Exploring NYC’s past at the South Street Seaport Museum
The Seaport District has a long, rich history that’s woven into the evolution of New York City—a story that comes alive when you visit the district’s cultural anchor, the South Street Seaport Museum.
A visit to the museum is one of the best things to do with the family in the city, especially in the summer, when visitors have the chance to set sail on historic schooner Pioneer. We spoke with Captain Jonathan Boulware, the museum’s President and CEO, to learn more about how the South Street Seaport Museum keeps the vibrant heritage of our neighborhood alive.
Why is telling the story of the Seaport so important today?
This neighborhood is an essential stop for New Yorkers seeking to understand their own city and for visitors seeking to understand New York. There isn’t another place that can possibly do what this museum does do — in part because we are actually located in the original fabric. We’re the only museum in New York City and one of the very few nationwide where you can come and go sailing on an artifact—an 1885 schooner or a 1930 tugboat. You can actually get out on New York Harbor, an historic port of the United States, on vessels related to that port history.
We’re a little bit of an unusual museum in that we preserve artifacts and tell stories—but we also preserve skills. At Bowne & Co. Stationers [the museum’s presentation of a 19th century letterpress print shop], we’re not just saying, “Look, there’s a printing press.” You can use the printing press. We’re sailing ships and operating tugboats. Our staff and volunteers are climbing aloft into the rigging of Wavertree and learning the skills that are necessary to maintain and operate historic ships. For me, what’s important about that is that 20 or 40 or 50 years from now, those artifacts persist—but so too do the skills that go with them.
How was the South Street Seaport Museum first conceived?
We were founded in the 1960s. The destruction of [the original] Pennsylvania Station, which was widely regarded as a misstep, led to a reconsideration: What are the things in New York that are worth saving? That laid the groundwork for a group of preservationists—and the city and the state—to be able to carve out the South Street Seaport Historic District.
The concept for the museum was inspired by the preservation of San Francisco’s Hyde Street Pier and the Maritime Museum, which is now part of the National Park Service there. Our founders, Peter and Norma Stanford, visited and said, “Why doesn’t New York have one of these?”
What is the focus of the South Street Seaport Museum’s collection?
Our collection of roughly 27,000 artifacts relates to just about anything that you can imagine from early New York, but connected especially to the rise of the port and the Seaport District. So, we have maps and charts and ship plans and books. We have oils on canvas and other kinds of marine art. We have navigational instruments and ship’s bells and other parts of ships. Among my favorite artifacts is the badly singed wheel from the ocean liner Normandie, which famously burned and then capsized in her berth on the west side. When the Fulton Fish market, which was here for 140 years, moved to Hunts Point, we brought in lots of things related to that—scales and hand trucks and signs from fish purveyors; an apron that somebody wore for breaking apart fish.
Tell us about the museum’s fleet of ships at Pier 16.
The centerpiece of the fleet is the 1885 iron-riveted sailing ship Wavertree. She represents the type of sailing ship that would have been here on the East River piers every day of the week. We have the lightship Ambrose—one of the ‘floating lighthouses,’ that marked the entrance to the Ambrose channel [which ships took to enter New York Bay]. We have the last surviving New York built wooden tugboat, W.O. Decker— recently restored and about to start as a passenger and education vessel this summer. There’s the schooner Pioneer, which is a small passenger schooner, built in 1855, which begins her summer sailing season on New York Harbor Memorial Day weekend.
People tend to forget that New York is such a maritime city.
Right. New York was a port before it was a city. And all the things that we think about when we think about New York City have their origins here in the Seaport.
“The city that never sleeps”— this was the first 24-hour district. When we think of the diversity of New York, that began here: The Seaport was the first truly multicultural district. Flags from all over the world were flying from ships that were from all over the world. Languages from all over the world were being spoken on the ships and on the piers and in the streets. Even the phrase from the song, “New York, New York”—“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” In the 19th century, the Seaport was sizzling with opportunity. People were getting rich from East River traffic that led to the China trade.
In ports the world over, you find the common mechanisms of trade: the shipping itself—the piers and the ships; the financial bodies—the banks and the lenders; and the printing offices that write it all down. It so happens that our financial district is Wall Street. It so happens that our financial district is Wall Street. New York’s rise from Dutch colonial trading port to the financial capital of the world in 300 years is without a doubt the most rapid growth of human prosperity in the history of the human race.
We tell the first chapter of the story of how New York became what it is. It’s what we call, “Where New York begins.”
What’s new at the museum this summer?
We’re starting daily tours to the lower sections of Wavertree from Memorial Day weekend.
People often have the perception that they see the bulk of what’s interesting about a ship from the outside—and what you see from the pier is awesome. But Wavertree’s whole purpose was to hold 2300 tons of cargo. So, in the middle of the ship is a massive cathedral-like space that is made of tortured and riveted iron that’s 134 years old and largely original. For the first time in the museum’s history, we will be opening that lower hold space so that people can go have a look at it.We’re a little bit of an unusual museum in that we preserve artifacts and tell stories—but we also preserve skills. At Bowne & Co., we’re not just saying, “Look, there’s a printing press.” You can use the printing press. We’re sailing ships and operating tugboats. Our staff and volunteers are climbing aloft into the rigging of Wavertree and learning the skills that are necessary to maintain and operate historic ships. For me, what’s important about that is that 20 or 40 or 50 years from now, those artifacts persist—but so too do the skills that go with them.
Visit the South Street Seaport Museum Visitor’s Center at 12 Fulton St to view current exhibitions. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 11am–5pm. Admission includes access to Wavertree and Ambrose. Purchase tickets for afternoon and evening cruises on Pioneer from May 25 through to October.