The Lover of White Sails

November 12, 2013 By Henrik Krogius Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Peter Stanford loves sailing ships. Who can blame him? Their white canvas geometries unfurling, billowing in the wind, catching the sunlight, are visions we can still from time to time enjoy on the East River and New York’s Upper Bay. Thanks to Stanford, who grew up in Brooklyn Heights, the son of a man who served in the U.S. Navy in both world wars, the age of sail has not entirely vanished from its New York home. That is largely because Stanford and his wife Norma on their wedding trip in 1965 got the idea for South Street Seaport Museum and then worked tirelessly to see it realized.   

They now tell the story in their book “A Dream of Tall Ships” (Sea History Press, Peekskill, NY, $34.95, available through www.seahistory.org).

In the course of their effort to save some surviving relics of sail-powered commerce and to return them to the “Street of Ships,” as South Street was known in the 1800s, when the bowsprits of clippers, brigs and schooners projected over it at the river’s edge, Peter also became president of the then struggling National Maritime Historical Society and had offices in the former fireboat house at Fulton Ferry Landing, now home to the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. (A sidelight, not in the book, is that Peter in 1978 promoted “East River Renaissance,” a precursor to the idea of Brooklyn Bridge Park.)

In their book, told in Peter’s voice, the Stanfords recount the extraordinary number of encounters they had with fellow sailing enthusiasts as well as officials and others in positions of influence. There’s an informal, day-to-day quality to the writing, suggesting extensive diary-keeping combined with terrific recall. A veteran of international sailing races, Peter also relishes tales of seamanship carried out in the course of selling the seaport idea. In one instance he describes the tense maneuvering as the schooner he’s on tries to catch enough wind in light conditions to keep from drifting into some smaller fishing boats. He also tells of sailing with a crew on a square rigger into Mystic Seaport on a trip to that well known ship museum to learn more about the maintenance of historic ships.

The Mystic visit actually led to a bit of dispute, when one of the trustees there complained that the South Street venture was a potential competitor and tried to keep “Seaport” from its name. But, as it turned out, the growing interest in South Street only increased attendance at Mystic, and the unhappy trustee turned into a great friend of South Street, even helping South Street through his fundraising expertise.

There was also a contretemps at an international congress in London, where a British museum director accused a San Francisco director of conspiring to steal an old tugboat, and Stanford, who was familiar with the details of the situation, set the record straight and ended up becoming friends with an influential British maritime historian.

The tone of “A Dream of Tall Ships” is consistently upbeat, and the account essentially culminates with the success of Operation Sail in 1976, when on July 4 ships that the Stanfords had helped obtain for the South Street Museum, Wavertree, Peking, Ambrose, were joined at their piers by part of a large fleet of ships from the world over. By then, however, Peter Stanford had been eased out as the president of the enterprise. In meetings to which he was not privy, the trustees decided a new direction was needed. Yet Stanford ends the book on a non-rancorous, hopeful note. He and his wife have covered 512 pages of basic text without mentioning the coming of the Rouse Company, which had notably revived the market area around Boston’s old Faneuil Hall and successfully developed Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, but which drained most of South Street Seaport’s historic aura through a synthetic mall development.

Fulton Fish Market, with its special character, is long since gone. Modern office buildings have encroached on the South Street area. The Pier 17 mall is being torn down, and is to be replaced. The future of some of the remaining historic buildings is in doubt. The Museum of the City of New York came in as a savior for the seaport museum a couple of years ago, only to have to give up its effort. The New-York Historical Society is being looked to as the next hope. The recent history of South Street Seaport has been nothing to cheer about. But the Stanfords gamely stick to the story of what might have been, and briefly was.

The text is complemented by nostalgic images of sailing vessels and photographs of many people, including well known performers, who in one way or another supported the seaport museum project.

Henrik Krogius, the former editor of the Brooklyn Heights Press, is at work on a history of Brooklyn Bridge Park in collaboration with Joanne Witty, a key player in moving the park plans toward realization.