A short-lived road named for a female scientist

Since its creation in the 1880s, it was unceremoniously called Exterior Street—a slender road east of York Avenue between 53rd and 80th Street that ran closest to the East River. It existed primarily to provide access to the river for industry.

But in 1935, a prominent New Yorker came up with an idea. She wanted to rename a stretch of Exterior Street in honor of Marie Curie, the Polish-born, Nobel Prize–winning scientist who discovered the elements polonium and radium and died a year earlier from the effects of radiation from her own research.

Mayor LaGuardia had already held a ceremony honoring Curie in City Hall Park in November 1934. There, he and his Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, unveiled a plaque dedicated to Curie (fourth photo below) as well as a tree planted in her memory, according to a 1999 article in The Polish Review by Joseph W. Wieczerzak.

A rare female scientist at the time, Curie was a heroic figure worldwide but especially in America, thanks in part to her development of mobile X-rays brought to the front line in France during World War I that “did much to lessen the suffering of wounded soldiers,” wrote Wieczerzak.

Mary Mattingly Meloney, the influential editor of the New York Herald-Tribune’s Sunday magazine and a personal friend of Curie’s, appealed to Mayor LaGuardia to create a Marie Curie Avenue in Manhattan. The idea was quickly brought to a vote before the Board of Alderman, and it passed unanimously.

Why was Exterior Street chosen for the honor? First, “Exterior” was really just a generic name for an industrial, riverfront road. But also, several medical facilities—like Rockefeller Institute, later University—built their headquarters nearby on York Avenue, states Wieczerzak. It seemed fitting to have an avenue to the east named for a scientist, even though that street wasn’t always so attractive, as the photos suggest.

The official renaming took place on June 8, 1935, in a ceremony attended by 5,000 people, according to the New York Times. Despite the fanfare, Marie Curie Avenue would only officially last for five years.

The street was doomed in 1935, when plans were unveiled for the East River Drive. “Construction of the drive began in 1937,” wrote Wieczerzak, adding that parts of Marie Curie Avenue were widened, leveled, and elevated before being covered in 1939 or 1940 by the “rubble from bomb-destroyed buildings of British cities carried as ballast in ships docking in New York Harbor to load wartime cargo.”

The East River Drive opened in 1940…and it was eventually renamed for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I don’t think a trace of Marie Curie Avenue—the first major street named after a woman in New York City—remains.

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: Nobelprize.org; third photo: MCNY X2010.11.2542; fifth photo: NYT July 10, 1935; sixth photo: NYPL]

Tags: , , , , , , ,

10 Responses to “A short-lived road named for a female scientist”

  1. Bob Says:

    Is Margaret Corbin the only woman for whom a street is officially (not honorarily) named on Manhattan Island?


    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Hi Bob, I thought of Margaret Corbin as well—to my knowledge she’s the only one in Manhattan.

  2. bofis Says:

    I had never heard of this, seemingly there were even plans to make it nicer before it was covered up entirely:

  3. countrypaul Says:

    I guess I missed the far east avenue by a few decades, but two summers ago I got to walk on the one-block remnant of 13th Avenue on the west side. It is being converted into a park, but once upon a time it served the same purpose as Exterior Street. I don’t know why that seems like such a cool thing to me, but it does, and I bet it resonates with more than a few people here!

  4. velovixen Says:

    I didn’t know about this until now. As a feminist, of course, I am not happy that Marie Curie was edited out of the NYC landscape. Every city worthy of the designation should have a thoroughfare named after her. Or, at least, the occupied by one of the hospitals–or Rockefeller University–should be named for her. Better yet: Why not name the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island for her? (Appropriately enough, Four Freedoms park is next to it.)

  5. countrypaul Says:

    To bofis, thank you for excavating that article! There are so many amazing “what if’s” in New York. I wonder if those plans came to some sort of fruition before being literally paved over by Robert Moses.

  6. BklynMaven Says:

    I don’t know if the City still formally recognizes it as Marie Curie Avenue (or Place?), but there’s still a two-block long stub that remains between 79th and 81st Streets, which can actually be glimpsed in the final photograph here, to the right of the apartment buildings (One East End and 25 East End). This spur is generally used for access for large deliveries to those buildings, heavy equipment, etc. The “street” dead ends at a high stone wall at 81st, where the FDR Drive enters a double-decker tunnel structure with the Promenade (John Finley Walk) constructed atop it.

    At some point, either when I was growing up nearby 40 years ago or in the decades since, there was actually a small street sign at the northeast corner of 79th identifying it as Marie Curie Ave./Pl. I don’t believe the sign is still there, but it’s been a while since I’ve looked. The southern “extension” of this spur is the entrance lane from 79th Street to the southbound FDR Drive, running a bit beyond 77th before merging into the highway.

    So a small segment of Marie Curie Avenue does still remain, although without any signage attesting to its existence.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I know that spur you’re talking about—I’m going to take a trip up there and see if any formal sign remains! Thanks for pointing it out.

      • BklynMaven Says:

        The more I think about it, the street sign I recall would have been comparatively “recent” (i.e., after I was growing up), as my mind’s-eye image of it is white letters on green, rather than black on yellow. But that could still have been over 30 years ago. Good luck on the hunt!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: