The scheme behind the way Astoria got its name

Some long-established New York City neighborhoods got their names from nearby natural landmarks; others took the moniker of an early landowner or the landowner’s hometown in England or Holland.

But the story behind the name Astoria, in Queens, is a little more about wheeling and dealing. It focuses on an ambitious 19th century developer who was hoping that New York’s richest man, John Jacob Astor, would invest thousands of dollars to help build the neighborhood if it carried Astor’s name.

First, a brief history of the East River enclave that would become Astoria. Colonized by the Dutch in the early 17th century, the area was occupied by William Hallett’s vast farm. Hallett lent his name to what was then called Hallett’s (also spelled Hallet’s or Halletts) Cove, which is marked on the 1873 map below.

“Over the next 100 years, Hallett and his descendants developed the area into a thriving farming community,” wrote Ilana Teitel in a piece on the website of the Old Astoria Neighborhood Association. “Early settlers transported grains, livestock, timber, and firewood across the river from Hallets Cove to the growing city of New Amsterdam.”

By the early 19th century, the Hallett family sold off much of their farmland. Wealthy Manhattanites replaced the farm fields with summer villas, turning Hallet’s Cove into a placid resort area for boating and breezy river strolls.

The slow pace of the area began to change with the arrival of Stephen Halsey in 1835. A fur trader, Halsey had big plans for Hallett’s Cove. His idea was to develop it into a modern town with houses, businesses, churches, and factories. But he needed money to get things going.

That’s where Astor (above) came in. “Halsey had connections to the biggest fur trader of the time, John Jacob Astor,” explained Teitel. “He proposed that Astor donate $2,000 towards the construction of a new Episcopal female seminary in exchange for naming the village after him.”

An 1896 article in the New York Times recalls a slightly different story, with Halsey proposing to Astor that he contribute $10,000 to $15,000. In return, Hallett’s Cove would bear his name.

What was Astor’s response to this idea, which he may have pondered across the East River in his Manhattan country estate house (appropriately named Hellgate, above) off today’s East 87th Street? Teitel wrote that Astor ponied up just $500.

Most sources point out that Astor never visited the enclave that would take his name. But the Times has it that Halsey brought Astor to Hallett’s Cove and showed him around.

“Shrewd old Astor looked about and found that the first church in Astoria was just struggling into existence—St. George’s Episcopal—so he contributed just $50 toward its erection,” stated the Times. “He got the honor of having the village named after him, the church got the $50, and the only unhappy people recorded were Mr. Halsey and his fellow village trustees.”

Even with so little of Astor’s cash, however, Astoria thrived—becoming a diverse residential suburb and manufacturing hub in the consolidated New York City on the 20th century (above, in 1915).

Halsey is also remembered; his name graces a junior high school across the borough in Rego Park. And Hallett’s Cove survives as Hallett’s Point, a luxury high rise.

[Top image: MCNY; MNY12251; second image: Beers map, 1873; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: Househistree; fifth image: MCNY; M3Y44321]

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10 Responses to “The scheme behind the way Astoria got its name”

  1. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    In the 1960-70s many Ukrainian people were fleeing from the Lower East Side due to the economic decline of the area and relocating to Astoria, Queens, which offered them better housing and living conditions. I suppose that’s true, but I stayed on the Lower East Side from the 1950s to the late 1990s; no regrets there.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      It’s a true diverse neighborhood, but of course known for its Greek community. People I know who live there consider it the perfect New York City nabe, though it’s getting pricey, I hear…

  2. Louis DeMonte Says:

    The female seminary eventually became the rectory of St. George’s church. Eventually the parish chose to demolish it in favor or erecting senior housing on the site. The ensuing construction displaced several graves and the building wrapped around the church to cover the stained glass windows behind the altar. We can thank the foot dragging of Queens preservation and the short sightedness of Gloria d’Amico for the destruction of the building that Astoria was named for.
    Very sad…

  3. Bob Singleton Says:

    Greater Astoria Historical Society:

    This was a nice article that also includes the various details that pop up with each retelling of the story.

    Halsey, who used to live in Flushing, took the boat home each day he admired the peninsula and thought it would make a great investment. His older brother, John Cook Halsey, also worked for Astor and had founded a trading post in Oregon which he named ‘Astoria.’ (told by a family member but is not mentioned in the wiki entry for Astoria OR)

    When Stephen told Astor his idea of naming the community, Astor was alledged to have said that he had no intention on “crossing the river to see the place” (perhaps because he could already see it from his front porch at Hell Gate!) but he contributed money for a ‘Female Academy’. Currier and Ives did a print of it – it later became the rectory for St George’s Church. (link below)

    Attempts to save the buidling or at least get inside to document it were brushed aside and it was torn down a few years ago.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      What a shame about the rectory. But thanks so much for filling out the story and sharing your Astoria knowledge.

      • AJ Schenkman Says:

        I grew up in Queens and went to school in Jackson Heights. I knew about the Astor connection, but a lot of the other fact are new to me. Thank you so much for sharing this article.

        I recently wrote an article on Fort Astoria on my blog History Made Seamless.

        There is so much history in Queens! 🖖

  4. velovixen Says:

    Ephemeral–It is indeed getting pricey. I hope I can stay!

    Mykola–Around the corner from my apartment is the Holy Cross Ukranian Catholic Church, which opened in 1965. That fits perfectly with your account of the Ukranian migration across the river. It’s worth a look for its glass and tile work, which seems to be (not surprisingly, when you think about it) a cross between what one might find in a French or Italian cathedral and Byzantine iconography.

    Louis–Right by Astoria Park is a corner named after Gloria D’Amico. I didn’t know about her role in losing the building that is the “cradle,” if you will, of Astoria.

    I had long assumed that Queens had fewer landmarked and preserved sites than Manhattan or Brooklyn because it was developed later. But I’ve since learned that one reason why many buildings, from colonial farm housed to apartment buildings and movie houses with Art Deco and Egyptian motifs, met the wrecker’s ball is that the borough’s political leadership–in particular the disgraced Borough President, Donald Manes–had no interest in, and even had hostility toward, historic preservation.

    If you’re around Astoria Park, take a walk down 12th or 14th Street south from the bridges (RFK and Hell Gate). There are mansions and other large Victorian houses with wide porches and lovely details that are reminders of what folks like Halsey might have had in mind when they settled Astoria. Those streets are also hills, which lead some of us to jokingly refer to the area as “our little San Francisco.”

    • Bob Singleton Says:

      I believe that Gloria’s son put up the building that replaced the Astoria Institute.

      As to Manes, yes he was against preservation but the local community has to take responsibility for what has happened with the teardowns. They heard both sides and chose one over the other.

      The sad thing is that if they had the community gone the Designated Landmark route their house values would have gone to astronomical heights. Instead they got paid for a hole in the ground.

      By contrast, go to Cooble Hill and similar Brooklyn neighhorhoods where you have the same domographic, but where the homes were sold but saved. They are valued not only for beauty, but among the most expensive in the city.

    • Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

      Velovixen–Very surprising you mentioned Holy Cross Church, I served as godfather to my infant niece, who now is a grown woman with two teenage kids of her own. My how things change…

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