Cultural center reflects Snug Harbor’s maritime past
Were it not for the fact that much of Staten Island’s northern shoreline along Kill van Kull is a working, industrial harbor, it would cut a scenic swath with a panoramic view of the harbor and Manhattan skyline.
But, the piers that extend east and west from the town of St. George and the Staten Island Ferry terminal are and always have been busy serving maritime functions.
A vestige of an earlier era of those functions is the row of five Greek Revival buildings that are set back on a low, tree-shaded rise above Richmond Terrace.
They are now the chief architectural components of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center, an 83-acre park filled with gardens, museums and other educational and entertainment venues.
The site was developed first in 1833 with three buildings that served as what its founder, Robert Randall, called, “a home for retired, nature-born sailors” who served at least five years on a United States-flagged ship.
It grew to include more than 50 buildings, a dairy farm, hospital, chapel, music hall and other facilities that supported a peak population of nearly 1,000 retired sailors.
“Sailor’s Snug Harbor” became one of the richest charitable organizations in the country in the late 19th century, but fell on hard times as the “golden age” of sail faded and the old home for old sailors became obsolete.
The property rapidly deteriorated and faced an uncertain future. A developer purchased the land and planned to level the existing buildings and build an apartment complex. In the 1960s, preservationists rescued it with the intent of transforming it into a municipal park. The city of New York bought it in 1976, and the plans slowly but steadily fell into place.
A centerpiece of the center harkens to the heritage of the old sailors’ home.
The Noble Maritime Collection is the legacy of John Alexander Noble (1913-1983), a maritime artist who not only “talked the talk” but “walked the walk.” His father, Kansas-born John “Wichita Bill” Noble, was an accomplished artist who circulated in the elite Parisian artistic community until he moved his family back to New York City in 1919.
The younger Noble was smitten by the sea early in life. While honing his artistic talents, he worked on harbor tugs, salvage ships and schooners. He still found time to attend art schools in Grenoble, France; and Manhattan.
Noble became infatuated with the Kill van Kull, which flows between Staten Island and New Jersey. He salvaged a teak saloon from an old yacht and built a studio on a houseboat. From that unique vantage point, he studied the ships and sailors in the busy harbor and recorded their images on film and on canvas.
He was one of the prime movers and shakers of the effort to save Sailor’s Snug Harbor, and in return for lending his support, the Cultural Center established the Noble Maritime Collection as one of the primary attractions there.
On the first floor is the restored floating art studio where Noble lived and worked for more than four decades, and among other re-creations is a fully furnished sailor’s dormitory room, the “Writing Room,” which is decorated with ship models, paintings, pictures and nautical furniture.
The Noble Collection itself includes 11 paintings, 811 drawings, 124 lithographs and more than 6,000 photographs and negatives from John A. Noble’s personal inventory.
On view through the end of the year is the special “Tugboats Night & Day” exhibition, which features tugboat paintings, pictures and prints by a dozen contemporary maritime artists and a replica of a 19th-century New York Harbor wheelhouse.
By Charles J. Adams III