1989–1991

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

Within the evolving South Street Seaport Historic District are various buildings that recall the period in the early 19th century when this section of the East River dominated commerce in New York harbor. Water Street originally faced the river but by 1800 landfill had begun to expand the area’s coastline, adding Front and South Streets. The block between Beekman Street and Peck Slip dates from this salty era, including the former ship chandlery that now forms part of 241 Water Street. This chandlery was built in 1799 by Peter Schermerhorn & Son, which later developed the counting houses on Fulton Street that bear the family name.

241 Water Street was built for the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York & New Jersey. Founded in 1834 as an Episcopal maritime ministry, it was based in Lower Manhattan for nearly two centuries where it provided a variety of secular and religious services to mariners. The Titanic Memorial Lighthouse, now installed on the corner of Fulton and Pearl Streets, originally stood on the roof of the Institute’s earlier headquarters at 25 South Street. Demolished in 1968, the memorial was moved to the Seaport in 1976.

The architect was James Steward Polshek & Partners (now known as Ennead). Envisioned in preliminary sketches as a sleek ocean liner pulling up beside a historic pier, the building consists of three major parts: the restored facade of the ship chandlery, a new brick facade with painted iron storefronts and other details, and a gleaming white penthouse that sits atop both structures. A particularly interesting element is the quoined entrance that ties the old and new facades together. Originally, this entrance led to a rear courtyard that was shared by adjoining buildings. Polshek’s solution respects the character of the historic district, while the tiered penthouse is an artful modernist addition to the skyline, one that suggests the purist forms of the French architect-painter Le Corbusier, who celebrated the aesthetics of ocean liners in his influential early writings.

In 2012, the Seamen’s Church Institute moved to Port Newark, currently the largest port complex on the East Coast. The building was acquired by the Blue School, which commissioned David Rockwell, designer of the nearby Imagination Playground on Burling Slip, to redesign the interiors. Though most of the building’s mercantile mementos were removed, the exterior retains an occasional nautical reference, including a ship’s bell and yardarm, as well as steel tubular railings and a glass and metal entrance marquee resembling the spiny vertebrae of a fish.

– Matthew A. Postal