The talk of the Chelsea-Greenwich Village waterfront nowadays is the “Pier 55” project, to be funded by power couple Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg to the tune of more than $100 million. Its innovative design consists of a long esplanade connected to what amounts to a man-made island that will serve as a park and performance space.
The Hudson River Park Trust has already approved a lease to the Diller group for the pier, which will replace the deteriorated Pier 54, Most people, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, seem to like the idea, although Riverkeeper, an environmental group, is pressing for an environmental impact statement, and some have complained about the secrecy in which the plan was conceived. The City Club, a civi group, has sued to stop construction of the project.
The old Pier 54, which has been sinking slowly into the river, has its own complicated history. In the early years of the 20th century, the pier, which is roughly parallel to West 13th Street, was used by the Cunard and White Star steamship lines. And in that capacity, it was connected to two of the greatest disasters in U.S maritime history.
While the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 is well-known to Americans, what’s less known is the ship that saved 705 of the Titanic’s survivors, the Carpathia. That ship docked at Pier 54 after the heroic rescue.
The crew members of the Carpathia were all awarded medals by the survivors, and its captain, Arthur Henry Rostron, was knighted by King George V of England and received the Presidential Medal of Honor from President Taft.
Not as famous today, but certainly well known to history buffs and World War I aficionados, was the Lusitania disaster of 1915. The Lusitania, a British ship, left Pier 54 for Liverpool on May 1. It was wartime, German submarines were the terror of the Atlantic, and Imperial Germany had declared the waters around Britain to be a war zone.
Before the ship began its journey, the German government had placed a warning in New York newspapers, saying that passengers on Allied or British ships traveling in war zones were putting themselves at risk. A German U-boat sank the Lusitania off the Irish coast, and 1,193 people died. The incident helped to turn the American people against Germany, although the U.S. didn’t enter the war on Britain’s side until 1917.
The original pier building, according to the Forgotten New York website, was damaged by fire in the 1930s and had to be rebuilt. Like the other Chelsea piers, Pier 54 fell victim to the end of the era of ocean liners.
In 1991, the pier terminal structure, described by the New York Times as a “great green hulk” and a “decrepit remnant,” was demolished, despite the pleas of preservationists.
In 1998, the pier became part of Hudson River Park. Before it was closed a few years ago for structural issues, Pier 54 saw lots of activity. It was used for the annual Gay Pride dance each June; bands played there as part of the River Rocks, Moon Dance and Blues and Barbecue festivals, and films were shown there.
The age of ocean liners is now part of history, and the Pier 55 plan is part of a new era – one of the waterfront and the river as recreation. For the time being, a rusted metal gate still stands on Pier 54, the only survivor of an era when well-heeled Manhattanites wearing fedora hats and mink coats came to the pier in chauffeur-driven automobiles, heading for England, France, Italy and beyond.