The Wild West street names once proposed for the Upper West Side

Edward Clark, a lawyer by trade, made a fortune in the mid-19th century as one of the founders of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. With that fortune, Clark launched a second career as a New York City real estate investor and developer.

Matthew Dripps/Valentine’s Manual 1865

In 1880, he and architect Henry Hardenbergh (later of Plaza Hotel fame), were ready to start construction on a Victorian Gothic apartment building. The luxury residence was set to rise on land Clark purchased at 72nd Street and Eighth Avenue. Today, Eighth Avenue is famously known as Central Park West, but in the Gilded Age it was still a mostly undeveloped thoroughfare bordering the west side of Central Park.

When Clark’s building was completed in 1884, it would be called the Dakota and celebrated for its beauty and grandeur. But before that, it was dubbed “Clark’s folly,” because the idea of putting up a spectacular residence in the slow-to-urbanize Upper West Side was considered ridiculous.

The Dakota, aka Clark’s Folly, on Eighth Avenue post-construction

Still, Clark was nothing if not a risk taker. He had a vision for what the “West End” should become and what its new avenues should be called. And he had no qualms about bringing his vision to the West End Association, the group tasked with ensuring that the area developed into a high-class district of fine homes and suitable businesses.

“In 1880, The Real Estate Record & Guide reported on a meeting of the West End Association, as it examined the future of what was thought to be the area’s most impressive boulevard, then known as Eighth Avenue but now called Central Park West,” recounted Christopher Gray in a 2007 New York Times article.

“Most of the people at the meeting favored renaming it West Central Park, but Edward Clark, then at least six months away from starting work on the Dakota, was opposed. He said he thought the avenues should be named ‘after such of the states as have well-sounding names,'” wrote Gray.

Edward Cabot Clark in 1850

What avenue names did Clark propose? He suggested the very frontier-focused “Montana Place for Eighth Avenue, Wyoming Place for Ninth Avenue, Arizona Place for Tenth Avenue, and Idaho Place for Eleventh Avenue,” stated author Deirdre Mask in 2020’s The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power.

The West End Association ignored Clark’s suggestions. In 1893, Eighth Avenue officially became Central Park West. In 1890, Ninth Avenue was changed to Columbus Avenue, and Tenth Avenue turned into Amsterdam Avenue. (Riverside Drive and West End Avenue already had been named, and Broadway would replace the Boulevard by the end of the century.)

Why did the planners in charge of urbanizing the Upper West Side nix the numbered avenues in favor of more descriptive street names?

“Part of the rationale was that new names would distinguish the haut-bourgeois West Side from the lower part of the city through which the numbered avenues ran, particularly the undistinguished factories, flats and tenements of the West 30s, 40s and 50s,” wrote Gray.

More than a century has passed since all of the naming and renaming, and it seems that the Upper West Side’s six major avenues are set in stone.

[Top image: raremaps.com; second image: Office for Metropolitan History via The New Republic; third image: Wikipedia]

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19 Responses to “The Wild West street names once proposed for the Upper West Side”

  1. Andrew ALPERN Says:

    Edward Clark did not have a middle name. The supposed middle name of Cabot was added by the Clark Museum (begun by the family of one of his grandsons) to embellish his background.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Ah, interesting, thank you! I’ll delete it. I guess the family was invested in creating a mythology about the man, as if his real accomplishments were not enough.

      • Andrew ALPERN Says:

        The man was a brilliant innovator. I call him a 19th century Steve Jobs, first of the 1850s through the 1870s with his Singer machine and company (he did all the work while Mr. Singer merely took half the profits), and then of the 1880s with his concept of the luxury apartment house. In both cases, he created both the product and the urgent desire of its market to possess that product.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        I think that’s an apt description of him. Even in an era when well-to-do people were skeptical of apartment-style living, he had a vision.

  2. Greg Says:

    I’m glad that scheme fell through, naming major west side avenues in NYC after sparsely populated western states seems both too gimmicky and also like putting the cart before the horse.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Very true. There was a fascination with the American frontier that extended past the Gilded Age…witness the exterior Cliff Dweller building on Riverside Drive and 96th Street, built in 1914.

  3. VirginiaLB Says:

    Interesting to learn that it was 1890 when 10th Ave. became Amsterdam Ave. In September of that year, my great-grandfather wrote a letter to the editor of the NY Herald from his home at 1415 Amsterdam Ave. That very month, the NYC Police Census was taken and the policeman called it Tenth Ave. It took me a long time to sort that out, especially as our family never knew they lived there at all–it was only six months. Incidentally, house numbers changed a great deal and 1415 today is nowhere near where it was in 1890. Thanks for that information.

  4. velovixen Says:

    This is so interesting. Having been in the Dakota (under entirely un-glamorous circumstances), and passed it many times, I have long wondered how it came to have such an incongruous name.

    What if the Upper West side had “Wild West” street names? Would East Side streets have been given “Down East “ names? Would East End Avenue be Maine Boulevard?

    In East New York, Brooklyn, there is a series of streets named for states—Alabama, Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont—though there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason why those states were chosen. And in The Hole, there are the “Gem” streets—Amber, Ruby, Sapphire—that seem as incongruous for that locale as the name “Dakota” is for what is, arguably, New York’s most opulent apartment building.

    All of that just got me to thinking about the themes behind some neighborhood’s street names. Perhaps that could be the subject of a future post.

    • Andrew ALPERN Says:

      For many of the stories, see “The Street Book” by Henry Moscow. Also “Naming New York” by Sanna Feirstein. Also “Manhattan Street Names Past and Present: a Guide to Their Origins.” Finally, “Old Streets, Roads, Lanes, Piers and Wharves of New York” by John J. Post, published in 1882 but reprinted in 2015 by forgottenbooks.com.

    • Andrew ALPERN Says:

      Augmenting my Manhattan-centric reply, for Brooklyn, there is “Brooklyn By Name” by Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I love investigating the backstory of New York’s street names, and I’ve relied on all the resources Andrew and Virginia recommend. They make for fascinating reading.

  5. Bill Wolfe Says:

    In Jack Finney’s Time and Again, one of the characters says that the Dakota got its name because people said it was so far away from the built-up part of the island that it was “way out in the Dakotas.” I don’t know if that’s historically true, but I always enjoyed that description.

  6. Andrew ALPERN Says:

    No, it’s not true. The first mention of that possible “reason” for the name was in a report in the Herald Tribune in 1933, where the long-retired original manager of the building, at a 50th anniversary luncheon, posited it as a possible theory behind the name. The story doesn’t appear in any of the contemporary articles on the building when it was new. I know that because I read them all when I was researching my book about the Dakota.

    • Bill Wolfe Says:

      Thanks for the information. It’s good to know the facts, although I’ll still smile at the made-up explanation the next time I read Finney’s book.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        Thank Andrew for making it clear that this Dakota story is not true! It’s one of those myths that persist.

  7. Benjamin P. Feldman Says:

    Edward Clark died before the completion of the Dakota, and his fortune passed to his son Albert Corning Clark. The profits from the Singer Sewing Machine Company (Edward, early on in his law career had accepted a major interest is Isaac Merritt Singer’s company in exchange for legal services that perfected Singer’s patent claims) made Edward and then Alfred the richest men in the world, save royalty, in the days before the great steel and oil fortunes were amassed in the USA. Albert’s sons founded the Clark Arts Institute in Williamstown, MA, and Albert is buried in a single grave in the Hudson City Cemetery in Hudson NY in a large grassy, walled plot. The Clarks of Cooperstown tells the entire story and then some. Your eyes will bug out ! https://www.amazon.com/Clarks-Cooperstown-Influential-Collections-Forty-Year/dp/0307263479

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Ben for the link…isn’t it Alfred Corning Clark? (The beautiful Riverside Drive home of his widow, Elizabeth, and her second husband, Bishop Potter, is part of the Riverside Drive tour I do on Sundays.)

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