When Capt. Robert Richard Randall left his fortune to provide a home for "aged, decrepit and worn-out" seamen, he had no idea what a gift he had given, twice: Once to the sailors, and then to Staten Island and New York City.
When Randall died in 1801, his family tied up the estate in court for years, and only then was the home we now know as Snug Harbor opened for business. By the time, the land he left for it, about 8 square blocks of Manhattan near Washington Square, seemed much too valuable, so the trustees used the income from the land to buy 130 acres on the North Shore of Staten Island, overlooking the water.
Randall's monument and tomb share the lawn that looks down to the water
And that's the site that was recognized by PortMoresby, George G. and Jonathan L, in its new use as a park and home to over a dozen Staten Island cultural institutions, including The Staten Island Children's Museum, the Museum of Staten Island, an art school, a conservatory, the Noble Maritime Collection, and Staten Island's Botanical Garden. Randall's second gift, as it were. But it almost didn't happen that way.
Over the years, more and more buildings were added, as well as a farm that helped make it self-sustaining. At its peak, over 1,100 sailors lived there. But by the 1970s, with a decline in indigent sailors and rising maintenance costs, the trustees moved the remaining few sailors to North Carolina. And they made plans to fill Snug Harbor with high-rise buildings.
Neptune fountain, by J.W. Fiske. When there's an exhibit on, far more unusual sculpture can be seen on Snug Harbor's lawns.
So, Snug Harbor became the object of a drawn-out legal battle once again, with the trustees on one side, and New York City and its Landmarks Commission and Parks Department on the other. The buildings, long-noted for their elegance and historic significance, had been landmarked in the mid-1960s and were declared a National Historic Landmark.
The ship's bell, sitting just outside the Playhouse, is a memorial for merchant sailors who died in World War II
It's been open to the public since 1976, and has added new programs almost every year. The Music Hall and Playhouse are major venues for concerts and other events; summer usually sees big outdoor concerts as well. The Botanical Garden joined up in 2008, and just last fall the Museum of Staten Island opened its new quarters at Snug, also keeping its old home near the Ferry terminal.
It's a great place to spend a pleasant day on Staten Island, visiting the museums and gardens and just relaxing or picnicing; unfortunately, the day we visited, for the first time in years, was chilly and cloudy. Visiting is easy: on Staten Island, every area is served by buses, and every bus starts from the Ferry. Snug Harbor, and especially the Staten Island Museum, wish more people knew how easy it is to visit!
It also has a collection of art by Staten Islanders and about Staten Island.
It's not all formal facades facing the water; this was a working home for hundreds, and has its working side as well, as below.
The water, yes. The land is on a gentle hill, looking down to the Kill van Kull, the waterway that separates the North Shore of Staten Island from Bayonne, New Jersey. You catch glimpses of it, as past this tree, or you can walk down and see the busy waterway of today, just as when the sailors were there.
And, at least for a moment, you can see some of how they may have seen it; at anchor at a drydock just past the corner of Snug Harbor is the Peking, usually on display at the South Street Seaport Museum in Manhattan. It's undergoing repair and maintenance at Caddell's Staten Island shipyard that also maintains barges, yachts and Staten Island ferryboats.
Next spring, by the way, Peking will move to a new home in its native city, Hamburg, Germany.
Aside from its greenhouses, walkways and flowers, the Botanical Garden has also recreated a Ming Era Chinese 'scholars garden' at Snug.
Cottage Row, once home to Snug Harbor staff members, and the Governor's House.