Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 19th Century’

The visionary who created New York City

December 30, 2013

The name Andrew Haswell Green typically draws blank stares from today’s city residents, who are unfamiliar with his accomplishments helping to build the parks, museums, and zoos of 19th century New York—not to mention the consolidated city itself.

AndrewgreenIn the late 1850s, Green was a member of the Central Park Board of Commissioners, tasked with selecting the design for the new park.

It was Green who recognized the beauty and brilliance of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Greensward Plan, with its woodsy and pastoral landscapes. He shepherded the plan, helping it become reality.

The New York Public Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Natural History, Central Park Zoo—give props to Green, now city comptroller, for these late 19th century achievements.

His 1868 proposal to consolidate the city, however, was a harder sell.

Nicknamed “Green’s Hobby,” the idea of combining Manhattan, Brooklyn, and other towns and cities along the city’s port barely gained traction.

Andrewgreencentralparkbench

But Green persisted. In 1890, the city council created a task force to look into the idea. By the middle of the decade, after much debate (and grumbling from Brooklynites), consolidation was approved; the new city was born on January 1, 1898.

Andrewgreenconsolidation1

Consolidation was an economic and practical success. But Green didn’t live long enough to see the results.

In 1903, while arriving at his home on Park Avenue, he was killed, ambushed by a gun-wielding man who mistook Green, then in his 80s, for someone else with the same last name.

The “father of New York City” was memorialized in Central Park with a bench bearing his name. He now also has a riverfront park named for him overlooking the East River at 60th Street.

[Middle photo: NYC Parks Department]

A heartbroken spirit haunts an East Village home

October 28, 2013

Merchantshousemuseum

Gertrude Tredwell, born into privilege in genteel 19th century New York, had many advantages.

She also reportedly had a domineering father and a lost love. And 80 years after her death, her spirit is rumored to roam the house where she lived all of her 93 years.

Her life began in 1840, the youngest of the eight children of merchant Seabury Tredwell.

Tredwell had a successful hardware business, and five years before Gertrude was born, he moved his brood into a new Federal-style townhouse on East Fourth Street.

Gertrudetredwellyoung

At the time, the area between Washington Square Park and recently opened Lafayette Place was the most fashionable section of the city.

Gertrude grew up in comfort, but her life took a tragic turn. “According to the family’s history, Gertrude fell in love with a doctor, Lewis Walton,” wrote Philip Ernest Schoenberg in Ghosts of Manhattan.

“But her father, an Episcopalian, forbade her to marry Walton because he was Catholic, Irish, and poor.”

Perhaps Getrude never found love again. Or maybe she did it to spurn her father, who died in 1865. But Gertrude never married.

Along with her mother, four spinster sisters, and a bachelor brother, Gertrude continued to live in the house.

TredwellchildrenAs the years went on, East Fourth Street became a grittier industrial enclave. The Tredwells were seen taking carriage rides but kept to themselves.

“They barricaded themselves there against a city creeping uptown like a tide,” wrote The New York Times in 1951.

One by one her mother and siblings passed on. By 1909, she was 69 years old and alone. “The blinds were kept closed in the drawing room; the dining room was never used; and the dust of years accumulated,” the Times wrote in 1936.

“By then, she was considered an eccentric recluse whose only interest seemed to be keeping the house exactly how it was when her father died,” wrote Cheri Farnsworth in The Big Book of New York Ghost Stories.

GertrudetredwellagedShe died in 1933 in the same four-poster bed she was born in.

With the house in pristine 19th century condition, it became the Merchant House Museum, a fascinating place taking visitors back to New York in the 1840s.

And Gertrude? Over the decades, she’s been seen in the kitchen, spotted gliding up and down the stairs, playing the piano, and arranging teacups.

Perhaps she is reluctant to leave the house where she grew up, fell in love, and had her heart broken.

[Above: six of the Tredwell children as adults; right, Gertrude in her older years]

The beautiful saloon ceiling on Grand Street

October 7, 2013

OniealsexteriorThere’s a lot of New York history at 174 Grand Street.

This corner, at Centre Market Place, was the location of a polling place in the 1860s, a church in the 1870s, and a deadly jewelry store robbery in the 1920s.

A brothel operated there, as did a saloon-turned-speakeasy catering to officers who worked across the street at the old police headquarters.

Oniealsceiling2

Cops didn’t have to actually cross the street to get a drink there. A tunnel was dug from the police building directly to the bar (and still exists today; it’s now a wine cellar). Very convenient.

Oniealsceiling1Now it’s the site of a restaurant/bar called O’Nieal’s. And though the neighborhood no longer has raffish old New York charm, O’Nieal’s lovely ceiling will transport you back to that version of the city.

The beautifully carved chunk of mahogany wood spans the entire restaurant. Walk in, and look up.

[Top photo: onieals.com]

Scenes of a young Manhattan, at work and play

August 26, 2013

There’s not very much information out there on an artist named Louis Augier.

I’m not even sure he was actually in New York in the first half of the 19th century, the time period these depictions were supposedly created.

Augierstpaulschapel1831

But his life-like, detailed images of the new city of New York (above, “New York in 1831,” showing St. Paul’s Chapel on Lower Broadway) in the 1810s through the 1850s are captivating.

In the absence of photos, they seem to tell us how upper-crust residents lived (below, Bowling Green in 1831).

Augierbowlinggreen1831

No doubt these images are cleaned-up versions of the way the city really looked: there’s no trash in the streets, no poverty, no problems bigger than a traffic jam.

Augiercityhall1819

Social realism they are not. Still, we see the fashions the city’s elite wore, the way their homes looked, and how they got around (those omnibuses in the top image look a little rickety).

And they seem to enjoy the same thing New Yorkers of today love doing: strolling along the streets of their neighborhoods, which look strangely similar now as it did then (above: City Hall, 1819).

Manhattan’s 19th century temperance fountains

May 4, 2013

Temperancefountaintompkinssquare2Just as abortion and the death penalty are hot-button issues today, temperance divided Americans in the 19th century.

The millions of members of the American Temperance Society, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and other groups believed that banning alcohol could eliminate major social problems like poverty and crime.

These organizations were pretty powerful. But it was hard to persuade people to give up booze when alcoholic beverages were often safer to drink than water.

That’s where the temperance fountain comes in.

“The premise behind the fountains was that the availability of cool drinking water would make alcohol less tempting,” wrote Therese Loeb Kreuzer in a 2012 article in The Villager.

Temperancefountaintomkinssquare3“In the 19th century, temperance fountains could be found in cities and towns from coast to coast. Now few of them remain.”

Two still stand in Manhattan. One is in Tompkins Square Park, a strange place for a temperance fountain considering that the area was packed with beer-loving Germans at the time.

Donated by a wealthy temperance crusader who had it cast in 1888, it features a bronze figure of the Greek Goddess Hebe, cupbearer to the Gods, on top of a pedestal supported by four columns.

Blocks away on the west side of Union Square is New York’s second remaining temperance fountain. Paid for by another rich temperance convert and dating to 1881, it’s a figure of Charity that really works the innocent mother and children angle.

Temperancefountainunionsquare“Bronze dragonflies and butterflies frolic above the lions,” wrote Kreuzer in The Villager. “Then comes a richly sculpted band of acanthus leaves and birds. The ensemble is topped by a figure of a mother dressed like the Virgin Mary in a Renaissance painting. She holds a child in her right arm, while dispensing water from a jug to another child who looks at her adoringly.”

Both statues are the legacies of the movement that gave us Prohibition—and speakeasies—in the 1920s.

[Top two photos: Wikipedia]

Three centuries and three views of the Bowery

March 7, 2013

“In pre-Colonial days, the Bowery was a country lane, running between the ‘bouweries’ (farms) of the Dutch burghers,” the caption to this 1888 photo reminds us. It’s part of the fascinating photo collection New York Then and Now, published by Dover in 1976.

The 19th century history of the Bowery is well known: it went from premier entertainment district to a skid row of cheap theaters, flophouses, and eponymous bums.

Bowerycanal1888

What’s interesting in the above photo of Bowery at Canal Street is that the tracks of the Third Avenue El, constructed in 1878, are on each side of the street.

“In 1915 the structure and stations were rebuilt, with the addition of an express track, and were moved to the center of the street, providing more light for pedestrians and stores,” the book explains.

Boweryandcanal1975

Here is the same intersection in 1975. No more elevated; no more horses and wagons. Chinatown has edged in, yet most of the tenements that existed 87 years earlier are still there.

And so is the faded ad for “Carriage Materials” on the east side of the street!

Bowerycanalst2013

The carriage materials ad has been painted over by 2013, and some of the old tenements and the big wooden water tower on the far right are gone too.

The intersection of Bowery and Canal Streets looks like one more bustling traffic-choked corner.

A mystery chapel in a Canal Street subway station

February 4, 2013

Canalstreetmosaic2The only thing that makes waiting for the subway less aggravating is spotting one of these colorful mosaics lining the platform.

They’re mini history lessons depicting some hallmark of the area from when the station was built, say a noteworthy building, like City Hall.

But the Canal Street 1 train platform, with mosaics of a chapel and spire, poses a mystery.

StjohnschapelIn the vicinity of the Varick Street station, no church exists.

It did at one time—and it was a beauty. The lovely St. John’s Chapel was built in 1807 (predating the street grid!) as a parish of Trinity Church, and it became the centerpiece of a luxurious residential enclave called St. John’s Park.

Well-to-do families built Georgian row houses around a small genteel park, and the neighborhood remained fashionable through the 1840s (below, in a 1905 painting by Edward Lamson Henry).

St. John’s Park began losing its appeal in the 1850s, when wealthy New Yorkers chose to relocate uptown. Then a railway terminal replaced the park in 1868, turning the enclave into one of factories and tenements.

Stjohnsparkandchapel

Lovely St. John’s Chapel, with its sandstone portico and columns and 200-foot oak spire and clock dominating the skyline for over 100 years, was torn down in 1918.

All that remains today is the subway mosaic, a small patch of green at the Holland Tunnel entrance—and a forgotten lane in Tribeca bearing the St. John’s name.

When Charles Dickens toured the city in 1842

November 19, 2012

By the time he was 29 years old, Charles Dickens was a wildly popular author in his native England as well as the United States.

He’d already published Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, among other novels, poems, and plays.

So in January 1842, he did what any best-selling writer would do: he went on tour, sailing to America to visit the young country and make a stop in the teeming city of New York.

Unfortunately, he was less than impressed. The tour “quickly degenerated into an experience of mutual disdain and recriminations,” explains a New York Times article.

“Dickens disliked the intrusiveness of the American public, who stared at him and his wife, and the press, which reported his every move.”

In New York, he dined at Delmonico’s, visited alms houses and lunatic asylums, checked out the infamous Tombs prison and amusement garden Niblo’s, and hung out at a dance hall called Almack’s popular with the city’s black population.

He was shocked by the poverty he encountered in the notorious Five Points neighborhood, which he considered to be worse than London’s East End.

“This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth,” Dickens wrote in American Notes, which recounted his trip.

“Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors, have counterparts at home, and all the wide world over.”

“Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays.”

Despite his disillusionment, Dickens returned to New York in 1868 to give a series of lectures at Steinway Hall on 14th Street.

He was treated like a rock star (lecture tickets were tough to get, as the sketch above shows) and came away with a positive view of the city and country.

“How astounded I have been by the amazing changes that I have seen around me on every side…changes in the rise of vast new cities, changes in the growth of older cities almost out of recognition, changes in the graces and amenities of life, changes in the Press, without whose advancement no advancement can be made anywhere.”

[1827 Five Points sketch, via the NYPL Digital Collection]

New Yorkers at the polls on Election Day 1856

November 6, 2012

There’s a lot going on in this sketch, giving us a glimpse of what New Yorkers (well, New York men, that is) experienced when they went to the polls for the 1856 election.

This pre–Civil War election presented three candidates. Democrats backed James Buchanan, the Republicans supported Californian John Fremont, and former president and New Yorker Millard Fillmore was the man representing the American Party–aka the Know Nothing Party.

New York went for Fremont, but Buchanan won the country.

[Sketch: The NYPL Digital Collection]

New York’s two classes: “the poor and the rich”

October 4, 2012

We hear a lot about the growing divide between the rich and poor in the U.S., but also in New York.

Middle-class enclaves are disappearing. Moderate-income residents can’t afford the city’s crazy-high housing prices.

None of this would be news to New Yorkers in the late 19th century.

“Strangers coming to New York are struck by the fact that there are but two classes in the city—the poor and the rich,” states James D.McCabe in his 1872 book Lights and Shadows of New York Life.

“The middle class, which is so numerous in other cities, hardly exists at all here,” writes McCabe.

“The reason of this is plain to the initiated. Living in New York is so expensive that persons of moderate means reside in the suburbs, some of them as far as forty miles in the country.”

A later chapter in the book, from which the excerpt above was taken, may sound strangely familiar to residents today.

[First and third images: NYPL Digital Collection, 1869]


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