Magazine article The New Yorker

Secret Garden

Magazine article The New Yorker

Secret Garden

Article excerpt

Robert Richard Randall was a wealthy Manhattan merchant and landowner, whose family's fortune came mainly from the sea. He died in 1801, and, as a gesture of gratitude for his life's considerable comforts, left the bulk of his estate to establish a sanctuary for "aged, decrepit and worn-out seamen." His executors spent two decades defending the will in court, then bought a large farm at the northern end of Staten Island, overlooking the Kill Van Kull. In 1833, they opened Sailors' Snug Harbor--a name that Randall had specified in his will. At its peak, in 1918, it comprised two dozen substantial buildings and housed more than a thousand former seamen, each of whom was issued two new suits a year, purchased from Brooks Brothers. (An old photograph shows seven retired salts studying newspapers in the Reading Room while wearing identical light-colored straw fedoras.) Snug Harbor's governor from 1867 until 1884 was Thomas Melville, whose older brother Herman visited often, perhaps attracted by a local abundance of mentally unbalanced one-legged sailors. The facility provided much early business for another historically important Staten Island sanctuary, Liedy's Shore Inn, which opened in 1905 and is still operated by the Liedy family. Snug Harbor residents who were no longer able to hobble the five hundred yards from their front gate to Liedy's door could have their grog delivered.

Snug Harbor hasn't housed old sailors since the nineteen-seventies, by which time America's expanding social-safety net had depleted its supply of indigent former mariners. But most of the buildings are still standing. The property is now a park, known formally as the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden. One of the oldest structures, called Building D, contains artifacts from the institution's heyday, including a re-created dormitory room and a selection of arresting photographic portraits of former residents. On a recent Saturday, Nick Dowen, a professorial figure who manages the building's collections on weekends, said, "After a certain point in the eighteen-hundreds, every sailor who came here was photographed, and many of those photographs still exist, either here or in an archive at the maritime college at Fort Schuyler, in the Bronx." Guessing even the approximate ages of those depicted can be tricky, since some of Snug Harbor's thoroughly worn-out-looking residents were in their twenties. Building D is also the home of a comprehensive collection of art work by John A. …

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