the Chelsea Piers are shabby, pathetic reminders of a glorious
past. No ships call there. Decay has set in and is well
advanced. Walls and ceilings are collapsing, windows are
shattered, and their vast empty spaces echo to the rattling and
banging of loose sheet metal, and the creaking timbers, as the
winds and tides of the Hudson exert their changing pressures.
The State Department of Transportation has marked these piers
for demolition. The ever-present threat of fire may turn into a
quicker, more merciful, and more spectacular solution."
These words were written in the
mid-1980's, as preparations were being made to raze the Chelsea
Piers so that a new highway could be built along the Hudson. But
the highway project failed, the Department of Transportation
held an auction, and finally, in 1992, under the guidance of
Roland W. Betts, Tom A. Bernstein and David A. Tewksbury, the
historic waterfront property began its climb back to fame and
In November of 1995, Paul
Goldberger of The New York Times wrote:
"The Chelsea Piers project
represents a remarkably well-wrought balance of public and
private priorities, and in an age in which the purely public
development of the waterfront in the form of open parkland has
become an all but unobtainable goal, this project is as
enlightened as we are likely to see. It is a good work of
design, full of a recognition of the potential of this unusual
30-acre site. The place has a presence, a presence that makes it
like no other place in New York."
In a way, the Chelsea Piers have
always been like no other place in New York.
In 1910, the opening of the Chelsea
Piers was marked with a ribbon cutting and speeches, including
lots of back-patting after 30 long years of talk and 8 years of
construction. In 1907, even before the piers were completed, the
first of the new luxury liners, the Lusitania and
docked there. The man responsible for the completion of the piers,
Mayor George B. McClellan, wasn't even in office when the liner
broke through a colorful wide ribbon to signal the official
opening of the Chelsea Piers. The next day The New York Times
called them "the most remarkable urban design achievement of
Designed by the architectural
firm of Warren and Wetmore, which was also designing Grand
Central Terminal at the same time, the Chelsea Piers replaced a
hodgepodge of run-down waterfront structures with a magnificent
row of grand buildings embellished with pink granite facades.
For the next 50 years, the Chelsea
Piers served the needs of the New York port: first, as the
city's premier passenger ship terminal; then as an embarkation
point for soldiers departing for the battlefields of World Wars
I and II; and finally, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, as
a cargo terminal.
After that, the Chelsea Piers, like
much of Manhattan's waterfront, became neglected maritime
relics, made obsolete by the jet plane that whisked passengers
across the Atlantic and the large container ships that required
dock facilities and truck linkages that Manhattan could never
The redevelopment of the four
surviving Chelsea Piers marks a major step in the rebirth of the
Manhattan waterfront for public use and recreation, and returns
these piers to the prominence they enjoyed during the early 20th
Century when they were the center of international ocean liner
* * * * *
In the early days, as docks for
the famed White Star and Cunard lines, the Chelsea Piers
welcomed most of the world's great liners. Sometimes, in the
afternoons, one could see as many as twenty stacks, as five
liners prepared to sailon the evening tide.
At the same time that the rich and
famous were arriving at the Chelsea Piers, so were the
immigrants, many of whom traveled in steerage class and suffered
extreme hardships, including incredible overcrowding and
disease. New York City was the port of entry preferred by
shipping lines for discharging their immigrant cargoes. By 1910,
thousands of immigrants were arriving at the Hudson River
shoreline everyday. Most ships came first to the Chelsea Piers,
where the travelers were transferred to ferries for the final
leg of their journey to Ellis Island and freedom.
Occasionally a menacing
note intruded. The Titanic
was scheduled to arrive at the Chelsea Piers on April 16, 1912,
at the conclusion of her maiden voyage. Fate intervened, and the
"unsinkable" ship struck an iceberg and sank on April 14, 1912.
Of the 2200 passengers aboard, 675 were rescued by the Cunard
liner Carpathia , which arrived at the Chelsea
Piers on April 20th.
In May 1915, the luxury
Lusitania departed from the Chelsea Piers on her regular
run to England. Off the coast of Ireland, she was torpedoed by a
German U-boat, killing 1,198 people, including 124 Americans.
This event mobilized public opinion in support of America's
entry into World War I.
For the duration of the war, the
Chelsea Piers, like the docks in great harbors everywhere, were
busy participants in the war effort. As the twenties unfolded, a
new prosperity came to the land and celebrities flocked to the
Chelsea Piers to be photographed and interviewed, leaving for,
or returning from, Europe in grand style. Then came October 29,
1929, and the fateful stock market crash. Cunard's Barengaria
was the first ship to dock at Chelsea Piers a few days afterward
to throngs of reporters who chronicled the fact that all but a
handful of passengers debarked bankrupt.
By 1933, the economic tide for the
Chelsea-based fleet had changed. The Depression had wreaked
havoc upon transatlantic travel, and the Atlantic trade dropped
from one million voyagers in 1929 to fewer than half by 1935.
The thirties, meanwhile, brought another development to the
Chelsea Piers. Huge new vessels like the 1,000-foot Normandie
and Queen Mary
came steaming into port, sweeping the Chelsea Piers into the past.
New and much longer piers were needed and then constructed
between West 44th and West 52nd Streets, forming what we still
cal l"Luxury Liner Row."
The high point of the decade was
the departure in July 1936 of the United States Olympic team
from the Chelsea Piers to the site of the Games in Berlin,
Germany. At those Games, Jesse Owens became the hero of the
American people by winning four gold medals in track. His return
to the Chelsea Piers was marked by great excitement and huge
The Chelsea Piers had a brief
resurgence as a major embarkation point for troop carriers that
took American servicemen to the European theater in World War
II, but afterwards, never regained their former importance for
passenger shipping. Then in 1958, nearly all transatlantic
passenger ship travel came to a halt, when daily commercial jet
service to Europe began. After that, the piers were used almost
exclusively for cargo handling until 1967, when the last big
tenants, the Grace and United States lines, relocated to New
Jersey. Chelsea Piers' shipping days were over.
In 1976, the glorious OpSail
awakened citizens to the possibility of recreational waterfront
redevelopment. Finally, the waterfront was regarded as a
historic resource worthy of being preserved. But still the
Chelsea Piers were scheduled for demolition to make way for the
Westway Plan. Owned by the New York State Department of
Transportation, the Chelsea Piers at the time were a nasty
combination of various warehouse and parking uses. Pier 60 was
the New York City Tow Pound; Pier 59, a repair shop for
sanitation trucks; and Pier 62, a U.S. Customs Impound Station.
There were plenty of broken-down fences, crumbling walls...and
distant memories of glittering gowns and soft music...
...but the Chelsea Piers
just sat there rusting in the harbor air
until destiny called them back.
In May 1992, after six months of
comprehensive research and the preparation of a detailed
proposal, a newly-formed company, Chelsea Piers Management,
Inc., submitted a bid and proposal, as part of a public auction
process, to the New York State Department of Transportation to
obtain rights to develop and operate the Chelsea Piers. Shortly
thereafter, Chelsea Piers Management was awarded the rights to
lease the Chelsea Piers and to develop and operate a sports and
entertainment facility on the premises. After Chelsea Piers
Management was awarded the lease, an experienced development and
construction team was assembled, and a 24-month, intensive
design and program planning process began. Some 20 different
federal, state and city agencies reviewed and approved the
project. In May 1994, the final building permits were granted.
Start of construction was
celebrated at Groundbreaking Ceremonies held at Chelsea Piers on
July 12, 1994, attended by New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo, New
York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Manhattan Borough President
Ruth W. Messinger, other political, sports and entertainment
industry dignitaries, and over 1,200 invited guests.
Beginning in August 1995, Chelsea
Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex opened in stages.
Situated on Piers 59 through 62, and in the connecting
headhouse, the Complex features:
The Golf Club, The Sports Center,
Sky Rink, The Roller Rinks, The Field House, The Spa at Chelsea
Piers, Surfside 3 Maritime Center,
AMF Chelsea Piers Lanes
This $100 million,
privately-financed project has transformed the historic, but
long-neglected, Chelsea Piers into a major center for public
recreation and waterfront access.
And sometimes on clear, bright
evenings, you can still hear the laughter of bygone days
floating gently on the breeze as it passes through the reborn
railroads--Erie, Lackawanna, and Jersey Central--operated ferries from 23rd
Street to New Jersey, sharing a monumental terminal built in 1907. The
terminal was demolished in 1950, and the last ferry ran until 1967; a sister
copper-clad ferry terminal in Hoboken remains. The 23rd Street piers south
of the old ferry slips reopened in 1995 as Chelsea Piers, a sports and
entertainment complex serving the Lower West Side's growing residential