In 1992, the shipyard at Rochefort France where the Hermione – the ship that brought Lafayette to America – had been constructed in 1780 was apparently in decline.
Several local entrepreneurs conceived of the idea that a replica of the Hermione should be built and sailed to the United States as a goodwill gesture. It was hoped that the project would perhaps improve the local economy and also remind Americans of the important historical ties between the United States and France.
A visionary project of this magnitude would seem an almost impossible undertaking. The cost would exceed $22 million. Among other technical challenges was the fact that there were no existing plans for the original Hermione. There were however, for an English ship of the same class which had been constructed at the same time.
Beginning in the early 1990s work was begun in Rochefort with the backing of the French government, local French citizens and major French corporations. The hope was undoubtedly that American cities and citizens would support this endeavor and might even help financially. After all, the French-designed Statue of Liberty, among the most successful public monuments in history and an archetypal symbol of the United States, had been jointly funded by American and French contributions.
In 2014 the ship was completed and ready to sail across the Atlantic to 11 ports on the eastern seaboard, including stops at various maritime museums. One of the most important stops would be New York Harbor on July 4th where it would sail by the Statue of Liberty.
The project received favorable response from officials in Baltimore and Philadelphia and other seaport cities. In New York however, the project’s representatives had difficulty obtaining an audience with representatives of the mayor or governor to discuss the project. As the time for the Hermione’s arrival approached it appeared that prospects for a proper reception in New York were dim.
Several weeks before July 4th however, members of the Bowling Green Association and the Lower Manhattan Historical Association began pestering relevant City officials. Finally, with the backing of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, arrangements were made to dock the Hermione at South Street Seaport’s Pier 16. (The City had planned to dock Hermione at an obscure pier in Brooklyn.)
At the opening ceremony, Miles Young, the British-born head of the American Friends of the Hermione (who was then chair of the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather), hailed the achievement of having the Hermione come to New York and America. He called the project one of the great public history projects of the 20th century and an example of the Lafayette family motto “why not.”
Although the highest city or state official at the ceremony was the mayor’s Commissioner of Foreign Affairs, speakers did include Jonathan Bouleware, the recently installed President of the South Street Seaport Museum, and Craig Stapleton, a prominent past U.S. Ambassador to France. A representative of the Lower Manhattan Historical Association gifted the captain of the Hermione a 13-star American flag. The flag was an replica of the one that had been carried by Thomas Paine and John Paul Jones and presented to the Marquis de Lafayette at the Fête de la Fédération in 1790.
The following day, another ceremony was held in front of Pier 16 in which the Lower Manhattan Historical Association held a march in honor of the Hermione from Pier 16 to Bowling Green where the flag was raised on the Evacuation Day flagpole. The march is believed to have been the first July 4th parade in Lower Manhattan since the American Bicentennial in 1976. It proved a success, and laid the groundwork for the seven subsequent, and much larger, July 4th parades.
Jonathan Bouleware, the newly installed President of the South Street Seaport Museum, gave a stirring speech about the importance of the Hermione and his plans to rebuild the Museum to its former glory with a program of visiting foreign historical ships. Gale Brewer spoke about the importance of recognizing the history of Lower Manhattan and the importance of the French efforts.
The march which went up Wall Street and turned at Broadway to Bowling Green. It was led by Miles Young, an American crew member of the Hermione, along with storyteller Jonathan Kruk and Caroline Kaplan. Marchers various patriotic groups with drummer Brian Carter providing the musical accompaniment (the budget did not allow for a marching band). As the parade went by Federal Hall the Hearts of Oak Band serenaded the marchers en route to Trinity Church (thanks to the National Parks Service).
The 2015 visit of the Hermione has not only been a catalyst for the succeeding July 4th parades, but also for the Lower Manhattan Historical Association. The Association is now an active group which organizes other historical activities in Lower Manhattan such as the annual Saratoga-Yorktown Celebration in Trinity Churchyard; the Alexander Hamilton Immigrant Achievement Awards, the annual Evacuation Day ceremonies at Bowling Green. The Association has also helped mark the first Synagogue in North America on South William Street, and recently commemorated the Buttonwood Agreement, which helped found the New York Stock Exchange.
Arguably, the visit of the Hermione in 2015 also had a profound impact on the South Street Seaport Museum. After much wrangling and controversy, the Howard Hughes Corporation (one of the principal financial supporters of the Lower Manhattan Historical Association’s July 4th parades) sought to build a major office building at 250 Water Street. The company offered to make a donation of $50 million if its zoning application was approved. The directors of the financially beleaguered South Street Seaport Museum had argued that the museum would go out of business without this subsidy.
The proposal created a major controversy in Lower Manhattan. The matter was the subject of five lengthy public hearings in which more than 600 interested people spoke with some commenters waiting more than three hours to make their two minute presentations. A number of business groups along with directors of the Lower Manhattan Historical Society (including Aleen Millman, Catherine Hughes and Scott Dwyer), along with the director of the Fraunces Tavern Museum, argued that the long-term interest of the community lay with preservation and expansion of the Museum.
Notable New York historian Kenneth Jackson, a former president of the New York Historical Society, argued that the future of Manhattan was dependent on its ability to compete with other major cities of the country and world for tourist dollars and that the South Street Seaport Museum could be critical.
Ultimately with the support of city council member Margaret Chin, then Borough President Gale Brewer (who had both been Grand Marshals of the 4th of July parades), the New York City Council supported the Howard Hughes project. The 2021 and 2022 Lower Manhattan Historical Society’s July 4th parades ended at the South Street Seaport piers and were viewed by some as a Seaport Museum victory celebration.
Hoping For Hermoine’s Return in 2024
At a recent meeting of the Lower Manhattan Historical Association, the organization was asked if it would help plan a celebration to mark the 200th anniversary of Lafayette’s triumphant return to the United States in 1824. A number of groups, led by the Friends of Lafayette and other French-American organizations are planning a series of events for 2024.
It was suggested that the return of the Hermione to the United States could be a centerpiece of these efforts. A member of the Lower Manhattan Historical Association’s board was asked to look into the costs, although several board members remain skeptical. The Hermione is currently in dry dock in Rochefort where its hull is in poor shape. The estimated cost of renovating the ship for another voyage to the United States is estimated at $3-5 million.
While this amount might seem daunting, it’s not impossible, if one considers the potential benefits and the French and American resources that could be brought to bear. 140 years ago, the Statue of Liberty was considered a hopeless scheme.
A return visit of the Hermione for the 200th anniversary of Lafayette’s 1824 visit could promote historical tourism along the eastern seaboard and further the the history community’s vision of Lower Manhattan as a world class tourist center.
At a time when democracy is sometime in question, it could provide Americans with a timely reminder of the principles on which democratic government was founded.
In terms of fundraising, a joint project with French and American groups each raising $2.5 million using the same methods as those used for the Statue of Liberty – individual contributions, public municipal investment, donations from major corporations should be possible.
The only question is the will of people on both sides of the Atlantic to do so. After all, is not the motto of the Lafayette Coat of Arms—“Why not”?
Photos: Hermione leaving France, at port, and arriving in Yorktown, Virginia in 2015.
Geraldine Hogan says
Excellent article in support of fundraising for reconstruction of the Hermione to celebrate Lafayette’s 1824 visit to America.