This Yankee may be out for more than a season


By Ellen Keohane

The historic Yankee Ferry will have to leave Tribeca’s Pier 25 for construction of the Hudson River Park and may not be able to return in three years when the project is finished. Above, the ship’s caretaker, Laurie Lewis, and below, one of the vessel’s owners, Victoria MacKenzie-Childs,

First built as a luxury steamboat in 1907, the Yankee Ferry transported immigrants to and from Ellis Island, patrolled East Coast waters during both World Wars and served as the Block Island ferry for close to 40 years. Now too fragile to carry passengers, the vessel has sat at Pier 25 in Tribeca for the past 15 years, undergoing much needed renovations. But as of Nov. 13, the ferry will need to move once again. Piers 25 and 26, rotting and beyond repair, need to be replaced. So the Yankee, along with Pier 25 and 26’s other residents, is getting evicted.

For three years the Yankee’s owners, artists Richard and Victoria MacKenzie-Childs, have known they’d eventually have to move. But the Hudson River Park Trust, the trust responsible for the redevelopment of piers, did not secure the money to demolish and replace the piers until this summer when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation granted the Trust $70 million in post-9/11 funds to complete the Tribeca segment of the park.

On July 18, Hudson River Park Trust president Connie Fishman announced that demolition of Piers 25 and 26 could begin as early as this fall. However, as of last week, Trust spokesperson Chris Martin said that deconstruction would likely start in late winter or early spring. Not long after Fishman’s July announcement, the Yankee Ferry received what it had been dreading — an eviction notice from the Trust, said Laurie Lewis, the boat’s caretaker.

Although the Yankee’s owners have known they would eventually need to leave Pier 25, their attention has been focused on more immediate demands — like keeping the boat afloat. The boat’s hull, for example, is less than one eighth of an inch thick in places, Lewis said. “It should have gone into dry dock [to be repaired] a year ago.”

So before the vessel moves to its new home — wherever that may be — it will most likely need to spend the winter at a marina, out of the water and undergoing repairs, Lewis said. As the Yankee is no longer seaworthy, it will have to be moved very carefully by tugboat, she said.

The Trust initially said the Yankee could relocate to the north side of Pier 40, but there’s no room for the boat there, Lewis said. There might be room on the south side of the pier, but Lewis needs to meet with Community Board 2 to see if this is a viable option.

Reconstruction of Piers 25 and 26 is expected to take about three years, and even after the new piers are constructed, there’s no guarantee the Yankee will be able to return to Pier 25. The Yankee Ferry must follow the Trust’s historic vessel policy in order to return to the Park, Martin said.

According to the policy, the Trust does not allow people to permanently live on a boat moored in the park, which is a problem for the Yankee. Due to the fragility of a boat, someone needs to be on board 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Lewis said.

When something has happened, it’s happened in the middle of the night, Lewis said. “And we can’t afford to pay a security guard to sit outside the gate for $8 an hour.” Besides, a security guard would not be able to recognize when and if there is a problem, she said. Like the owner of a temperamental car, Lewis can recognize noises that people less attuned to the boat might overlook.

Once, at 3 a.m., Lewis heard a weird sloshing noise that didn’t sound right. A copper pipe had broken and the bottom of the boat had started filling up with water. “When we found it, we got out the pumps.” Another time, a line snapped in the middle of the night and had to be replaced immediately.

Jimmy Gallagher, the Yankee’s previous owner who brought the ship to Tribeca where he restored it, used to make the same argument to the Trust, which has always been resistant to the idea of people living on the vessel.

In order to return to Pier 25, the Yankee would also have to submit a Request for Proposal to the Trust. Since the boat is privately owned, and not a non-profit organization, Lewis doubts the Trust would offer the Yankee space on the newly reconstructed pier.

Before docking on Pier 25 in 1990, the Yankee had a varied and transitory life. The Harpswell Steamboat Company first built the Yankee in 1907. At that time, the boat was known as the Machigonne and was used to carry passengers between Portland, Maine and the Calendar Islands in Casco Bay.

During World War I, the Machigonne patrolled Boston Harbor, and then, from 1921 until 1929, it transported immigrants to and from Ellis Island. Later, the vessel served as a Statue of Liberty tour boat, and during World War II, the Navy used the Machigonne to transport troops around Philadelphia and the Delaware River. In 1947, the boat was renamed the Yankee and served as the Block Island, R.I. ferry until 1984.

After falling into disrepair, the Yankee was sent to New London, Conn. for scrap in 1983, which is where Gallagher, an antique dealer, discovered the boat in 1990. Gallagher purchased it and had it towed to Pier 25, its home for the past 15 years.

Well known for his big parties aboard the Yankee, Gallagher worked on restoring the boat for 13 years before he sold it to the MacKenzie-Childs in 2003.

Victoria and Richard MacKenzie-Childs crossed paths with the Yankee after living in a tiny studio on the Upper East Side. The couple was ready for a change — and more space. Victoria had heard about the Yankee and went down to Pier 25 to check it out. She asked Gallagher if the boat was for sale and he said everything had a price, Victoria said. Shocked that his offer was less than what you’d pay for a closet in Manhattan, Victoria agreed to his asking price, which she would not disclose. At the time of the sale, sources familiar with the terms said it was about $350,000.

Since purchasing the Yankee in 2003, MacKenzie-Childs have had to replace the boat’s insulation, plumbing and electrical wiring. They installed a new furnace, remodeled the living quarters and replaced all 52 windows on the boat’s passenger level, Lewis said. “Our primary intention is to keep it alive, keep it healthy and have it be available to the public through the arts.”

From May through September, they offer public tours of the vessel. Every July, Richard and Victoria’s daughter Heather and her husband Nils, who live in Paris with their two children, come to Manhattan and run a children’s theater workshop on the boat. Occasionally the Yankee hosts musical performances, parties or weddings for friends.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the boat’s passenger level still had chairs set up from a wedding that took place on the previous Saturday. The Yankee’s resident Datsuns, Pinky and Mr. Brown, roamed the decks, along with a Maine coon cat named Oliver.

A hired carpenter waterproofed the upper deck, which overlooked the Tribeca and Hoboken skylines. Gulls squawked and dove through the waves and the boat’s resident chickens—who live on the boat’s stern next to the kitchen—clucked in their coop.

Lewis sat on a bench next to a pile of laundry. Although she has only been working and living on the boat since last October, she expressed her fondness for the Yankee in passionate and enthusiastic terms. “I love this boat and I love being here and I love New York City,” she said. In addition to her boat-related duties, Lewis also manages MacKenzie-Childs’ domestic and decorative arts design business.

Victoria, whose rainbow-colored hair matched her socks, seemed less concerned about the move than Lewis. “Everything will work out for the greater good,” she said. “If we’re cast out to sea, I know there’ll be some other place for us.”

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