Red Hook

Meet the juggler who brought a barge museum to Red Hook

This is the Waterfront Museum’s 25th anniversary in the neighborhood.

June 17, 2019 Lore Croghan
Lehigh Valley Barge #79 is a Red Hook waterfront icon. Photo by Frank Zimmerman

Meet the clown who saved Lehigh Valley Barge #79 and turned it into a floating museum.

When I say clown, I don’t mean he’s a fool. I mean he was a professional juggler who studied at Jacques Lecoq’s school for physical theater in Paris.

The legendary Lecoq gave him the name Apollo, but Brooklyn knows him as David Sharps — the president of the Waterfront Museum, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary as a Red Hook cultural institution.

David Sharps is the founder of the Waterfront Museum, which is a barge docked in Red Hook. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
David Sharps is the founder of the Waterfront Museum, which is a barge docked in Red Hook. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

He rescued a century-old wooden railroad barge from mud flats south of the George Washington Bridge back in 1985. The barge now serves as a floating museum, a performance venue and an education center.

The Waterfront Museum is docked in a prominent spot in a cove beside Red Hook Stores, where Fairway Market is located.

Three hundred tons of harbor sludge

In a recent interview, Sharps recalled the barge was filled with 300 tons of harbor sludge when he started his rescue mission. The epic cleanup effort involved gasoline pumps and hoses. It took two years.

Sharps, who has devoted his life to Lehigh Valley Barge #79, paid $500 for the mud-filled vessel.

In this undated photo, fading paint makes Lehigh Valley Barge #79 look especially picturesque. Photo by David Sharps
In this undated photo, fading paint makes Lehigh Valley Barge #79 look especially picturesque. Photo by David Sharps

“When I bought this barge, I had never used a power tool in my life,” he said. “That’s the definition of foolish.”

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The cove where the barge museum is docked is private property with public access. It belongs to the O’Connell Organization, which has preserved and reused a portfolio of historic 19th-century waterfront industrial buildings in Red Hook.

Greg O’Connell (the former NYPD detective behind the O’Connell Organization) invited Lehigh Valley Barge #79 to Red Hook after Sharps spent several years trying to find a permanent home for it in New Jersey. Sharps brought the barge to Red Hook in 1994.

Wild dogs on the waterfront

Inside the barge, ship’s bells are on display. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
Inside the barge, ship’s bells are on display. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

The beloved neighborhood was a less tourist-friendly place back then. Sharps said the stories long-time residents tell about packs of wild dogs in the streets are true.

“I had three cats that were eaten by wild dogs,” he said. “They would chase me on my bicycle.”

Sharps loved the area then, and he loves it now. He and his wife Sarah Burd-Sharps have lived there, on the barge, all these years and raised their two kids, now adults.

“It’s been really great having a front-row seat to Red Hook’s reclaiming of its waterfront,” he said. “It was once bustling, then long forgotten.

“It’s my real hope as Red Hook moves forward that we’re able to keep what brings people to Red Hook — its historic and scenic charm,” Sharps added.

At this moment, the scene’s so serene inside the Red Hook barge known as the Waterfront Museum. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
The serene scene inside the Red Hook barge known as the Waterfront Museum. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

What’s on tap for the anniversary

Sharps said that the barge will have its busiest entertainment season ever to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

It includes the “Circus Afloat” series from June 30 through July 28. Four different groups will perform. Two of them are made up of veterans of the Big Apple Circus.

Also, Brooklyn-based Brave New World Repertory Theatre will present a staged reading of a site-specific adaptation of an Arthur Miller screenplay called “The Hook” from June 22-23. From Sept. 12-29, the troupe will present full productions of Miller’s play, “A View From the Bridge.”

Visiting the Waterfront Museum is a barrel of fun. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
Visiting the Waterfront Museum is a barrel of fun. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

From the Appalachians to the Seine

Sharps grew up in the landlocked Appalachian Mountains in Garrett County, Maryland. He became a professional juggler one summer during his college years. He’d gone to Ocean City, Maryland to work as a busboy at a hotel.

Here’s David Sharps back when he was a performer on cruise ships. Carnival Cruise Lines photo courtesy of David Sharps
Here’s David Sharps back when he was a performer on cruise ships. Carnival Cruise Lines photo courtesy of David Sharps

A juggler the hotel hired for its July 4, 1976, bicentennial celebrations cancelled. The man in charge of special events asked Sharps, “Do you juggle?”

Sharps — who was a college golfer — had good hand-eye coordination and knew enough about juggling to handle the job. He quit the busboy gig and became a performer.

When Sharps was finishing college at West Virginia University, he and the assistant director of a mime troupe teamed up professionally. He taught her juggling. She taught him mime.

Their act combined those two performance arts with movement and puppetry. They worked on cruise ships — his first introduction to waterborne living.

A ship’s wheel is on display inside the Waterfront Museum. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
A ship’s wheel is on display inside the Waterfront Museum. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Later, Sharps attended L’Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris from 1982 through 1984 on a French government scholarship.

During his second year of school, he heard about a barge that needed a caretaker. And voilà — Sharps had a floating home on the Seine River.

A vacation that never ended

After he completed his studies with Lecoq, Sharps returned to the United States. He was headed to Los Angeles to try his hand at film-making. But on his way there he stopped to visit New York — and discovered Manhattan’s 79th Street Boat Basin, where people lived on their vessels.

On the museum barge’s outside deck, flowers grow in surprising planters. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
On the museum barge’s outside deck, flowers grow in surprising planters. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Sharps almost bought a houseboat from an owner there.

But instead he wound up as a caretaker aboard a barge in New Jersey for a year. During that time, a tugboat captain told him about sludge-filled Lehigh Valley Barge #79 being for sale. The rest is history.

The barge museum has had its share of drama.

In 2002, Sharps had to spend $250,000 to repair the bottom of the barge with longleaf yellow pine planks. In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy damaged the bottom of the barge and the vessel’s skylights.

Coping with expenses

In addition to raising money for operating expenses and ongoing maintenance year after year, the floating museum must come up with $250,000 every decade to dry-dock the barge for an inspection. It’s required because Lehigh Valley Barge #79 is a Coast Guard-approved attraction vessel, which means it operates dockside.

Fog shrouds Lehigh Valley Barge #79 in this undated photo. Photo by Etienne Frossard
Fog shrouds Lehigh Valley Barge #79 in this undated photo. Photo by Etienne Frossard

Money comes from donors and earned income from school groups and the proceeds from shows. Grants from the city Department of Cultural Affairs help pay for programming.

And numerous manufacturers donate products and materials for the barge’s upkeep — such as an entire heating system, roofing and Benjamin Moore paints. Honeywell gave the barge smoke and heat detectors that meet Coast Guard requirements.

In exchange, the manufacturers use barge museum testimonials about their products in marketing and trade-show materials.

Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.

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