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A Visit to the City Island Nautical Museum

(revised July 2012) The island belongs to New York City, and specifically this island beyond Pelham Bay Park is part of the borough of the Bronx, but City Island, in terms of its history, really belongs to the sea. A walk down the length of the small island and through this tightly knit seaport community confirms the dominance of all things nautical and seafaring here – the high masts of many boats moored in yacht clubs, the bountiful number of seafood restaurants, and antique stores specializing in the maritime trade.

City Island Nautical Museum

An informed visit to City Island, one that fully explains the island’s history, should begin at City Island Nautical Museum. The museum is housed in a former school built by New York City in 1897-1898, a handsome Georgian Revival building at the top of a hill on Fordham Street. Now operated and maintained by a handful of passionate volunteers, collectively known as "the Barbaras," for all are named Barbara except for one Jane, the multifaceted rooms of this stately building illustrate the island's deep-rooted connection to the surrounding waters. For anyone interested in the history of sailing, boat building, America's Cup, and City Island's important role in these stories, a trip here should be mandatory.

The Library of City Island Nautical Museum

City Island's claim to fame rests in its boat building heritage, amply illustrated in the museum in the form of photographs, documents, illustrations, models, and importantly, real boats, all of them carefully crafted on the island. A major center for yacht building from the Civil War to 1980, the shipyards of City Island built many illustrious vessels, including some of the largest yachts of their day - the 146' schooner for William Astor in 1877, a 187' steam schooner yacht in 1914, and a 160'8" steel diesel in 1921, the latter for Vincent Astor and at the time the world's largest diesel yacht. The careful craftsmanship of boats like these and others, along with the island's strategic geographic location, established City Island as a vital center for yacht making.


City Island Nautical Museum displays the island's boat-making history

As “the Barbaras” will explain, the existing tradition of boat building allowed City Island to play a central role in America's Cup. City Island-built racing boats of the 12 Metre Class made a particularly strong showing, with five serving as defenders in seven successful America's Cup campaigns. Visitors to the City Island Nautical Museum will have plentiful opportunities to learn more about these beautiful yachts - Columbia, Constellation, Intrepid, Courageous, and Freedom - along with the shipyards that built them. During wartime, City Island shipbuilders contributed to innovations in naval technology, including the World War II era minesweepers.  

The museum's School Room displays images and artifacts relating to the building's past as a school house.
The building's architect, Charles B. J. Snyder (1860–1945), played an important role in designing schools throughout
New York City.

Beyond the history of boat making, City Island Nautical Museum also celebrates the life of the former Public School 17 (the building opened as P.S. 102 then was renumbered as P.S. 17 in 1903), safeguarding several artifacts and images of all of its graduating classes. The School Room of the museum joins the other well-appointed galleries - Community Room, Nautical Room, office, and Library - in presenting the story of this singular island. The building's architect, Charles B. J. Snyder (1860–1945), played an important role in designing schools in New York City as Superintendent of School Buildings for the New York City Board of Education for over thirty years. (Among many school buildings, Snyder designed Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn, one of the other 40 New York City sites selected by Partners in Preservation.) The school on Fordham Street closed in 1976, making way for the nautical museum to use the space. Students now attend P.S. 175 at 200 City Island Avenue.

As with all the sites selected in the competitive process for Partners in Preservation funding, a process dependent upon your votes (simply click on the badge below), the museum has certain needs. The front blue-stone and concrete stairways leading up to the museum have weather-worn cracks and are in much need of repair.

City Island residents retain a strong sense of community and personal ties. Safeguarding their history has served them well, especially when the tide of change can shift another way. Many islands in the contemporary world have unfortunately become unmoored from their past, turned into watery diversions of fried fish and daiquiris and decorated with incongruous fake palm trees. Though City Island experiences the weekend invasions of "off-Islanders," the community has kept much of the egregious effects of tourist development at bay, so to speak.

A residential street on the southwest side of City Island ends at the water.

City Island is easily walkable. Begin by exploring City Island Avenue, the main thoroughfare that runs a little over 1.35 miles down the length of the island, as well as a few of the gently sloping residential side streets that lead to the water’s edge. Included here is a map showing the location of City Island Nautical Museum. While visiting the museum, pick up their walking tour brochure that illustrates others points of interest. And be sure to ask for Barbara.


View City Island in a larger map

Resources:
• Website for City Island Nautical Museum
• City Island Museum on Facebook

City Island Nautical Museum
190 Fordham Street  Bronx, NY 10464
Hours: Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. and by appt. Admission is free.

Getting there: Become friends with the Pelham Bay-bound 6 train, because you will be on it for some time, and ride it all the way to the end. Just outside the Pelham Bay Park subway stop, wait for the City Island bound BX29 bus. Once on City Island, ask the driver for the Fordham Street stop and walk east to the museum.

a view from the southern tip of City Island

Images of City Island by Walking Off the Big Apple from May 3, 2012. Many thanks to Barbara Hoffman, Barbara Dolensek, and Jane Protzman for sharing with me their knowledge about City Island and the museum.

City Island Nautical Museum was one of 40 sites selected in 2012 for the Partners in Preservation initiative in New York City, a program that raises awareness of historic preservation by involving the public in distributing grants. 





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