Exploring the Noble Maritime Collection on Staten Island

In December 1954 National Geographic magazine published a story on everyday life in the New York Harbor. The article, “Here’s New York Harbor” featured the ebb and flow of ships and cargo vessels and those who made their living in its busy straights and bays. Among them was the artist John A. Noble (1913-1983) who lived on his floating studio anchored in the waters between Staten Island and New Jersey. The son of a noted painter, Noble had studied art in Paris but also worked many years on the New York docks.

Hallway to John A. Noble's floating houseboat studio. Noble Maritime Collection,
Snug Harbor Cultural Center. Staten Island.

Elegantly crafted wooden ships were left to rot in a ship graveyard at Port Johnston, a coal dock built on the tidal strait between Staten Island and New Jersey. In 1941, here on the Kill Van Kull, a name harkening back to early Dutch explorations, Noble began salvaging parts of ships in the “boneyard” to create his floating studio.

Drafting table, John A. Noble's floating houseboat studio

Noble was intimately familiar with the tall wooden mast ships that sailed through the city’s waterways, and he knew that the era was passing. The decay of the ships and waterfront life that supported them became the subject of his charcoal sketches and drawings, many of them preparatory for lithographs.

Living quarters, John A. Noble's floating houseboat studio. Noble Maritime Collection, 
Snug Harbor Cultural Center. Staten Island.

The Noble Maritime Collection at Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island exhibits many of these works as well as the actual floating studio itself, carefully restored to the picture-perfect image featured in the 1954 National Geographic. Any artist with a longing for the sea may find themselves in rapture over the teak panels, Romanesque windows, and the wooden drafting table in Noble’s houseboat.

Old Port Johnston exhibit, Noble Maritime Collection, 
Snug Harbor Cultural Center. Staten Island.

Another exhibit explores the fate of Old Port Johnston. Wandering the collection’s well-maintained rooms, New York’s maritime story unfolds as the central narrative of the metropolis.

Noble Maritime Collection, 
Snug Harbor Cultural Center. Staten Island.

The building itself once housed retired seamen. Reaching into colonial history, we learn Alexander Hamilton’s important role in establishing a retirement home for sailors. With Robert Richard Randall, one of the Founding Father’s wealthy clients, the two made plans for such a place. Initially conceived to be built on the site of Randall’s farm estate in Manhattan, Sailors’ Snug Harbor was established in the 1830s on an even larger Staten Island farm. *

Noble Maritime Collection, 
Snug Harbor Cultural Center. Staten Island.

Anyone interested in the maritime history of New York should make it a point to visit the collection.

The museum also maintains care of the Robbins Reef Lighthouse, a small sparkplug lighthouse at the entrance to the Kill Van Kull. A restoration is ongoing. Look for the lighthouse on the ferry ride.

View of Robbins Reef Lighthouse from the Staten Island Ferry

Directions via mass transit: Take the free Staten Island Ferry at Whitehall Terminal in Manhattan to St. George Terminal on Staten Island. Upon arrival, follow directions to the buses. Board the S40 bus to Richmond Terrace/Sailors S H Gate, or to the next stop at Snug Harbor Road. Look for Building D, one of five Greek Revival buildings toward the front of the site.

Statue of Robert Richard Randall, founder of Sailors’ Snug Harbor,
a replica of the original by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Noble Maritime Collection hours: Thursday - Sunday, 1 to 5 pm. Ring the doorbell for admission. Admission is by donation. See more visitor information at the Noble Maritime Collection website.

Noble Maritime Collection, 
Snug Harbor Cultural Center. Staten Island.

*Read more: The Trustees of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor in the City of New York website.



Images by Sailing Off the Big Apple from June 3, 2018.

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