Tag Archives: Historical Preservation

A Century of Grand Central Terminal

There’s no place like Grand Central. The sheer scale and elegance of the main concourse transforms the daily commute into a complex choreography as commuters and tourists negotiate through the hallways, overheard conversations turn into mysterious plots of other people’s dramas, and what can be mundane becomes a unique experience. Grand Central has seen a steady tide of humanity for the past 100 years,  becoming  a beloved  New York landmark.

The first Grand Station Station on 42nd Street was Grand Central Depot, a beautiful but almost immediately obsolete building that was shared by the Harlem,  New Haven, and Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroads. Its glass topped train yard, seen below, was based on St. Pancras in London and was the largest train station in the States at the time. Yet each railroad had its individual waiting rooms and tracks making it “ill-arranged, dark and repelling”. (For more of this fantastically in-depth complaint of the old station in the New York Times, click here   and here.)

Unknown. Grand Central Terminal. ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2776.

Unknown. Grand Central Terminal. ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2776.

What was even worse than the interior was the jumble of tracks and belching of steam engines that rumbled down Fourth Avenue from Harlem. The streets from 42nd to 59th were intersected by train tracks which meant that merely crossing the street was so dangerous that for a while, Fourth Avenue was called “Death Avenue. (Read the fabulous 1913 article about the opening of the station.)  This was more or less fine when the surrounding areas were still relatively rural, but as the population of New York increased and respectable classes moved farther uptown, it made the area less than desirable.  Thankfully, a shift in technology came at just the right time. In 1900 trains were switching to electric power, which eliminated the unsightly steam, the omnipresent cinders, and noise.  By 1903  steam engines were banned in the city, and with new tunnels effectively hiding all hints of the railroads, Fourth (or Death) Avenue completed its transformation into Park Avenue.

Unknown. Grand Central Terminal. 1906. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2820.

Unknown. Grand Central Terminal. 1906. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2820.

In 1903,  as the plans for Penn Station were nearing completion, it was clear that a new Grand Central needed to be built if New York Central Railroad wanted to remain relevant.  So the heads of New York Central had a contest for the new station that reads almost like a Who’s Who of Gilded Age architecture – even McKim, Mead and White submitted a proposal: Stanford White’s fanciful  concept of a 60-story building topped by a tower of steam 300 feet tall and illuminated red at night.

McKim, Mead & White. Grand Central Terminal proposal. ca. 1903. museum of the City of New York. 90.44.1.486

McKim, Mead & White. Grand Central Terminal proposal. ca. 1903. museum of the City of New York. 90.44.1.486.

But it was St. Louis architectural firm Reed & Stern that eventually got the commission.  The New York firm of  Warren & Wetmore became consulting architects mostly due to Whitney Warren being the cousin of William Vanderbilt. However tumultuous the relationship between the architects may have been, the resulting building was a perfect marriage of their ideals. Reed & Stern were responsible for the effortless blending of engineering and design, but  it was Warren who elevated the building into art with Beaux-Arts details.

Unknown. Grand Central Terminal. ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2818.

Unknown. Grand Central Terminal. ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2818.

The construction of Grand Central was one of the biggest projects at that point in the history of Manhattan.  10 years passed; $65 million was spent; and  3.2 million cubic yards of earth and rock were removed. “The daily detritus, coupled with debris from the demolition of the old station, amounted to 1,000 cubic yards and filled nearly 300 railway dump cars…At peak periods, 10,000 workers were assigned to the site and work progressed around the clock.” (New York Times)  The scope of the project is astounding: Grand Central was built on 70 acres with 31.8 miles of tracks and 30 platforms totally eclipsing its nearest competitor, Penn Station, which was built on 23 acres and boasted 16 miles of tracks and 11 platforms.  Grand Central opened to the public on February 2, 1913 and New York has never been the same.

Unknown. Grand Central Terminal construction. ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2804

Unknown. Grand Central Terminal construction. ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2804.

Dr. Percy Fridenberg. Construction of Grand Central Terminal. ca. 1911. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.5467.

Dr. Percy Fridenberg. Construction of Grand Central Terminal. ca. 1911. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.5467.

The New York Times reported that in its first day 150,000 people visited Grand Central and were immediately in awe. Some of the more incredible features that have since fallen the wayside, such as women-only shoe polishing rooms safe from men catching a glimpse of ankle, and of course a separate hair parlor just in case the commute made her curls limp. What is really amazing is that for a mere 25 cents a woman could hire a private dressing room complete with a maid to make sure she would be ready for any social function. Men were not left out of these kinds of perks. They had private barber shops which offered shaves by a team of barbers who could speak up to 30 languages. A man could also rent a valet to make sure he was flawlessly fashionable.  And if tragedy were to strike either sex, the station doctor would be there within moments to treat them. It was the epitome of luxury.

Unknown. Grand Central Station. ca. 1918. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2827.

Unknown. Grand Central Station. ca. 1918. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2827.

Unknown. Interior, Grand Central. ca. 1918. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2798.

Unknown. Interior, Grand Central. ca. 1918. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2798.

Irving Underhill (d. 1960). Grand Central Depot, 42nd St. 1914. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.28.297.

Irving Underhill (d. 1960). Grand Central Depot, 42nd St. 1914. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.28.297.

For the next 50 years Grand Central was the epicenter of New York. Everyone passed through the terminal.  However, the decline of train travel affected Grand Central as much as it did the less fortunate Penn Station. During World War II the once grand skylights were painted over. By the 1950s, decades of nicotine tar coated the once blue constellation-adorned ceiling, and the east balcony had been covered with a giant Kodak advertisement. During the 1970s and 1980s it became the center of  one of largest homeless populations in New York.

John Harry Lufbery. Kodachrome Ad, Grand Central Station, #2. 1947. Museum of the City of New York. 2004.18.5

John Harry Lufbery. Kodachrome Ad, Grand Central Station, #2. 1947. Museum of the City of New York. 2004.18.5.

Save Grand Central. ca. 1968. Museum of the City of New York. 97.102.29

Save Grand Central. ca. 1968. Museum of the City of New York. 97.102.29.

In 1963, Pennsylvania Station was demolished (read our previous blog about its destruction here)  and by 1975  it looked like Grand Central would be next on the chopping block. But thanks to the recently created Landmark Preservation Board and supporters like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it was spared from becoming an office building.

Starting in 1993, Grand Central underwent a badly needed restoration and has now returned to its previous glory. Sunlight is again streaming in, the constellations twinkle on the ceiling, and the mere act of traveling is once again elegant.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.1695.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) Interior of Grand Central. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.16795.

 

Click here for more images of Grand Central from the Museum’s collection.

The Restoration of a Pilot House

Reginald Marsh. Tugboat pulling freight car floats. ca. 1938. Museum of the City of New York. 90.36.2.22.2C

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cargo containers coming into New York Harbor were loaded from ocean-going vessels onto large barges with railroad tracks on the deck. Vessels like the steam tugboat New York Central No. 31 (built in 1923 for the New York Central Railroad) moved these barges between rail yards so that the containers could be attached to trains headed to the rest of the country.

Reginald Marsh. Tugboat pulling freight car floats. ca. 1938. Museum of the City of New York. 90.36.2.22.1E

These vessels had distinctively tall pilot houses, enabling the captain to see over the cargo on the barges in order to pilot the craft safely around the Harbor, as well as several windows for good visibility in all directions.

New York Central No. 31 was operated by a crew of 6 in the freight yards of Weehawken, NJ, and the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  She retired in 1970, and the South Street Seaport Museum purchased her pilot house for the collection in 1980 with funds from the Seamen’s Bank for Savings.

Long a fixture on Pier 16, the pilot house had not been restored since 1989.  When the Museum of the City of New York took over operations at the Seaport Museum, it was clear that the time had come for some preservation work, as the harsh weather conditions on the waterfront had damaged the structure.

BEFORE: New York Central No. 31 Pilot House (1980.007) in April 2012

Glen removing the rotted layers of the roof in early May

A cross-section of the roof, including the original canvas covering

One surprise when we removed some of the rotting siding — graffiti from before the last restoration in 1989! Wonder if this couple is still together…

In early May, Jim Clements and Glen Garver, both master joiners, came to the Museum to begin work.  Jim and Glen have done extensive work both ashore and afloat, including several other pilot house projects. We were fortunate to have these two fine artists working with us on the restoration of the New York Central 31 pilot house.

The first step was to remove all of the rotting wood, exposing the internal structure of the pilot house along with a few surprises, including the original canvas roof and a graffiti record of 1980′s-era love.

Jim and Glen removed any material that was rotted and replaced it with historically – appropriate materials that would be able to withstand the harsh waterfront weather conditions.

New and old wood along the roof edge

New siding done in traditional tongue-in-groove technique

Jim fairing joints at soffit and fascia.

Once the structure was updated, Jim and Glen primed the building for painting, which Sal Polisi, the woodcarver at the Seaport Museum’s maritime crafts center, completed.  The pilot house had long been painted a greenish-gray color, but Norman Brouwer, a noted maritime historian who is consulting with the Museum on various projects, selected an olive green and bright red color scheme that is more historically accurate.

Sal painting the name board he hand-carved for the pilot house

Sal also restored and repainted the name boards he’d made for the pilot house back in the 1980′s.  These signs are exact replicas of the signs the vessel would have sported in the 1930′s.

Waterfront staff led by waterfront director Jonathan Boulware then moved the pilot house to a new location on the pier using pipe rollers and a forklift.

With a few coats of paint, the pilot house now looks cheery on the pier, and it currently serves as the ticket office for Trapeze School New York.  Come on down and check out a piece of history before you go fly high over the East River!

The Seaport Museum, currently under the management of the Museum of the City of New York, is open seven days a week from 10:00 – 6:00.

AFTER: the pilot house, brightly painted in historically accurate colors, after her restoration

The Prospect Park Concert Grove

As mentioned in May 22nd’s post,  Saving the Interior of the Plaza Hotel, New York City isn’t known just for its landmarked buildings, but also its scenic historical sites, as well.  Brooklyn’s 585-acre Prospect Park is a hybrid of built structures, planned  landscapes, and natural areas left relatively unchanged.  The Park features wooded and paved trails, open lawns, a lake and streams, Brooklyn’s only forest, rolling hills, and ball fields, among other recreational and educational facilities.

Green-Wood Cemetery Visitor’s Pass, 1850, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 50.41.149

Prior to establishing Prospect Park, Brooklynites visited Green-Wood Cemetery to find a little outdoor recreational space. The inappropriateness of using a cemetery for leisure activities soon became apparent, as evidenced by the rules listed on this pass for visiting Green-Wood, to the right.

James Stranahan, a business and civic leader, was an early advocate of establishing a park in Brooklyn.  With significant real estate interests in Brooklyn, he hoped a park would help lure residents to the city and turn Brooklyn into the next great metropolis. He was a driving force behind the new park, serving as its first President of the Prospect Park Commission and selecting the design by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the landscape architects responsible for Manhattan’s Central Park, as well as many other parks throughout the city and country.

Design for Prospect Park in the City of Brooklyn, 1869, in the Map Collection. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.5.165.

Construction began on the park in 1866.

Photographer unknown. Original site of lake bed in Prospect Park, ca 1866. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.14264.

Brooklyn, Shelter House, Prospect Park, ca. 1908, in the Postcard Collection. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.1838.

Olmsted felt a park should provide a rural respite from the demands of city life. Among the many sites designed  for the park was the Concert Grove House and Pavilion (sometimes referred to as the Oriental Pavilion, and in this postcard to the left, as the Shelter House), built adjacent to the Lake so Park visitors could enjoy music in a pastoral setting.  One of the original features of the Concert Grove was Music Island, where live performances were held as visitors sat in an open air pavilion along the side of the lake.  In 1949, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses demolished the Concert Grove House, converted the Concert Pavilion to a snack bar, and constructed a skating ring in the area in between the lake and the Concert Grove.  Following a fire in 1979 which nearly destroyed the Concert Pavilion, it sat dormant until 1987, when it was restored to its original design.

Today, more work to restore this section of the Park to its original design is underway. Those of you who frequent Prospect Park may have noticed the construction going on along the southeastern side of the park.  The construction fencing around the site announces, “Lakeside is coming!”  The Lakeside project will restore the view of Music Island and recreate the promenade along the Lake, restoring the original view conceived by Olmsted and Vaux pictured below.

Brooklyn, N. Y., Lake in Prospect Park, ca. 1910, in the Postcard Collection. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.1972.

Penn Station and the Rise of Historic Preservation

After reading Lauren Robinson’s fantastic blog post about the return of Mad Men, I found myself haunted by the destruction of the original Penn Station. And as I dug deeper, I discovered that this was a drama of almost mythic proportions; a classic tale of David and Goliath; big corporations against a rag-tag group of underdogs; and art versus profit.

But first, the backstory: the original Pennsylvania Station was designed by Charles F. McKim, of McKim, Mead & White fame, the preeminent East Coast architectural firm of the Gilded Age. McKim’s designs drew heavily on classical architecture like the Roman Baths of Caracalla and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin that elevated the mere activity of entering and leaving the city into a  momentous occasion.

McKim, Mead & White. Pennsylvania Station. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. 90.44.1.593.

Penn Station was opened on September 8th, 1910, and its sheer scale immediately evoked a sense of awe. At the time it was completed, it was the largest building ever built (with the qualifier of “at one time”), and boasted the biggest waiting room in history. With 150-foot ceilings and natural light streaming through an iron and glass roof — how could one not think that they were somewhere magical?

George P. Hall and Son. Interior of Pennsylvania Station. 1911. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.5113.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Pennsylvania Station. 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 43.131.1.216.

Wide World Photos, Inc. Crowds in Pennsylvania Station. ca. 1920. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.5088.

Yet only 50 years after it was opened, Penn Station was in trouble. The owners of the station, Pennsylvania Railroad, were broke. The station was falling into disrepair. Airplanes and automobiles had begun to eclipse rail travel. With all this, the nine-acre lot between 7th and 8th Avenues from 31st to 33rd Street was just far too valuable not to sell.  Even the architecture had gone out of style. The opulence and grandeur that were so popular in the Gilded Age were seen as an ungainly relic compared to the modern architecture of the 1960s.

At the same time, Madison Square Garden was outgrowing its location on 8th Avenue and 50th Street and its owners were eying possible building sites for a new, completely modernized sports arena. Suddenly there appeared an answer for both Pennsylvania Railroad’s financial problems and the continuation of Madison Square Garden. On July 25, 1961, the New York Times published the first mention of the relocation of Madison Square Garden to the site of Penn Station. What’s intriguing about this article is that the developers meant to keep the original station waiting room as part of the new facility. Two days later it became apparent that this was not going to happen, and on July 27, 1961 the front page of the New York Times ran the headline “’62 Start is Set for New Garden — Penn Station to Be Razed to Street Level in Project.” The planned $75 million complex included a hotel and a 34-story office building, along with a 25,000 seat arena and a smaller 4,000 seat arena, which the article described as “a huge, sagging pancake.” But, Irving Felt, the president of the company that owned Madison Square Garden, believed “that the gain from the new buildings and sports center would more than offset any aesthetic loss.”

This galvanized a group of five twenty-something architects calling themselves the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York, shortened to AGBANY, to organize a public protest against the demolition on August 21, 1962.  From 5 to 7 P.M, they picketed in front of Penn Station carrying signs reading “Shame” and “Don’t Amputate — Renovate.”  Reports vary that at least 150 people participated and soon organizations like the Municipal Arts Council joined the fight to save Penn Station. For the next year, the battle continued. Larger protests from city residents, however, didn’t come until it was too late.

On October 28, 1963 at 9 A.M., as a light rain fell and picketers wearing black armbands watched silently, electric jackhammers began to destroy Penn Station. For the next three years, Penn Station was slowly demolished.  The destruction was brutal and total; the station’s monumental ornamentation – 16-ton decorative eagles and the 84 Doric columns that made up the Seventh Avenue facade – were dumped unceremoniously into the marshlands of Secaucus, New Jersey.

Aaron Rose. The demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-1965. Museum of the City of New York. 01.30.82

Aaron Rose. The demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-1965. Museum of the City of New York. 01.30.2

Aaron Rose. The demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-1965. Museum of the City of New York. 01.30.79.

Aaron Rose. The demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-1965. Museum of the City of New York. 01.30.95.

Aaron Rose. The demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-1965. Museum of the City of New York. 01.30.117.

As a direct result, on April 15, 1965, Mayor Robert Wagner signed the Landmark Law, which created the Landmarks Preservation Commission. For the first time there was an agency with government power to designate and even save historical buildings and neighborhoods. The legal ramification didn’t end there though. A year later, after growing countrywide preservation efforts, the National Historic Preservation Act was enacted, ensuring that other cities wouldn’t also have to lose a landmark to realize the importance of its preservation.

Below are some of the strikingly emotional reactions to the destruction of Penn Station from the New York Times:

“Farewell to Penn Station” on October 30, 1963 “Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished, or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance. Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed”

Ada Louise Huxtable wrote the following on July 16, 1966:  “Pennsylvania Station succumbed to progress this week at the age of 56, after a lingering decline.  The building’s one remaining facade was shorn of eagles and ornament yesterday, preparatory to leveling the last wall.  It went not with a bang, or a whimper, but to the rustle of real estate stock shares.  The passing of Penn Station is more than the end of a landmark.  It makes the priority of real estate values over preservation conclusively clear.  It confirms the demise of an age of opulent elegance, of conspicuous, magnificent spaces, rich and enduring materials, the monumental civic gesture, and extravagant expenditure for esthetic ends.”

Vincent Scully, Jr., as quoted in the New York Times on February 12, 2012 about the differences in the Penn Station:  “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

For a detailed  study of the demolition of Penn Station,  check out The Fall and Rise of Pennsylvania Station. Changing Attitudes Toward Historic Preservation in New York City by Eric J. Plosky, found here.

During the month of May, we’ll be posting more entries on historic preservation in the city. The Museum of the City of New York is competing for a $250,000 grant from Partners in Preservation, a joint program sponsored by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The winner is determined by popular vote, and individuals may vote once a day through May 21st. Please help us by going to http://www.helpmcny.com/ and voting today.

Mott Haven Historic District

The neighborhood of Mott Haven is located in the South Bronx, and is situated on a portion of land historically referred to as Morrisania, named after the powerful Morris family who held possession of it for centuries.    Richard and Lewis Morris, merchants from Barbados, purchased the land from Jonas Bronck in 1670.  Alexander Avenue, which extends through the heart of the Mott Haven Historic District, is reputed to have been named after Alexander Bathgate, the overseer of the Morris manor.

J. L. Mott Ironworks, 1897. in the Bills Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 97.199.1

In 1828, Jordan L. Mott, an inventor and industrialist, purchased land from the Morris family to establish a foundry for his ironworks on the Harlem River at 134th Street.   By the 1840s he’d purchased a second tract of land with the idea of building the village of Mott Haven.  By 1850, Mott had drawn up plans for the lower part of the Mott Haven Canal, which, once completed, allowed canal boats to travel as far north as 138th Street.

Map of Mott Haven Canal Docks and other Property of W. E. Rider and T. H. Conkling, ca. 1880, In the Map Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.3142A.

Mott was viewed with a certain amount of resentment, as his ironworks and canal were the forerunners of a wave of unwelcome industrialization through what had previously been pastoral countryside.   If you look along the canal in the map above, you’ll see the Mott Ironworks located where the canal meets the Harlem River, and several other industrial buildings as you move up the canal.  The neighborhood that forms the Mott Haven Historic District is a residential pocket in the greater industrial neighborhood of Mott Haven, contributing to it’s uniqueness.

Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) and Frank Bauman, for LOOK Magazine. Changing New York: A building and a firehouse being demolished, 1957. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.7552-57.175

The Mott Haven Historic District is roughly situated along Alexander Avenue, bounded by East 137th Street to the south, and East 141st Street to the north.  This stretch has been known throughout its history both as “The Irish Fifth Avenue” and “Politician’s Row.” The Mott Haven Historical District was the first area in the Bronx to receive the designation from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, in 1969, shortly following the first historic district designation in 1965 of Brooklyn Heights.   Following the construction of major highways in the South Bronx in the 1950s, primarily the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the displacement of vast swathes of residents led to poverty and decay in the South Bronx.  Images such at the one above, picturing demolition along the Harlem River at the Park Avenue Bridge (just southwest of the Mott Haven Historic District), became commonplace by the 1960s.

Wurts Brothers. East 137th Street and Alexander Avenue. St. Jerome’s Roman Catholic Church, interior, ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.10472.

Scenes such as the one  captured by Rothstein and Bauman illustrate the timeliness of the historic district designation for Mott Haven.  Among some of the architectural landmarks in the Mott Haven Historic District is St. Jerome’s Roman Catholic Church, at the corner of Alexander Avenue and 138th Street, pictured to the right.   The district also boasts several examples of historic residential architecture from the early 1860s – 1920s, with interiors custom designed for their owners, and important civic structures, including: the Tercera Iglesia Bautista (Third Baptist Church) and its parsonage; the Mott Haven Branch of the Public Library, which was the first public library in the Bronx, and constructed with funds from Andrew Carnegie’s grant; and the 40th Precinct Police Station.  While the historical designation of Mott Haven was a step in the right direction for preserving the unique architectural landscape of the South Bronx, no other neighborhoods received the designation until Longwood did, in 1980.

Susan Lorkid Katz. SKIPPED, 1977. Museum of the City of New York. 84.203.101

In the decade in between,  decay continued to spread through the borough, and numerous building fires sprung up on a daily basis, leading to the coining of the phrase, “The Bronx is burning,” attributed to Howard Cosell as he commented on a fire in the neighborhood surrounding the stadium during a New York Yankees game.  The events of the 1970s brought national attention to the South Bronx, including the notice of President Jimmy Carter, and by the early 1980s parts of the borough were beginning to experience an urban renewal.  In addition to Longwood, three other neighborhoods received the historic designation in the 1980s, and four in the 1990s.

Click here to view more images of Mott Haven from the collection, including structures which no longer exist, such as the 138th Street Grand Central Railroad Station and the 3rd Avenue “L”.

During the month of May, we’ll be posting more entries on historic preservation in the city. The Museum of the City of New York is competing for a $250,000 grant from Partners in Preservation, a joint program sponsored by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The winner is determined by popular vote, and individuals may vote once a day through May 21st. Please help us by going to http://www.helpmcny.com/ and voting today.

Saving the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse

April 16, 1912 was supposed to have been a joyous day for Seamen’s Church Institute.  That evening, they were scheduled to celebrate laying the cornerstone of their new building at 25 South Street.  Earlier that day, however, news arrived of the sinking of Titanic, and excitement over the new building was overshadowed by a nation mourning the loss of over 1,500 people.  The group in attendance at the ceremony made a plan to build a lighthouse on top of the building to commemorate the heroism displayed by many in the tragedy, as well as remember those who lost their lives.

New York Herald, 1912. Surviving Crew Receives Clothing, 1912. Courtesy of The Seamen's Church Institute Archives.

Building this lighthouse turned into a nationwide effort as people banded together in solidarity after the tragedy; it seemed that everyone donated to the cause.  Wealthy socialites like Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt wrote checks and schoolchildren donated pennies and nickels .  One year to the day after the sinking, the lighthouse was dedicated in front of a crowd of over 300.

Invitation to the Dedication of the TitanicMemorial Lighthouse, 1913. Courtesy of Seamen's Church Institute Archives.

Dedication of the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse, 1913. Courtesy of Seamen's Church Institute Archives.

Although it served as a memorial, the lighthouse had a practical use as well.  Designed by Warren & Wetmore (the architects of Grand Central Station), its signature green light (the only lighthouse in the country to use that color) could be seen by vessels 10 miles out in the Narrows, helping guide ships into port.  A time ball was dropped every day at 12 noon, which ships in the harbor, as well as local residents and workers in Lower Manhattan, could use to set their watches.

Samuel H. Gottscho (1875-1971). New York City Views. Detail of the Titanic Memorial on Seamen’s Church Institute, 1932. Museum of the City of New York, 88.1.1.2369.

In 1967, Seamen’s Church Institute moved to new headquarters at 15 State Street and their original building, along with the lighthouse, was set to be demolished.  A group of concerned preservationists led by Frederick Fried, Friends of South Street Seaport, and the South Street Seaport Museum, banded together to persuade the demolition company to donate the lighthouse to the Museum.  It now anchors a small park at the intersection of Fulton St. and Water St., at the entrance of the Historic Seaport District.  Not only does it serve as a reminder of Titanic’s tragic story, it also documents the role of an important institution in the port’s history, provides a visible welcome to the Seaport, and reminds us of the need to preserve landmarks and artifacts.

Titanic Memorial Lighthouse where it stands today; unbeknownst to this woman, she's sitting under history!

Plaque on the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse.

For more information about Seamen’s Church Institute and their work helping the surviving crew from Titanic, check out the SCI Archive’s digital exhibition.

If you’d like to learn more about Titanic or to see the lighthouse in person, visit the South Street Seaport Museum, where today, April 10, 2012, the one hundredth anniversary of RMS Titanic’s launch on her maiden – and only – voyage, the Museum opens Titanic at 100: Myth and Memory, an exhibition that examines both the disaster and a century’s worth of fascination with the ship’s dramatic story.