South Street Seaport Museum today mourns the loss of a founder. Jakob Isbrandtsen died early this morning, peacefully and painlessly.
Jakob was founding chairman of the Seaport Museum and it’s fair to say that he and founding president Peter Stanford together were the duo that breathed life into the place from the very beginning. Indeed, today’s South Street Seaport Museum—as evidenced by its logo—is represented by two large and iconic artifacts that define our very mission: Schermerhorn Row, the “first world trade center of New York” and the sailing cargo ship Wavertree. Jakob gave us both. He financed the purchase of the ship when she might have otherwise gone to scrap, bringing to New York a windjammer of the age of sail suitable for the task of representing her thousands of sisters. And he concocted the complex real estate deals that purchased, for the Seaport Museum ,the bulk of what would ultimately become the South Street Seaport Historic District, deals praised by the National Trust for “the kind of ingenuity and leverage that preservationists everywhere must learn to emulate.” In short, the most essential and visible representations of the Museum exist today thanks to our founding chairman.
But Jakob’s story is far more than this.
He was, to quote long-time volunteer Neil Flaherty, someone who inspired people, someone “you didn’t want to disappoint.” More than a decade after his ambitious acquisitions on behalf of the Museum, Jakob was a leader of people. After his career in commercial shipping, he shifted to volunteerism and led by example, mucking bilges in the hold of Wavertree and all manner of dirty, difficult, and dangerous tasks. He was the first person aboard the ship in the morning and the last to leave. It was all for the ship and all for the people in her. His advertisement for volunteers: “Long hours, dirty work, no pay” was just the right way to engage people in the ship, and the work done under his leadership kept Wavertree afloat for decades, allowing the restoration and care that continues today.
Jakob was dogged, too. He believed, says Penny Thomas, that “there was always a way to conquer adversity; he never gave up,” a trait she tries to emulate to this day.
We won’t disappoint you, Jakob. We are at work on the Museum and the ship you loved. I’m so very pleased that you got to see her in the shipyard two summers ago and that you were so pleased with the work we had underway. There are still volunteers at work, too. Many you know and more importantly many you don’t. We’re keeping your ship afloat, literally and metaphorically, and we’re conquering adversity. We won’t give up.
Thank you for the legacy you left us. New Yorkers today have a South Street Seaport Historic District with a Seaport Museum as its beating heart thanks to your leadership. We will carry on.