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Staten Island’s hidden relics

Jun 28, 2017
The former entrance gate to Sailors’ Snug Harbor  on Staten Island.

The former entrance gate to Sailors’ Snug Harbor on Staten Island.

Twain Braden

Beneath a canopy of old sycamores and lindens, directly across the Kill van Kull from some of New Jersey’s most wretched industrial wastelands — Bergen Point, Port Johnson and Constable Hook — lies the bucolic 80-acre campus of Sailors’ Snug Harbor. The area was once an old sailors’ community where, for decades, indigent seamen were able to settle. It was a Staten Island artist named John Noble who was instrumental in saving Sailors’ Snug Harbor from development.

The Sailors’ Snug Harbor community was one of several distinctive settlements on Staten Island. The New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell walked all over Staten Island from the 1930s through the 1960s, detailing these off-the-beaten-track hamlets. For example, his 1956 profile, “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” described his sojourns among the cemeteries and neighborhoods of Sandy Ground, a community on Staten Island’s south shore of descendants of freed slaves who had fished for oysters from sloops and schooners after the Civil War until New York’s waters became too polluted. By the 1950s, the community was almost gone; now, it’s been buried beneath the crush of sprawl like so much of Staten Island between Outerbridge Crossing and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

The deck house of the barge used by artist John Noble as a studio.

Twain Braden

From 1833 until the early 1970s, Sailors’ Snug Harbor was home to some 10,000 “aged, decrepit and worn-out seamen,” men who had spent their life before the mast and, upon reaching their dotage, had no support system ashore. The trustees saw to it that they could live here, safely ashore but at the water’s edge, free of charge, tending the farm and swapping sea stories. Each of them was referred to by the staff as “Captain.” By mid-century, however, Roosevelt’s New Deal safety net began to make Snug Harbor obsolete, and fewer and fewer aging mariners arrived. The property was donated to the City of New York and is now a museum, open to the public and serving school groups as a venue for studies of the sea and ships.

Artist John A. Noble (1913-1983) grew up on Staten Island, along the shores of the Kill, and witnessed the end of the Age of Sail, first as a young schooner deck hand and then as an emerging artist inspired by the rotting hulks that were left in the mud on either side of his home waterway. He started drawing them, painting them, and was soon creating haunting lithographs of these wrecked ships.

This is how Noble himself described the scene: “Many a great forest was felled to create this scene of massive abandonment. This silent sea of dead wooden vessels — acres of [barquentines], schooners, tugs, derricks, ferry boats, coastwise barges — surrounded the disused coal docks to form the greatest wooden graveyard on the East Coast. … Before you stand, almost in an archaeological sense, the last giant wooden artifacts of this Earth.”

Inside the studio, with a picture of Noble visible through the window.

Twain Braden

Noble began spending so much time on the derelict docks that he salvaged a teak saloon from a European yacht and made it his studio. When the dock rotted out from under it, he built a barge and transferred his quirky studio — replete with Victorian-era molding, crenulations and portholes — to its deck. He moored it amongst the wrecks at Port Johnson, N.J., just inside Shooters Island.

His life’s work, including his restored studio, is the cornerstone of the Noble Maritime Collection, a combination of Noble’s lithographs, paintings and drawings, and a vast collection of ship models and other nautical artwork and arcana that were part of Sailors’ Snug Harbor. Noble’s studio is furnished exactly as it was during Noble’s life: the paintbrushes, Belgian marble, easel and paint tubes haphazardly arranged; his wooden engineer’s bunk is made with sheets and blankets; his tea kettle sits on the woodstove. A large photo of Noble hangs on a wall just outside one of the studio’s portholes so that a visitor standing in the studio’s doorway actually sees Noble sitting at work or floating in space just outside, a fitting elegy to a man who dedicated his life to capturing the beauty of wooden ships as they faded into the past.

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