A rural-looking Fifth Avenue at 44th Street

Ye Olde Willow Cottage, the wood-frame building with the shutters and porch in this 1902 New-York Historical Society photo, looks like the kind of tavern you’d find in an upstate hamlet, not the center of New York City.

But there it is next to another small-town kind of shop, Tyson’s Fifth Avenue Market.

Strangely, this is Fifth Avenue and 44th Street—at the time lined with mansions and other designations of contemporary luxury yet containing pockets that “still looked almost rural,” notes New York: A Guide to the Metropolis, which published the photo.

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One Response to “A rural-looking Fifth Avenue at 44th Street”

  1. T.J. Connick Says:

    How did such a place come to be? How did it survive?

    Most old New York taverns in out-of-the-way places owed their existence to the traffic generated by an important crossing, a popular thoroughfare, or a ferry landing. The Willow Cottage was in the middle of nowhere in the 1840s, and like its rusticated neighbors in the photo, it grew up as an adjunct to the stockyards that once occupied the remote district. From 1848 the Washington drove-yard dominated the New York cattle market, and market day likely produced a crowd of thirsty drovers and buyers. The stretch of Fifth Avenue was a relatively new road, unpaved, and unserved by gas lines; Madison Avenue had not yet been cut through; and Fourth Avenue (later Park Ave) ran along a rail line that did not yet require a passenger building like Grand Central.

    The sleepy scene was disturbed by a notorious moment of fame on July 13, 1863. Directly across Fifth Avenue, the Colored Orphan Asylum was ransacked and burned, just one episode in the ferocious explosion of the draft riots.

    The modern Fifth Avenue arrived soon enough. A lot of money was made in the Civil War; several city blocks devoted to a cattle market couldn’t last. In 1868, south of the tavern on the same side of Fifth Avenue, was built the magnificent synagogue of the city’s foremost congregation, Temple Emanu-El. Across 44th Street was the Sherwood Hotel, in due time superseded by the famous Delmonico’s. By the time Ye Olde Willow Cottage was pulled down, it very likely was Fifth Avenue’s only frame building between Washington Square and 89th Street. It had been an obvious anachronism for over a quarter century. A photo can be found on the Museum of the City of New York’s website: see Accession Number The willow is in leaf, and with Delmonico’s and blocks of fine buildings beyond, the tavern and its fellows could be a lost piece of Missouri. Another ( shows it in 1899, decorated for the Dewey Parade, with its roof arranged as a viewing platform.

    How did the peculiar, outdated corner withstand long decades and mighty waves of real-estate frenzy? The buildings in the photo were long owned by Paran Stevens, who had enjoyed a spectacular run of success in the hotel business. Like others who ran up fortunes in mid-19th century commerce, Stevens had also amassed a great portfolio of real property. Unfortunately for Fifth Avenue boosters, Stevens didn’t prepare for a clean disposition of his estate. With his death in 1872, he left behind a perfect cocktail for thwarted development plans. His leases, deeds, business partnerships, and will seemed to have sown the ground for conflict and confustion. There followed a decades-long festival of lawsuits and court cases, his heirs tirelessly suing everyone in sight.

    Foremost among the litigiously inclined group was his widow, whose stupendous self-promotion reminds us how very like today were the closing decades of the 19th century. Her death in 1895 was the first break in the logjam that had tied up most of the Paran Stevens holdings. Several years later, the estate at last unloaded the buildings in our photo, bringing an end to the Fifth Avenue misfits.

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