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Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island, New York is a museum about itself, as much as anything else, and about its architecture. In its 140-year history as an institution, a home for retired sailors, Sailors Snug Harbor used its wealth endowed by sea captain Robert Richard Randall in 1801, to build a self-sufficient community. Architectural styles spanned the 1830s to the 1910s, but the most significant was the Greek Revival.

In all, over 86 years, more than 50 structures were built: a bake house, a hospital, blacksmith, carpenter and machine shops, residences for the governor, steward, physician and chaplain, a laundry, cottages, a farmhouse, a church and a chapel, a music hall, and a morgue. On the rear acreage (at its largest, the entire Snug Harbor property counted 185 acres) was an operating dairy and produce farm. On this farm southeast of Logan's Brook were laid out two cemeteries.

Surviving are 28 buildings of Greek Revival, Beaux Arts, Second Empire, and Italianate styles set in a city park of 83 acres. The 28 buildings contain four performance spaces, four art galleries, three dance studios, and five residential cottages occupied by art and community groups. Lost forever are the opulent R.W. Gibson-designed domed church and the Hospital, a neo-Classical structure with a cruciform plan.

A cast iron fence designed in 1842 by Frederick Draper encircles the front lawn before the five main buildings. Inspired by the Cumberland Gates of Hyde Park in London, the pickets are topped by spikes, supported by X-shaped cross-members, and decorated with cast iron rosettes.

Richard P. Smythe designed the Italianate North Gatehouse on Richmond Terrace, one of four gatehouses, each with a small cupola. This was the formal entry to the estate at a time when the automobile did not exist and visitors either walked or were dropped by carriage. The structure forms a large central arch flanked by lower windowed wings. A square cupola tops the gatehouse and has on each side a round-arched window with red panes.

The important collection of temple buildings that make up the "Front Face" of Snug Harbor were designed by Minard Lafever (1798-1854) and built by Samuel Thomson & Son, with Peter Storms and Joseph Tucker, masons. The "Front Five," as they are also known, together are said to form a masterpiece of the Greek Revival and represent Lafever’s only surviving essay in the form. The buildings now house artists' studios, galleries, performance spaces, and a cafe called Melville, which in the day of the retired sailors was called "The Bumboat."

The domed central building features eight two-storied marble Ionic columns. The four buildings that flank the main hall have classical porticoes. The temple motif was continued in additional housing built in the 1880s. Sailors' Snug Harbor had both a church and a chapel. The chapel was built in 1856, refurbished in 1873, and restored only recently into Veterans Memorial Hall.

Eight structures have been granted individually designated status by the New York City Landmarks Commission: The fence, the Gatehouse, the former Chapel, and the Front Five.

Building C, 1831-1833: Architect Minard Lafever. The main façade is sheathed in marble quarried by inmates at Sing Sing prison. The monumental Ionic order of the façade carries a full entablature and shadow pediment, and was designed after the Little Temple of Ilyssus near Athens.

Buildings B and D, 1839-1840; Architect Minard Lafever; built by Samuel Thomson. Built as dormitories to house the “Snugs” – each has a three-bay façade dominated by a broad, shallow pediment. The dormitories connect with Building C by four-bay-wide halls anticipated by Lafever in his original plan. Central bays form the entrances with small Ionic porches.

Buildings A and E were built by Samuel Thomson in 1879 and 1880 as the final phase of Lafever’s design for the central complex. Hexastyle Ionic porticos distinguish the three-bay facades of Buildings A and E.

Veterans Memorial Hall (formerly the Chapel), 1855-1856; Architect James Solomon. A small Italianate brick building with round-arched windows and an added tower. The former Chapel is now an intimate music hall.

The restoration of the surviving structures at Snug Harbor Cultural Center has been in fits and starts over the 30 years the city has owned it. A visitor here encounters boarded up windows, peeling paint, scaffolding, corridors leading nowhere. The restoration process itself becomes an art exhibit as visitors wander freely about the grounds inspecting the site.