Museum looks to save ship by selling some
One year ago, the South Street Seaport Museum was on the verge of closing.
The museum never quite bounced back after 9/11 and subsequent funding cuts, which came midway through a major renovation. Layoffs drained the staff and closed the museum’s library, and the low attendance prevented improvements.
But this week, the museum’s leaders painted a picture of an institution that is on the rebound.
“We want to make the museum really, really vital to the Lower Manhattan community,” museum chairperson Frank Sciame told Community Board 1.
He and executive director Mary Pelzer are working to inject vibrancy into a museum whose exhibits have gone years without changing. This winter, they embarked on a six-month process to create a strategic plan, the museum’s first, which they will unveil in June. New exhibits are arriving, starting with a collection of Barbara Mensch’s photographs of fishmongers and other Seaport scenes, opening April 26. In October, the museum will host 120 to 150 objects from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personal maritime collection.
Pelzer, 29, intends for the museum’s resurrection to coincide with a myriad of Downtown revitalization projects, from the new World Trade Center to the East River waterfront.
“The Seaport district is going to be the focus and highlight of Lower Manhattan,” Pelzer said.
General Growth Properties is on the verge of announcing plans for Pier 17 and the rest of the Seaport mall, the city is planning park and public space all along the East River and the Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum will bring millions of visitors Downtown. With all those projects inundating the neighborhood, the museum is determined to carve out a central role for the Seaport Museum.
“It’s important that the city understands there’s more to the development of Downtown than ground zero,” Sciame said, emphasizing that the museum should not just attract tourists.
To strengthen the museum’s link to the community, Harold Reed, a C.B. 1 member, recently joined the board of trustees.
The museum needs rotating exhibits that appeal to a broader audience in order to attract Lower Manhattan residents and workers, Reed said. He wants to expand the museum’s offerings by bringing lectures, readings and new exhibits that will entice locals to visit the museum. One of the best signs for the future is that the museum is creating a strategic plan, Reed added.
“It’s a precious little jewel,” Reed said of the museum. “People know that it’s there, but attendance has to increase…. It’s an established cultural institution in New York City — we just need it to become more of a focal point. ”
Although the museum’s leaders are looking forward with optimism, the tight financial situation has given Pelzer and the trustees some tough decisions to make in the meantime. One of those decisions is to sell the Peking, the museum’s flagship vessel. The merchant ship arrived at the Seaport in 1975 and now needs $30-35 million of work before it can sail again.
“If a ship’s not moving, it’s losing money,” Pelzer said in an interview, quoting a shipping adage that applies to Peking as well. Immobile ships will not draw visitors, and the museum doesn’t have the money to put Peking in motion.
An organization in Hamburg, Germany, Europe’s second largest port and Peking’s birthplace, has expressed interest in bringing the ship home and making the repairs, Pelzer said. Peking will leave New York within the next several years.
“We truly believe we cannot afford to keep Peking,” said Sciame, also a developer who has restored historic buildings in the neighborhood. “We never intended [for Peking] to stay forever.”
Pelzer pointed out that when the museum bought the tall ship 33 years ago, the only other bidder at the auction was a scrap yard. The museum rescued the ship then, but now it’s time to pass the responsibility to someone else, she said.
Judy Trazino, a Southbridge Towers resident, was sad to hear of the museum’s plans to sell Peking.
“That’s horrible,” Trazino said in a telephone interview. “My children both grew up on that ship. It’s a piece of history — I certainly don’t want to see it go.”
Trazino’s daughter Jill, 12, used to visit Peking every day on trips to the Seaport. “It was like my backyard,” she said. “It’s pretty much wrong that they’re going to take it away.”
Along with other neighborhood children, Jill attended many programs on Peking and learned about its history, growing attached to the vessel in the process.
The ship is a symbol of the museum, she said, so “Seeing it go will make the whole thing fall apart.”
When she first heard the museum was considering selling the vessel four years ago, Jill, then 8, wrote letters urging the museum directors to change their mind. After a public outcry, museum leaders did say a few years ago that they no longer wanted to sell the ship and Jill is hoping that the same approach will work this time around.
“I’m going to write another letter and keep my fingers crossed,” she said.
Peking’s departure will allow the museum to focus on Wavertree, an 1885 tall ship that came to the Seaport Museum in 1968. Unlike Peking, Wavertree docked in New York for trade, so Wavertree is a better representative of the city’s history, Pelzer said. The Wavertree needs $4 million in structural improvements — money the city has already promised — and the ship will need an additional $2.5 million for exhibitions and sails. If all goes well, the ship will be ready to sail again by the end of 2009.
The museum may also sell some of its other ships. Those that are definitely safe, in addition to Wavertree, are W.O. Decker, Pioneer and Lettie G. Howard. But the museum is considering selling Ambrose, Helen McAllister and Marion M., which cannot sail on their own.
The funding shortfalls also led to layoffs in 2004, included Norman Brouwer, a nationally renowned maritime historian and curator. When he left, the museum’s library, including the books and a large collection of original ship plans, closed to the public.
“It’s a shame for the museum to not have a curator,” Julie Nadel, chairperson of the C.B. 1 Waterfront Committee said at a recent Waterfront meeting, after a presentation by the museum. She called Brouwer’s departure “a great loss.”
Pelzer replied that she wants the museum to once again become a source of scholarly research, but that the transformation will take time. Now, most of the books are in boxes, accessible only by appointment. Volunteers are creating a digital database of the library’s holdings, so future users will not have to rely on the card catalogue. A recent grant for a structural survey of the library’s space is ready to go but requires a corporate match. Pelzer added that she is reaching out to Brouwer for help.
“It sounds like they’re trying,” Nadel, who had been critical of Brouwer’s dismissal, said after the Waterfront Committee meeting. “It’s hard to run museums…. If they don’t have money, they don’t have money, and they have to make hard decisions.”
Nadel was happy that the museum came to the Waterfront Committee meeting and that lines of communication are open between C.B. 1 and the museum. As a show of support, C.B. 1 will list the reopening of the museum’s library as a high budget priority for next year.
On Sept. 12, 2001, the Port Authority was supposed to vote on $6 million of the $20 million renovation of the Seaport Museum’s Schermerhorn Row. The museum was in the middle of converting the row of warehouse buildings into gallery space. Not only did the Sept. 12 vote not happen, but many of the Port Authority staffers who had supported the funding died in the attack. The steelworkers who were doing the Seaport renovation were called to ground zero and the museum switched its focus to selling tickets for the viewing platform as a service to the community.
“Nine-eleven put us in a financial tailspin,” Sciame said. Pelzer added, “It was a big hurdle for us to get through.”
In January 2007, Sciame became chair of the board and Pelzer, the museum’s legal counsel and a former volunteer, was promoted to executive director. The museum couldn’t even contemplate progress at that point, but resolved to inch sideways, thinking any change would be a good one, Sciame said. Now, as more funding falls into place, he and Pelzer believe the museum is taking a step forward.
Schermerhorn Row, a 30,000-square-foot addition, opened partially in 2003 with 12,000 square feet of gallery space. Several floors of galleries are not yet open and need renovations to protect the artifacts. The museum received a $3 million grant from the city to do the work, but needs another million to do it right, Pelzer said.
The row of 1812 brick buildings served as a center of trade, first as produce markets and then as warehouses. The pine floorboards of the galleries, reclaimed from a 19th-century Boston warehouse, slope gently where the building settled. The original wooden ceiling beams are blackened in places from several fires that tore through the building, though Pelzer said the fire actually dried and strengthened the wood in places.
After the Brooklyn Bridge opened, Schermerhorn Row turned from a family market into a wholesale market and the hotel in one of the buildings became an immigrant tenement that may have taken a turn as a brothel. Preserved graffiti from the 19th and early 20th centuries shed light on the “rough and tumble crowd” that occupied the buildings and patronized a coffee and teahouse there. If a customer didn’t pay for his coffee, “Shoot him on the spot,” one inscription advised.
The galleries that are open house a fraction of the museum’s 30,000 objects, including paintings, ship models and scrimshaw. The upper levels, closed to the public, will eventually display a preserved hallway from the old hotel and the hotel’s washroom.
The South Street Seaport Museum was founded 40 years ago to preserve 12 blocks south of the Brooklyn Bridge. The museum succeeded in getting the neighborhood landmarked, and then brought historic ships to the waterfront and opened the library. The museum has 700 members and gets 250,000 visitors annually, numbers that the museum leaders hope will grow. The number of visitors includes those who just go see the ships but do not enter the museum’s building, Pelzer said.
The museum receives 15 percent of its funding from the government, with the rest split between earned income — admissions, program fees and rent from subtenants — and private donations.
Over the years, the museum has had something of an identity problem, Pelzer said. The Rouse Company, which built the mall on Pier 17, named the shops the “South Street Seaport,” creating confusion. And visitors drawn to the ships on Pier 16 often don’t realize that there is a museum that owns them, Pelzer said.
It doesn’t help that until Schermerhorn Row opened, the museum’s galleries were strewn throughout the neighborhood, with no unifying center.
“We called ourselves a museum without walls,” Pelzer said. “Now we have a center and a home for exhibitions.”
She added, though, that the museum maintains scattered gallery space, in addition to the ships on Pier 16 and the Titanic Memorial, with 75,000 square feet of space total. The museum also leads walking tours throughout the Seaport, so in many ways, the entire neighborhood falls under the museum’s purview as Pelzer seeks to tell the district’s story.
“The district is still important for us to interpret,” Pelzer said. “That’s our job — preserve [the history] and remind people about it.”
By Julie Shapiro