Snug Harbor was founded with the execution of the will of Robert Richard Randall, heir to a shipping fortune, who died in 1801. The will required the family fortune and estate be used to build and operate a haven for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors.”
Over the next century, Sailors’ Snug Harbor expanded from its original three buildings to 50 structures and 900 residents from every corner of the world. By the turn of the 20th century, Sailors’ Snug Harbor was reputedly the richest charitable institution in the United States and a self-sustaining community with farms, a dairy, a bakery, workshops, a power plant, a chapel, a sanatorium, a hospital, a concert hall, dormitories, recreation areas, gardens, and a cemetery.
Snug Harbor’s major buildings are representative of the changing architectural styles of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first buildings were built in the Greek Revival style. As the complex expanded, new buildings were erected in the Beaux Arts, Renaissance Revival, Second Empire and Italianate styles. High Victorian decorative components were also added throughout the site.
In the mid-20th century, the number of residents dwindled as programs like Social Security and Medicare provided a financial safety net for retired sailors while the Randall endowment started to run out. The historic buildings of Sailors’ Snug Harbor began to deteriorate, and several were demolished in the early 1950’s, including the Randall Memorial Church, the hospital, sanatorium, and several ancillary service buildings. Fortunately in the 1960s, the newly formed New York City Landmarks Commission stepped forward to save the five Greek Revival front buildings and the chapel by designating them as New York City’s first landmark structures. They are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Local activists and artists worked with elected officials in the early 1970s and persuaded the City of New York to purchase the property, with the objective of transforming it into a public cultural resource. In 1975 the not-for-profit Snug Harbor Cultural Center was formed to operate the buildings, and the Staten Island Botanical Gardens managed the gardens. The two organizations merged in 2008 to form Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden.
Today, Snug Harbor is a place where history, architecture, visual and performing arts, gardens, agriculture, and education come together and provide dynamic experiences for all ages. It is one of the largest ongoing adaptive reuse projects in America and is one of New York City’s unique architectural complexes and historic landscapes. Majestic buildings of classic architectural styles are home to exhibitions on historical subjects and contemporary art. Snug Harbor’s Music Hall is the one of the oldest concert halls in New York City. Fourteen distinctive botanical gardens are spread across the site and include the celebrated New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden and the Richmond County Savings Foundation Tuscan Garden, based on a 18th century garden in Florence, Italy. Snug Harbor is also is home to the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, Snug Harbor Artist Residency Program (SHARP), Staten Island Museum, Staten Island Children’s Museum, Noble Maritime Collection, Art Lab, Children’s Harbor Montessori School, and Staten Island Conservatory of Music. Snug Harbor is also a proud Smithsonian affiliate.