the name of Peter Schermerhorn, a descendant of Jacob Schermerhorn, was given grants to the lot my building now stands on–92 South–and the lot next to it–93 South, a corner lot, the corner of South and Fulton. Schermerhorn put up a four-story brick-and-frame building on each of these lots–stores on the street floors and flats above.”

Cut to the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation report (1977) of the South Street Seaport Historic District: “In 1868, Nos. 92 and 93 were raised from four to six stories and topped by a mansard roof with gabled dormers. This alteration was made for John H. McKinley, who began running his steamboat hotel at No. 93 (also 2 Fulton) in this same year.”

Back to Louis Morino: “They [Nos. 92 and 93] were designed so they could be used as one building–there’s a party wall between them, and in those days there were sets of doors on each floor leading from one building to the other. The name of the hotel was the Fulton Ferry Hotel . At that time, there were passenger-line steamship docks all along South Street, lines that went to every part of the world, and out-of-town people waiting for passage on the various steamers would stay at the Fulton Ferry Hotel. Also, the Brooklyn Bridge hadn’t yet been built, and the Fulton Ferry was the principal ferry to Brooklyn, and the ferryhouse stood directly in front of the hotel. On account of the ferry, Fulton Street was like a funnel; damned near everything headed for Brooklyn went through it. It was full of foot traffic and horse-drawn traffic day and night, and South and Fulton was one of the most ideal saloon corners in the city.”

Another thing the designation report says was that people who built on landfill normally built only one story first, then waited a year before putting up the rest of the building so that the structure could settle and compact the fill. Schermerhorn, however, was eager to get on with his project and erected the whole four stories at once, and today, 200 years later, the wisdom of waiting is still evident on the upstairs floors now occupied by the South Street Seaport Museum–they are slanted enough to induce seasickness.

At one time water lots abounded. During the early 17th century when the Dutch owned New York, they laid claim to the land under water near the shore. According to Jack Putnam, historian at the South Street Seaport Museum, they realized that because Manhattan was surrounded by water, its promise lay in trade, not agriculture or manufacturing. That meant improvement to accommodate shipping and docks. Landfill, bulkheads, piers would all be necessary. Clever fellows, the Dutch sold to individuals who agreed to fill in the land themselves–often with palisades of pilings filled in with rubble–and then built on top of it, building out into the river little by little. The practice continued into the 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries.

This was true on both sides of Manhattan, but, according to the designation report, in the earliest days the southeastern shore was seen as the natural harbor both because a rocky ledge protruded from the western shore and also because the East River was narrower than the Hudson, providing better shelter for the small ships of the time.

Originally the eastern shoreline was Pearl Street, called Queen Street at the time. Then, by the end of the 18th century, landfill took it to Water Street, then to Front Street and finally, in the early 19th century, to South Street, which is the eastern boundary of that part of Manhattan today. Parts of South Street were still swamp as late as 1821.

Under the Dutch, the port prospered, but by the time of the Revolution its wharves could no longer compete with the better maintained ones of Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston. Following the 1776 Battle of Long Island, the British occupied the port. When they left in 1783, taking many Tory merchants with them, the seaport fell on hard times and did not fully recover for another 15 years.

The designation report again: “Between 1820 and 1860, five and one half million alien passengers came to the U.S. and more arrived at the South Street Seaport piers than at any other port of entry. This flood of immigration brought the fear of disease to the seaport, and a number of cholera and yellow fever epidemics paralyzed the business of the area. Hotels and boarding houses were opened in the district during the 1850’s to accommodate this transient population as well as the many overseas merchants.”

This was the same period during which the nearby Five Points neighborhood became so notorious. A short walk from the South Street Seaport, Five Points lay on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge (which did not yet exist) at the edge of Collect Pond (now Foley Square), which was filled in during 1808. According to the New York Encyclopedia, the swampy land began to sink around 1820, taking surrounding buildings with it, and the result was unspeakable. No doubt many of the immigrants who landed at the South Street Seaport were desperate enough to have to find lodgings in the Five Points.

Mr. Putnam said of life in the neighborhood at the time, “Water Street came to be known as the Wickedest Ward in New York, with blood sports, dives, brothels, gambling joints”–all the accouterments, in fact, of a thriving seaport. These criminal elements co-existed side by side with more prosperous, legally conducted business, just as they have in New York in later decades. In fact, the earliest extant house in the district, the charming three-story brick at 273 Water Street, has some of that history. Built for sea captain Joseph Rose in 1773, the house was rented out by him, according to the designation report, and at one point “was operated as a small hotel and saloon famed for its staged rat fights”–probably one of the blood sports Mr. Putnam was referring to.

By the 1850’s steamships began to replace clipper ships. Faster and more predictable than sailing ships, they also needed deeper and wider waters than the East River offers, and so the Hudson River became the port of choice, its rocky ledges presumably having been dealt with. That was when the fishing industry began to move in, and for more than 100 years it dominated the South Street Seaport, providing seafood for the entire booming city, to say nothing of such institutions as Sloppy Louie’s Restaurant.

Vital as a thriving fish market can be, it has its downside–the smell–and partly because of that, commerce lagged, buildings deteriorated. In the 1960’s the area was scheduled for demolition when a private group of history buffs stepped in wanting to save it as an example of early commercial New York. They established the South Street Seaport Museum in 1967 as the vehicle to do that, envisioning a 19th-century sailing-ship district complete with piers accessible to old ships. They acquired a number of ships and buildings, but it became apparent that their project could not be self-supporting, and the buildings were ultimately taken over by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which did a lease back to the City of New York.

In the early 1980’s the EDC invited the Rouse Company to come in, a company that had started by developing suburban and interstate malls but made its reputation with so-called festival marketplaces such as Faneuil Hall in Boston and Baltimore’s Harborplace. Rouse agreed to build a commercial mall with architecture appropriate to the scale, style and feeling of the 19th-century seaport. It was called the South Street Seaport Marketplace. Later Rouse dismantled Piers 17 and 18 and constructed a new one with a pavilion for public gatherings and performances. The noisy and sometimes boisterous crowds generated by these attractions created security problems for the shops and other businesses that occupied the seaport, and some of them closed. As an entertainment district, the seaport could not compete with Madison Square Garden or countless other venues in Manhattan, and its vitality began to wane. By 2004, Rouse sold its assets, splitting them between the city and a private real-estate partnership that, like all occupants of the market, are today tenants of the city. The next year, 2005, the Fulton Fish Market moved to The Bronx.

Approached from the west by Fulton Street, the South Street Seaport leaps out visually from the tall, modern buildings that frame it. Three Greek Revival warehouses built together in 1835-36 are warm, pale red-brick buildings, substantial but lowrise, on the left. On the right ahead are the Schermerhorn Row counting houses designed in the Georgian-Federal style and built in 1811, one of the finest vistas of 19th-century architecture in the city. At the end of the street is the river, its docks and its ships with their picturesque rigging. And there’s the sky, too, a rare sight in Manhattan.

It is clear that this designated historic district is not a real part of town the way, for instance, Greenwich Village is. The mix of commercial enterprises within its perimeter is mainly one of clothing stores and restaurants–no dry cleaners, hardware stores, grocery stores, nail spas, although they all exist aplenty just outside it. Mainly, the seaport today is a tourist destination, or a lunch and dinner destination for people who work in the modern buildings nearby. The Fulton Fish Market is merely a nostalgic presence whose smell is not missed. A hotel called Seaport Inn at the northwest corner of Peck Slip and Water Street looks like a mid-19th century hostelry for the well heeled, but inside it is a Best Western hotel like any other with all the usual modern conveniences and prices to match.

People live in the district. They always have, but not in the same degree of comfort they can expect today. Older buildings are being renovated with sensitivity and imagination; one of them was done so appealingly that House & Garden gave it nine pages in its January 2007 issue.

More people are expected to move in. To give you an idea what kind, recently the New York City Parks & Recreation Department applied to LPC for approval to construct a playground in Burling Slip. Permission was granted. A park was proposed for Peck Slip. That decision is pending.

Reprint from District Lines newsletter, Spring 2007, Courtesy of Historic Districts Council

(Editor’s note: elipses were removed within the excerpts from Joseph Mitchell for technical reasons.)


Pamela Lee

This place matters because it’s a place that helps you to relax from the stresses of life. Despite the smell, I’ve always loved this place. It doesn’t really remind me much of the city life, which may be a reason why I like it so much. The Seaport is a nice place to shop, go sightseeing, or just to take a walk through.
I think the physical features do matter. It’s right by the water, which is its most important feature. Also, the cobblestone is what helps to make everything more relaxing. (Submitted before 2004)

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