4 South Street, 2005

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

At Manhattan’s southern tip, the Whitehall Ferry Terminal serves 70,000 passengers each day. New York City took over operation of the ferry in 1905 and the current building replaced a 1956 facility that in its later years attracted few admirers. Significantly damaged by fire in 1991, a new design was chosen through a much-publicized architectural competition in 1992. Though Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates of Philadelphia was chosen as project architect, Staten Island Borough President Guy V. Molinari, strongly objected to the design and the 120-foot-diameter clock that would have faced the harbor and incoming ferries. The architects viewed the clock as rich with civic meaning but many Staten Islanders disliked the illuminated face that displayed a giant-size seal of the city. Following several years of public debate and a subsequent redesign that incorporated an immense video screen, Venturi, who many consider the American father of Post-Modernism, withdrew and a former associate, Frederick Schwartz, of Anderson/Schwartz Architects, became the lead designer.

Schwartz, a finalist in the World Trade Center competition, abandoned Venturi’s pop-historicist flourishes, such as the contested clock and the barrel-vaulted interior. In its place, he created a barn-like structure of aluminum and tinted green glass that exhibits remarkable clarity and elegance. The waiting room, reached by escalators and stairs, was substantially enlarged, and outdoor viewing decks were added. These welcoming public spaces take full advantage of the terminal’s unique site. The interior features bold graphics and a functional artwork by the Shanghai-born sculptor Ming Fay. Titled “Whitehall Crossing,” the curved granite benches are intended to recall the dugout canoes used by Native Americans to traverse the harbor. Arriving passengers are greeted on the outer concourse with a short excerpt from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Rucuerdo: “We were very tired, we were very merry – we had gone back and forth . . . all night on the ferry …”

The terminal sits at the south end of Peter Minuit Plaza. Minuit was the director of New Netherland and is credited with “purchasing” the island of Manhattan in 1626. The landscaped 1.3 acre plaza was completed in 2011 and contains entrances to the subway, bus and bicycle lanes, as well as a gleaming white kiosk by Dutch architect Ben van Berkel of UNStudio (with Handel Architects). Shaped like a pinwheel, or some might say a tulip, this unusual Corian structure was designed to serve as an information booth and cafe. It was financed by the Dutch government to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of New Amsterdam.

There is no charge to ride the ferry, which operates 24 hours daily. The trip to the St. George Terminal (rebuilt by Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum in 2005) takes about thirty minutes.

– Matthew A. Postal