Celebrating 10 years of Archtober: a look at some architecturally significant buildings in our district.
October 1, 2020 – Martina Caruso, Director of Collections
The 18th- and 19th-century buildings of the South Street Seaport Historic District exist today because the South Street Seaport Museum exists.
In the 1960s New York was undergoing one of its most dramatic reinventions. The tension between urban renewal and historic preservation was center stage. After convincing the city to spare the buildings from the wrecking ball, the Museum’s founders—a group of passionate preservationists—set out to restore the area’s structures and repopulate South Street, “the Street of Ships,” with historic vessels.
The buildings of the district span a period of almost 200 years and they are representative of several different styles of mercantile architecture, including Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival, as well as the later Italianate and Romanesque Revival styles. Early stores and warehouses were designed by builders often unknown, while later 19th-century buildings were often the product of prominent New York City architects such as Stephen D. Hatch, George B. Post, and Richard Morris Hunt.
Today, many of the original structures are a combination of several architectural styles as they were substantially modified at a later date. The Museum’s collections and archival materials document the stories of many of these buildings, their styles, businesses and occupants, their changes in use, historical happenings, as well as their restoration, or losses. Below are a few buildings that stood out to me while I was researching in our photo archive and institutional archives.
Capt. Joseph Rose House (ca. 1773)
273 Water Street; Architect unknown
This Georgian style house is the oldest building in the South Street Seaport Historic District and the third oldest in Manhattan (after the Morris-Jumel Mansion and St. Paul’s Chapel). It was built in 1773 before landfill widened the island, and the East River ran just behind the property. The house is named after its commissioner, Captain Joseph Rose (date unknown), who was in the business of trading in sugar, mahogany, indigo, rice and tobacco in the Bay of Honduras. He shared a pier with his neighbor, merchant William Laight1 (date unknown), where they docked their two-masted square-rigged ships, or brigs.
Similar merchant class homes, with related wharves or piers, lined the streets of the neighborhood. In 1791 Joseph Rose and his family moved to Pearl Street, leaving the Water Street property to his son. After the beginning of the 19th century the street level of the Water Street house was converted to commercial use, and it’s recorded that in the late 1790s Capt. Rose’s son ran an apothecary there. In 1812 a cobbler shop was located on the ground floor, and before the Civil War the building was operated as a small hotel and saloon. In the 1860s, Christopher “Kit” Burns (1831-1870) purchased 273 Water Street, and opened a dance hall in the house called “Sportsmen’s Hall” where he offered a variety of distractions, including gambling, boxing, dancing, drinking, and the most renowned rat and dog fights as entertainment.
According to the district’s designation report2, the original entranceway was likely located at the northernmost bay, where a single brownstone lintel remains, and the original pathway was at the southernmost bay of the building. The remaining original portions of the façade include the Flemish bond brickwork and two of the wood sills on the second story. A brownstone belt course divides the first from the second story. Splayed brownstone lintels distinguish the second story from the ones above.
A fire in 1904 destroyed the original third story and peaked roof, and another fire in February of 1976 gutted the interior.
In 1997 it was converted into a four-unit luxury apartment house, and today the building is preserved. If you pass by you’ll often see tour groups standing in front of it, fascinated by the various lives, and illicit activities that occupied this almost 250-year-old structure.
Jasper Ward House (1807-1808)
45 Peck Slip/151 South Street; Architect unknown
This four-story brick building was part of a row of three similar structures erected in 1807-1808 by the merchant Jasper Ward (date unknown) at the corner of Peck Slip and what would become South Street. At the time that they were constructed Peck Slip consisted mostly of water lots3.
Each building had a heavy stone base with an expansive section of multi-paned windows above, for retail or office space. And above this, three floors of red brick with brownstone trim provided office space or rented rooms for seafaring sailors.
When the buildings were completed Mr. Ward advertised them in the New York Evening Post on February 21, 1807, describing the property as “a large and convenient counting-room on the second story, and one or two floors to let in the four-story brick store, corner of South Street and Peck Slip– a very excellent situation for a Shipping and Commission Merchant.”
The building changed hands throughout the 19th century, from import-export grocery businesses and wholesale grocers, to a ship chandler and a liquor dealer.
By the early 20th century the Seaport was the center of New York’s wholesale fish industry, and the building, like most of the other buildings in the neighborhood, was occupied by a business related to the Fulton Fish Market: Acme Fish Company. Acme left in the mid-1930s, and the buildings in the row at No. 41 and No. 43 were demolished in 1962. Peck Slip No. 45 was set to be demolished in 1973, but through cooperation between the Seaport Museum and Con Edison the structure was preserved.
The building was officially donated to the Museum in 1977 together with funds towards its stabilization and restoration, in partnership with Columbia University’s School of Architecture, which planned to use the site as a training and hands-one classroom for its historic preservation program. Students took part in the research, drawing, historic documentation, and material analysis for the next few years as part of the newly established Center for Building Conservation (CBC).
Unfortunately, the partnership ended in the 1980s, but today the building, which is no longer property of the Seaport Museum, retains its original Flemish bond brick facade and splayed brownstone window lintels and sills. Peck Slip is a large public space, and the ConEd power station is characterized by a large mural made by renown muralist Richard Haas in 1978, entitled “Peck Slip Arcade.”
Schermerhorn Row (1810-1812)
2-18 Fulton Street and 91-93 South Street; Architect unknown
Built during a period of great enthusiasm for expanding the city, the entirety of Schermerhorn Row took only two years to complete. The man behind the largest commercial building project in New York at the time was Peter John Schermerhorn (1749-1826). He was a captain, merchant, investor, and real-estate developer eager to take advantage of the trade boom on South Street at the time.
Schermerhorn Row helped usher in a new age in commercial architecture. It was a Georgian-Federal style structure built for commerce alone, known as a counting-house. It combined storefronts, offices, and warehouses into one building. Each floor was connected with a special hoistway to move goods efficiently. The façades were originally made of soft, hand-molded bricks, and the upper stories feature double-hung windows with splayed stone lintels. The dormer windows on the Fulton Street side were later additions to the steeply-pitched roofs, and chimneys and party walls were built tall in order to inhibit fire from spreading across rooftops.
Schermerhorn Row quickly filled with tenant merchants. With so many traders working in close proximity, the Row’s convenient location near the piers, and its cutting-edge design for the rapid processing of cargo, Schermerhorn Row quickly became the commercial heart of South Street. It was New York’s first world trade center.
Starting in the 1850s Schermerhorn Row’s appearance, both inside and out, began to reflect the shift in usage from trade to lodgers. The buildings were converted into a series of hotels, and today the remains of some of these old rooms and walls are cherished by Seaport Museum and its visitors. These remains are a testimony of the changing fortunes of the building, and the rapid evolution of the seaport during the 19th and 20th centuries. If you are interested in learning more about their history and care click here to read our blog about the up-keep of our old hotels.
Towards the end of the 19th century, South Street became a victim of its own success. The continued increase in the volume of shipping traffic and size of steamships was too much for the old seaport to handle alone. The Hudson River waterfront became the new maritime trading hub of the city, and the East River commuter ferries struggled to compete with the Brooklyn Bridge after it opened in 1883. With reduced commercial activity (excepting the famous wholesale Fulton Fish Market) and travelers in the area, Schermerhorn Row entered a period of decline.
Many fish distributors and processors gained occupancy in the Row in the second quarter of the 20th century, exercising major impacts on building interiors, as well as the character of Fulton Street. Remaining floor-framing systems and other ground floor architectural fabric from previous shops or restaurants were removed to make space for cement floors and refrigerators. Second floors were often converted into offices, and the upper floors were generally abandoned.
In the 1960s the Schermerhorn Row Block reached a critical point when the area was nearly leveled for new developments, but saved by the grassroots preservationists who would become our Museum’s founders.
The buildings that composed the Row of counting houses were individually landmarked in 1976, and in 1977 the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation commissioned Jan Hird Pokorny Associates (JHPA) to provide a master plan and design documents for the restoration and adaptive reuse of the block. Between 1977 and 1984 JHPA implemented the stabilization of the buildings, researched the reconstruction of missing historic elements, and installed extensive mechanical systems. The project received the prestigious Bard Award for excellence in design from the Municipal Arts Society.
In the late 1990s-2003 Beyer Blinder and Belle were commissioned to redo the Museum’s spaces and galleries, resulting in its current layout.
A.A. Low Building (1850)
167-171 John Street; Architect unknown
This masonry, cast iron, and timber-framed landmarked building was built in 1850 for the A.A. Low & Brothers, a famous export firm until well past the end of the 19th century. Founded by Abiel Abbot Low (1811-1893), the company was New York’s most successful firm in the China trade importing cinnamon, pepper, silks, porcelain, firecrackers, and tea.
Originally from Salem, Massachusetts, Low spent seven years in China as a clerk at the American firm of Russell & Co. in Canton (Guangzhou), where his uncle, William, was a partner. There he learned how the market prices in China and New York were connected, and how the speed of ships affected those prices. He also became friends with one of the legendary Cantonese merchants, Houqua (1769–1843), and Low’s success in the China trade was greatly owed much to this connection. After settling in New York in 1840, Low used the money he made in China to build a fleet of fast clipper ships. With his previous experience in China, and his network of suppliers, Low knew how to get Chinese goods for the best price. His high speed ships were beating his competitors and earning him large profits. A.A. Low & Brothers occupied the building at 167-171 John Street well into the 20th century.
This building reflects the predominant Greek Revival style of the time, in the forms used in the ground-floor trabeated storefronts, and in its masonry work.
Typically, Greek Revival style buildings are characterized by a granite post-and-lintel frame resting on a granite sill running the entire width of the building, slightly above street level and supported by a brick wall. The concentration of granite at ground level highlights new utilitarian innovations, such as cellars with access from the street (with related modified entrances and sidewalks) and more access to light and ventilation compared to Schermerhorn Row.
The facade of the building was altered and restored in 1983, but the cast-iron double storefront is original and notable because it was produced by Daniel D. Badger (1806-1884) of the renowned Architectural Iron Works firm.
Another important occupant of the building was the Baltimore Copper Paint Co., founded in 1870, and tenant of the A.A. Low Building until the early 1970s. Between 1941 and 1945, the company manufactured vessel coatings for the U.S. Maritime Commission, the U.S. Navy and the British Admiralty. The paint was also used on Russian torpedo boats!
Jan Hird Pokorny Associates restored the building and adapted it for reuse by the South Street Seaport Museum in 1991. As a whole, the building represents the success and importance of the original builder.
Thompson Warehouse (1868)
213-215 Water Street; Designed by Stephen D. Hatch (1839-1894)
This Italianate cast iron and stone warehouse was designed by the renowned New York City architect Stephen D. Hatch in 1868 for Alexander and William A. Thompson of A. A. Thompson & Co. Before the warehouse was built, this lot was occupied by two three-story buildings, originally part of a 1750 water lot grant, on what would have been considered one the principal streets in New York City. Throughout the 19th century the area was occupied by wholesale grocers and commission merchants, iron dealers, warehousers, and mechanics connected with the shipping business.
Stephen D. Hatch was one of New York’s well known architects in the last quarter of the 19th century. For the most part, Hatch designed mostly mercantile buildings, and his most famous accomplishments are the Murray Hill Hotel (1884) and the Boreel Building (1902) on Broadway. When Hatch began to practice architecture in 1865 he was named Architect of the U.S. War Department and given the job of constructing all the military posts in New York. It is probable that 213-215 Water Street was one of Hatch’s first civilian commissions.
According to the building application No. 482 submitted by Stephen D. Hatch on June 9, 1868, the new building is to be “Five storey warehouses for tin and metals. Bottom made of driven piles three feet from centres, with rough timbers laid in concrete. […] Marble columns and 8″ ashlar with 12″ brick backing, about the lintel course.” In actuality, the upper stories of this Italianate building were built of limestone, and the entire facade is contained within two vertical rows of quoin blocks.
Initially used for decorative and structural purposes, cast-iron became a popular architectural material for facing commercial buildings in the mid-to-late 19th century, particularly in New York City. Compared with other building materials cast-iron was paintable, inexpensive, easy to assemble, and allowed for the repeated production of decorative features. It was also thought to be fireproof, a belief that changed following the 1879 New York fire that destroyed several rows of cast-iron buildings.
The first alteration of 213-215 Water Street took place in 1902, when the lessee, Berlin Aniline Company, installed a new elevator shaft, framed the old hatchways on all floors, and replaced one of the ducts/chimneys with a built-in one. In 1917, architect Emery Roth (1871-1948), extended the stairway with a walkway to the roof and installed a new fire escape in the front of the building.
The buildings passed between a few hands, and in 1973 the City of New York granted the Museum a lease for it. In the mid-late 1990s the Seaport Museum recreated the missing cast-iron ground floor facade, which had been removed at some point over the years, and transformed the wooden column-filled first floor into an art gallery. The Thompson Warehouse is currently closed in anticipation of renovations slated to begin soon. The project will transform the building into an education hub for the Museum and a gathering space for the local community, that will include new elevators, climate control systems, and full ADA accessibility.
Ellen S. Auchmuty Building (1885)
142-144 Beekman Street/211 Front Street; Designed by George B. Post (1837-1913)
One of the most Interesting structures in the district to me is the Romanesque Revival building that was erected in 1885 for Ellen S. Auchmuty, a Schermerhorn family descendent. It was designed by George B. Post, an architect trained in the Beaux-Arts tradition, who also designed the old New York Times Building (1889) at Printing House Square, Bronx Borough Hall (1897), and the New York Stock Exchange (1904).
“Our” Peter John Schermerhorn actually bought the lot in 1815 on what was called at the time Crane’s Wharf, renamed Beekman Street in 1822, and the site remained in the hands of his descendants for more than a century.
It appears that no applications for alterations have been filed for the building since it was built, and the Historic American Buildings Survey assumed, in its 1976 report, that the corner building remained, beside general aging, as it appeared when it was first constructed!
The building was occupied by businesses associated with the Fulton Fish Market since day one, and this connection is strongly visible in the exciting and playful terracotta elements designed by Post: starfish tie-rod washers, fish keystones sporting dolphins, and a cockle-shell roof cornice.
An early and long-time tenant was Western Union, which helped fishing captains to receive orders, and telegraph messages about catches and storms.
The Ellen S. Auchmuty Building underwent a light restoration in the 1980s and like many other buildings in the neighborhood its occupants changed following the taste of the district’s residents and visitors, including other types of businesses not related to the fish market, including restaurants, and more recently a beloved flower shop.
Harriet Onderdonk Building, later known as Meyer’s Hotel (1873)
116-119 South Street; Designed by John B. Snook (1815-1901)
Built in 1873, this double brick building was designed by prominent New York City architect John B. Snook for Mrs. Harriett S. Onderdonk (1820-1904) and Mrs. Harriet L. Mann (1866-1932). The building was supposed to be a combination of stores and lofts, but was converted into a hotel just ten years later by liquor merchant Henry L. Meyer (date unknown).
Mr. Snook was one of the most renowned architects in New York in the late 19th century; among his many notable projects include the original Grand Central Depot on 42nd Street (1871) –the building that the present Grand Central Terminal replaced in 1913– as well as many buildings in the Soho Cast-Iron District.
The building replaced two earlier structures at 44 Peck Slip and 117 South Street, and Snook elevations of both facades, floor plans, and transverse sections could be found at the New-York Historical Society, together with his account books, contract books, and ledgers, which detail the construction process.
In 1903, Henry L. Meyer applied for a permit to change 117 South Street from “stores, offices and lofts” to “stores offices and boarding house.” Before the alterations, the building contained a bar/restaurant on the first floor and loft on the second floor. The third floor was vacant and the fourth and fifth floors served as lofts. After the alterations, there was a bar and restaurant on the first floor, offices on the second, and a total of forty-one hotel rooms on the upper three floors.
Frequented by Thomas Edison, there is a theory that Meyer’s was the first hotel and bar to have electric lighting. Famous guests reputed to have stayed at Meyer’s Hotel include Annie Oakley and “Buffalo Bill” Cody, as well as outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Teddy Roosevelt was known to drop in at the bar on occasion for a pint while serving as the head of the New York City Police Department, supposedly looking for officers who indulged themselves while on duty.
The next major alteration took place in 1953 after South Front Realty Company purchased the building from Henrietta L. Meyer (1897-1954) in 1951. The number of small hotel rooms remained the same, 41, but many improvements were added including a second floor barber lockers, new toilets on the first, third, fourth, and fifth floors, exit fireproof windows, fire escapes, and a new sprinkler system.
It is unknown when the elaborate carved Victorian bar was installed on the first floor. Most probably, it is either original or dates from 1883, when Henry L. Meyer bought the building.
The hotel operated until the early 1980s, when it was possibly one of the last single-occupancy hotels left in the seaport district.
More recently the first ground of the old Meyer’s Hotel became the renowned Paris Café, and the upper floors became private apartments. The cafe weathered Hurricane Sandy, but in recent months we heard the news that it could not overcome the long-term closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s closed for the foreseeable future.
South Street Report, published by the South Street Seaport Museum, Spring 1975.
Historic American Building Surveys (HABS), by National Park Service, 1976.
Membership Newsletter of the South Street Seaport Museum, Vol. 3, No. 1, February 1978.
Schermerhorn Row Block: A Study in the Nineteenth-Century Building Technology in New York City, published by New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Bureau, January 1981.
AIA Guide to New York City, published by Oxford Press, Fifth Edition, 2010.
Support Our Work!
While the Museum’s indoor spaces remain closed to the public, we are continuing to serve our community in safe and engaging ways by developing and delivering virtual programs like this one, at no cost. Help us make this work possible.
- According to the Encyclopedia of New York, William Laight and his son Henry were the first to maintain an extended record of New York weather, beginning in 1788. The New-York Historical Society has the weather diaries of Henry, covering 1795-1803 and 1816-1822, noting the temperature, wind, precipitation and/or clouds, lunar phase and a brief entry about the day’s events.
- South Street Seaport Historic District Designation Report, 1977
- “A parcel of waterfront real estate that extended from the shore’s low watermark 400 feet out into the water, to be filled in by the owner at their own expense.” Unearthing Gotham, Cantwell and Wall 2001, pp. 225-226