overview

Once a home for aged sailors, the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Gardens has been an important venue for LGBT culture and events since the 1980s.

In particular, Lambda Associates of Staten Island, the borough’s main LGBT group in the 1980s and 1990s, held numerous social events here.

Header Photo

Credit: Gale Harris/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2019.

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History

Sailors’ Snug Harbor was created through a bequest from sea captain Robert Richard Randall to build a retirement home for aged seamen. In 1831, Snug Harbor’s trustees began construction on a spectacular complex of Greek Revival buildings. In the 1970s, the City of New York acquired the property and in 1976 work began to transform it into the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cultural Center.

Among the LGBT programs featured at Snug Harbor were films from the New York Gay Film Festival in January 1987 and a screening of the documentary Tiny & Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women by Greta Schiller at the American Express Jazz Festival in February 1989, both presented in Veterans Memorial Hall. Veterans Hall also hosted “The Kathy & Mo Show” with Kathy Najimy and Maureen (Mo) Gaffney in 1995 and presented a number of fundraising shows for the Staten Island AIDS Task Force in the 1990s.

In the 1990s, the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, housed in the former Administration Building C, featured the work of a number of LGBT artists, including Whitfield Lovell, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Louise Fishman, Christina Schlesinger, Lynda Benglis, Maria Elena Gonzalez, Martin Wong, Nancy Spero, and photographer Nan Goldin. The most critically acclaimed work of the Newhouse Center’s 1993 outdoor sculpture show, a commentary on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by Martha Burgess, “On Leave,” depicted a WAVE kissing a civilian woman, inspired by the famous photo of a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square celebrating the end of the war. It is indicative of how contentious gay-straight relations remained on Staten Island in the 1990s that the work was vandalized and had to be withdrawn from exhibition.

In 1997, Lambda Associates, the main LGBT group on Staten Island in the 1980s and 1990s, held a photography contest on the subject of gay relationships. Named for Staten Island photographer Alice Austen and her partner, schoolteacher Gertrude Tate, this event was in part a response to the 1995 firing of Mitchell Grubler, from his position as executive director of the Alice Austen House Museum, for acknowledging Austen’s relationship with Tate and efforts to have Austen’s work seen within the context LGBT art and history. (In recent years, however, the museum staff and board have made significant strides in providing a more inclusive narrative.) The contest drew 186 submissions from 43 photographers, from places as far away as Bulgaria. A selection of the photographs was exhibited in the ArtLab during June 1997 and received a glowing review from the Staten Island Advance.

In addition to its photography show, Lambda Associates also held a number of social events at Snug Harbor between 1987 and 1999. These included a Halloween party at the Newhouse Center galleries in 1988 and annual picnics at various outdoor locations. The June 1992 picnic, a joint effort with the Staten Island AIDS Task Force, drew more than 100 participants and featured talks by activists Arnie Kantrowitz and Brendan Fay. Author and actor Quentin Crisp was guest of honor in 1993.

Since 2014, Snug Harbor has been home to the Staten Island PrideFest celebrations, which are jointly sponsored by the cultural center and the Pride Center of Staten Island and usually attract 2,000 to 2,500 participants.

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