25 South Street: More Than Beds

Jan 28, 2011
by Johnathan Thayer, Associate Archivist 
 
On April 15, 1912, a delegation that included Mayor William Jay Gaynor laid the cornerstone of the Seamen’s Church Institute’s (SCI) new headquarters at the corner of South Street and Coenties Slip, a ninety square foot property located where the original Coenties Slip Station once operated. The Institute was consolidating; the Reverend Archibald Mansfield had been made Superintendent in 1910 and under his and longtime board member Edmund Baylies’ direction, all of SCI’s operations were brought together under one roof. The new building would be capable of housing 580 seafaring men in its dormitories, with rates as low as 15 cents per night. The sailor could finally come home in the port of New York.
 
By the time the cornerstone-laying ceremony was underway on April 15, 1912, news had reached Port that the RMS Titanic had sunk early that morning. The disaster sent shockwaves through the maritime community of New York City. The timing of the tragedy lent a “peculiar significance” to the ceremony, according to an article published in the April 1912 edition of The Lookout:
 
“And yet it seemed particularly appropriate that on this day, when heart and mind were turned toward the sea and the sailors who had gone down beneath the deep waters, there should be gathered a notable company of men and women to join in a service marking one of the final steps in the completion of a tremendous project solely for the benefit of seamen and their families.”
 
SCI immediately took up an appeal for a fund to build a memorial for the victims of the Titanic, and the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse was dedicated on the roof of 25 South Street one year later, on April 15, 1913.
 
Inside SCI’s headquarters, the new facilities offered more than just beds. Its designers set out to build a center where seafarers could come to relax, be entertained, and feel at home. To this end, amenities such as a soda fountain and a luncheonette were established, offering affordable meals and non-alcoholic drinks to seafarers. An early photograph of the luncheonette reveals the cornucopian variety that hungry seafarers were greeted with: a liverwurst, American cheese, bologna or egg sandwich cost 10 cents, while Swiss cheese and salami cost 15. For the parched seafarer, 5 cents would buy him a coffee, tea, milk, or a glass of Spur Cola, Seven-Up, or Dr. Pepper.
 
SCI’s “Boozeless Bar,” as it was referred to in a [1911?] New York Daily News article, was designed as an alternative to the saloons that seafarers typically frequented while in Port. The saloons were often the site where seafarers, purchasing drink and services on credit, would dig themselves into debt with the crimps and shady boarding housekeepers that preyed on the sailor class. SCI’s soda bar was made to look the part, according to the Daily News:
 
“It is going to be a real bar, all right. None of these imitation marble, be-mirrored and gilded soda water contraptions. Except that it will be cleaner, every detail will suggest to the men that they have their foot on the same old brass rail and are polishing the mahogany of the same old place they frequented before the advent of the ‘boozeless bar’.”
 
For some seafarers, the illusion worked too well indeed. In the May 1914 issue of The Lookout, the writer tells the story of a particular Irish sailor who was duped (complete with an unfortunate attempt at a brogue):
 
“Michael steered a pretty straight course toward the soda fountain bar and rested one brogan on the brass foot rail with a sigh of contented achievement.
 
‘It’s beer Oi’m wanting,’ he suggested gently to the assistant, and the blur in his rippling Irish voice spoke of many previous stimulants.
‘Shure,’ said the assistant, who has dialects to meet all demands, and he drew a tall glass of ginger-ale, which foamed as disturbingly as Michael could expect.
 
He propped himself cautiously against the marble counter and drank four ginger-ales in succession. Then he drew himself up with a visible effort.”
 
‘Not another wan, sir,” he declared, manfully. ‘Faith an Oi wouldn’t dare; its drunk Oi’d be in no time,’ and he walked with growing unsteadiness toward the elevator.”
 
In addition to food and drink, 25 South Street housed a game room, where seafarers could shoot pool or play board games. A post office was maintained where seafarers could send and receive letters and packages. Many seafarers made 25 South Street their permanent address, and would have mail waiting for them each time they arrived in Port after finishing another stint aboard a ship. The Savings Department allowed seafarers to deposit money earned from their voyages where it could gain interest and would be safe from the crimps. Almost as soon as SCI opened the doors at 25 South Street, the sailor nearing New York harbor could look out into the horizon and see the steady green light beaming from the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse and know that there would be a place for him to get a cheap meal, relax, and spend the night on the other side.