Snug Harbor Cultural Center
Snug Harbor Cultural Center
Located along the north shore of Staten Island near the ferry, Sailors Snug Harbor was originally built as a home for retired sailors, eventually becoming a cultural center for both Staten Island and the rest of New York.
The institution was founded in 1801 after Captain Robert Richard Randall’s (d. 1801) will specified that his Manhattan estate be used to start a marine hospital for “aged, decrepit and worn-out seamen.” The name Sailors Snug Harbor was suggested by Randall himself. At the time of his death, Randall’s estate, located north and east of modern-day Washington Square, was rural. By the time a protracted challenge to his will was settled, the land around the estate had changed dramatically, the city being developed around the area. Opting instead to maximize profits on the Manhattan property, Snug Harbor’s trustees relocated the proposed site to Staten Island, buying property around the harbor in 1831.
The first of Snug Harbor’s many buildings opened in 1833. Over time its initial group of 37 residents grew and more buildings were added, including the chapel, music hall, and more dormitories. Completed in 1830-31, Building C, the center building in a series of five Greek-revival style structures facing the water, is the home of the Main Hall of the Newhouse Gallery. The other four buildings were added in 1839-1841 and 1879-80, and are notable in that they exhibit a high degree of stylistic uniformity. The Chapel (1854) and its romantic Anglo-Italian style of architecture is also a landmark.
In the 1960s the Trustees of Snug Harbor considered demolishing the buildings and upgrading and modernizing the facilities. In 1965 The City Landmarks Preservation Commission stepped in, designating six of the structures on the site official landmarks. (Other landmarked features include the Gatehouse and the site’s perimeter wrought-iron fence, both designated in 1973.) When the State Department of Health ordered Snug Harbor to remedy fire hazards in the landmarked buildings in 1970, the Trustees again discussed trying to undo the designation. In the early 1970s the dilapidated Sung Harbor had become economically nonviable, and the Trustees announced that they would move the home to North Carolina, agreeing to sell the site to the City for market value. The first of three parcels, 14.5 acres containing the landmarked structures, were sold to the City for $1.8 million in 1972. The City could not purchase the entire property, and in the interim a developer had purchased the site’s other land for a potential residential project before the City stepped in to purchase the 65-acre parcel for $7.2 million. A third parcel in the northwest portion of the park was added in 1978.
In December 1974 local officials appointed a committee to investigate uses and develop a strategy for Snug Harbor. Following the recommendation of the committee, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, Inc. was born. The Snug Harbor Cultural Center opened in 1976 as volunteers raised funds and began programming the center. The first art exhibit at the site opened in November, 1977.
Today over 250,000 people a year visit Snug Harbor, enjoying its many amenities. The Beaux-Arts style Music Hall, built in 1892, hosts year-round concerts, dance and dramatic performances, film and video series, and poetry and fiction readings. The Newhouse Galleries exhibit contemporary art, and the Botanical Garden is one of the largest in the New York area, complementing the Connie Gretz Secret Garden and the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, the first and only classical Chinese Garden in the United States. The site also boasts a children’s museum, art labs, and the John A. Noble Collection, a collection of maritime art in Building D.
A replica of a statue of Robert Randall (1884) by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907) stands in the northwestern corner of the site. After the aging sailors left for North Carolina it was feared that the statue of Randall would follow, and although the Trustees signed a long-term loan agreement in 1976 to keep the statue on site, in 1982 they returned the original to North Carolina and arranged for a cast to be made that can be seen today. The Neptune Fountain (1893) and its figure, originally cast in zinc because of lack of funding, were recast in bronze in 1994 following the original plans. A third piece by Seena Donneson made of red-reinforced concrete called Icon II was dedicated in 1980 at a sculpture show at the then-fledgling cultural center.