The Tender

by Paul Hond
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A landlubbing Minnesotan, Habstritt had come east to study at the only Ivy League school with a library program. Soon she met a man who belonged to the Society for Industrial Archaeology, and who encouraged her to attend a gathering of the New York chapter. “It opened up a whole world of the history of manufacturing and the stories behind the products we use every day,” Habstritt says. The president of the local chapter was Gerry Weinstein, a steam historian and industrial-landscape photographer.

After she and her boyfriend split up, Habstritt moved to the Twin Cities and took a job at the University of Minnesota library. During that time, she and Weinstein struck up a courtship. They got married in 1997, and Habstritt returned to New York, where she began researching the history of industrial sites and advocating for preservation.

“The more I learned about these places, the more I realized they were disappearing,” says Habstritt. “In the world of preservation, industrial sites are the stepchild. People can understand the value of a historic house where Edgar Allan Poe once lived and worked. But an abandoned factory? Not so much.” She mentions the Domino Sugar factory on the East River, sold to a developer last fall, as a museum-worthy structure (the sugar trade, Caribbean-US relations, monopoly, Teddy Roosevelt, factory life) that we demolish at the peril of national memory. “I felt that a lot of these sites needed someone to help save them,” she

says. Powerful forces stood in opposition, naturally, and for Habstritt, fighting those frequently predetermined battles grew disheartening. But a ship was different; a ship wasn’t real estate. Everyone wanted to save a ship.

Habstritt took over as the Lilac Preservation Project’s director in 2011, learning all she could about the ship from government records and former crew, and about steam engineering from her husband (“we have a collection of steam engines at our weekend place”). She has been overseeing the ambitious volunteer-driven restoration effort at Pier 25 (painting, wiring, cleaning, refurnishing, patching, plumbing) as well as holding onboard events (readings, art exhibits, lectures, theatrical and choral performances) during the May-to-October season.

Habstritt climbs up into the bridge, the room from which the captain guided the Lilac along the Delaware. Polished binnacle, telegraph, nautical charts, wooden ship’s wheel, radar equipment — all still here. Habstritt, underscoring the many lives of ships, recalls the fate of Lilac’s sister. “The Arbutus worked the Hudson and was based on Staten Island,” she says. “After her decommission, she ended up being used as a workboat for Mel Fisher, the famous treasure hunter. In 1985, Fisher and his crew found the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a shipwreck from 1622 that yielded a lot of gold. When they were done with the treasure hunt, they sank the Arbutus off the Florida coast. That’s one way to get rid of a ship — scuttle it. So she’s down there off the Florida Keys.”

As for the Lilac, the survivor, the last of her kind, rocking gently on the Hudson, she now enjoys the status of museum ship — a boat that never searched for treasure, but instead became it.

Mary Habstritt ’89LS is the president of the Lilac Preservation Project and a freelance historical consultant who researches and interprets industrial sites and maritime topics. She is the founder of the Historic Ships Coalition, an alliance of New York City’s historic vessels.

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