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South Street Seaport Historic District, Lower Manhattan

 

The East River waterfront of lower Manhattan, which Includes the site of today's South Street Seaport Historic District played an Important part In the early history of New York City and became over a period of two hundred years, one of the most prosperous commercial districts In the City. This development of the South Street Seaport area from a small cluster of wharves In the 18th century to an Important part of the leading port of the nation In the mid-19th century reflects the rise of New York City as an international center of commerce.

 

This southeastern shore of Manhattan was quickly recognlzed as the natural site for the city's harbor. It was safer to land here than to attempt the more treacherous western shore, where a ledge of rocks proved hazardous. In addition, since the East River was narrower than the Hudson it provided much-needed shelter for the small early vessels.

 

Early In the development of Manhattan the shipping trade. centered around the East River harbor. supplied the city with an important source of revenue. The Schermerhorn family, which was to play such an Important part In the development of South Street Seaport, established a regular shipping service from New York to Charleston In 1728.

 

The most significant Impetus to the rise of the New York port as a leading commercial center was the founding of the Black Ball packet line In 1818. These square-rigged liners sailed from South Street just below Peck Slip and were the first vessels to establish regular service between New York and Liverpool.

 

Another major boost to the prosperity of the port of New York came with the completion of the Erie Canal In 1825. This waterway, extending from Lake Erie to the Hudson, enabled goods and produce to be easily transported to the thriving city from the rural mid-West and to be sold for good prices. The large supply of grain from this newly accessible hinterland soon made New York the principal flour market of the East. In addition, thousands of rural towns became major distributing centers for foreign Imports shipped to them along the Canal

 

During the early decades of the 19th century, the environs of the port underwent several changes, undoubtedly stimulated by the prosperity of the shipping trade. By 1810 South Street had been created on landfill, although the block on which today’s Fulton Market stands remained partly swamp until 1821. In 1811 the prominent merchant Peter Schermerhorn began construction of his now famous row of countIng-houses along today’s Fulton Street. OrIgInally called Beekman SlIp, the street was named In honor of Robert Fulton. whose Brooklyn Ferry began landing at the foot of the street In 1814

 

By the 1830s, the South Street Seaport area was a burgeoning mercantile center with major shipping and trading concerns established here; It was as well the site of the thriving Fulton Market which had moved from Peck Slip to Fulton Street In 1822.

 

In 1835 a disastrous fire destroyed much of lower Hanhattan, Including many early buildings near the seaport. The fire began on a wInter night when the severe cold froze the water In the flreman•s hoses. Since the majority of the clty's buildings were of wood. more than sIx hundred structures were destroyed, Including the first Merchants Exchange of 1827 on Wall Street. Immediately after the fire new constructIon began, but the fInancIal effect of the catastrophe contributed to the Panic of 1837 when all building came to a standstill.

 

Also arriving at the seaport were thousands of immigrant families from all over the world seeking new opportunities In America. Between 1820 and 1860, five and one half million alien passengers came to the U.S. and more arrived at the South Street Seaport piers than at any other port of entry. This flood of immigration brought the fear of disease to the seaport, and a number of cholera and yellow fever epidemics paralyzed the business of the area. Hotels and boarding houses were opened In the district during the 1850s to accommodate this transient population as well as the many overseas merchants.

 

During the 1850s the "golden age of shipping" at the South Street Seaport reached its peak. After this period, the larger transatlantic steam­ships replaced the earlier clipper ships. These steamships needed both deeper and wider waters and the Hudson River became the new site of the New York port. Much of the commercial center of the city moved northward. Further contributing to the decline of the clipper ship era was the founding of the Pacific Mall Steamship Company and the opening of the Panama Railway In 1855.

 

Nonetheless, the seaport was maintained In part through the efforts of the Fulton Market Fishmongers Association, organized In the 1860s. As the shipping merchants moved out of the district, businesses related to the fish market filled the empty warehouses. The late 19th-century Importance of the fish market to the district Is well symbolized by the 1885 building designed by George B. Post on Beekman Street, the facade of which is strikingly ornamented with motifs of the sea.

 

ARCHITECTURAL INTRODUCTION

 

The buildings of the South Street Seaport Historic District span a period of almost 200 years and range from the famous Captain Joseph Rose house of the late 18th century and George B. Post's delightfully detailed 1885 Romanesque Revival building on Beekman Street, to the mid-20th century structure of the Fulton Market. Dating predominantly from the first half of the 19th century, these buildings are representative of several different styles of mercantile architecture, Including Georgian, Federal and Greek Revival. Some later 19th­century styles, such 815 the Ital1anate and Romanesque Revival, may also be seen In the District. In many cases an early building was substantially altered at a later date, so that the original structure either scarcely recognizable or Is a combination of several architectural styles.

 

Quite simple In overall design, few of the early stores and warehouses of the seaport area were the work of professional architects. Generally these commercial structures were designed by builders. William W. Berwick, who built many structures for the prominent Schermerhorn family, Is one of the few builders whose name Is known today. Another may have been David Louderback, a mason, who is believed to have built the warehouse at 211 Water Street. In the later 19th century such prominent New York City architects as Stephen D. Hatch, George 8. Post and Richard Morris Hunt designed commercial buildings In the District which contrast with the less sophisticated work of the earlier builders.

 

Many of the early buildings in the seaport area were wood frame and frequently destroyed by fire. Although attempts were made as early as 1766 to require brick construction In the more populous areas of the cltY7 a number of factors made enactment of such legislation rather difficult. Buildings on landfill were exempt from the new building requirements, probably because It was still not certain If the newly-made marshy land could successfully support masonry structures.

 

Further complications In masonry construction involved the brick Itself. Since the brick had to be shipped to New York City from small towns along the Hudson River, the material was quite costly.

 

The best and most expensive brick came from Philadelphia and was considered an Item of luxury. The making of brick was also a tedious and time-consuming process In the early 19th century. Before 1835 bricks were made by hand. The original portions of the Schermerhorn Row facades (1811-12) are of this soft, hand-molded type of brick. A hand-powered brick molding machine patented In 1801 was not In general use until about 1830. The smooth texture of the brick facades at 207-211 Water Street (1835-6) is a product of this machine technique and this texture generally characterizes most of the. Greek Revival buildings In the District. Despite the many obstacles Involved In brick construction, It was nonetheless preferred by the merchants. and the material was used for most of the structures In the district from the 1790s onward.

 

- From the 1977 NYCLPC Historic District Designation Report

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Taken on January 16, 2010