The complex was originally built in 1833 as Sailor's Snug Harbor, a retirement home and hospital for seamen, funded by a bequest of Robert Randall. In 1900, there were approximately 1000 residents, but the population dropped below 200 by the mid-1950s and to 110 by the 1970s. By 1976, the remaining residents had been relocated to a new facility in North Carolina, the city had taken possession of the property, designated several of the buildings as landmarks, and eventually opened the area to public.
Snug Harbor was founded by the 1801 bequest of New York tycoon Captain Robert Richard Randall (for whom the nearby neighborhood of Randall Manor is named). Randall left his country estate, Manhattan property bounded by Fifth Avenue and Broadway and Eighth and 10th Streets to build an institution to care for "aged, decrepit and worn-out" seamen. The opening of the sailor's home was delayed by extended contests of the will by disappointed heirs. When Sailors' Snug Harbor opened in 1833 it was the first and only home for retired merchant seamen in the history of the United States. It began with a single building, now the centerpiece in the row of five Greek Revival temple-like buildings on the New Brighton waterfront.
Approximately one thousand retired sailors lived at Snug Harbor at its peak in the late 19th century, when it was among the wealthiest charities in New York. Its Washington Square area properties yielded a surplus exceeding the retirement home’s costs by $100,000 a year.
In 1890, Captain Gustavus G. D. Trask, the governor of Snug Harbor, decided to build a huge Renaissance Revival church, the Randall Memorial Chapel, and, next to it, a music hall, both designed by Robert W. Gibson. The chapel was demolished in 1952.
Snug Harbor experienced financial difficulties in the mid-20th century. Once grand structures, such as the ornate, white marble Randall Memorial Church, fell into disrepair and were demolished. With the inauguration of the Social Security system in the 1930s, demand for accommodation for old sailors declined; by the mid-1950s, less than 200 residents remained. In the 1960s, the few retired sailors still living here were relocated to Sea Level, North Carolina.
By the 1960s, the 83 acre (336,000 m²) site was being coveted by land developers, leading to the formation of a local movement whose goal was the preservation of the property. The newly formed New York City Landmarks Commission stepped forward to save the remaining buildings, designating them as New York City’s first landmark structures, and listing them on the National Register of Historic Places. A series of legal battles ensued. Ultimately, the validity of landmark designation was upheld. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965. While some view the land aquisition as preservation others saw a land grab. The captain's will was broken and the retired sailors were driven from their home on the banks of the Kill where they could enjoy the passing of the merchant shipping to and from the Port of Newark. They were relagated to the backwaters of the swamps of the Carolina marshland.
On September 12, 1976, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center was officially opened to the public. In 2008 the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and the Staten Island Botanical Garden merged to become the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden.
The five interlocking Greek Revival buildings at Snug Harbor are regarded as "the most ambitious moment of the classic revival in the United States" and the "most extraordinary" suite of Greek temple-style buildings in the country. With the 1833 Building C as the centerpiece, five stately Greek Revival buildings "form a symmetrical composition on Richmond Terrace, an eight-columned portico in the center and two six-columned porticoes on either end.
Paul Goldberger wrote, “Snug Harbor has something of the feel of a campus, something of the feel of a small-town square. Indeed, these rows of classical temples, set side-by-side with tiny connecting structures recessed behind the grand facades, are initially perplexing because they fit into no pattern we recognize - they are lined up as if on a street, yet they are set in the landscape of a park. They seem at once to embrace the 19th-century tradition of picturesque design and, by virtue of their rigid linear order, to reject it.”
The 1833 administration building by Minard Lafever is a "magnificent" Greek Revival building with a monumental Ionic portico, and is the architect's oldest surviving work. It was renovated in 1884 with “an eye-popping triple-height gallery with stained glass and ceiling murals,” and restored in the 1990’s.
All five of the famous row of Greek Revival buildings are individually landmarked, as are the 131-year-old chapel, which has been renovated as a recital and concert space; the Italinate Richmond Terrace gate house (1873), the mid-nineteenth century iron fence surrounding the property, and the interiors of Building C and the chapel.
The buildings are set in extensive, landscaped grounds, surrounded by an individually landmarked, nineteenth century cast iron fence. They include a "beautiful" 1893 zinc fountain featuring the god Neptune, now indoors with a replica in its place. According to the New York Times, "He sits in the middle, astride a shell held aloft by sea monsters, his trident raised. Jets of water spurt from the fountain's center and from bouquets of metal calla lilies to its sides. Visitors to Snug Harbor stop and watch, sitting on benches surrounding the scene, while workmen eat their lunches. It is quiet. Noisy New York and its busy harbor only away, beyond Richmond Terrace, might just as well be on Mars. Or at least at the other end of His Majesty's sea.
Also on the grounds is a bronze statue of Robert Randall by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
A travel article in the New York Times recently called it Staten Island's "crown jewel."
Snug Harbor Cultural Center and the Staten Island Botanical Garden is a nonprofit, Smithsonian affiliated organization that operates Sailors' Snug Harbor. The nonprofit organization's primary purpose is "to operate, manage and develop the premises known as Sailors Snug Harbor as a cultural and educational center and park." In 2005, it was among 406 New York City arts and social service institutions to receive part of a $20 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation, which was made possible through a donation by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. In 2006, the revenues and expenses of the nonprofit were both around US$3.7 million, and its year-end assets were $2.6 million.
It is home to the Staten Island Children's Theater Association (SICTA) which was formerly accompanied by actors such as Nolan DeBrowner. It is also home to the Staten Island Conservatory of Music. Other components include:
The Staten Island Botanical Garden maintains extensive gardens including The White Garden, inspired by Vita Sackville-West's famous garden at Sissinghurst; Connie Gretz’s Secret Garden, complete with a castle, a maze and walled secret garden; and The New York Chinese Scholar's Garden, an authentic, walled, Chinese garden in the style of the famous gardens of Suzhou.
The New York Sun called the Noble collection, "an unsung gem among New York museums.