Imagine five temple-like Greek Revival buildings set side by side, their façades perfectly aligned, with an eight-columned portico in the center, flanked on either side by another impressive classical façade and, at either end, a six-columned portico. Is this a college campus? A small-town square? Certainly the façades suggest college buildings or government administrative centers, or maybe Carnegie libraries of another era, or churches, but five of them in a row is impressive … and surprising. And these structures aren’t in an urban setting, having spacious grounds around them. When I first saw them it was a mild autumn day, and from where I stood, contemplating them, I could also see the broad lawn in front with a stand of oak trees that were gently shedding their leaves, and a view down the sloping grounds past a shoreline boulevard to the wide expanse of New York harbor and, somewhere off in the distance, the faint silhouette of the skyline of Manhattan. I was charmed and impressed, for never before had I seen such an alignment of handsome Greek Revival buildings – not row houses like you see in Greenwich Village and other older parts of Manhattan, but free-standing structures of magnitude.
So welcome to Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, located on the north shore of Staten Island, which I was visiting with a friend who had piqued my interest by saying, “If you don’t know Snug Harbor, you don’t know Staten Island.” I had hiked for years in the Greenbelt, the chain of parks running through the center of Staten Island, but I had never seen anything like this. The two structures on the right constitute the Staten Island Museum; the magnificent central building with the eight-columned portico is the Visitor Center and Galleries; the building immediately to the left of the central building is the Noble Maritime Collection; and the last building on the left is at present not in use. Except for the latter, on that idyllic autumn day I and my friend visited all these buildings.
The central building has an impressive two-story main hall that serves as the Visitor Center, with stained-glass transoms by Tiffany and, topping the ceiling’s murals, a towering sky-lit dome. The Staten Island Museum offers art work from the past and present, and natural history collections that include fossils of prehistoric creatures -- the kind of thing that bores some people but fired up my imagination as a kid, letting me dream of raging Tyrannosaurs and spike-backed Stegosaurs, and lumbering Mastodons and lowly Trilobites, images that haunt me to this day. Also in the museum is a series of panoramic paintings showing the successive stages of Staten Island’s history, ranging from idyllic rural through industrialization (yes, once there was heavy industry on Staten Island), to the modern landscape with clusters of suburban homes that shelter good Republicans (this is the one Republican borough in the city), plus commuter bridges, high-rises, and shopping malls – an exhibit that instilled in me a deep yearning for the rural setting that once was, and never will be again. The Noble Maritime Collection focuses on the work of artist John A. Noble (1913-1983), who often sketched derelict ships in the harbor. Especially featured is his houseboat studio, originally the teak saloon of an abandoned yacht where he created his lithographs, paintings, and photographs: a unique exhibit that lets you play voyeur by peeking into the studio and its contents, which include an easel, a drawing table, a ship’s bed, and several jars crammed with paintbrushes.
So much for what’s inside these handsome Greek Revival buildings, and I haven’t covered it all by a long shot. But why is the whole shebang called “Snug Harbor”? Because it was originally founded through a bequest by merchant and ship master Robert Richard Randall, who when he died in 1801 left his 21-acre Manhattan farm, located in what is now Greenwich Village, to be the site of an institution, governed by eight trustees, to care for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out seamen.” His heirs contested the will, delaying the opening of the home for decades. By the time the matter was settled, his once rural Manhattan estate had been overtaken by development and acquired great value. So the trustees appointed by Randall’s will, wishing to maximize profits on the Manhattan estate, changed the site of the proposed institution to a 130-acre farm that they purchased on the north shore of Staten Island. The first U.S. home for retired merchant seamen, Sailors’ Snug Harbor opened at last in 1833, when Greek Revival architecture was all the rage, with the cost of its operation amply covered by revenue from the property in Manhattan.
At first the home consisted of a single building, the central building with the eight-columned portico, but in time other buildings were added. The five adjacent temple-like structures housed dormitories, the kitchen, the dining hall, a reading room, and other facilities; other buildings in Greek Revival, Beaux Arts, Italianate, and Victorian style were added elsewhere on the property, which became a completely self-sustaining operation, including a farm that let the residents provide their own food, and a cemetery. All were welcome there, except for alcoholics and those with a contagious disease or immoral character. The home began with 37 retired seamen, but over time it grew to house a thousand, including American, English, Irish, Scotch, Dutch, Prussian, and French residents, each of whom got a two suits a year from Brooks Brothers. And if a resident was too feeble to walk to a nearby brewery, he could have his grog delivered to the home. But neatness was the rule: each dormitory had a “captain” who kept things orderly.
All was well until the mid-twentieth century, when Social Security and Medicare diminished the need for accommodations for aging seamen, and declining revenues led to the structures’ falling into disrepair and even to the demolition of some of them. In the 1960s the trustees proposed to redevelop the site with high-rise buildings, but the city’s Landmarks Commission intervened to save the five Greek Revival buildings by declaring them landmarks. In 1976 the trustees moved the institution to North Carolina and sold the site to the city. In June of that year 30 seamen, a physician, a nurse, and three aides took a 14-hour bus ride to their new 8,000-acre home in North Carolina, joined later by 75 more seamen who got there by plane. The Snug Harbor Cultural Center opened that same year, and in 2008 it merged with the Staten Island Botanical Garden to become the nonprofit Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden. Meanwhile the Snug Harbor trustees, headquartered in Manhattan, continue to give financial aid to seamen throughout the country.
Since on my first visit my friend and I explored only the Greek Revival buildings and a bit of the nearby grounds, we vowed to return in another season and explore the outlying grounds, some of whose features were installed after Snug Harbor ceased being a home for seamen. Among them is the Connie Gretz Secret Garden with a labyrinth that she had never visited, which was financed by a stockbroker in memory of his deceased wife, and inspired by the garden in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s book, The Secret Garden. Given my lifelong fascination with gardens, especially secret or forbidden ones (see chapter 42 in my book), at the mere mention of this one I was hooked at once.
But what enticed us even more was the one-acre Chinese Scholar’s Garden. Described as the only authentic classical Chinese garden in the U.S., it was built, without nails, by a team of forty Chinese craftsmen who spent a year in China assembling the components, and six months here installing them. It is said to include magnificent rockery suggesting the mountains that inspired ancient poetry and paintings; a bamboo forest path; Chinese calligraphy; and a waterfall and pond. Snug Harbor partnered with the city of New York, the Landscape Architecture Company of China, the local Chinese community, and volunteers to build the garden, which opened in 1999.
The thought of this attraction reminded me of a smaller Chinese scholar’s garden at the Metropolitan Museum that I love, and conjured up fantasies of poet scholars communing in a most civilized manner in a place of solitude and calm. My guide and I had hoped to visit this and other marvels in the spring, but schedule problems made us postpone our second trip until July, when we went on a fine, mild day, prepared to trek a bit and be enchanted by the secret garden as a prelude to the Chinese garden’s magic.
So what did we then see and do? A host of things:
· An herb garden where I saw lovage and other herbs
· A picturesque gazebo that we couldn’t enter but could view from the outside
· An esplanade that we walked the length of, enclosed by vegetation arching overhead
· A rose garden, though it was past the time to see roses at their peak
· A big lawn that we crossed as a shortcut, giving me the delicious experience of walking over an uneven grassy surface, which I hadn’t done in years
· A plant called acanthus with a long name I couldn’t pronounce, but that my companion, a gardener, recognized
· A plant called elephant ear, whose leaves, when fully grown, are the size and shape of an elephant’s ear
· The Connie Gretz Secret Garden, which loomed in the distance like a castle.
The Secret Garden was meant above all as an attraction for children, but the inner child in both of us responded. We entered through a monumental entrance resembling the tower of a castle, and then made our way through a labyrinth formed by hedges that was designed to teach children patience and perseverance in pursuit of a goal. Patience and perseverance we showed plenty of, as we negotiated the maze, finally arriving at the center, where we sat for a few minutes on benches in a spot enclosed by boxwood, before making our way out.
Some parts of the park were nicely kept up by gardeners whom we saw busily (and sometimes noisily) at work, but other parts looked uncared-for and weedy – the result of a shortage of funds, my companion explained, and the lack of a central authority, different features being managed by different organizations.
And the supreme goal of our visit, the Chinese Scholar’s Garden, with a promise of “soothing waterfalls and quiet walkways”? After a long trek we got there keen with anticipation and found it … shut. Locked up, keep out, closed, and no date for reopening posted, probably because of a lack of funds. This might have spoiled the visit, but there was too much else to see, for us to be downcast. Maybe another time, if weather and funding permit, meaning the garden’s funding, not ours. Even so, this trip was an idyllic excursion into a vast parkland full of attractions, some of which even on this second visit we never got to, on a perfect summer day. And even if the Chinese Garden proved to be indeed forbidden, we did walk the esplanade, see elephant ear, and visit the Secret Garden and its labyrinth. I recommend Snug Harbor to anyone interested in New York City history, Greek Revival architecture, or a quiet stroll through a vast parkland full of unusual attractions. I got there by car, but it is readily accessible by a short bus ride from the ferry terminal at St. George.
My poems: For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down. To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here. For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.
My books: No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016. For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here. As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: Who knows?
© 2016 Clifford Browder