Push to Reactivate Beacon and Time Ball in Seaport Aims to Make Everything Old New Again
A Lower Manhattan landmark may soon get a facelift. The Titanic Memorial Lighthouse has been hiding in plain sight at the corner of Pearl and Fulton Streets for nearly five decades. But its story stretches back for more than a century, to a dedication just one year after the 1912 sinking of the eponymous ocean liner.
The lighthouse was originally perched atop the Seamen’s Church Institute (a philanthropic organization that provided social services to mariners in the era when Manhattan’s waterfront was a thriving anchorage), located at the corner of South Street and Coenties Slip, on the site of what is now Vietnam Veterans Plaza. Commissioned as working lighthouse, the Titanic Memorial housed three 2500-candle power mercury lamps, the emerald beam from which could be seen ten miles out at sea. Designed by the architectural firm and Warren and Wetmore (who created Grand Central Terminal), it also featured a traditional “time ball”—a large metal globe that descended a pole precisely at the stroke of noon each day (triggered by a telegraphic signal from the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.), enabling navigators aboard ships offshore to calibrate their marine chronometers, needed for celestial navigation and the determination of longitude at sea.
When the Seamen’s Church Institute moved to newer quarters in 1968, the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse was salvaged from its roof and donated to the South Street Seaport Museum, which has acted as its protector and custodian ever since. The Museum initially placed the edifice on Pier 16 (on the East River waterfront, near Fulton Street), before finally moving it to a triangle of land at Pearl and Fulton Streets, in the newly created Titanic Memorial Park, in 1976.
Decades of difficulty for the Museum (including uncertainties over funding, and the 2012 cataclysm of Hurricane Sandy) have translated into maintaining the Memorial Lighthouse, but not having the resources to refurbish it.
This began to change in December, when the Museum issued a request for proposals (RFP), seeking architectural and engineering services to renovate the structure. As the RFP notes, “one of the Museum’s principal restoration goals is careful conservation of exterior and interior lighting to allow for reactivation. The work will also allow for the evaluation of the tower structure tower and its concrete base in order to determine if work is required to ensure its integrity and stability prior to needed repairs, cleaning and painting.”
At the January 17 meeting of the Waterfront, Parks & Cultural Committee of Community Board 1, Captain Jonathan Boulware, president of the South Street Seaport Museum, said, “I’m pleased to say that we’ve kicked off a restoration that will be sufficient, I expect—we’re still working on some final funding things—to bring the lighthouse to good fit and finish, to have it be preserved, to have it be watertight, to have integrity as an artifact. Because it is, in fact, one of the museum’s accessioned artifacts. And as with all of those, we are responsible to the Attorney General of the State of New York for care. So I’m glad to be taking a step forward here.”
“I hope and expect that we will be able to reactivate the time ball,” he continued, “which marked local time, so that ships could set their clock, which is the origin of the New Year’s Eve tradition of a ball drop. It was a maritime story first, as many are. And also, the light itself, because this was a functioning lighthouse when it was on Water Street. So we’ve got architectural proposals and expect within the next few weeks, we’ll be able to name that architect, and move forward with the design and subsequent restoration of the of the lighthouse.”
Part of the momentum for this push came from a non-profit organization, Friends of Titanic Memorial Lighthouse, which has raised more than $7,000 via a GoFundMe campaign, and collected more than 20,000 signatures via a Change.org petition to build support for restoring the structure. Currently the Friends of Titanic Memorial Lighthouse is lobbying to have the edifice moved back to Pier 16 and added to the National Register of Historic Places. The group also wants to add the names of those who perished on the Titanic to an expanded design for the lighthouse.
Adrian Saker, the founder and president of the Friends group, says, “after a four-year campaign, we are delighted the Memorial is at last to be restored. This is the beginning of a journey, but we are one step closer to raising the new tower as a beacon of hope at Pier 16, the riverside location its history and function demand.”
Calling the concept, “a welcoming light inviting the global community to our City and a new cultural landmark to inspire and educate youth, immigrants and visitors alike,” Mr. Saker says, “as a restored landmark, the time ball will be the only working one in the United States, and its restored green lantern will be the only working lighthouse in Manhattan.”