New York City was on the verge of losing the last remnants of its once-vibrant maritime hub in lower Manhattan in 1967 when Peter and Norma Stanford quit their uptown jobs to found the South Street Seaport Museum and saved dozens of historic treasures. The Stanfords are considered icons in maritime heritage circles, whose members fondly remembered Peter when he died March 24 at the age of 89.
“Peter was a persistent man, endlessly insisting that the apparently impossible could be achieved,” reads a remembrance by Jonathan Boulware, executive director of the museum. “It was Peter’s vision in the 1960s that led to the preservation of the counting houses of the Seaport, including Schermerhorn Row, one of New York City’s treasures. It was Peter’s work that led to the acquisition and preservation of [numerous historic sailing ships]. And it was Peter’s clear articulation of the import of these things that led the fledgling South Street Seaport Museum to a membership of more than 20,000 within five years.”
Stanford said he grew up “messing about in boats,” in his Brooklyn hometown and on Long Island Sound. The Navy veteran and Harvard graduate sailed across the Atlantic as mate on the gaff cutter Iolaire to attend King’s College in England. He then worked for a year in a London bookshop while pursuing naval research at the National Maritime Museum and participating in dozens of bluewater races, according to a remembrance from Peekskill, New York-based National Maritime Historical Society, for which Stanford served as president.
Back in New York, Stanford pursued a career in market research and advertising in the 1950s and ’60s, and sailed his 25-foot sloop Whisper between Nova Scotia and Georgia. In 1964, he and Norma acquired the 43-foot schooner Athena, an historic vessel that later played a role in reviving South Street Seaport with sail training.
In founding the South Street Seaport Museum, the couple saved a piece of New York history from extinction by preserving from commercial development an 11-block historic district. Once a thriving shipping port, it was Manhattan’s oldest neighborhood, with vistas of the Brooklyn Bridge and East River.
Then there were the great tall ships Stanford saved. “He lent his considerable energy and voice to the efforts to save the schooner Ernestina (now Ernestina-Morrissey), the barque Elissa, the Liberty ship John W. Brown, the lightship Ambrose, the brigantine Black Pearl, the fishing schooner Lettie G. Howard, and the great sailing ship Wavertree,” reads a National Maritime Historical Society statement.
Stanford stepped down as president of the museum in the 1970s but remained a presence in the evolution of the area, which is today a tourist destination centered around the old Fulton Fish Market. (The Seaport has faced an uphill struggle in recent years, rebounding from the devastation of Superstorm Sandy.)
Stanford later served as president of the National Maritime Historical Society and editor of its journal, Sea History. The author of hundreds of magazine articles and a number of museum books, Peter and Norma Stanford published their last book, A Dream of Tall Ships, in 2013.
Stanford also made his mark socially. During the turbulent 1960s, he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and was jailed for helping integrate a “whites only” park in Maryland. At South Street, he assisted in the creation of a marine-engine repair school for former teenage drug users.
“Indeed, were it not for Peter and Norma Stanford … we would have nothing left to preserve,” Boulware wrote. “Peter was confident that we would succeed in carrying on what he began. … not just to keep the ships afloat and the buildings intact, but to once again place South Street in the vanguard of historical, cultural and educational organizations in the city.”
Stanford is survived by Norma; his first wife, Eva; his children; and five grandchildren.
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue.