When Hurricane Sandy pummeled the Coastal Mid-Atlantic in October 2012, lower Manhattan’s historic South Street Seaport Museum was among its casualties.
While staff and others clocked hundreds of man-hours into piling sandbags and securing the museum’s fleet of historic ships, no one expected that more than seven feet of water would eventually flood the museum’s lobby.
“There’s really nothing you can do at that point,” the museum’s executive director, Jonathan Boulware, said recently. “Our buildings flooded in the basements before the streets even flooded. The streets are so porous; this section of Manhattan is a sponge.”
The collection, housed in storage on the third and fourth floor, was spared damage from the storm. But the hurricane exacted serious structural damage to the museum’s building and destroyed all its mechanical and electrical facets, including elevators, escalators and heating and cooling systems. The museum would remain largely inaccessible for more than three years.
A $10.4 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency last year enabled a restoration to quickly take shape and on March 17, the museum opened its first exhibition since the storm. “Street of Ships: The Port and Its People” is on display in the lobby, as refurbishment of the upper floors continues. It’s nevertheless a critical first step in the institution’s revival.
“We are still in a very much post-Sandy era,” Boulware said. “The larger project is still in the works.”
Boulware called the federal grant “a great start, but not a complete project.” Administrators are still looking for additional funding to get the museum fully operational, he said.
Sandy was the latest in a series of challenges. “9/11 had a multilayered impact. We had zero visitors for nearly two years,” Boulware said. “Additionally, we struggled after the economic downturn of the late 2000s and then Hurricane Sandy was a very devastating blow. But we are very much on the right track now. This is the next phase of the museum’s life.”
The reopening exhibition aims to tell a narrative of the Seaport as an original incubator for the growth of New York as the center of world trade. The exhibition showcases works of art and artifacts from the museum’s permanent collections related to the 19th century history of the Port of New York. It examines the decisive role played by the 19th century Seaport at South Street — long known as the “Street of Ships” — in securing New York’s place as America’s largest city and its rise to become the world’s busiest port by the start of the 20th century.
“We have a collection of over 30,000 artifacts that tell the story of New York as a port city. We have paintings, drawings, models, as well as archives from downtown businesses and historical records,” said Martina Caruso, the museum’s collections manager.
“’Street of Ships’ is not only the first exhibition since the reopening, but also the first time we are showing artifacts from the permanent collections in an exhibit,” she said. “Usually all of these artifacts are in storage for scholars and creators, but not really open to the public.”
The museum has been a leader in education and public programming that go beyond the museum’s four walls. A 15-month, $13 million restoration of a wrought-iron sailing ship built in 1885, the Wavertree, is set to be complete this summer, when the ship will return to the Seaport for year-round programming, including a “living laboratory” for STEM and other education programs.
“We want to build anticipation for the return of Wavertree, the restoration, and really just the history of the district and how important this area is to the story of New York,” said William Roka, a scholar affiliated with the museum. “Before the Revolutionary War, New York was just one of several East Coast cities, and in a period of 50 years it became one of the largest, busiest ports and cities in the world. It came a long way, and continues to do so. A lot of that comes down to this district.”