On the Seaport, or Up in the Old Hotel

(My apologies to the late Joseph Mitchell for stealing the title)

I interned at the South Street Seaport during the summer of 2003, then stayed on as a museum educator for a year because I absolutely loved that place.

Growing up in the City of New York, I was surrounded by these wonderful old buildings with people coming and going at all times. It was the buildings that stood still, however, that interested me the most. I always wanted to know why they were so “still” and wanted to go inside and investigate. This, understandably, was not a desire supported by my mom in 1980s New York. The old buildings along the East River between the Brooklyn Bridge and the growing glass and steel edifices of the financial district always stuck out in my mind. My internship at the Seaport Museum allowed me to learn their histories and literally open their doors.

The education department was located in a repurposed building on Front Street. There was an open hatch that had this large pulley thing at the top, a remnant from when the building wasn’t an office for a struggling non-profit, but a counting house for goods coming off the ships moored nearby. With a little WD-40 that pulley thing would have worked better than the crap printer we had to share with the membership department.

I taught archaeology in a space called “New York: Unearthed,” located by the Battery on 17 State Street. This is what I was told about its development: Construction workers came across some artifacts, which triggered a stop work order until archaeologists investigated the site. The developer continued work anyway in the middle of the night. As a result, the developer got spanked with an order to devote 1/3 of its building’s footprint to a public area and fund the creation of a space dedicated to the archaeological history of New York (again, this is what I was told, so here [hands you a little packet of salt]).

The best thing about working at the Seaport, though, was being able to be among the first to enter the unfinished museum space on Schermerhorn Row, the corner of which was once anchored by a bar named Sloppy Louie’s that lived below an old, abandoned hotel, the Fulton Ferry Hotel. In “Up in the Old Hotel,” Joseph Mitchell (1993) wrote of his adventure ascending to the third floor of that old building on South Street and seeing a dust-covered space lost to time and interest. Working at the Seaport gave me a chance to do what Mitchell did, save for having to haul myself up there by yanking ancient hemp ropes attached to a cage: Go up to the old hotel.

I got to walk the galleries before the architectural features were protected by acrylic panes and the lighting was bright enough for the workers to finish up stabilize and conserve. I got to walk the galleries with the curator who lead a small group of education department staff through each room, telling us its history and what (Funding Fates willing) would be there once the museum proper opened. The space wasn’t strewn with papers or covered with dust, but I had the same sense of wonder and exploration as Mitchell had when he and the owner of Sloppy Louie’s checked the place out decades earlier.

Shan, who was crafting the story to be presented in the brick-and-mortar South Street Seaport museum and our tour guide for the afternoon, encouraged us to look at the rough, unfinished space and visualize the story that would soon, eventually, hopefully, maybe be there to tell the story of the Seaport and New York’s role in maritime trade. One room would greet visitors with bags of coffee beans brought straight from the docks to the counting house to be prepared for sorting and sale. Another would highlight the laborers and labors that made everything work. There were plans for a gallery showcasing the history of transportation in the city, from ship to subway.

Photographs and artifacts from the Museum’s vast collection would highlight and detail the local history. Some areas would focus on the shining star of the Museum’s collection: the building itself. There were walls graffiti-ed with the scratched names and penciled quotes from long-lost workers and wanderers. A rickety staircase between two floors that I was afraid to breathe near because it hadn’t yet been ensconced in glass.

Whereas the second floor of the museum would focus on the counting house, the third focused on the flop house. A laundry with large, long, movable racks took up space in a room towards South Street and at the top of those rickety stairs stood the remains of a few old cubicle-like rooms that would have been rented to sailors and those ne’er-do-wells who passed through the Seaport. Layers of original wallpaper were peeled away. Shan bandied about an idea to replicate these antique patterns, maybe for a future gift shop offering.

The western end of the top floor had a massive wooden….. barrel thing that would spin to remove coffee burrs from the burlap sacks they traveled to New York in. The eastern end of the floor was cavernous, sky-lit space where bags of coffee would be stored.

My dear New Yorkers and Nebraskan hipsters who now call Brooklyn home, neither Schermerhorn Row nor the South Street Seaport Museum were not meant to be pied-a-terre luxury condos or an abandoned space left behind by city and scavengers alike. It was a place of work and, for me and countless others, a place of wonder.

I am glad I got to see it, walk it, breathe in it, and touch it* before it eventually goes away. I am glad for that internship and my year teaching at the Seaport because it allowed me to go up in the old hotel.

*Yes, archives and museum folks touch things others don’t!!!! Sometimes without  gloves!!!!

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