Manhattan History

Jean-George Vongerichten at The Tin Building South Street Seaport, Manhattan

The South Street Seaport, Country Houses & George Washington’s White House

By: Joyce Gold, Manhattan Historian

In 2022 renowned chef and restauranteur Jean-George Vongerichten opened the newest food court in New York. With six full-service restaurants, casual cafes, bars, a culinary shop, and an energy new to the historic district, the complex called The Tin Building is sure to draw the public to a neighborhood that has had many identities over time.

In the city’s 17th century Dutch colonial era, the South Street Seaport area was considered out of town. Homes, businesses, and industry were to the south, in the present Wall Street area. The eastern edge of the Seaport area was Parel Straat, the present Pearl Street, named for the mother-of-pearl oyster shells left at the edge of the East River.

During the British colonial era, from 1664 to 1783, waterfront industries began. City activity reached the district because of its East River frontage. By 1728 the Schermerhorns had established regular a shipping service between New York and Charleston, South Carolina. Local merchants were sending goods across the Atlantic in their own ships.

In 1789, when New York was the first federal capital of the new United States, George Washington was inaugurated nearby on Wall Street. For ten months, Washington, his family, and household staff lived on the waterfront in the district. He then moved to a larger house for the next six months of his presidency in the city.

By 1810,  landfill had added three blocks, Water, Front, and South Streets, into the East River, a waterway much used in the age of sail. In the heyday of the clipper ships, 12 blocks around South Street comprised one of the great seaports of the world.

Wide slips, solid brick houses, and the Belgian block streets we walk today evoke an earlier time in Manhattan, when seafaring trades created great wealth. It was here in one of the important mid-19th century seaports, that ships went out for three years at a time, selling and reloading on one continent, then on to the next. By 1850, New York was second only to London as a world port.

At South Street, ships could be loaded and unloaded for their profitable journeys. Here they supplied the crews and equipment for the ventures and brought the latest products from around the world. Early 19th century architecture survives here, with its brick fronts and low scale, twelve blocks of buildings that once contained stores, saloons, counting houses, shipping offices, and mercantile exchanges.

The Joseph Rose house, a 1773 Georgian-style building and the third oldest in Manhattan, has been stabilized and now serves as a residence. The 1811 renovated Schermerhorn Row is the oldest row of building in New York State.

The past survives at the Seaport.

  • The 60-foot lighthouse Titanic Memorial is a 1913 tribute to passengers, officers, and crew of the ship bound for West 19th Street.
  • The South Street Seaport Museum explores the city’s maritime past.
  • Here, visitors can see one of the largest privately owned fleets of historic ships in the nation:
    • the W O Decker, a 1930 tugboat
    • the Lightship Ambrose, the beacon that once marked the main shipping channel of New York Harbor
    • Wavertree, an 1885 fully-rigged cargo ship available for boarding
    • Pioneer, an 1885 iron schooner
    • Lettie G Howard, an 1893 wooden schooner

The residential population downtown is booming. Three new schools add to the historical mix. The Imagination Playground is here, with its concept of giving children components and letting them decide how to use them.

Discovering today’s businesses in these historic settings offers us an unusual delight.

If you would like to book a walking tour of South Street Seaport or other parts of Manhattan, contact Joyce Gold at

Header photo of Jean-George Vongerichten at The Tin Building South Street Seaport, Manhattan.