Manhattan History – Gold Dust And Sea Spray

ABOUT 1800 he who strolled into rural Manhattan, following the rough track of Broadway for perhaps a mile north of the clustered habitations of the little city of New York, would have come to a fence of wooden palings near the present corner of Astor Place. If the stroller had opened the gate and walked along a path toward the modest mansion, he might have made the acquaintance of a retired mariner, Captain Robert Richard Randall, and have heard from the lips of that elderly gentleman some tall tales of the sea and the competence he had wrung from its commerce. The Captain might also have told him that he purposed leaving his small landed property of twenty-one acres plus as the site of an asylum to house, maintain, and support “aged, decrepit and worn-out sailors.”

If so, the information would have roused hardly more than a smile of appreciation at an old man’s pleasant, altruistic dream. Twenty-one acres, a modest mansion, and a stable, all worth at the outside $20,000; what could these avail against the human wreckage tossed ashore by the all-consuming sea? Passing that way a year later, the visitor would have learned that, though Captain Randall was dead, no decrepit sailors were in residence, or likely to be for some years, no funds being available.

This stringency, however, proved to be a blessing in disguise, for before the various delays which followed in its train were ended the revenues from the property had appreciated greatly in value. The Randall acres near Sandy Hill were sought for business, and the trustees had decided that the old Captain’s desire would be better accomplished by building a hospital on the waterfront, where poor old sailors might enjoy a view of the ocean which had served them worse than it had Captain Randall.

The Randall trust was incorporated as Sailors’ Snug Harbor in 1806, when the annual revenue was only $4,243. In 1817, when the trustees petitioned for the right to buy property for hospital purposes elsewhere, the returns were more than $6,000. It took the legislature eleven years to make up its mind on the transfer of the projected hospital; in the meantime claimants appeared to contest the will, initiating a famous lawsuit which was finally decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1830. All efforts to break Captain Randall’s will having failed, the trustees bought the present site on Staten Island for a total of $16,000, built a hospital, and opened it in 1833.

The War of 1812 had dealt the commerce of New York City a shocking blow, effecting one of the few actual declines in population recorded in the city’s history, a fall of 3,000 from 1810 to 1816. Then population began to race upward again, growing from 93,000 in 1816 to 123,000 in 1820. During the period of litigation from 1817 to 1830 the population doubled and kept on, so that it is not surprising that the Harbor’s land, favorably located in the line of retail expansion northward, brought in $75,000 income in 1855. Its revenues had increased twelvefold while the population of the city was increasing sixfold.

Reports of the Harbor trustees deal with income, not with land values. The total property, most of it the original property in the Fifteenth Ward, was estimated to be worth $80,000,000 in 1908; but this seems out of line with the income reported, although the latter is perhaps not a true measure of worth because of the existence of long-term, low-rent leases. Still, with all possible allowances, Sailor’s Snug Harbor is perhaps the snuggest, most firmly based foundation in the world, with its rents rising as follows (in round numbers) through a century: 1832, $19,500; 1838, $22,000; 1844, $29,000; 1855, $75,000; 1875, $237,-000; 1923, $1,076,000. In addition to land, funded investments were more than $2,500,000 in 1923.

The key influence in the Harbor’s prosperity has been its east side of Broadway frontage, particularly the block between Ninth and Tenth streets now occupied by Wanamaker’s. A. T. Stewart put the sailor wards of the Harbor definitely out of the reach of want when on May 1, 1869, he leased this block for twenty-one years, as the site of his department store, then the country’s leader. Stewart paid $12,000 a year ground rent for four years and $36,000 a year for the next seventeen. To get the property, Mr. Stewart had to buy in some twenty leases and sell them back to the trustees, whereupon the latter gave him a lease on the whole block. For his time, shrewdness, and capital in concluding this important negotiation, he received the right to pay well for the use of a fraction )f the old Randall farm as the site for a building which the Harbor would possess at the end of his lease. In 1908 his business successors were paying Snug Harbor $54,000 a year for the same property.

Some of the other extraordinary value-leaps of Snug Harbor lots are as follows:

James Blackstock secured a lease in May, 1850, on a twenty-five-foot Broadway lot for $275 a year, which was renewed in 1871 at $3,700 a year, or fifteen times its previous rental.

Another lease on the southeast corner of Broadway and Ninth Street brought in $600 a year for twenty-one years from 1852 on and was renewed for twenty-one years at $3,500 a year.

Inside lots on the cross streets went up more slowly, but whenever a lease matured, even these lots were good for substantial raises. On the average, ground rents of inside lots doubled at each renewal up to 1880, and have since edged forward firmly but at a reduced rate.

First to last, Snug Harbor has had both good luck and good management: in its early years, luck; in its later years, management. Compared with other areas, its holding stood at its peak thirty years ago and has since been declining in relative importance, though of course not in revenues. The Astor Place district would be almost a forgotten by-water of insignificant trade were it not for Wanamaker’s great store; and holding Wanamaker’s there, against the pull of uptown locations, may be considered a triumph of management. But the management has been of a completely cautious and pedestrian type. Snug Harbor takes no risks, improves none of its property itself, and has the reputation of mystery in its operations. The two other great landed endowments in the city—Trinity and Columbia —have been somewhat more considerate of the public which toilfully creates their revenues in the first instance; and several of the great private owners of Manhattan’s golden earth have, at one time or another, risked capital in works which enhanced the value of whole neighborhoods, improved the city’s appearance, and elevated its pride. Snug Harbor, however, has merely taken toll. One has to be an old-sailor beneficiary to wax highly enthusiastic over Snug Harbor as an institution.