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A Rare Peek Inside Schermerhorn Row's 19th-Century Hotels

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More than 200 years ago, merchant Peter Schermerhorn commissioned a series of 14 brick warehouses to be built along Fulton Street near the East River to serve Manhattan's growing South Street Seaport, an area so busy that it has been described as New York City's "first world trade center." Within a few decades, the needs of the area changed and in the middle of the 19th century, part of Schermerhorn's buildings were converted into a hotel. Today, pieces of this 165-year-old boarding house are preserved in the South Street Seaport Museum, but new development threatens this slice of history. As part of its grand makeover plans for the area, which include a 42-story tower and marina, the Howard Hughes Corporation wants to turn Schermerhorn Row into affordable housing. As change looms large, here's a rare glimpse inside what remains of the historic hotels.

The Schermerhorn Row block of buildings runs along Fulton Street, from Front Street to South Street, and it started out as a series of 14 brick warehouses. The were completed in 1812, and occupied property at 91-93 South Street, 2-18 Fulton Street, and 193-195 Front Street. At the time, they were the "largest strictly commercial structure in New York," according to the museum.

[Inside the Rogers Hotel]

In 1850, Albert Rogers turned the warehouse at 4 Fulton Street into a hotel, and established an eponymous saloon. One of Rogers' employees, a man named Abraham Sweet, purchased the business from Rogers in 1864 and renamed it the Sweet's Hotel. During these days, the hotel featured custom bedding, a water closet, and fresh(ish) water. One of the things that was special about the Rogers was that it was Single Room Occupancy (SRO). That kind of privacy was rare in those days.

The hotel changed hands again in 1917, when it was purchased by James Lake, who kept Sweet's name, but closed the hotel shortly thereafter to focus on the restaurant. The family continued to run Sweet's Refectory until 1992, when a nor'easter forced the business to shut down. It never re-opened. Today, several original hotel rooms remain (↑) in 4 Fulton Street. Usually, visitors to the museum's galleries can only peer down the hallway, but we got to step inside.

[Inside the Fulton Ferry Hotel]

Pieces of the Fulton Ferry Hotel (↑) on South Street, which started as the Mackinley Hotel in 1868, also remain today. In 1875, it took the Fulton Ferry name and ran until the 1930s, though by then it had really become a boarding house. "A lot of people lived here unofficially," said Maria O'Malley, collections manager at the museum. Many people know about the hotel from Joseph Mitchell's fictional book "Up in the Old Hotel," which published in 1992, though Mitchell began writing about the hotel in the 1950s, around the same time the Seaport area started to decline as shipping moved to the west side.

The museum was created in 1967 to help spur positive change, and in 1968, the buildings that make up Schermerhorn Row were declared individual landmarks by the city. The museum was always located in the historic buildings, but a 2001 renovation expanded the space and combined the buildings to create what is there today. Schermerhorn Row is currently occupied by the museum's galleries, along with artist space, plus commercial space on the ground floor.

What's next for Schermerhorn Row? Howard Hughes wants to convert the existing buildings into affordable housing and create a new building at the corner of John and South streets. HHC's Chris Curry has repeatedly said that the museum will retain whatever space it needs in the building, but Boulware said he doesn't yet know how much space he will need; the museum is in the midst of a feasibility study to determine that. Any changes to the exterior and construction of a new building will have to be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

HHC's plans for the changes within the historic district have met a lot of pushback from local officials and residents, and they should go before the LPC in the coming weeks. Mayor de Blasio, for what it's worth, has thrown his support behind the museum. Last November, he said, "I think the Seaport Museum is really crucial to the city and I think it has to be protected because this is how New York City became New York City. We're here because of the water, because of the maritime industry and I think it's really important future generations feel that—so protecting the museum in some form is something I care about a lot."

—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· South Street Seaport Museum [Official]
· All Schermerhorn Row coverage [Curbed]
· Contested Seaport Redevelopment Plan Progresses, Sort Of [Curbed]

South Street Seaport Museum

12 Fulton Street, Manhattan, NY 10038 (212) 748-8600 Visit Website