Advocates Clash Over Sailors’ Snug Harbor Historic District On Staten Island

Proposed Sailors' Snug Harbor Historic District

On Thursday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held its second public hearing in an effort to clear its decades-long backlog of items proposed for designation. The day’s items were those on Staten Island, and they included the proposed Sailors’ Snug Harbor Historic District. The 80-acre property has been on the calendar for over three decades and while the majority of those who spoke on Thursday supported designation of the district, there wasn’t unanimity.

One of the historic buildings at Sailors' Snug Harbor. Credit: Robert Catalano/flickr.

One of the historic buildings at Sailors’ Snug Harbor. Credit: Robert Catalano/flickr.

The site is located in the Randall Manor area on Staten Island’s north shore. Sailors’ Snug Harbor was founded by shipping merchant Robert R. Randall to be used for the care of “aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors.” It operated from 1833 until 1976, when operations were relocated to North Carolina. It features several styles of architecture, including Greek Revival and neo-Georgian. Between 1965 and 1973, eight structures were designated as individual landmarks (some of the earliest designations). In 1982, two structures (the chapel and administration building) were designated as interior landmarks.

The proposed district, which would include 22 additional buildings, received public hearings on November 13, 1984 and January 8, 1985. At the first, 18 spoke in favor of designation and one spoke against. At the second, many more spoke. That included a representative of the Municipal Art Society who was in favor of designation.

Currently, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden operates on the site. Its CEO, Lynn Kelly, rose Thursday to speak against designation. She said they are already subject to numerous city agencies, including the Department of Cultural Affairs, the Parks Department, and even the Public Design Commission. She said her organization is a cultural non-profit in the midst of a fiscal crisis and that designation would make their work very difficult.

Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City also spoke out against designation, saying the site is no longer what it was when it was first proposed in the 1980s. She did say that additional individual buildings on the campus are worthy of designation.

Barnett Shepherd, executive director of the Preservation League of Staten Island, rose in support of designation. He called the campus an “unusually complete 19th century environment.” He said designation would protect the site from the “vagaries” of individual alterations and it would be a fitting memorial.

Linda Eskenas, representing the North Shore Waterfront Greenway, the Preservation League of Staten Island, the Four Boroughs Neighborhood Preservation Alliance, the Heritage Park Trust, the West Brighton Restoration Society, and the Richmond Terrace Conservancy, rose to support designation of all of the items on the agenda. “Saving these great historic sites and respecting those who came before us, and our heritage, will give us a magnificent future,” she said.

Kelly Carroll of the Historic Districts Council said, “It is surprising that this complex is not already designated a historic district. Given its strong sense of place and significance, HDC strongly endorses designation of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Historic District.” A representative of the New York Landmarks Conservancy also rose to support designation.

Polly Cope of the Victorian Society quoted architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who said, “Snug Harbor has something of the feel of a campus, something of the feel of a small-town square.”

Former LPC commissioner Anthony Tung rose to note that the real reason the district was not designated back in the 1980s wasn’t a lack of public support, but the opposition of the borough president, a recognition of the politics of the day.

From this point, the commission will hold public meetings, at which time it will consider either prioritizing designation for some items by December 2016, removing items from the calendar by voting not to designate, or removing items from the calendar by issuing a no action letter.

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