After years of financial turbulence, and significant damage from Hurricane Sandy, the South Street Seaport Museum has received another substantial financial commitment from the City of New York: $4.5 million to stabilize and restore a 110-year-old lightship.
The museum, located on the lower tip of Manhattan on the East River, showcases the city’s maritime history. In addition to galleries and educational spaces, it features an active fleet of five historic ships. The city paid $13 million for a restoration of the sailing ship Wavertree, which was completed last year, plus another $4.5 million to make the ship accessible. Now, New York is funding the restoration of the lightship Ambrose, which guided vessels into lower New York Bay between 1908 and 1932, a period of major immigration.
“For millions of immigrants, Ambrose was the literal light of liberty,” said Jonathan Boulware, executive director of the museum. “Passing Ambrose lightship meant that you’d arrived at America’s shores. Ambrose’s light was the beacon of liberty visible long before the Statue of Liberty.”
There is also symbolic significance to the city’s funding of this beleaguered museum. The museum has had major setbacks over the past decade: It struggled financially for years, resulting in staff layoffs, trustees’ resignations, and board members making personal loans to keep it afloat. Then, Hurricane Sandy hit hard. Six feet of oil-laced water surged into the lobby, the electrical system and computer network failed, and the museum was shuttered for nearly four years. It eventually received $10.4 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and reopened in 2016.
The funding for the lightship project has been allocated by the mayor’s office, City Council, and borough president.
“New York City is rediscovering its waterfront in so many ways, from new parks to ferries as a mode of transport,” said Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s cultural affairs commissioner. “The Seaport Museum is the best place to dive even deeper into our city’s long history of turning to the water as a source of sustenance, trade and connections.”
The museum is still recovering, though. “We are still reopening after Sandy,” Mr. Boulware said. “There’s still more work to do.”
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