Seaport Museum's Closing Date Looms With No Solution In Sight

The galleries of the Seaport Museum, at 12 Fulton St., are closed because the HVAC system, irreparably damaged by Hurricane Sandy, cannot provide the climate control needed for the collection. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

May. 27, 2013

“It’s a very dire situation that we’re faced with. We’re doing everything in our power to make this work but, in fact, we have close to no winning cards in our hand.”

With those words, spoken in April to Community Board 1's Seaport-Civic Center Committee, South Street Seaport Museum general manager Jerry Gallagher laid out a bleak picture for the financially strapped museum, its galleries now closed because of irreparable Sandy-related damage to the HVAC system.

A sense of urgency in the room was palpable, as the maritime museum’s lifeline—its temporary operator, the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY)—is being cut off on July 5. As a result, CB1 chair Catherine McVay Hughes called for a meeting with all the major players, including representatives of CB1 and both museums, the city Economic Development Corp., which owns the property, and developer Howard Hughes Corp., the leaseholder of much of the area, in order to devise a solution.

That meeting has yet to occur.

A month later, at the Seaport Committee’s May meeting, an upbeat Gallagher noted the museum’s success in raising the $250,000 needed to repair its schooner, the Lettie G. Howard, as well as the resumption of the Pioneer’s sailing season and other museum-related activities planned for the summer. He even noted a week-long summer camp slated for August at the museum.

But Gallagher mentioned no progress when asked about substantive discussions on salvaging the museum.

“The deadline is still at July 5th—I don’t have information to share right now as to whether or not it’s being extended,” he said, noting that discussions are "ongoing" between MCNY, the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Economic Development Corp. about staving off the museum’s closing.

"I think Howard Hughes Corp. is included in those conversations, as well," said Gallagher. At the April CB1 meeting, he had accused Howard Hughes Corp. of thwarting the museum's survival by providing inadequate financial assistance and denying its use of vacant, ground-floor space on Front and John Streets.

In early May, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senator Daniel Squadron and Councilwoman Margaret Chin sent a letter to Howard Hughes’ CEO David Weinreb, saying it is “incumbent upon Howard Hughes to help our community come up with a solution that will keep the doors open at this outstanding museum." 

Weinreb wrote back on May 31, calling the Seaport Museum, a "treasure that we hope can be strengthened and sustained for generations to come."

"Our company recently pledged to provide significant funding to support the South Street Seaport Museum—a total of $750,000 over the course of the next year," he wrote. "As we continue our efforts to develop a proposed plan for the remaining sites within the Seaport, we will work cooperatively with the museum to explore its role in any potential project." (A copy of the entire letter can be found directly below this article.) 

A Howard Hughes spokesman declined to comment on discussions, if any, it is having with the Seaport Museum.

Gallagher and MCNY director Susan Henshaw Jones also declined to be interviewed on the prospects for the Seaport Museum as it heads towards the end of its 21-month-long contractual relationship. A spokesman, responding on their behalf, said in an email that the Seaport Museum’s financial situation is “not perilous” but confirmed that the contract expires in July.

“The Museum of the City of New York’s Board of Trustees is well-informed on what’s going on at the Seaport Museum and is supportive of what the staff is doing,” the spokesman said, adding that the Seaport Museum staff is “still working hard.”

John Fratta, who chairs CB1’s Seaport-Civic Center Committee, said he has not heard back from Jones since meeting with her in late April to talk about the museum’s fate.

“What was supposed to happen was, she was going to reach out to the [MCNY] Board of Trustees to see if she could convince them to extend their term [as manager of the Seaport Museum] for another four months,” he said. “If she couldn’t, she was going to arrange a meeting with us and the trustees.”

The proposed extension, he noted, would ideally be timed with Howard Hughes’ submittal of a land use application to the city, in the late summer, for the future use of the nearby New Market and Tin buildings.

“By extending the term,” he explained, “it would give us more time to negotiate further with Howard Hughes on trying to find some more revenue that the museum needs.”

Otherwise, Fratta told Gallagher at the May Seaport Committee meeting, “We’ll tell you right now, the museum is going to be dead.”