Captain Robert Richard Randall was born in New Jerseyin 1750. Like Sir Peter Warren, Randall’s father, Captain Tom Randall, was also a sea captain, and amassed an extremely wealthy estate by capturing prizes while sailing (some have called Randall the elder a privateer). After Captain Tom retired from sailing, he set up a merchant shop on Hanover Street, while his son took over his fleet. After his father’s death, Robert Randall used some of the money from his inheritance to purchase the former Elliot estate in the then-rural Greenwich Village for a sum of 5,000 pounds. The new Randall estate was 24 acres, and covered the area between today’s Fourth and Fifth Streets and Waverly Place and Ninth Street.
Randall died in 1801, and in his will he turned his property over to what would be called “Sailor’s Snug Harbor.” According to Randall’s will, this “snug harbor” was to be a marine hospital for “the purpose of maintaining aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors.” The lawyer responsible for drawing up the will was none other than Alexander Hamilton. The charity set up by Randall and Hamilton was one of the first charitable institutions in the United States. The sole requirement for residency at Sailor’s Snug Harbor was five years of service in the United States Navy. There were no age, religion, race, or other factors taken into consideration. Once in residence, each former sailor was called “Captain” by the staff, regardless of their actual rank during their service.
As the area was still mostly rural at the time of his death, Randall wanted Sailor’s Snug Harbor to be built on his property, which included the north side of Washington Square Park and the south side of Eighth Street. The land was good farm land, and Randall believed that the residents would be able to grow grain and vegetables to be used to support the sailors living at Snug Harbor.
However, there was a challenge to Randall’s will by the children of his half-brother, which took many years in court to settle. By the time the conflict had been decided in favor of Sailor’s Snug Harbor, the organization decided to subdivide up the land and lease it out, as the area around Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village was becoming popular with well-to-do New Yorkers. Sung Harbor built homes on the subdivided plots along Washington Square North, with stables running behind the homes on what today is Washington Mews. In 1831, Sailor’s Snug Harbor used the money from the Greenwich Village leases to purchase a 160-acre complex on Staten Islandfor $16,000, to use as the home for the sailors. At the time of Randall’s death, the Greenwich Village land brought in about $4,000 a year in profit. By the 1920s, the land was bringing in over $400,000 a year, all of which went to the Snug Harbor Association on Staten Island.
Between 1832 and 33, there were 13 row houses built along Washington Square North. These were rented out as single-family homes with long-term leases, with, as mentioned above, stables and carriage houses behind them. In 1916, to attract artists to their property, the Sailor’s Snug Harbor organization decided to convert the former stables along Washington Mews into apartments and studios for artists. Twelve of the stables were renovated in this fashion, and two brand new apartments were built, which all still stand today. By the 1930s, due to both the Depression and the changing demographics of the neighborhood, single-family homes like those on Washington Square North were no longer viable real estate prospects, and Sailor’s Snug Harbor planned to destroy the houses to make way for expansion. However, the Municipal Art Society recognized the value of the architecture of the homes, and urged the organization to reconsider. New York University wanted to buy the land, but preservationists worried that they would destroy the buildings. In the 1940s, Sailor’s Snug Harbor reached a lease deal with NYU which required NYU to preserve the façade of the buildings.
At its peak in 1880, the Sailor’s Snug Harbor complex on Staten Island was home to over 1,000 retired sailors. It contained 60 buildings, including two hospitals. There are over 7,000 sailors buried in the graveyard on the site. However, by the 1960s, there were hardly any sailors still living at the complex, and many of the buildings had fallen into disrepair. The organization attempted to deed the land to the city for free, but the city declined at first. The land was going to be sold to developers, butStaten Islandresidents fought for preservation. Six of the buildings were designated landmarks at the first Landmarks Preservation Committee meeting in 1965, and the city eventually purchased the land in 1976. The site is now a cultural center. Sailor’s Snug Harbor used the profits from the sale to relocate toNorth Carolina.
Barry, Gerald J. The Sailors’ Snug Harbor: A History, 1801-2001. New York:FordhamUniversity Press, 2000.
Chapin, Anna Alice. Greenwich Village. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1917.
City of New York, Deparment of Parks. “Snug Harbor Cultural Center.” http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/sailorssnugharbor/