The Titanic Memorial Lighthouse, erected at the corner of Fulton and Water Street is a lighthouse and a memorial dedicated to honor RMS Titanic’s passengers, officers, and crew who perished when the ship sank after collision with an iceberg.
It was originally erected on the roof of the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI), 240 feet above sea level, at the corner of South Street and Coenties Slip (now Vietnam Veterans Plaza), on April 15, 1913.
Building this lighthouse was a nationwide effort led by Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) as people banded together in solidarity after the loss of over 1,500 on board the ocean liner. It was built by public subscription after the group in attendance at the ceremony to celebrate laying the cornerstone of their new building at 25 South Street 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.
Everyone donated to the cause: wealthy socialites like Grace Vanderbilt, wife of Cornelius Vanderbilt wrote checks, and schoolchildren donated pennies and nickels. One year to the day after RMS Titanic’s sinking, the lighthouse was dedicated, 13 stories above busy South Street, in front of a crowd of over 300 people at the top of the SCI’s building at 25 South Street (now Veterans Plaza).
Although it served as a memorial, the lighthouse had a practical use as well. Designed by Warren & Wetmore (the architects of Grand Central Terminal), its signature green light could be seen by vessels 10 miles out in the Narrows, helping guide ships into port. It was the only lighthouse in the country to use that color.
Incorporated as the only official Coast Guard light on Manhattan Island, the light was provided by three Cooper Hewitt mercury lamps of 2,500 candle power each, and it is visible six miles down the “Narrows.” Atop the tower was the time ball mechanism, which was activated by a telegraphic signal from the Naval Observatory near Lincoln Memorial Arlington, Virginia. The time ball consisted of a bronze frame, four feet across covered with canvas that was painted black for maximum visibility, and it was put into operation November 1, 1913.
From 1913 to 1967 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.
The lighthouse remained in its original location until 1968, when, after 55 years of service, SCI moved its headquarters to 15 State Street and the old building, along with the Lighthouse, was set to be demolished.
A group of concerned preservationists persuaded the demolition company to donate the lighthouse to the Seaport Museum. In a letter to the company, Museum founding president Peter Stanford wrote the following: “The Lighthouse atop the building was dedicated many years ago, when new, to the victims of the Titanic disaster. We believe this monument should not be doomed as part of the obsolete building to which it happens to be attached. The tragedy of the Titanic, and its lessons to history, are not less real today than in 1912…It would dishonor the memory of the victims by destroying the monument within the lifetimes of those who remember.”
The tower was donated to the South Street Street Seaport Museum by the Kaiser-Nelson Steel and Salvage Corporation in July of 1968, and it was erected in her current location in May 1976 with funds provided by the Exxon Corporation.
Today the structure anchors a small park at the intersection of Fulton and Pearl streets, at the entrance of the South Street Seaport Historic Seaport District. It is a visible welcome to the seaport district, providing a space for people to stop and reflect on Titanic’s tragic story, and its impact on Lower Manhattan over one hundred years ago.
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