IT was a disaster that wrenched New York. When the Titanic went down in 1912, hundreds of souls vanished without a trace, leaving survivors clinging to faint hopes.
The Titanic Memorial Lighthouse atop the Seamen’s Church Institute building at South Street and Coenties Slip in 1922.
The memorial today, by the South Street Seaport Museum.
that would be 12 stories high and mostly dedicated to transient rooms for mariners.
Designed by Warren Wetmore, the Flemish-style building was meant to evoke the port’s Dutch origins, and was to be crowned by an eight-sided tower, lighted at night to welcome incoming seamen.
The cornerstone was laid on the morning of Tuesday, April 16, 1912, a day after the news of the loss of the Titanic, which was carrying 1,500 people. During the ceremony, newsboys were shouting their headlines in the background. The Lookout noted that “there were many voices which broke when they tried to sing, ‘Oh hear us when we cry to Thee/For those in peril on the sea.’ ”
It appears that both the time ball and the lighthouse were simply features of the existing plan, relabeled as a memorial, for which the society raised $10,000. The Titanic disaster offered additional opportunities to raise funds for the new building.
One anonymous benefactor gave $100 for a bedroom in memory of Jack Phillips, the wireless operator who remained at his post. The society placed cards seeking donations in hotels all over the city, and sought wide publicity for its endeavor, which had 390 bedrooms.
The memorial at the South Street building was conceived as but one element in a broader network of grieving. In early May, the Maritime Association of the Port of New York announced plans to erect a memorial to Phillips. And in June 1912, a Titanic Memorial Committee, appointed by Mayor Gaynor, met at the Harvard Club to plan an official memorial.
According to a June 4 article in The Times, “Titanic Monument Divides Noted Men,” the 32-member committee unanimously agreed to build a permanent memorial but could not agree on a design or even a concept.
Mayor Gaynor said he admired ancient Greek and Roman monuments “of stone and bronze to inspire others to do heroic deeds.” Henry R. Towne, a lock manufacturer, suggested building the largest lighthouse in the world; and the banker Henry Clews brought a rough sketch he had made himself of a memorial depicting a steamship and an iceberg.
An article in the newspaper The World said that Rabbi Joseph Silverman, head of Temple Emanu-El, suggested a law to prevent such accidents would be the most fitting memorial – something that might have saved lives, like better lifeboat requirements.
In New York the wireless operators did erect a memorial in Battery Park, and there are memorials to individuals, like that to Isidor and Ida Straus, at 106th and Broadway. But the Gaynor committee’s efforts were discontinued and there was nothing to the victims as a group except for the Seamen’s Church tower.
It was dedicated on the first anniversary of the disaster, when the new building was complete. At that time William P. Merrill, pastor of Brick Presbyterian Church, praised those who had been able “to look death squarely in the eye.” He said that “the supreme achievement is to die well.”
The green light in the tower was said to be visible all the way out to Sandy Hook in , the spit of land that marks the southern entrance to Lower New York Bay. News accounts indicate that there were occasional commemorative services at the Seamen’s Church memorial through the 1960’s, but in 1965 the institute put the building up for sale. At that time the ball was still dropped daily at noon.
The group moved to smaller quarters, and the building was demolished. The lighthouse was soon put up at the entrance to the South Street Seaport Museum at Fulton and Water Streets.
Without Warren Wetmore’s highly decorated facade and the original surrounding ornamental balcony, what is now called the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse has the lifeless, pickled look that naturally attaches to artifacts stripped of their context.
It rests on a raw concrete base, faceted as if in imitation of a Doric column. From the vantage point of the street it is possible to see ornament on the copper colonnettes that would have been invisible from the street, but a modern replacement of the time ball – in this case a spherical armature something like the one used in New Year’s celebrations at Times Square – looks tinny and worn, and obviously hasn’t fallen in some time, perhaps since 1986, when the South Street Seaport Museum rededicated it.
Richard Stepler, a spokesman for the museum, said that past efforts at a full restoration, including some of the lost architectural features, have been unsuccessful, but that in any event the light and time ball would be visible only from a few blocks away.
And any observer who spends a quarter hour nearby will be hard put to find any passer-by in this “busy, careless city” who does more than glance at it. But that is a common fate of memorials.
Nearly a century later, the 1913 Titanic Memorial Lighthouse is hardly more than a forgotten leftover of a distant catastrophe.