This is the ninth in a series of guests posts that feature Archtober Building of the Day tours!
Schermerhorn Row is a complex of buildings that many of us have walked by or perhaps been inside on a shopping expedition to the South Street Seaport. One may recognize the silhouette of the building and sailing ship in the South Street Seaport Museum’s iconic logo, designed by Chermayeff and Geismar. According to William Roka, historian for the Seaport Museum, the buildings built between 1810 to 1812 comprised of a row of speculative counting houses built by Peter Schermerhorn, a descendant of an important Dutch family instrumental in founding New Amsterdam. Roka provided an interesting and thorough historical context to what he describes as one of New York’s most important building. How is it that this significant landmark, hidden in plain sight, is not more familiar to New Yorkers and their guests alike?
Schermerhorn Row has been described as New York’s first world trade center. Peter Schermerhorn was at the right place at the right time to develop a water lot by extending landfill into the East River. He built a warehouse of sorts adjacent to the burgeoning maritime trade just prior to the establishment of a market and ferry named after Robert Fulton. Considered a large building in its day, it served merchants who would handle cargo and account for the taxes and tariffs ascribed to goods moving in and out of the port. The merchant class of New York City nurtured their wealth here and moved to places like Washington Square to live a peaceful life at the edge of a bustling port town.
The tour brought us to the upper floors of one of the counting houses where a display of hundred of tools spoke immediately to the human hand in every aspect of labor—on ships and in buildings like Schermerhorn Row. Brute force and rudimentary use of mechanical advantage lessened the burden of lifting, pulling, hauling. In an adjoining counting house, an array of architectural artifacts and archaeological remains suggest a story of simple materials use practically, underscoring the hand-crafted (early nails and bricks were made by hand and used in the building of Schermerhorn Row) nature of architecture in the early days of the nineteenth century. There are few examples of this mercantile typology and hand-wrought technology left in New York City.
The highlight of the tour was learning about New York’s early venture into adaptive reuse: Walking the halls of a counting house-turned-hotel where one witnesses airless and lightless rooms that seem cruel and unusual to our modern standards of space and cleanliness. Roca walked us through the rise and fall of the port and Schermerhorn Row. Thankfully, the New Jersey portion of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey nixed the idea of developing the new World Trade Center on a gigantic parcel of land from Wall Street to the Brooklyn Bridge. Grassroots movements and the newly established Landmarks Preservation Commission helped declare 12 blocks surrounding Schermerhorn Row as the South Street Seaport Historic District in 1977. Stay tuned for upcoming tours of Schermerhorn Row as the Seaport Museum brings more of its collection into public view.
About the author: Tim Hayduk is the Lead Design Educator at the Center for Architecture. He began teaching about the built environment at South Street Seaport nearly 15 years ago. Tim has a strong affection for the Seaport District and the history that is told through its bricks, mortar, streetscapes, vessels, and people.