HM - Oct. 2015 - Szeluga

Partners in History

The Snug Harbor Cultural Center

Christine Szeluga
Manager of Education
Staten Island Museum
Staten Island, NY
NCHE Gagnon Award Winner

After nearly a half-century, the Staten Island Museum has opened the doors to its new museum building located in Snug Harbor Cultural Center, formerly a sailor’s retirement community called Sailors’ Snug Harbor.

Imagined by Robert Richard Randall, founded by his estate in 1801 and opened in 1833, Sailors’ Snug Harbor was the first maritime home and hospital for retired sailors in the United States. The site admitted “aged, decrepit and worn out sailors” as long as they were not “habitual drunkards,” “immoral,” or had a contagious disease.  In addition, every amenity the sailors, or Snugs as they were often called, needed was met on site in one of its fifty-five structures, including a chapel, bakery, sanatorium, music hall, library and dairy farm. In addition, the Harbor produced its own electricity and steam, grew its own food on the farm and in the green house and had its own water supply.

In the mid-twentieth century, the institution experienced serious financial difficulties.  As a result, the buildings fell into disrepair and many were later demolished as part of a “modernization and improvement plan”—including the hospital, sanatorium, farm building and many service buildings.  The Greek Revival dormitories, which were to be replaced by a 120-bed modern infirmary by the New York State Department of Health, were on the chopping block as well. Fortunately, the Landmarks Preservation Commission stepped in and saved the remaining buildings.  In June 1976 the begrudged sailors were moved to a new residence in Sea Level, North Carolina and Snug Harbor was purchased by the City of New York a short time after. (As a side note: When the Snugs were first told they had to move to North Carolina in 1971 because the city planned on relocating the Staten Island Museum to Snug Harbor, some of the men believed that it was all a ruse and the city was actually going to erect a drug addiction rehabilitation center.)

In 1976, preservation of Snug Harbor began and through a lot of work and dedication it has grown to be a major metropolitan cultural center.  Today the 83-acre National Historic Landmark site boasts several educational organizations including the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden (including the New York Chinese Scholar's Garden), The Staten Island Children’s Museum, Art Lab, the Children’s Harbor Montessori School, the Noble Maritime Collection,  and several artists and musicians in residence.

The new Staten Island Museum site is located in one of the former sailors’ dormitories--Building A.  The Greek Revival building is one of five which face Richmond Terrace and forms, according to the Landmark’s Committee of 1965, “one of the most notable groups of Greek Revival buildings in the United States.”

Our inaugural exhibitions cover a variety of subjects.  Remember the Mastodon: A Richmond County Savings Foundation Exhibition includes fossils, lost bird species, and a full-size replica of a mastodon emerging through the wall. Opening the Treasure Box: Bringing the World Home presents art objects spanning 5,000 years of art pieces gathered from five continents: Africa, Asia, Europe, North, and South America. The oldest piece is an Egyptian funerary statuette of a striding man, dating from 2,000 BCE. Staten Island SEEN traces Staten Island’s unique history and landscape from the seventeenth century to the present; and From Farm to City: A Richmond County Savings Foundation Exhibition offers aglimpse into Staten Island’s unique history and its people, using images, historic documents, audio interviews, and digital collections.

In addition to the exhibitions on view, the Museum itself is an exhibition of sorts. The Museum is the first historical landmark building on Staten Island to earn a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification from the US Green Building Council and meet the stringent environmental standards of the American Museum Association.

The historic building, built in 1879, has been reimagined and repurposed to serve a new audience using modern and environmentally friendly technology.  Plans are currently in process to expand the Museum even further to Building B, which was built from 1839-1840.  After forty-six years, the first phase of the Museum's expansion has finally come to fruition and the site will continue to play an integal role in the history of Staten Island.

Snug Harbor Cultural Center is located at 1000 Richmond Terrace in what is currently referred to as the Randall Manor section of Staten Island, New York.