Sailors’ Snug Harbor
In his will, written in 1801, Robert Richard Randall bequeathed his property to create a retirement home for "aged, decrepit, and worn out seamen" to be known as “The Sailors’ Snug Harbor.” Alexander Hamilton drafted the will. The facility opened on Staten Island in 1831 and is one of the first retirement homes established in the United States.
In 1992, the Noble Maritime Collection moved from Noble's home, where it was established, to Building D, a derelict landmark at Snug Harbor Cultural Center. Its goal was to answer a long-heard cry from the community to address and preserve the history of Sailors' Snug Harbor. John A. Noble was passionately involved in the fight to save the home from the wrecking ball from the time in the late 1940s when the Sailors' Snug Harbor Trustees, in an attempt to reduce costs, began demolishing some of the buildings on site.
Inspired by Noble's passion for mariners and their venerable home, the Noble Maritime Collection undertook the $3.2 million adaptive reuse of Building D, a former dormitory, and one of the famous "front five" buildings on site. The building was designed by Minard Lafever in the Greek Revival style, constructed in 1840, and occupied as a dormitory in 1844.
Sailors' Snug Harbor was one of the first democratic, non-discriminatory charitable institutions in this country. The sole requirement for residency was five years of maritime service under the United States flag or ten years of service under a foreign flag. There were no admission requirements regarding religion, nationality, physical condition, sex, or age, and Sailors' Snug Harbor, where each resident was called "Captain," became a melting pot of mariners from across the globe who were cared for by hundreds of employees largely from Staten Island. A self-contained community, the site's farm produced its food and tobacco, and included a 400-bed hospital and a sanatorium.
Robert Richard Randall was a wealthy entrepreneur, and his will provided for the creation of the retirement home at his farm in Manhattan, in the area of what is now Greenwich Village. Like the rest of Manhattan, the property rapidly increased in value. The Sailors' Snug Harbor Trustees determined that it would be more prudent to use the Manhattan real estate as a source of funding for the Sailors' Snug Harbor and, with court approval, built a 150-acre farm on Staten Island. It consisted of north shore footage overlooking the Upper Bay and the Kill van Kull. Meanwhile they built about 250 residences on the Manhattan property. From Astor Place to Tenth Street, the streets became lined with elegant homes in the Federal and Greek Revival styles, and their rental provided income to maintain the mariner's home, which opened on Staten Island in 1831.
The Trustees were able to construct buildings as needed, and in 1827 they advertised for the first, a brick or stone building to accommodate 200 seamen. Minard Lafever, a 33-year-old upstate carpenter, submitted the winning design. The Trust used its extensive resources to make the site comfortable and to furnish and decorate the buildings; it became one of the most lavish nursing homes in the world. Over the years 55 buildings, including a replica of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, a 30-room residence for the Harbor's Governor, a private morgue, powerhouse, chapel, music hall, hospital, greenhouse, and dairy farm were added to the site. With its St. Gaudens statue of Randall, Neptune Fountain, Victorian gazebo, stands of pine trees, walks lined with chestnut trees, flower gardens, ponds, and cemetery dubbed "Monkey Hill" by residents, the Harbor was, as John A. Noble wrote, "a truly baronial estate encompassing great lawns—woodlands—lake and stream—secret nooks, and many a strange and interesting vista or object."
When Robert Richard Randall died in 1801, a young boy of 12 or 14 who went to sea might never return home. Without any savings, "worn out" and "decrepit" after years under sail enduring unimaginable hardships, a sailor would find himself homeless and his fate—dying penniless and alone—fixed. To him, Sailors' Snug Harbor was a dream come true. There he could find refuge, food, clothing, and medical treatment in an atmosphere of respect. Men were forbidden to drink on site, but they were free to come and go. For spending money, they could sell their handicrafts, things like hand-woven baskets and ship models. There was camaraderie, entertainment in the Music Hall and popular amenities like ham radios in the recreation hall and fishing on the pond. As Noble wrote, Sailors' Snug Harbor was "a home and a club, a ducal estate, for a distinguished breed of man."
The Noble Maritime Collection maintains a collection of artifacts and documents gathered in the 20 years since the museum came to the Snug Harbor site and interprets the site’s history in its exhibitions, programs, and publications. In 2010, the Trustees made the Noble Maritime Collection the custodian of its prestigious collection of art and artifacts in order to catalogue, preserve, and exhibit the Trust’s collection.
Remembering Sailors' Snug Harbor: An oral history project, Haunting Building D
The Noble Maritime Collection's oral history project, Haunting Building D, seeks to preserve tangible mementos, like furnishings, photographs and documents, as well as intangible ones, your memories. If you worked at Sailors’ Snug Harbor or knew someone who did, if you played on the grounds and talked with the "Snugs," if you came here to sing Christmas carols, or if you knew someone who lived here, we invite you and urge you to share your memories by filling out the Haunting Building D questionnaire.