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By Terese Loeb Kreuzer | The four-masted barque, “Peking,” turned one hundred this year, but there was no birthday celebration for the great, steel-hulled ship built to withstand the 65-foot seas of Cape Horn. Rusting and neglected, the 18-story-tall masts of “Peking” and those of the older and smaller iron-hulled “Wavertree” loomed over the roughly 150 people that gathered under the F.D.R. Drive at Pier 16 on Sunday, May 22 in front of a homemade sign that said “Save Our Seaport.”
Both the “Peking” and the “Wavertree” belong to the Seaport Museum New York (formerly the South Street Seaport Museum) which has closed its exhibition galleries at 12 Fulton St., furloughed half its staff and would have divested itself of its historic fleet had New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman not kept it from doing so.
Speaker after speaker at the rally declared their passion for the Seaport and their determination not to see the museum or its holdings disappear. “I can’t imagine New York City without the museum and these ships any more than I can imagine this city without the Statue of Liberty and the lights of Broadway,” said Capt. John Doswell, whose credentials include founding chair and director of the Friends of Hudson River Park and trustee of Save Our Ships New York.
New York’s harbor “made this city what it is today,” he said. “Without that history, we wouldn’t even be here, and without this museum and its collection of objects and vessels, that history would be lost.”
In the last three months, as the museum’s financial plight became widely known and a third of its trustees resigned, the man who was one of the founders of the museum and its first president, Peter Stanford, returned to try to salvage the situation. With several others, he founded Save Our Seaport, which has called for Mary Ellen Pelzer, president and C.E.O. of the museum, and Frank J. Sciame, chairman, to resign.
In addition to advocating new trustees and new management, the group has issued a statement saying, among other things, that the museum has a responsibility to maintain and preserve its collections, including its ships. It also has said that the museum should reopen its historic, 19th-century print shop, Bowne & Co. Stationers, at 211 Water St. and rededicate itself to its educational mission.
On Sunday, leaning on a cane, walking with difficulty and clearly in pain, Stanford, 84, was nevertheless forceful and articulate. Volunteers “kept this place going through the difficult days, the thin days, when there really was no money and when the Landmarks Commission didn’t approve of the concept even,” he said, recalling the museum’s birth 44 years ago. “It was a wonderful battle. Our motto was other museums are for people. This museum is people. We’ve got to find a way to turn things around and we’re working on it.”
He said that, “The mayor is widely reported to be ready to put up the millions of dollars that are needed to pay the [museum’s] debts and open the doors again.”
After his formal speech to the crowd, Stanford found a seat on the pier and reflected on where things stood. “I believe that the Museum of the City of New York will get involved,” he said, “but I’m asking that they get involved with what we’re seeing right here – people who know this subject and love these ships. When I first realized the jam the museum is in right now – owing millions of dollars it can’t pay and dead in the water, I refused to accept it just like these people are refusing to accept it – because it can be turned around, it must be turned around – and it will – one way or another.”
For Robert LaValva, another speaker at the rally and founder of the New Amsterdam Market on South Street, the issue is not just the museum but the Seaport as a whole. “Our mission has been to preserve and save a part of the Seaport that is equally imperiled as these ships – the old Fulton Fish Market,” he told the crowd.
“The public owns the Fish Market – three buildings – one known as the Market Stalls on South Street, the Tin Building and the New Market Building – all owned by us. The public owns the streets – the cobblestone streets that everyone talks about and nearly all the buildings on those streets. They may be closed to traffic, they may feel like a suburban shopping mall, but they’re owned by the City… and because they are owned by the public, the public should become more involved with determining the future of this place, which is a nearly intact 19th-century wholesale market district, a priceless asset of this city and a monument of worldwide significance.”
In a phone conversation, LaValva elaborated on what he had said at the rally. In the early 1980s, he said, $200 million in federal, State and City money had gone into restoring the historic Seaport. “The Seaport is part of the public patrimony of the City. It is a district, and a district means there is a connection between everything that’s there. That is its immense historic value. Each individual building has a value, but it’s the whole of them together that is the most valuable. As such, it is kind of like a vessel that contains the past. When the Seaport was preserved back in the 1960s, one of the things that was said was that it was preserved for the public benefit and it was a place where the past could be understood. We need to stop forcing the Seaport to be a suburban shopping mall. It was never meant to be that.”
Much about the Seaport is uncertain at the moment — what the mayor will do, what the Museum of the City of New York, which may take over the Seaport Museum, will do and what the Howard Hughes Corp., owner of a long-term lease on the Seaport, will do. Meanwhile, Save Our Seaport has a website, www.saveourseaport.wordpress.com, where people who are interested in the fate of the Seaport can learn what’s happening and participate in influencing the outcome.