Sailors’ Snug Harbor,
also known as Sailors Snug Harbor or Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden or, informally, Snug Harbor, is a collection of architecturally significant 19th-century buildings set in a park along the Kill Van Kull on the north shore of Staten Island. It was once a home for aged sailors and is now an 83-acre city park. Some of the buildings and the grounds are used by arts organizations under the umbrella of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden. Sailors’ Snug Harbor includes 26 Greek Revival, Beaux Arts, Italianate and Victorian style buildings. The site is considered Staten Island’s “crown jewel” and “an incomparable remnant of New York’s 19th-century seafaring past.” It is a National Historic Landmark District.
Snug Harbor was founded by the 1801 bequest of New York tycoon Captain Robert Richard Randall for whom the nearby neighborhood of Randall Manor is named. Randall left his country estate in Manhattan, bounded by Fifth Avenue and Broadway and Eighth and 10th Streets, to build an institution to care for “aged, decrepit and worn-out” seamen. The opening of the sailor’s home was delayed by extended contests of the will by Randall’s disappointed heirs. When Sailors’ Snug Harbor opened in 1833, it was the country’s first home for retired merchant seamen. It began with a single building, now the centerpiece in the row of five Greek Revival temple-like buildings on the New Brighton waterfront.
Captain Thomas Melville, a retired sea captain and brother of Moby-Dick author Herman Melville, was governor of Snug Harbor from 1867 to 1884.
In 1890, Captain Gustavus Trask, the governor of Snug Harbor, built a Renaissance Revival church, the Randall Memorial Chapel and, next to it, a music hall, both designed by Robert W. Gibson.
About 1,000 retired sailors lived at Snug Harbor at its peak in the late 19th century, when it was among the wealthiest charities in New York. Its Washington Square area properties yielded a surplus exceeding the retirement home’s costs by $100,000 a year.
But by the mid-20th century, Snug Harbor was in financial difficulty. Once-grand structures fell into disrepair; the ornate, white marble Randall Memorial Church was demolished in 1952. With the inauguration of the Social Security system in the 1930s, demand for accommodation for old sailors declined; by the mid-1950s, fewer than 200 residents remained. In the 1960s, the few retired sailors still living here were moved to Sea Level, North Carolina.
By the 1960s, the 83-acre site was coveted by land developers, leading to the formation of a local movement to preserve the property. The new New York City Landmarks Commission stepped forward to save the remaining buildings, designating them as New York City’s first landmark structures, and listing them on the National Register of Historic Places. A series of legal battles ensued, but the validity of landmark designation was ultimately upheld and it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965.
On September 12, 1976, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center was opened to the public.
In 2008, the Cultural Center and the Staten Island Botanical Garden merged to become the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden.
Randall’s Trust no longer operates a retirement home, but the Trustees of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor in the City of New York continues its work using funds from the endowment to help mariners all over the country.
The Sailors’ Snug Harbor Archives are preserved at the Stephen B. Luce Library at SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx.
The following is a selection of photographs taken at Sailors’ Snug Harbor, Staten Island in 1899. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York. All rights reserved.