It’s a piece of Boston history — a 269-foot-long piece — and for decades it has been rotting at the bottom of Boston Harbor, a victim of the Blizzard of ’78.
Now the remains of the SS Peter Stuyvesant, a Hudson River cruise ship that found a second life as a glamorous bar and dining room attached to the former Anthony’s Pier 4 restaurant, are finally being removed from the harbor floor, part of an elaborate redevelopment of the site that will include offices, condominiums, and a park.
The Stuyvesant sank just off the pier, having been ripped from the elaborate cradle that held the ship. For months after the blizzard, the ship sat on its starboard side in the shallow water, its bow yards from what is now the Institute of Contemporary Art, as workers tried to save the Stuyvesant.
Eventually, Anthony Athanas, the famed restaurateur who viewed the Stuyvesant as his floating palace — it was loaded with art and artifacts he’d collected around the world, as well as an extensive wine cellar — made the painful decision to scrap the ship. Crews removed most of the upper decks of the Stuyvesant in September 1979, but the massive hull was left on the ocean floor, its silhouette visible at very low tides.
“It’s sad to see it go, because it was one of the last bits left of what it used to be like down here,” said John Bennett, an ICA employee as he watched the excavation from the museum’s windows recently. Bennett grew up just up the street in South Boston, and as a child he’d have his father bring him down to the waterfront to look at the ship lit up in all its glory.
“She was just so beautiful to look at,” Bennett said as he snapped photos of the scene below. “I don’t know what it was, but I fell in love with that ship.”
On a spud barge floating below, a worker was piloting an excavator with a grapple on its end, plunging it into the water and feeling around for big chunks, like playing the arcade claw game blindfolded. Sometimes the claw would come up carrying nothing but seawater; other times, huge chunks of the Stuyvesant would be caught in its teeth. The force of ripping the ship apart was enough to spin the barge; a tugboat was there to move the barge back in place.
The excavation began in late January. The developer of the project, New York-based Tishman Speyer, declined to answer questions from the Globe or to provide additional details about the project, and workers at the site said they were not allowed to speak with the media.
The Stuyvesant began its life as a cruise ship on the Hudson River, where it would make day trips from New York to Albany, then remain overnight with its passengers before returning the next day. After World War II, when such cruises lost their popularity, the ship was used to take high school students on trips around Manhattan, before being decommissioned in 1964.
In 1968, the ship was brought to Boston by Athanas, who spent a half-million dollars to purchase the flats where the ship would sit at permanent mooring, then another $400,000 to construct an elaborate steel-and-concrete cradle that was considered an engineering marvel.
“If the topping of the Stuyvesant dramatized the force of [the storm’s] winds, then the steel and concrete network that held the ship in place typified man’s engineering skill — at least it should have,” the Globe wrote at the time.
For the decade the vessel sat on its mooring, the Stuyvesant was a city icon, playing host to hundreds of political parties, business dinners, and other social functions, often with Athanas on hand to show off his “queen” to the visitors.
In the early morning hours of Feb. 7, 1978, with the storm in full bore and hurricane-force winds ripping across the harbor, Athanas was in his second-floor office-apartment above Anthony’s Pier 4 when he looked out the window and saw something he never thought he’d see — the Stuyvesant had moved in its cradle.
It was only about 6 inches at first, and Athanas frantically called the Coast Guard and a tow boat company, trying to find a craft that could come stabilize the ship. The answer was no. All boats were only for life-or-death situations came the reply.
At 3 a.m., a power surge hit the building, causing the fluorescent lights to burn bright and then blow, and Athanas ran down stairs to find the electric cash registers were smoking. When he looked out the window again at the Stuyvesant, the ship was gone, toppled out of the cradle and into the sea.
“The sound of the final wrenching must have been deafening,” the Globe wrote, “but all Athanas heard was the northeast wind.”