Brief History

The Will of Captain Robert Richard Randall who died on June 5, 1801-four days after he signed his will- directed that the proceeds of his estate be used to build upon his farm (Minto Farm) “an asylum, or Marine Hospital to maintain and to support aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors”. The Will ordered that this “Sailors’ Snug Harbor” be governed ‘forever’ by eight of New York’s most important positions- the recorder, the chancellor of the state, the mayor of the city, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, the senior ministers of the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, and the president and the vice president of The Marine Society, which was considered to be one of New York’s most prestigious organization at that time. Thomas Randall, his father, died in 1797 and his will left Minto Farm to his son Robert who had been living there since 1790.

Legend says that Alexander Hamilton and his assistant, Daniel D. Tomkins (who later became the fifth governor of New York and the sixth Vice President of the United States) were the authors of Robert Richard Randall’s Will.

Minto Farm located in what is now NYC’s Greenwich Village was comprised of a mansion and other buildings within 21 acres. After the resolution of several legal issues in which the Trustees petitioned the legislature to modify the will so that SSH could be built somewhere else, the farm land in New York City was divided into 253 leasehold lots covering most of the ten square blocks between what would become Fourth and Fifth Avenues, Waverly Place and Tenth Street.  By the 1820’s New York City pulled ahead of Philadelphia and Boston as the center of commerce and finance. The wealthy began their move north up Broadway.

To satisfy the instructions in the will, the Trustees purchased a 130 acre farm on Staten Island  from Isaac Houseman, overlooking New York Bay, for $10,000 to be used for the mariners. Five Greek Revival-style dormitories opened in the summer of 1833 with 37 retired seamen. The original plan was for 200 seamen. More buildings were added till there were 55 major buildings, and by the beginning of the 20th century there were 1000 ‘snugs’. Six acres had been given over to a cemetery where there are supposedly 8000 mariners buried. The buildings included dormitories, residences for staff and the governor, a replica of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a hospital and a music hall. Many researchers think that the methods used for health care were the beginnings of modern day elder care.  The buildings included dormitories, residences for staff and the governor, a replica of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a hospital and a music hall.


The Trust’s real estate history in Manhattan is an interesting one and is an important part of NYC’s history. By the mid to late 1800’s the Trust’s policies for leasing and building resulted in many complaints about the condition of parts of Manhattan below Union Square. In a Readers Digest article about why the stretch of Broadway from Canal to Union Square failed to develop as a mercantile center, a reader suggested that that the single word to describe the problem was ‘obsolescence’. Sailors’ Snug Harbor, “the largest realty taxpayer in New York City” and its leases were blamed for much of the decay. Eventually the Trust repossessed many lots and spent ‘surplus’ funds and erected eight commercial buildings between 1879 and 1902 on Broadway, Astor Place, University Place, Greene Street and Mercer Street. Despite the effort by the Trust, many described it as too late and there was criticism about the ‘dreariness’ of some of these streets.

By 1896 the Trust tried to set aside funds for building upkeep but the Trustee President Morris K. Jesup admitted that ‘it demands much larger sums of money than the Board has any immediate prospect of finding.’ Interestingly, John Wanamaker had taken over the leases from A.T. Stewart who had opened a ‘shopping palace’ between Ninth and Tenth Streets, Broadway and Fourth Avenue. Beginning in 1854, Stewart bought up some 20 expiring leases, and then surrendered them to the Trust. They in turn leased the entire square block to Stewart. Wanamaker eventually built an even larger emporium, completing an annex in 1907-now a building of 14 floors, plus a basement and an entrance to the Fourth Ave. subway containing almost as much space as the Empire State building would in 1931. Wanamaker’s annual rent on his two block fronts was approximately $1.1 million on a lease of 84 years.

Upgrading of properties moved into high gear by 1916 resulting in the remodeling of row houses and the building of upscale over-ten story apartment buildings. In 1925 a major change occurred. One Fifth Avenue was built (‘1/5’) by the Trust –no one had ever attempted a skyscraper tower between Fourteenth and Canal Streets before. It was lauded as a handsome building.

By the 1940’s the Trust leased to NYU, for 200 years, with options to renew, the square block bounded by Washington Square Park North, Fifth Avenue, University Place and Eighth Street. Also, it had sold 47 acres of their Staten Island property twenty years before to finance a few stylish apartment houses in the Village.

By the early 1960’s, 225 leased building lots had been consolidated into 18. A total of 10 skyscraper apartment buildings with 2445 housing units were on Sailors’ Snug Harbor property between 1951 and 1966.

From 1974 to the mid 1980’s, the Trust sold all of its remaining property in Manhattan. As required by a 1975 Court Decree, the  value of the land was made part of the Randall Endowment at $24, 520.531, which, at this point, the Trust must preserve this sum in perpetuity.

From the beginning, it was made clear that all were welcome to Sailors’ Snug Harbor. No one was rejected because of ‘race, creed or color’. Only those who were considered ‘habitual alcoholics and those with contagious disease or immoral character’ were rejected. The first group represented Americans, English, Irish, Scots, Dutch, Prussian and French and this diversity of country of origin and background continued. The ‘snugs’ or ‘inmates’ had chores, went to events at the music hall and there are photographs of many engaged in making handicrafts-some of which remain in the Trust’s collection.

In 1972 the Trust was given permission by the court to move its operation to North Carolina after opposition from the New York attorney general. After considering other possibilities, the decision by the Trust was made to move to Sea Level, North Carolina. The cost of operating the massive Staten Island facility had become prohibitive and the desire of mariners to live at the facility had also begun to change.  From the 1960’s efforts were put in place to begin to think about the future. There were several studies conducted including plans to convert some of the Staten Island site into residential buildings and to deal with the growing interest of the newly formed Landmarks Preservation Commission to weigh in.  In 1970 a letter came from the New York State Department of Health requiring the Trustees to build a modern 120 bed facility-an action that the Trust could not comply with.

In June 1976 30 sailors, a physician, a nurse and three aides took a 14 hour bus trip to their new home, joined later by 75 other seamen who flew there. Six remaining mariners decided not to relocate. The new site included 8000 acres, plus the Sea Level motel (which was sold at a later time). The paintings, archives and artifacts joined the seamen and the famous enormous bronze statue of Robert Richard Randall by Augustus Saint-Gauden came later and was positioned in the front of the facility. From its start this facility was known for its excellent care and for the design of the facility. After many years of operation in North Carolina it became clear that there were not enough eligible mariners who wanted to go to North Carolina, leave their homes or leave their families and friends. Non-mariners were eventually included in the census in order to fill the facility and then in 2005 the facility was sold to private developers-with mariners remaining and others who met the Trust’s eligibility criteria accepted.

Recognizing the changes in the needs of mariners, the addition of pensions and entitlements and more mariners with families, the Trust sought, again, the Court’s approval for a program to support the aged and needy mariners wherever they live-originally called the Mariner Outreach Program.

In 2009 it became clear that in order to assure perpetuity of the Trust and to continue to assist eligible mariners-most through their death-it was necessary to change how much a mariner could receive in assistance. Today the Trust, considered to be one of the oldest secular philanthropies in the country, continues to assist mariners throughout the country. The assistance provides direct vendor payments for rent or insurance or car  expenses or other living needs.  The mariners are required to access any and all appropriate entitlements as needed.  Arrangements may be made for social work professionals to connect with the mariner locally to determine their need for assistance and whether local services could be accessed.

Approximately 17,500 eligible mariners have been assisted by The Trust since its inception.