Tag Archives: South Street Seaport museum

The South Street Seaport Museum, at 50 years old, has gotten some tattoos

The under appreciated South Street Seaport Museum has always had a daunting mission to fulfill — preserving a piece of New York City history on the edge of a volatile and ever-changing waterway. Established fifty years ago this year, the museum has been the guiding presence to this remaining vestige of New York’s 19th century waterfront.

But while the mighty vessels maintained by the museum and the collection inside old Schermerhorn Row provide a true flavor of the past, the present has oftentimes disrupted their objective.

Construction on the waterfront — and the uncertainty of its use — has made the area rather unpleasant to visit in past years. And natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy have gravely endangered the neighborhood’s repertoire of classic structures.

So consider this our official request to you — go down to the Seaport! The ships are now open for tours, the rustic Bowne Print Shops are still a treasure to visit, and a scaled-back version of the museum is open on Schermerhorn Row. And some decent shops and restaurants have returns to the area. (The Paris Cafe, one of our favorite places in all of New York City, has remained a reliable stalwart through all of it.)

And at the museum an interesting surprise awaits you. A small second-floor gallery presents the curious work of one of America’s greatest tattoo artists — Gus Wagner.

Tattooing has long been a part of seaport life — and a critical rite of passage for many 19th century seamen.  The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo presents the art of the tattoo in this larger context, following Wagner, a well-traveled sailor, around the world, his body like a passport, stamped with mementos of his various journeys.

Tattoo artists were often called professors, and indeed Wagner’s own devotion to the art form, lecturing about his work and travels during his life time, helped develop its prominence among mainstream audiences. The exhibit also contains a look at some pages from his scrapbook of tattoo designs.

Take a trip down to the Seaport and visit this small but pleasurable exhibit. And my pre-emptive thanks to the South Street Seaport for inspiring the next episode of the Bowery Boys spin-off The First: Stories of Inventions and their Consequences. It comes out tomorrow and its all about the tattooing life in New York City in the late 19th century.  (The show is available wherever you find podcasts. Just search for The First Stories. More information here.)

And if you’re headed over to the Seaport, take our podcast on the history of South Street Seaport down with you! It’s episode #163. Download it now or listen to it here:






The history of the South Street Seaport: A robust story of economic power, historic preservation, rat fights and fish guts

The daily bustle at the Fulton Fish Market, 1936, photographed by Berenice Abbott (NYPL)

PODCAST  The glory of early New York came from its role as one of the world’s great ports.  Today the South Street Seaport is a lasting tribute to that seafaring heritage, a historical district beneath the Brooklyn Bridge that contains some of New York City’s oldest buildings.

But there are many secrets here along the cobblestone streets.  Schermerhorn Row, the grand avenue of counting houses more than two centuries old, is built atop of landfill.  Historic Water Street once held a seedy concentration of brothels and saloons. Not to mention a very vibrant rat pit! And the Fulton Fish Market, the neighborhood’s oldest customer tradition, once fell into the river.

The modern South Street Seaport, a preservation construct of concerned citizens, become popular with tourists during the 1980s but saw severe damage during Hurricane Sandy.  It’s now the subject of some potentially dramatic changes.  How much of an adherence to the traditions of the past will determine the Seaport’s future?

ALSO: The FDR Drive — How it almost went below the Seaport!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #163 South Street Seaport

A painting of the Empress of China, the vessel probably most responsible for the growth of New York’s trading power. (Courtesy nyhistorywalks)

Peck Slip, providing ferry service to Brooklyn. The very first ferry service to Brooklyn was launched from this spot over two hundred years before the era depicted in this image. (NYPL)

South Street, circa 1892, via stereograph (courtesy Library of Congress)

A different world: The glory of South Street in 1890 and 1900, respectively, still a non-stop churn of unloading, delivering and transport, even as the Brooklyn Bridge in the distance marks big changes to come for the neighborhood. (courtesy NYPL and Library of Congress)

The Fulton Fish Market, as photographed by Berenice Abbot, November 26, 1935 (NYPL)

Fulton and Water Streets, 1975 (Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

[Fulton and Water Streets.]

Richard Haas’ trompe l’oeil excellently masking a Con Edision substation. (Museum of City of New York)

[Trompe l'oeil concealing a Con Ed substation at 237-257 Front Street, and the Jasper Ward house, 45 Peck Slip.]
Pier 17, the ambitious 1980s project that transformed this once-vital economic center into a viable tourist attraction.  But it didn’t exactly appeal to large masses of regular New Yorkers. (Pic courtesy Wired New York)

Help Fraunces Tavern, the South Street Seaport Museum and Stone Street! Still picking up after Hurricane Sandy

There are still so many places throughout the city struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Many people in outlying regions are still without basic needs. In my post on Friday — A Snapshot of Hurricane Sandy — there’s a list of charities and volunteer organizations where you can donate or volunteer. There’s further information about volunteering opportunities at Occupy Sandy Relief.

Some of lower Manhattan’s most historic structures have not gone unscathed.  In particular dire straits is old Fraunces Tavern, the 18th century inn, Revolutionary War landmark and site of several early offices of the first American government. George Washington‘s farewell address to the Continental Army was given upstairs, and Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and Aaron Burr all worked and drank here.

The tavern was originally built upon landfill and sits upon low-lying land, making it and other older surviving structures along Pearl Street very susceptible to sudden water surges from storms. (We spoke about its early history in our podcast on Fraunces Tavern from March 2011.)

According to their website: “As of November 6, 2012, Fraunces Tavern at 54 Pearl Street and the other four interconnected buildings that make-up Fraunces Tavern Restaurant and Museum are without electricity, heat, and phone service. Without electricity it is difficult to assess the full extent of damage, however, the storm surge flooded all five basements and caused about two feet of water damage to the above street level first floor.

From preliminary building walk-throughs it appears that all the upper floors came through the storm unharmed, including Museum spaces and rooms where the collection is stored.

All of the water has been pumped out and a team of experienced plumbers and electricians are on-site to bring Fraunces Tavern back on-line. In the meantime, a generator is planned to bring back power to critical areas by the end of the week. At this time, Fraunces Tavern’s Board and staff members are unable to tell when full power, including phone lines, will be restored.”

Other historic structures in this district, such as the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and the businesses along Stone Street and at One Hanover Square, probably saw similar if not greater damage.

If you’d like to help out the Frances Tavern Museum, you can visit their website and make a tax deductible gift. As for the other businesses of this area — the restaurants and pubs of Stone and Pearl streets —  most are probably open with limited capacities. Go visit them and spend a little money there. I’m sure they would greatly appreciate it.

Meanwhile, the main building for South Street Seaport Museum also received extensive damage, as did the 18th century print shop Bowne & Co.  As part of Schermerhorn Row, the buildings are almost as old as Fraunces Tavern. At greatest risk, however, were their collection of classic ships docked along the East River. But on that front, there’s good news.

According to their Facebook page: “Our ships are largely unscathed thanks to extraordinary preparation by our waterfront staff and volunteers. Now, we are working hard to clean up our 200-year-old gallery building, Schermerhorn Row at 12 Fulton Street (half a block from the East River), and our 19th-century spaces around the corner on Water Street, all of which flooded.”

You can help out to the museum by donating to their Hurricane Sandy relief fundAnd if you can volunteer to help out the museum for an afternoon (12-4:30pm) this week, send an email to fkent@mcny.org and let them know!

Thanks to Kristin O’Connor Saslovsky on our Facebook page for forwarding me the information on Fraunces Tavern

Spawn of the Statue of Liberty

You know an area of New York has achieved tourist saturation when the first ten people you see are all identically dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

Performance artists regularly delight audiences near the city’s marquee tourist attractions — South Street Seaport, Central Park, Times Square. Most are truly worthy of the attention: the charismatic juggler, the dance troupe, even (though I hate to admit it) that person who acts like a robot making hydraulic noises.

But the army of Liberty impersonators are different. First of all, there’s usually a group of them, the largest number collecting themselves outside Castle Clinton, greeting visitors who are awaiting to see the real Liberty. Seeing four or five Lady Libertys is startling, surreal, even nauseating. It’s even exhausting looking at so many people draped in green wearing masks or face paint on a hot spring day.

Bonnie, a New York blogger, pinpoints exactly what it is that’s so ominous about them:

“The effect is actually rather eerily reminiscent of the killer from the “Scream” movies (actually I think somebody needs to make a horror movie set in NY and featuring one of these guys) …. on a dreary day like today you get the even weirder scenes of a busker who’ve gone on break leaving a small heap of folded green robe, and a Statue of Liberty heads (wearing shades) stuck on a pole”

Of course, Statue of Liberty replication is not a new phenomenon. In fact, you could say the replicates came before the real thing.

France’s gift to the United States — probably the best gift ever — was wholly funded by French citizens. Creator Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi devised a host of creative fund-raising ideas, including a concert series and a Liberty themed lottery. But he also created Lady Liberty souvenirs, miniatures of his design, as a way to boost enthusiasm and raise money. By 1889, Liberty was in New York harbor, but she had already started to spawn.

The French have their own Liberty which stands a little under 38 feet tall (or about the combined length of all the Statue of Liberty impersonators you can find in Battery Park at one time) within sight of the Eiffel Tower, planted near the Granille Bridge on the same date as New York’s. Later, her original formative model, a bronze Bartholdi had used to impress investors and demonstrate the statue’s scale, was donated to the Jardin du Luxembourg in 1900. Since then various other versions have been spotted through France, including Bartholdi’s hometown.

The Statue’s first and perhaps only legitimate American sister sat for decades atop the former Liberty Warehouse at 43 West 64th Street. Mini Liberty, close in design to one of Bartholdi’s actual fund-raising miniatures, sat overlooking the Upper West Side from 1891 to 2002, when she removed and given an honorific spot at the Brooklyn Museum.

You can thank the American proliferation of Libertys on the Boy Scouts. During the 1950s, the Scouts donated over 200 ‘little sisters of Liberty’ to towns across 39 states and several territories. Kansas alone allegedly received 26 Liberty statues, possibly because the whole initiative was started by a Scout volunteer in Kansas City, Mo.

These replicas were usually not sculpted with the same care that Bartholdi brought to his replicas, with haphazard faces, odd scale and imprecise detailing on the 8’4″ copper statues. Of the dozens dispersed across the nation, at least a 100 have been identified today. After Sept. 11, many communities have taken great pride in restoring their li’l Libertys.

Here’s Liberty in Columbus, Nebraska:

In New Castle, Pennsylvania:

And Richmond, Virginia:

Liberty is a victim of her own symbolic nature. As small town America now had their copies, Liberty was spawning herself on Liberty Island in the form of souvenirs that allowed you to become the Statue of Liberty, using foam crowns and torches. Once, immigrants sailing into New York harbor could hope to take advantage of the values that Liberty embodied; now, people could simply embody Liberty herself as a way of taking advantage of some of those values.

It may be impossible to truly identify the first Statue of Liberty impersonator, but I think there’s little argument about who is the best: Jennifer Stewart.

Stewart began donning Liberty drag in 1989. One clue that she might be one of the very first is her feelings to donning the green in public for the first time: ”I felt stupid. I thought, ‘The only consolation is that no one will recognize me.’

Stewart seems to be the ‘official’ Liberty impersonator, meeting with Rudy Guiliani, Michael Bloomberg and Hillary Clinton and appearing on national magazine covers. But it was that success that brought on the wave of imitators.

Photo credit: Kristen Artz / Office of the Mayor, 2005

Ms. Stewart may disagree, but one enticement to impersonating a statue is the ability to do so without any real displays of traditional talent. You don’t have to do backflips or breathe fire or pretend you’re Robbie the Robot. She’s stoic in her static. Although I would chime in here and ask, have you ever stood in one place for a really long time with your arm in the air?

And thus came the horde of Statue of Liberty impersonators, at first in performance make-up and stylized robes, later just in masks and sprayed-green sheets. Often she is given sunglasses or any number of patriotic embellishments.

Does repetition dilute meaning, or reinforce it? Interestingly, knowing who is behind the robes might give this borderline annoying trend a bit of resonance. According to an article in the Tribeca Tribune last year, the group of Libertys on a given day at Castle Clinton were all immigrants –“four Colombians, an Ecuadorian, a Honduran and a woman from China.” They were also mostly male performers. Who can’t appreciate a man who stands in a park dressed in drag all day to make a few bucks?

The Statue of Liberty has been duplicated in other, less disturbing ways. Check out our previous history of Lady Liberty on album covers. Or dive back into our older podcast on the Statue of Liberty from last September, with accompanying photo gallery.

And finally, this is just right on so many levels:

Pictures from a perfect day

We think of the Lower East Side now as being a tolerant mix of different cultures — Jewish, Chinese, Hispanic, many others, including that ever popular pseudo distinction ‘the hipster’ — but a current photographic exhibition at the South Street Seaport Museum proves that things were even more vastly divergent and varied.

Rebecca Lepkoff was a dancer who took her paycheck from a performance at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and bought herself a camera, which she used to photograph the neighborhood of her childhood. (Her home was at 343 Cherry Street.) A brilliant handful of these pictures are being displayed at the Seaport’s cozy old museum in the show ‘There Once Was a Neighborhood’, revealing a cross-section of shop-keepers, dock workers and everyday people in the crowded streets of lower Manhattan, from the ethnicity-dense streets of Orchard to the vistas of South Street.

Although a small show, comprising a single dank and inviting room in the middle of the Schermerhorn Row building, the photos tell a venerable tale of daily life, without the political mission statements that other photographers of the time would use to frame the poverty of the Lower East Side.

Lepkoff catches smiling workmen taking breaks, couples strolling now-destroyed waterfront paths, wharf kids playing cops and robbers . Old movie posters ripple from the walls of buildings soon to be demolished by the developments of Robert Moses. (If I had to find a beef with the show, it would be the occasional interupption of Lepkoff’s calm to remind us of the damage that Moses reeked upon the city.) Perhaps the view is a bit rose-colored; reality sneaks in at the photo’s edges, in worn faces, frayed cuffs, ramshackle signage. But its blatant nostalgic tinge, in the small sweet dose you get at the museum, is warm and welcoming.

Added bonus: a brief video plays featuring the fiesty lady herself, talking about her life in the LES. The best anecdotes involve her process for taking the photographs — just standing in the street until people got used to her.