Archive for the ‘Houses of worship’ Category

A travel writer under the spell of 1820s New York

February 18, 2019

Frances Milton “Fanny” Trollope was decidedly unimpressed by America when this wife and mother visited the young nation in the late 1820s.

She arrived with her sons in 1827 from her home country of England, stepping off in New Orleans and settling for a time in Cincinnati. Her British husband had financial difficulties, and she hoped to take advantage of the opportunities she believed America offered.

When her efforts failed, she left Ohio and set out for various East Coast cities. The travel log she published back in England in 1832 was titled Domestic Manners of the Americans.

The book was a monster hit on both sides of the Atlantic, though it earned American disdain.

It’s hard not to see why. According to Trollope, American roads were primitive, manners lacking, and culture nonexistent. She also called out the hypocrisy of a nation that heralded freedom yet enslaved African Americans.

But when it came to the seven weeks she spent in New York City, Trollope was almost starstruck.

“I have never seen the Bay of Naples, I can therefore make no comparison, but my imagination is incapable of conceiving any thing of the kind more beautiful than the harbour of New-York,” she wrote of her arrival by boat from New Jersey. (Above, South Street at Maiden Lane in 1827)

“Situated on an island, which I think it will one day cover, it rises, like Venice, from the sea, and like that fairest of cities in the days of her glory, receives into its lap tribute of all the riches of the earth.”

She noted the “beautiful” public promenade along the Battery (above left, in 1861) and “splendid” Broadway, with its “handsome shops, neat awnings, excellent troittoir, and well-dressed pedestrians.”

“Hudson Square (at right) and its neighborhood is, I believe, the most fashionable part of town,” Trollope wrote about this elegant enclave renamed St. John’s Park (at left).

She also praised the city’s night life. “At night the shops, which are open till very late, are brilliantly illuminated with gas, and all the population seems as much alive as London or Paris.”

During her stay she visited the three major theaters and pronounced the Bowery Theatre (at left in 1826) “superior in its beauty” to the Park or the Chatham.

She also visited theaters and churches where black New Yorkers went and worshipped, writing about the many free African Americans in the city.

According to Trollope, stylish women in New York wore only French fashions; houses were made of a rich brown stone called “Jersey freestone,” streets were well paved, everyone had plenty of ice to cool their food, and the villas in Bloomingdale, the West Side village far from the actual city, were beautiful.

She also praised the 19th century version of taxi drivers (at left, in the 1830s), even the one who ripped her off.

“The hackney-coaches are the best in the world,” she proclaimed, though admitting that she was way overcharged by one unscrupulous driver who took her for a tourist.

That didn’t change her feeling that Manhattan was the greatest urban space in the nation, and perhaps the world.

“[I] must still declare that I think New-York one of the finest cities I ever saw, and as much superior to every other in the Union (Philadelphia not excepted) as London to Liverpool, Paris to Rouen. Its advantages of position are perhaps unequaled anywhere.”

Here’s another female travel writer’s descriptive take on the colonial city she visited in 1704.

[First image: Wikipedia; second image: View of South Street From Maiden Lane, New York City” by William James Bennett/MET Museum; third image: NYPL; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: “The Bay of New York Taken from Brooklyn Heights” by William Guy Wall/MET Musuem]

This is what New York was like at Christmas 1882

December 24, 2018

During the city’s first 150 or so years, the residents of the colony that would become New York didn’t celebrate Christmas the way we celebrate it now: by buying gifts, decorating a tree, and telling stories about Santa Claus coming down chimneys.

In fact, New Yorkers weren’t celebrating Christmas at all. The Dutch holiday of St. Nicholas Day, on December 6, and then New Year’s Day, were the festive holidays of the month.

By the Gilded Age, however, Christmas as we know it was in full swing. And one writer who wrote a book about life in New York detailed the crazy consumerism, excessive eating, and general celebratory mood that constitute the modern Christmas season.

“For weeks before the great day of the feast the city is in gala attire,” wrote James McCabe, author of New York by Gaslight, from 1882.

“The stores present a brighter and more attractive appearance than at any other season of the year, the streets are filled with larger throngs, and the stages, street cars, and trains of the Elevated roads are more crowded than ever.” (Above, a painting of shoppers by Alice Barber Stephens, in 1896.)

McCabe noted the “huge piles of Christmas trees” on street corners that find “ready purchasers.”

The Christmas tree, introduced in the 1830s and 1840s, had become a staple of every home by this time. (Above left, a card from a New York business from the era.)

The cross streets in Manhattan that constituted the biggest shopping districts—Broadway, 14th Street (at right in 1899, next to the old Macy’s store), 23rd Street, and Grand Street among them—”are all driving a thriving trade.”

“It’s the money spending time of the year, and those who are out mean business,” he wrote of the crowds jostling on sidewalks. “Here is a woman with a bundle of toys in her arms, surmounted by a huge turkey for the Christmas dinner. There goes a man struggling under the weight of a Christmas tree, and sweeping his way through the mass with its thick, sharp branches.”

“Boys with penny whistles, young men with tin horns, render the streets discordant with their noise,” he notes, also describing the “half naked” kids gazing into shop windows “with wistful eyes.” They “will not be forgotten on the morrow.” (Above, a parade of expressmen with packages on their wagons to deliver.)

McCabe noted the window displays seen during the day and the electric lights ablaze inside stores once darkness fell. Inside homes, passersby could see families decorating their Christmas trees. “Something of this may be seen from the cars of the Elevated roads, as you whirl by second-story windows of the houses along the route.”

(Above, a montage by Thomas Nast of sentimental family scenes at Christmas 1863, from Harper’s Weekly.)

About the elevated trains, which were built atop several avenues in Manhattan in the 1870s: “In the cars it is almost impossible to move, because of the great bundles of merchandise. You stumble over huge turkeys and market-baskets filled to overflowing with all manner of eatables….”

Those turkeys and other feast foods could be found at the city’s great markets, like Washington Market in today’s Tribeca.

On Christmas Eve the market stays open past 11 p.m., selling “long rows of turkeys” hanging from the hooks of stalls, as well as sugar-cured hams.

After the feast was purchased, Christmas Eve turned into Christmas day. (A market scene, at left)

“When the bell of old Trinity tolls the last stroke of the hour of midnight, there is a momentary hush in the streets, and then rolling down from their lofty height, through the dark thoroughfares and over the silent waters of the bay, come the rich, glad tones of the chimes, filling the air with a burst of melody,” McCabe wrote.

McCabe wrote about the poor of the city, explaining that the “numerous charitable and benevolent institutions spread bountiful tables for their inmates….the hearts of the little ones are gladdened with toys, trinkets, and other presents suited to their needs and years.” (A dinner for the poor, below right)

“Even the prisoners in the Tombs and on Blackwell’s Island are not forgotten, and the Christmas dinner spread for them sheds a little light and hope into their otherwise gloomy existence.”

What else was similar? Matinees. “All the theaters give special performances, termed ‘matinees,’ in the afternoon. The houses are thronged, and the managers pocket large receipts. At night, balls, festivals, and entertainments of all kinds, close the day.”

[Top image: NYPL; second image: MCNY; 43.425.12; third image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY 2010.11.8795; fifth image: Thomas Nast from Harper’s Weekly, 1863, NYPL; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: NYPL; eighth image: MCNY 37.351.16; ninth image: MCNY]

A 19th century mayor’s fascinating social diary

December 17, 2018

Philip Hone served as New York’s mayor only from 1826 to 1827.

But Hone—the son of a carpenter who made a fortune in the auction business as a young man—spent the next two decades serving the city in another way.

From 1828 to his death in 1851, Hone kept a diary (free to access) chronicling the political and social changes of the growing metropolis.

His diary offers a fascinating glimpse of the daily life of New York filtered through the mind of a reflective writer, whose thoughts about culture and politics echo some of the same conversations we continue to have today.

“The old custom of visiting on New Year’s Day, and the happy greetings which have so long been given on that occasion, have been well kept up this year,” Hone wrote January 2, 1831.

“I am glad of it; few of those good old customs remain which mark the overflow of unsophisticated good feeling, and I rejoice whenever I can recognize any part of the wreck which the innovations of fashion have left afloat.”

The same year, he also noted the city’s “new University”—today’s NYU (above, in 1850)—and dined often with friends like Washington Irving at the Washington Hotel, at the southern tip of Broadway.

In 1836 he marked the one-year anniversary of the “great fire”—an 1835 blaze that destroyed much of downtown (left). “To the honor of the merchants, and as an evidence of the prosperity of the city, the whole is rebuilt with more splendor than before.”

Hone noted a party he went to in a mansion lighted by gas, when most homes were lit by candlelight. The gas “gave out suddenly in the midst of a cotillion; this accident occasioned great merriment to the company, and some embarrassment to the host and hostess, but a fresh supply of gas was obtained, and in short time the fair dancers were again ‘tripping it on the light fantastic toe.'”

The financial ruin brought on by the Panic of 1837 didn’t change Hone’s circumstances, but their effects were seen across the city. “No goods are selling, no business stirring, no boxes encumber the sidewalks of Pearl Street….”

Hone was a regular theater-goer, and he wrote about opening night at a new venue. “The National is the prettiest theatre in the United States; but it is not Broadway, and the New Yorkers are the strangest people in the world for their predilection for fashionable locations.” (at left, when it was destroyed in 1839.)

Before moving to Broadway and Great Jones Street, he lived in a townhouse on Broadway opposite City Hall next to the American Hotel (below). He worshipped at Trinity Church.

On Good Friday 1839 he wrote, “I went, as usual, to church this morning, and afterward into Wall Street [at right, in 1846], where the din of business drowns the sound of the bell’s invitation to worship, and the gravity of devotion is put out of countenance by the restless, anxious looks of speculative men of ‘this world.'”

Hone, a Whig, wrote about the politicians of the day; his dining partners included John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren (left, in 1828). He noted a reception held for the arrival of Henry Clay.

Hone also wrote of “the Irish and other foreigners” and other “discontented men” for fomenting labor troubles on the wharves in 1836.

He recorded the names of steamships that crossed the Atlantic; an amazing feat in his day and even toured ships when they were docked at the Battery or North River.

He took excursions to the country suburb of Hoboken, dined at friends’ estates in Manhattanville, West Farms in the Bronx, and Flushing. He and his adored wife and children went to many “fancy balls.”

While having dinner at his home with William Astor and other distinguished New Yorkers in December 1838, he experienced something sadly common in the city at the time.

The doorbell rang, and an abandoned infant with its name pinned to its gown was at the doorstep. Hone described the baby as probably a week old and “one of the sweetest babies I ever saw.”

“It did not cry during the time we had it but lay in a placid, dozing state, and occasionally, on the approach of the light, opened its little, sparkling eyes, and seemed satisfied with the company into which it had been strangely introduced,” wrote Hone.

“Poor little innocent—abandoned by its natural protector, and thrown at its entrance into life upon the sympathy of a selfish world….” Hone wrote that he thought about taking the child into his own home, but his dinner guests convinced him otherwise, and the “little wanderer” was brought to the city almshouse.

This part of Hone’s diary brings me to tears. But the horrible tragedy of infant abandonment touched Hone (at left, near the end of his life) enough to include it in his diary, so I included it here too.

[All images: NYPL Digital Collections]

The last house left on State Street’s mansion row

December 10, 2018

State Street is a short downtown stretch with a gentle curve along Battery Park that ends at the foot of Broadway.

Today, one side is lined with glass box buildings that serve the interests of the Financial District; it’s overrun with tourist buses.

But in the late 18th century, State Street had an entirely different feel.

Running along the waterline of Lower Manhattan, it was the city’s most desirable mansion row.

More than 200 years later, only one of those mansions still stands: the James Watson House, built in 1793.

James Watson was a Federalist and the first speaker of the New York State Assembly. He was rich, too; he made his money in imports and exports.

Like other members of the wealthy merchant class, he built himself a home befitting his status.

This was no shoddyite palazzo though. Elegant and in the fashionable Georgian style, according to the Guide to New York City Landmarks, Watson’s home gives us an idea of how the upper class lived in the postcolonial city.

As always, location mattered. With its proximity to the harbor, residents would have remarkable water views. And while the heat baked the rest of the city, the Watsons could open their enormous windows and catch the breeze.

Not only that, but the house was close enough to the harbor so that Watson could keep an eye on his shipping interests, according to nyc-architecture.com.

In 1806, Watson sold his house to merchant and sugar refiner Moses Rogers. It was Rogers who added the Federal-style two-story curved portico, which followed the curve of State Street.

Imagine the loveliness of overlooking the harbor out on that portico. Those impressive columns were likely made from ship masts, states a 1965 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

As the 19th century continued, State Street remained fashionable.

Robert Fulton bought a mansion here in 1808, and Herman Melville was born around the corner in 1819 on Pearl Street.

By the mid-1800s, though, State Street was changing. (See third image, from 1859.)

Landfill turned the Battery into a recreational area that drew crowds. And when Castle Garden went from concert hall to an immigrant depot center in 1855, the mansions became boarding houses.

In 1888 (fourth image), the Watson House was now the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary, which aided Irish immigrant women.

A remaining building next door (seen above in 1920 and in 1936) was bulldozed decades later, and on the site rose Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic church in 1964.

In the 1960s, the Watson house was restored to its original 18th century beauty. Today, it stands out amid the street’s banking industry glass boxes, a relic of a gentler era.

It’s not a house these days but a shrine to Elizabeth Seton, the first saint born in America and a former resident of State Street. Seton lived on the other side of the Watson house as a child in the 1770s.

[Fourth image: Valentine’s Manual, 1859; fifth image: King’s Handbook, 1892; sixth image: MCNY, 1920: X2010.18.252; sixth image, 1926, LOC]

Peter Stuyvesant’s last descendant died in 1953

July 16, 2018

Streets, schools, apartment complexes, statues—you can’t escape the Stuyvesant name in New York City.

These and other memorials pay homage to Peter Stuyvesant (at right), the director-general of New Amsterdam from 1647 to 1664, as well as other Stuyvesants who made a mark in the city over three centuries.

But there’s one Stuyvesant family member who made headlines for a different achievement: He was the last one, the final direct descendant of peg-legged Peter, dying at age 83 in 1953.

His name was Augustus Van Horne Stuyvesant Jr. Born in 1870 in his family’s mansion on Fifth Avenue and 20th Street, he grew up in an “imposing” house on East 57th Street off Fifth Avenue.

Wealthy and a resident of Manhattan’s most exclusive neighborhood at the time, Augustus lived the same life as the children from other old-money families did in the Gilded Age.

“Educated privately by tutors at home, Mr. Stuyvesant never went to school or college,” stated a New York Times article announcing his death. “In his youth, he and his two sisters led the normal social life of their class, spending summers at Newport, Southampton, or Tuxedo.”

Not only did Augustus not go to school, he never pursued a profession. And neither he nor his sisters married. As adults, the three of them lived together in their East 57th Street mansion.

The three siblings weren’t housemates for long. In 1924, the oldest, Catherine, died; youngest sister Anne’s death followed a decade later.

Augustus spent the next two decades in seclusion. He and Anne had sold the 57th Street mansion in the 1920s and purchased a spectacular French chateau (above) on Fifth Avenue and 79th Street.

The reclusive bachelor’s “only recreation seems to have been an hour’s stroll each day through the streets near his home,” wrote the Times. “He had no family or social life.”

His one regular haunt, however, was St. Mark’s Church at Tenth Street and Second Avenue, where eight generations of Stuyvesants had been buried in a family crypt.

“Once or twice monthly, also, a uniformed chauffeur would drive the tall, white-haired, black-clothed gentleman in an old Rolls Royce to visit the Stuyvesant tomb beneath St.-Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie,” stated the Times.

“Frequently, in the last ten years, the [St. Mark’s Church] staff would see the quiet, elderly man in black wandering the churchyard, reading the inscriptions on the tombs or sitting in the Stuyvesant family pew in the silent church.”

After Augustus died—he was overcome by heat on an August day while on a stroll—he joined those 80 or so relatives in the family vault.

At his funeral at St. Mark’s Church three days after his death were some cousins, his lawyer, and his “ruddy-faced” butler, who “dressed in black, sat alone, weeping into his handkerchief” along with six elderly house servants, according to a second Times article.

Augustus was the last Stuyvesant to go into the crypt, which runs under the east wall of the church, after which it was sealed forever.

[Top image: Peter Stuyvesant in 1660; second image: Peter Stuyvesant Vault at St. Mark’s Church, wikipedia; third image: New York Times 1953; fourth image: Peter Stuyvesant statue at Stuyvesant Square, Alamy; fifth image: St. Mark’s Churchyard, 1979, MCNY X2010.11.4182; six image: New York Time 1953]

Floating chapels for 19th century sailor souls

May 14, 2018

New York City would never have become the financial powerhouse it is without its harbor—or the thousands of sailors who came and went on cargo ships from all over the globe.

Recognizing the sheer number of seamen in New York at any one time and concerned about their welfare, city residents in the early 19th century launched organizations that tended to their health—physical and moral, of course.

Life wasn’t cushy for a sailor. Wages weren’t great, conditions on ships were rough, and on shore, thieves waited to take advantage of them via knockout drops and worse. (At right, sailors on Pike Street in 1869)

The Seamen’s Friend Society was established in 1828 and built homes for sailors a cut above waterfront boardinghouses. And Sailors Snug Harbor opened on Staten Island five years later as a retirement complex for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out” seamen.

Remnants of these organizations still exist in the city. But one has been almost forgotten: the Seamen’s Church Institute, founded in 1834 by a group of Episcopalians to offer floating chapels to sailors coming in and out of New York Harbor.

The first floating church was moored off Pike Street. Appropriately called the Floating Church of Our Savior, this Gothic edifice burned down in 1866 and was replaced by a second chapel, where sailors worshiped until 1910.

Another chapel at sea, the Church of the Holy Comforter, was docked off Dey Street in the Hudson River.

As these illustrations show, these chapels of the sea really did look like churches; the Floating Church of Our Savior also had its own organ and a spire 70 feet tall.

The idea was that a sailor wouldn’t feel comfortable worshiping at a church on land in a strange city. “In a floating church, he knows he has a home,” stated Dwight’s American Magazine in 1845.

“On Sunday mornings, from 150 to 200 seamen…are regularly assembled, and with them are often mingled persons of both sexes, of the most respectable classes, from the city’s congregations, pleased with the opportunity of worshiping with the sons of the ocean.”

In 1910, the Floating Church of Our Savior was towed from Pike Street to dry land on Staten Island, where in 1914 it became All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Richmond Terrace.

After a fire in 1958, the former floating chapel could not be rebuilt. Amazingly, the circa-1869 organ survived—but its whereabouts are unknown, according to nycago.org.

[Top photo: Seamen’s Church Institute; second image: NYPL Digital Gallery; third image: MCNY 58.233.1; fourth image: Seamen’s Church Institute; fifth image: Dwight’s American Magazine; sixth image: LOC/Bain Collection]

A secret garden behind 12 East Side townhouses

April 16, 2018

New York has its very lovely public green spaces, playgrounds, and private parks.

But some lucky residents have their own secret interior garden—a lush sanctuary of trees, flowers, and fountains hidden from the street between rows of brownstones and accessible only through the back doors of adjacent neighbors.

One of these magnificent gardens, Jones Wood Garden, lies between Lexington and Third Avenues and 65th and 66th Streets (above) on the same block as St. Vincent Ferrer Church.

The original Jones Wood was a 150-acre tract of high forested land that roughly spanned today’s 65th to 76th Streets from Third Avenue to the East River.

Named for a 19th century tavern owner and owned by prominent families, Jones Wood became a popular picnic and amusement spot. It was even in the running in the early 1850s to be the city’s first major public park.

In the post–Civil War years after Central Park edged out Jones Wood, builders cut down the forests and put up blocks of brownstone residences in this Lenox Hill neighborhood, as thy did all over Manhattan.

Demand for these private homes soured by the turn of the century, then picked up again after World War I. That’s when Jones Wood Garden got its start.

With well-to-do tenants in mind, developers purchased 12 brownstones (six on the north side of 65th Street, and six on the south side of 66th), then remodeled them by getting rid of their tall stoops and updating the amenities. They also designed a 100 by 108 feet sunken interior garden.

“This will be paved with special paving brick and flagging, and will have a fountain with a pool,” explained a New York Times article from 1919.

“Back of each house there will be a small and more intimate garden about 20 feet deep, upon which the dining room will open.” Shutters and trellises would be added to the back of each of these homes as well.

Unless you live there or know someone who does, Jones Wood Garden is pretty much off-limits to most New Yorkers.

You can catch a glimpse of a few trees from the street, as I did below. But the garden sanctuary is very private, just as it was intended.

Occasionally recent photos appear, particularly when one of the homes is up for sale.

In 2015, the house at 160 East 66th Street hit the market for $12 million. Curbed has the photos, including one with the open dining room leading to the garden, as described in the 1919 Times piece.

But to get a sense of the beauty and lushness of Jones Wood Garden, we have to rely on old images, such as these black and white photos from The Garden Magazine in 1922.

There’s also a series of color slides from the Library of Congress, dated 1921. One shows a child playing by the fountain and a woman in white (his mom? a nurse?) enjoying the peace and serenity.

[Second, third, fifth, and sixth photos: LOC; fifth photo: The Garden Magazine. Hat tip to A for sending me the LOC photos!]

This church was once the 1905 Allen Street baths

March 19, 2018

The Church of Grace to Fujianese, at 133 Allen Street, looks like lots of other storefront churches in New York City.

The congregation is housed in a slightly grimy re-purposed building. Window guards line the ground floor, a cross is affixed above the entrance, and signs are emblazoned with the church name in two languages.

But there’s something else on the facade—they look like scallop shells.

These sea images are a reminder that from 1905 to 1975, this was the Municipal Bath House at Allen Street, blocked off by the elevated train in its first decades.

The bathhouse opened amid a wave of public baths building in the city’s slums, giving tenement dwellers a place to wash up in an era when having a bathroom in your apartment was hardly a given.

Their was another purpose for these public bathhouses: to offer moral uplift.

With this in mind, the designers of the Allen Street baths built facilities that provided access to light and air.

“With large arched windows in the waiting room and glass skylights punctuating the roof, York & Sawyer bathhouses were designed to maximize sunlight—a rare building strategy in the slums—to help uplift the bather morally and hygienically,” states the Tenement Museum website.

The baths were immensely popular in the early 20th century, as The Sun noted on a July day in 1908.

“Over in front of the Allen Street bath, which was about the busiest of all the city baths, you could see more small boys with their damp hair sticking up in breeze blown wisps than ever came out of all the ol’ swimmin’ holes in the entire state of Indiana.”

Of all the public baths, Allen Street stayed open the longest—then fell victim to the city fiscal crisis in the 1970s, according to the Tenement Museum.

[Last photo: MCNY; x2010.11.2]

An epidemic gave rise to a beloved Village church

February 19, 2018

Disease can shape a city—and that’s what drove the huge population boom in the country resort of Greenwich Village in the first half of the 19th century.

In the 1700s, Greenwich was a bucolic suburb dotted with estates. by the 1790s and early 1800s, this part of Manhattan, with its cool breezes and healthy air, was overrun with residents fleeing lethal outbreaks of yellow fever in the downtown city center.

“Those marvelously healthy qualities as to location and air, that fine, sandy soil, made it a haven, indeed, to people who were afraid of sickness,” wrote Anna Alice Chapin in her 1920 book, Greenwich Village.

How fast did Greenwich grow? “From daybreak to night one line of carts, merchandise, and effects were seen moving toward Greenwich Village and the upper parts of the city. . . . persons with anxiety strongly marked on their countenances, and with hurried gait, were hustling through the streets.”

With so many new homes going up, churches needed to be built as well. So Trinity Church decided to build a parish on Hudson Street.

In 1820, with an assist from Clement Clarke Moore (a theology professor not yet famous for his Christmas poem whose Chelsea estate was just north of Greenwich Village), a new church was born: Saint Luke in the Fields.

The evocative name was a reference to Greenwich Village as a countryside enclave. And Saint Luke? He’s the physician evangelist, patron saint of physicians and surgeons.

His name is a nod to “Greenwich’s role as a haven for the multitudes fleeing disease in the city,” wrote Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham.

The fields aren’t totally gone—St. Luke’s has one of the prettiest secret gardens of any church in New York City.

[Top photo: MCNY; 1895; 93.1.1.17296; Second and Third Images: NYPL]

A child’s casket emerges in a Hudson Street park

October 30, 2017

The dead who dwell in New York’s burial grounds have a strange way of making themselves known.

One example of this happened in 1939. Workmen renovating James J. Walker Park (second to last photo) on Hudson and Clarkson Streets in the West Village came upon an underground vault—and found a child-size cast iron casket inside.

The casket was “made to look like a shrouded Egyptian mummy,” states the Trinity Church website.

The New York World-Telegram reported on the discovery, noting, ‘The girl’s cast iron casket…had a glass window in the top. Her white silk dress still looked fresh and dainty.'” The paper noted that she was “a pretty yellow haired child.”

What was a casket doing there—and who was the girl inside it?

Until the city seized this green space to make into a park, the land was Old St. John’s Burying Ground (above and at right), run by Trinity Church for the worshipers at nearby St. John’s Chapel, since demolished, according to the New York Cemetery Project.

“It’s estimated that 10,000 people were buried in St. John’s Burying Ground in the years before 1860, when burials stopped—and very few bodies were removed and re-interred during park construction,” states Trinity’s website.

The unusual casket itself revealed the girl’s identity.

“The silver coffin plate gave the child’s basic information: Mary Elizabeth Tisdall, 6 years and 8 months old, died April 14, 1850,” according to Trinity Church.

Church archives discovered that Mary’s cause of death was listed as “brain congestion—probably encephalemia,” and she lived at “219 East Ninth Street in Manhattan, just off of Astor Place.”

Mary’s parents had married at St. John’s. Her father (above) was a British-born coal merchant who became a Mason and wrote poetry; he died in 1878.

Her brother, Fitz Gerald Tisdall, had a long career as a professor of Greek at City College.

Yet no record exists of who Mary was—if she liked school, rolled a hoop in Washington Square Park like other children, visited Barnum’s Museum, or had a favorite type of candy.

All we know about her is that she was one of untold numbers of children who didn’t make it to adulthood in New York at the time, when little was known about sanitation and hygiene and no medicine existed to fight deadly diseases.

Her casket didn’t go back underground, of course. “She rests in peace in the catacombs under Trinity Church,” according to the church website.

The only marked grave in the entire park is an 1834 sarcophagus dedicated to three young firemen who perished in a blaze on Pearl Street.

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: MCNY; fourth photo: NYC Parks Department; Fifth Photo: Wikipedia]