South Street Seaport: New York’s First Skyline
Perhaps the economic center of a developing New York City in the 19th Century, South Street Seaport cannot be ignored when considering the significance and history of the downtown skyline. Between about 1830 and the mid 20th century, South Street Seaport was the world’s busiest port.1 Ships streamed continuously into the New York harbor, sailing along the Eastern stretch of Manhattan to reach the docks of South Street.
South Street Seaport had its origins in the early Dutch settlements of Manhattan, when the city was called New Amsterdam, and grew as the city itself grew. As a port, it was desirable for its natural setting. The ships at harbor were generally sheltered from storms by the geography of the island and surrounding pieces of land, and the port was only rarely bound by ice during the minter months.1 As the port became a center of trade, businesses related to trade and the care and keeping of ships sprang up in the South Street area, furthering the growth of South Street.2 As South Street grew, so did the skyline, and the commercial ships became a recognizable feature of most New York views.
The dawn of the “Clipper Ship Golden Age” in the 1850’s furthered the already growing climate of excitement and progress in the South Street area.4 The clipper ship, built for speed (constructed to get the most propulsion from the wind as possible) was considered the “highest achievement” of ship makers during the 19th century.5 Faster and more agile than pervious merchant ships, the clipper carried the “name and fame of American ship designers and builders to the remotest corners of the globe”.5 As these ships were being constructed and popularized, new opportunities for trade with China and the re-institution of trade with Britain (due to the repeal of the Trade Navigation laws) made New York the only true international trade connection between Europe and the western frontier of America. This, combined with the new innovations in ship structure and building technique caused New York to expand, connecting the city to the world and attracting immigrants.
During the “Clipper Ship Golden Age”, the tendency of residents and visitors alike to describe New York City as the “forest of ships” became commonplace.6 This is a critical fact when considering the extent to which South Street Seaport can be viewed as the first skyline. The masts towering over the landscape was many travelers’ strongest image of New York, and suggests the extent to which New York City in the 19th century can be represented just by the masts of ships. These masts were one of the first symbolic representations of New York, much like our images of the skyline today.
Abiel Abbot Low, son of a successful Massachusetts businessman, built an international trade empire at the beginning of the 1830’s. The owner of a large fleet of clipper ships, he dominated American trade with China, bringing silk, tea, and other goods to New York City.8 Though his business and commercial base was in Manhattan, on South Street, he chose to live at 3 Pierrepont Place in Brooklyn Heights. The Low mansion, overlooking New York Harbor, allowed Seth Low, Abiel’s son, to “view his father’s clipper ships as they left and entered the port.”8 Abiel Low’s decision to live across the water, distanced from his business, is key, and further suggests that South Street, with its clipper ships, was the first skyline of New York City.
Abiel’s decision to distance himself from the bustle of South Street, moving across the water, mirrors the behavior of modern skyline viewers. The modern viewer will often choose to view the skyline from a distance, where it becomes easier to frame in one’s mind. At a distance, with the rising form of the city (whether these rising forms are buildings or ships) outlined clearly, the skyline becomes “an object witnessed, rather than one closely encountered”.10 A body of water, uniform and reflective, often helps a viewer outline the shape of a city in their mind, and because of this the most popular views of skylines tend to contain rivers, lakes, or oceans.10
Abiel Low’s chosen residence, distanced from New York City yet with a view of his many ships upon the water, represents an attempt to turn his trade empire into an object to be witnessed, something manageable to look upon and own.
The spectators in the above image, a painting of New York from Brooklyn Heights in 1849, are characteristic of paintings and engravings from the vantage point of New York’s East River. Their position, gazing out across the water, as young Seth Low would have done, suggests that the masts of the ships and the activity surrounding them might be an early form of our skyline view in later periods. There is something about this view that attracts spectators, even before the actual skyscraper buildings begin to rise, and it would seem that the ships of South Street Seaport are the skyline, at least until their replacement in the later part of the19th century.
The above 1849 painting of the South Street Seaport area from Brooklyn Heights reflects the importance of the constant ship traffic as an identifying characteristic of New York City. The masts of the many docked ships (seen below), visible across the water that takes up the larger portion of the image, create their own continuous shape, their own skyline.
The only buildings that compete with the masts’ rising forms at this period of time are the steeples of Trinity Church and the other Dutch chapels towards the right of the image. If the skyline is simply an outline, or at least begins as an outline, of the buildings and other dominating forms that make up a view, then certainly the masts of South Street’s ships count as part of the skyline of New York from Brooklyn Heights. The images below, both dating from the 1830’s, help to further illustrate the prominence of the ships’ masts in the view of New York City from the Brooklyn Heights area.
The thin, tall, masts, like needles shooting up into the sky of each image, resemble the skyscraper buildings of modern New York. In fact, the term “skyscraper” was actually first used in London in the late 18th century to discuss the masts of ships, and was another name for a small, triangular sail placed on the highest point of the mast.14 Following its first usage, the term spread, becoming a common word in the international nautical vocabulary. If the concept of the skyscraper evolved in relation to ships, then it would not be a stretch to relate the early New York skyline to South Street Seaport, the greatest collection of ships in America during the 19th century.
The masts of South Street’s ships can be viewed as skyscrapers, as part of the skyline of New York, at least until the skyscraper buildings of the next century rise above and obscure them. It seems best, then, to understand the skyline itself as a fluid concept. The skyline, constantly changing, is a composite made up of the buildings and forms that add to its outline. As old forms fall and new forms rise, the skyline transforms its shape but remains the same in essence, much like the rising and falling of ocean waves.
At the turn of the 20th century, we begin to see change within the skyline. Phillip Lopate describes the sight of the RR Govin16, a large, well-seasoned ship, being unloaded beneath the skyscrapers of the late 19th century, in his photographic work, Seaport. The massive skyscrapers, at this time only just beginning to rise over the surrounding landscape, he characterizes as “breathing down the neck” of the old ship which, despite this threat, is still “holding its own”. This scene, the masts of the great ship dwarfed beneath the rising building, may suggest a transfer of symbolic significance, the rise and fall of new and old forms in the skyline. Such a juxtaposition of ship and skyscraper calls to mind the transition from trade and commerce by boat to what would later become the land-locked stock-driven financial dealings of Wall Street and the greater downtown area around 1890. The old ship melting into the skyscraper embodies the replacement of old with new, the tired ship sinking beneath the new power structure of the day.
South Street Seaport ceased to be the center of commercial life and trade in New York around 1895. As water traffic moved increasingly towards the west side of the island, South Street began to lose its significance.17
It saw fewer and fewer ships and now rests quietly amid the bustle of 21st century New York City. Despite South Street’s fading relevance to the modern world, it still claims lasting significance. Once the commercial center of the city, South Street Seaport’s rise and fall marks the beginning of New York’s image as the cultural and commercial center of the New World. Still visible from Brooklyn Heights today, South Street Seaport has transformed from commercial center to historical marker, a tribute to the innovative spirit of New York City and an enduring reminder of New York’s first skyline.
2 "South Street." In The WPA guide to New York City: the Federal Writers' Project guide to 1930s New York: a comprehensive guide to the five boroughs of the metropolis-- Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Richmond, 80-84. New York: New Press, 1992.
9 A Google Maps Image showing the Low mansion in relation to South Street Seaport. The red pin marks the Low residence, and South Street Seaport is labeled in words. The two locations are almost directly parallel.