A Slice of the Fulton Fish Market Gets A New Life
When is a historic old building not a historic old building? When it’s a historic new building.
The 1907 Tin Building, one of two surviving major structures of the celebrated Fulton Fish Market and the only one of the pair within a designated historic district, was painstakingly disassembled in 2018 and is now being recreated 32 feet east of its original location.
Thirteen years after the fish market was shuttered and moved to Hunts Point in the Bronx, more than 300 pieces of the utilitarian, neoclassical marketplace were salvaged and cataloged for reference or reuse by the Howard Hughes Corporation, the leaseholder of Pier 17 at South Street Seaport.
From the early 1800s until its closing in 2005, the bustling, odoriferous Fulton Fish Market was an integral part of the working East River waterfront that helped make New York City the powerhouse mercantile center of the United States. With fish arriving first by schooner and sloop and later by refrigerated truck, the venerable wholesale market grew to be the largest of its kind in the country, its nocturnal fishmongers hawking their wares through the wee hours as workers with hand trucks wended their way among alternating pockets of light and shadow on South Street.
After a complete reconstruction of Pier 17, a building of the same size and profile as the Tin Building is currently taking shape there. Yet this three-story edifice is not the reassembled Tin Building but rather a brand-new structure — a meticulous replica that incorporates 92 salvaged elements of the storied relic but is otherwise composed of new materials on a new site, with a new interior configuration and new entrances on its eastern facade. In addition to being moved eastward, the building has also been raised six and a half feet to protect it from flooding. It is more Son of the Tin Building than the Tin Building itself.
“It’s a brand-new building with some historic detailing left that harkens back to what it was originally,” said Cory Rouillard, an associate partner at Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, a historic preservation consultant on the project. She added that some of the salvaged pieces that were not reused in the new structure provided valuable information for the fabricators manufacturing replicated elements.
The Tin Building, an unfussy fish distribution center clad in corrugated metal and crowned by three ornamented pediments, was the fourth fish market building to occupy the stretch of waterfront between Beekman and Fulton Streets, bounded by what came to be called Piers 17 and 18.
The first was a one-story wooden shed built after an 1834 petition before the city’s board of aldermen. The second, also a shed, stood “upright by virtue of a few iron nails and a liberal plaster of fish oils,” according to the seaport historian Ellen Rosebrock. The third, constructed in 1869 by the newly formed Fulton Market Fishmongers Association, was a two-story and loft structure topped with a spiffy cupola and a brass weather vane on which a bluefish swam the air currents.
When the Tin Building — an archaic misnomer, as the market was actually sheathed in galvanized steel — replaced it, the efficiency of the new structure’s design was greeted with giddy celebration by the fishmonger cognoscenti. “For perfection of sanitary arrangements, shipping facilities and conveniences of all kinds,” declared The Fishing Gazette, “there is no market of any kind in the world which is quite its equal.”
In the last 25 years, the resilient old building came under repeated assault from three of the four elements: fire, water and air. A 1995 blaze ravaged it, and after a partial restoration and the fish market’s departure in 2005 for the Bronx, the vacated structure was flooded in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy.
The Tin Building also weathered controversial development proposals. One, pushed by General Growth Properties, Pier 17’s previous leaseholder, and rebuffed in 2008 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission amid fierce neighborhood opposition, would have moved the old structure to the eastern end of the pier in favor of a new mixed-use complex that included a 42-story tower just outside the historic district. A later plan that also foundered and was put forth by Howard Hughes, included a 50-story condominium tower, later shaved to 43 stories, at the foot of Beekman Street — that iteration also would have reconstructed the Tin Building some 30 feet east of its original site.
The current Tin Building project has not been free of controversy. Indeed, depending on one’s views on the city’s eternal struggle between development and preservation, the new Tin Building represents either the keystone of a revitalized Pier 17 and South Street Seaport district or the loss of an important physical vestige of the city’s thriving past as a maritime commercial center. Or both.
“The Tin Building is really the linchpin for the seaport, connecting the historic district and this historic building out to Pier 17,” said Saul Scherl, the president of the New York tristate region for Howard Hughes. “It’s completing the missing hole in the middle.” The historic district boundary runs jigsaw fashion through the pier, with the Tin Building lying within the protected area.
In 2013, Howard Hughes demolished the touristy Pier 17 shopping mall and replaced it with a sleek new four-story Pier 17 Building designed by SHoP Architects, which opened in 2018. Intended to attract New Yorkers, including the many nearby millennial residents, the 212,000-square-foot structure contains a rooftop event space, broadcast studios and restaurants like the Fulton by Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
The new Tin Building, also designed by SHoP, will be a 53,000-square-foot marketplace under Mr. Vongerichten’s direction. In a nod to the fishmonger days, seafood will be purveyed, along with meats, cheese and produce, on the first two floors, which will be connected by an escalator. The third floor will be the commissary, where foods are prepared and stored.
The original Tin Building had long hunkered in the shadow of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive viaduct, which in 1954 was built rather rudely just two feet above the market building’s cast-iron-and-steel canopy on South Street. The developer’s main rationale for constructing the new Tin Building nearly 11 yards from the site of its progenitor was to raise the structure one foot above the 100-year floodplain, which would have been impossible on the original site because of the looming obstruction of the F.D.R. Drive above it. The move also opened up views of the Brooklyn Bridge from the East River esplanade.
Preservation groups were divided on the project’s merits.
Although most of the building’s original fabric had been lost over the decades, the Municipal Art Society maintained that the structure should have been restored in situ using as much of the original material — or surviving vintage replacement material — as possible.
“What’s happened over all over the decades in the seaport is a commodification and Disneyfication of its history, and the market continuing as a functioning fish market till 2005 can communicate some of that history to a visitor,” said Tara Kelly, the group’s vice president of policy and programs. “Moving the market was a real loss to that neighborhood, and then moving the Tin Building is death by a thousand cuts.”
The dismantling of the Tin Building and its replication on a new site has been a rare and extreme intervention for a structure within a historic district. Previously, only one other building relocation in such a district had been permitted by the landmarks commission. In 2008, the Hamilton Grange was moved within the Hamilton Heights Historic District from an awkward site on Convent Avenue to St. Nicholas Park.
In the case of the Tin Building, the commission determined that its relocation and elevation would “substantially improve the resiliency of the reconstructed building and its site, and support its long-term preservation,” said Zodet Negrón, a commission spokeswoman.
But Ms. Kelly maintained that the bar for relocation should be higher for buildings in historic districts. “A building like the Tin Building within the context of the South Street Seaport Historic District in its location is important to maintain and protect because we have collectively all decided that it’s special by giving it this recognition,” she said. “So it’s not like any other building whose context can change and whose physical components can change without a very thorough and intentional process.”
Alex Herrera, the director of preservation services at the New York Landmarks Conservancy, said that given all the damage the long-suffering Tin Building had endured, “it’s a miracle it survived at all.”
In a departure from the conservancy’s usual opposition to relocating historic buildings, the group supported the Tin Building project because it believed that the serious deterioration of the underlying pier had required the market structure’s disassembly.
“This building has been built and rebuilt and rebuilt many times, so at this point the history aspect is the memory of it,” Mr. Herrera said. “It’s redolent of the maritime commerce that the South Street Seaport was all about.”
The original Tin Building was built by the Berlin Construction Company of Berlin, Conn., on a platform pier abutting the land. The full blocklong frontage of its ground floor was open to South Street during business hours, while rear doors on the water side gave access to “fish cars,” floating wooden containers where live fish were kept. (In 1945, the cars were replaced by a refrigerated shed, and in the 1980s a new, wider Pier 17 was built between what had been Piers 17 and 18, cutting off the building’s direct connection to the river.)
“From earliest morn until after three o’clock in the afternoon, wagons are stacked up in front of the market so deep that it is almost impossible to gain a passage through the tangle,” reported the Fishing Gazette in 1907. “There are heavy trucks bringing loads of fish from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts and the Great Lakes of this country and Canada, and express wagons taking loads of fish which are shipped to all parts of the compass.”
The market building was supported by a grid of slender cast-iron columns. The columns running east to west on the high-ceilinged ground floor separated the 18 fishmongers’ stalls, and each dealer had an office on a mezzanine at the rear. The second floor was used for dressing rooms and the third for storage of barrels and boxes.
In 1939, the fish market was expanded into a New Market Building northeast of the Tin Building. While great quantities of fish had been delivered by boat during the Tin Building’s early years, a report commissioned by the city noted that by 1953 some 90 percent arrived by truck.
Naima Rauam, a painter who from 1997 to 2005 kept a studio in the Tin Building in a second-floor storage space that she sublet from the Blue Ribbon Fish Company, made a close study of the structure.
During off hours “it had this deep, dark mood, and it had a very refined feel, spare but graceful,” said Ms. Rauam, who was the building’s only tenant not working in the fish trade. “But five nights a week, from around midnight to dawn, it was a sea of blazingly bright lights, brighter than Times Square, so guys could work and commerce could take place.”
In latter years, the columns of the selling floor were painted red, which Ms. Rauam said lent them “a certain joyousness.”
The building’s distinctive canopy, under which mini forklifts called hi-los deposited pallets of fish, was neither straight nor strong during the Fulton Fish Market’s twilight years.
“It had a gentle S-curve,” Ms. Rauam said. “There was a sense of stoic tiredness to it from a century of sheltering the fish from rain and snow.”
Most of the cast-iron columns of that original canopy, as well as its steel beams and trusses, were salvaged and later reassembled, making that overhang the most intact historical component of the new Tin Building.
The cataloging of the salvaged columns helped the design team understand the typology of this gritty commercial building, with its 19 rows of columns running six deep from front to back. Of the 114 original columns, 32 have been incorporated into the new building. Behind the row of mostly original canopy columns, a second row was arranged by alternating the rough-surfaced original cast-iron columns with smooth steel replications.
At the rear of the ground floor, a mock mezzanine with a row of windows will recall the historic look of the old fish dealers’ offices.
By and large, the new Tin Building uses new materials. Whereas the original edifice was supported by steel beams atop the cast-iron columns, the new one is a modern steel-framed building with structural steel studs.
The corrugated exterior panels were originally made of galvanized steel, and a 2007 survey estimated that perhaps 30 percent survived. But rather than retain that material, the developer chose to replicate the siding in more durable aluminum.
“What was fascinating is taking a building that was never precious in the first place and being really careful about what was there so we can hang on to that knowledge,” said Ms. Rouillard, the preservation consultant.
Though much of the corrugated exterior was covered with new paneling after the 1995 fire, Ms. Rouillard said that her team “found little time capsules” of the original cladding behind the 1940s refrigeration unit that had been built along the eastern exterior wall. Documenting these relics helped the team replicate the amplitude and frequency of the corrugations. To estimate the panel widths, they consulted an 1890 trade catalog.
Most of the fabric of the original galvanized-steel pilasters survived, but these too were put aside and meticulously replicated in aluminum, as were the pediments and the cornice, which had been lost in the fire and replaced by fiberglass facsimiles. The intricate pediment ornamentation was recreated from stamped zinc, as on the original building.
A 2021 opening is planned, and as it happens, this is not the first time that a fish market structure has been moved from the site fronting South Street that the Tin Building occupied for more than a century. To make way for the Tin Building, its predecessor was temporarily relocated nearby in the late 1800s, and scheduled for demolition upon its successor’s completion.
When the Tin Building opened its doors in 1907, a man named “Windy” Donnelly mused about the doomed old market building in the pages of The Evening Post: “The guy who wrote ‘Destroy not the ancient landmark,’ will have a fit when he sees that old building, to the north of this new shack, a week from today.”
But the case of the new marketplace under construction this winter on Pier 17 is more complex. It is anybody’s guess whether that preservationist of yore would have considered the current Tin Building project the destruction of an ancient landmark or simply a happy reincarnation.