Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

What remains of downtown’s “College Place”

April 16, 2018

On the side of a red brick walkup on West Broadway and Warren Streets is a gem of an old New York street sign: College Place.

It’s two stories up, visible from the street as well as the elevated train that ran up and down this stretch of West Broadway from 1878 to the 1930s.

What was College Place? This part of Lower Manhattan was the first home of King’s College, chartered in 1754 and renamed Columbia College after the Revolutionary War.

College Place became the name of the southern end of what was then known as Chapel Street in 1830; eventually Chapel Street merged with another road called Laurens Street to become today’s West Broadway in 1896.

Columbia relocated to the eventual site of Rockefeller Plaza in 1857; by the turn of the century, what was now called Columbia University occupied its present-day campus on Broadway in Morningside Heights.

The little street sign hiding in plain sight above a dry cleaners isn’t the only remnant of Columbia’s colonial-era downtown days.

A 1918 subway tile in the nearby Chambers Street Station, hard to see thanks to grime and soot, depicts the school’s first building.

[Third image: 1835 David Burr Map of New York City]

The lion and unicorn clock above William Street

March 26, 2018

New York needs more street clocks, those lovely public time pieces that people in a pre-smartphone world relied on to let them know they were late for an appointment.

Or maybe we just need to refurbish the ones that already exist—like this lion and unicorn themed clock four stories up above the entrance to 84 William Street, at Maiden Lane.

In 1907, this breathtaking 17-floor building—a confection of Georgia marble, red bricks, and terra cotta—was the brand-new headquarters of the Royal Life Insurance Company.

An article that year in American Architect and Building News reported that the clock reproduced, “the lion and unicorn which form a part of the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom, and replacing the shield by a marble and bronze clock-face eight feet in diameter.”

Lion heads decorate a ribbon of trim around the facade on the third floor. The image of a crown on the clock is a nice royal touch too.

At left is the building and clock as they originally looked; it’s virtually unchanged today in this shadowy corner of Lower Manhattan.

It’s unclear how long the company lasted here, but today, 84 William Street is an extended stay hotel.

Street clock hunting in New York can turn up some beauties, like this colorful terra cotta clock space on Avenue C and this cast-iron clock at an old shoe store on Duane Street.

And of course, no avenue in the city has more street clock loveliness than Fifth Avenue.

[Third Photo: MCNY]

What remains of two downtown colonial streets

March 19, 2018

The financial firms of Lower Manhattan help fuel the global economy of the 21st century.

But in the middle of their cathedrals of commerce, the remains of some humble streets that were instrumental in powering the economy of the 17th century still linger.

Take Marketfield Street, for example. You can just make it out on the circa-1797 map below; “market” is on the far left and “field” picks up on the right.

This narrow stretch between today’s Beaver and Broad Streets is anglicized from its original colonial Dutch name, Markveldt (which loosely translates into “market field”).

Almost 400 years ago, here stood New Amsterdam’s cattle market, opened in the 1650s—and there’s still a cowpath-like bend in the middle of today’s Marketfield Street, harkening back to its livestock days.

Marketfield Street once extended farther west, as this colorful 1642 map below also shows. It’s unclear how long the cattle market survived the city takeover by the British in 1664.

By 1695 the street went by a racier name: Petticoat Lane: “for it was here that, at the western end of the street near the fort which guarded the harbor, New York City’s prostitutes gathered,” states a Landmarks Preservation Commission report from 1983.

Every country town has a Mill Lane, and Manhattan does too. This slender alley hides between South William and Stone Streets. (On the map at the top, it’s just a faint curvy footpath with what could be a mill illustrated beside it.)

“It was in existence by 1657; the present name dates from after 1664,” states the LPC report. “Mill Lane ran from a mill built in 1628 to grind bark used by tanners.”

Mill Lane today, thought to be one of the city’s shortest streets, is unfortunately covered by scaffolding. Lets hope it survives this latest wave of development in the oldest part of New York City.

[Second map: Keren Wang’s Personal Website; third map: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.]

This office tower helped guide Battery tugboats

March 19, 2018

They don’t make office buildings as enchanting and beautiful as the Whitehall anymore.

Completed in 1904, architect Henry Hardenbergh (of Plaza Hotel and Dakota fame) created a 20-story beauty with a limestone base and decorative touches like entwined serpents—the building overlooked New York Harbor at the Battery, after all.

The Whitehall Building isn’t on Whitehall Street, curiously. So where did the name come from?

Whitehall was the nickname the British reportedly gave to Peter Stuyvesant’s former home (left), which was constructed in 1655 when Stuyvesant was director general of New Amsterdam.

Mosaics of Manhattan’s Whitehall can be seen at the Whitehall Street N/R station, but they’re too grimy to photograph well, sadly.

As the city’s tallest office tower for a brief moment in the early 20th century, the Whitehall Building was a huge success—and almost a decade later, a taller annex was built, called the Greater Whitehall.

The Whitehall annex (towering over the first Whitehall at the right) had a second purpose: It  helped guide tugboats in New York Harbor.

“With its singular top, this building was visible from the dozens of piers that once lined the Hudson River,” states New York for New Yorkers. “It functioned as a control tower; tugboats received their instructions from offices in this building.”

The city’s once mighty shipping industry is long gone, of course. But the Whitehall still soars over the harbor.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: NYC-architecture.com]

The bizarre 1916 plan to fill in the East River

February 12, 2018

“At first glance, a project to reclaim 50 square miles of land from New York Bay, to add 100 miles of new waterfront for docks, to fill in the East River, and to prepare New York for a population of 20 million seems somewhat stupendous, does it not?”

That’s the lead sentence in a fascinating article published in Popular Science in 1916, written with great enthusiasm by an engineer, Dr. T. Kennard Thomson.

Thomson had big dreams for New York City, and he laid them out in this article—his vision of making Greater New York a “Really Greater New York.”

The craziest idea? To turn the East River into a landfill extension of Manhattan, so “it would not be much harder to get to Brooklyn than to cross Broadway.” A new East River from Flushing Bay to Jamaica Bay would then be built.

Also nuts is the plan to lengthen Lower Manhattan so it just about touches Staten Island, and rework the Harlem River so it extends in a straight line from Hell Gate to the Hudson.

The point of his Really Greater New York? To rake in more money.

“Imagine the value of this new land for docks, warehouses, and business blocks! The tax assessments alone would make a fortune!” Thomson writes.

But like moving sidewalks, a West Side airport, and 100-story housing developments in Harlem, and an even weirder 1934 plan to fill in the Hudson River, this is another bizarre plan for the city that never came to pass.

[Images: Popular Science]

The past lives of a modest 1809 house in Tribeca

February 5, 2018

Houses have stories. And the Dutch-style unassuming home at the corner of White Street and West Broadway can tell some fascinating tales.

The story of 2 White Street (or 234 West Broadway) begins in 1809, when a New Yorker named Gideon Tucker built this home, most likely the last in a row that stretched down White Street.

Tucker ran a successful plaster factory. He was also assistant alderman of the Fifth Ward and a school commissioner, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report from 1966.

Tucker’s house certainly wasn’t showy. But a man of his stature would build a place with some flair.

“Number Two White Street is one of those very rare brick and wood houses in New York which still retain its gambrel roof and original dormer windows,” explains the LPC report.

“Although it was completed in 1809, this house is eighteenth century in its feeling and style,” states The Landmarks of New York.

Almost no homes from the 18th century survive in the city of today, thanks in part to fires—like the great fire of 1835.

Two White Street can give us a good idea of where and how New Yorkers lived in the decades following the Revolutionary War.

How long Tucker and his family resided there is unclear, or if it remained a one-family home. But by 1842, there was a different occupant: Reverend Theodore S. Wright.

Wright was born a free African-American in 1797. He was educated at the city’s African Free School, a one-room schoolhouse for the children of free and enslaved black New Yorkers. (Slavery wouldn’t officially end in the state until 1827.)

Wright became the first black man to earn a degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, then helped lead the rising abolitionist movement in the antebellum city.

As a minister at the First Colored Presbyterian Church on Frankfort Street, he spoke out against the evils of slavery and founded abolitionist organizations, including the New York Vigilance Committee—which aimed to prevent black residents from being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South.

“In the 1840s, the Reverend Wright may have written speeches denouncing white prejudice by the light from the gabled windows of this very house,” states the New-York Historical Society.

Wright did more than write speeches; he may have used 2 White Street as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The house wouldn’t have been far from the Lispenard Street home of abolitionist David Ruggles, an Underground Railroad stop that over two decades sheltered about 600 runaway slaves, including Frederick Douglass.

Wright died in 1847. Photos from the early 20th century show that the ground-floor retail space hosted a cigar shop, a barber shop, and at some point a liquor store.

Today it’s a J. Crew selling menswear, but the windows are still etched with the words “cordials” and “cognacs.” No trace of Tucker or Wright remain.

[Second photo: MCNY/33.173.221; third and sixth photos: NYPL]

New York City is a brick and mortar ghost town

February 5, 2018

New York is a haunted city. Everywhere you look are the phantoms and ghosts of old buildings that may have been torn down but never truly disappeared, leaving their faded outlines etched into the cityscape.

Between the time they meet the bulldozer and a replacement building goes up, these ghosts are visible—remnants of older versions of New York and the nameless people who lived and worked there.

The photo at the top, at Fifth Avenue and 46th Street, reveals the outlines of a couple of different buildings. I see a tenement-style structure with three or four floors and two slender chimneys. Then there’s another building with a slope in the front.

On Eighth Avenue in Chelsea (below), two twin Federal–style homes from the early 1800s still stand. A third smaller house is just a faded outline of a pitched roof.

On Fulton Street is the imprint of a squat low-rise and the staircase that countless New Yorkers trudged up and down over the years.

Here’s the remains of a tenement in Flatiron. How many people lived their lives in this little building with the two chimneys?

Another pitched roof, a remnant of an era when they were fashionable (or simply practical). This one is on Broadway and Grand Street.

Against the side of a classic 19th century tenement is a short blocky building, near Penn Station.

On a corner in the far West Village is the outline of a building so long and low, I wonder if it could have been a stable.

This is Lower Manhattan as it looked in 1642

January 8, 2018

“The Great Highway” is Broadway. The “Common Ditch” was a rather filthy canal that once filled in became Broad Street.

And before landfill reshaped the Lower Manhattan shoreline, the waters of the North River (the Hudson to you and me) lapped at Greenwich Street.

It’s hard to believe that today’s city sprang from this tiny settlement. The map was drawn in 1897, but it purports to show the New Amsterdam of 1642.

At the time, Manhattan was resplendent with brooks and hills and had a colonial population in the hundreds. Things were hardly rosy; the director of the profitable fur-trading colony launched a war against native Americans that almost doomed it.

While Broadway, Greenwich, and Broad Streets still exist, other locations on the map are long gone. The Fort was Fort Amsterdam; the Sheep’s Pasture was filled in. The West India Company’s Garden is the present site of Trinity Church.

The garden sat on a bank overlooking a stream and was something of a lovers’ lane, “the resort of lad and lass for sentimental walk,” according to an 1874 guide, The Old Streets of New York Under the Dutch.

“Here, they viewed together the glories of the bay, illuminated with beams of setting sun . . . and listened to music of the wave, breaking over what was then the pebbly shore.” Romance-minded New Yorkers still head downtown to enjoy gorgeous views.

Finally, look at the names attached to the land grants: Stuyvesant, Van Cortland, Gerritsen, Ten Eyck—all names you can find on a map of the city today.

[Map at top: NYPL Digital Collections. Enhanced map: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.]

Old New York’s sleigh carnival began in January

December 31, 2017

Imagine a city where every January, when winter is at its most brutal and bone-chilling, New Yorkers parked their stages and omnibuses and excitedly hitched their horses to sleighs (like these in Central Park in the 1860s).

What was dubbed the “sleighing carnival” was an annual event in the 19th century metropolis (below, on Wall Street in 1834).

Once snow was on the ground and it was packed hard into the road, large sleighs were brought out for public transportation; “light” sleighs appeared too, kind of a personal carriage for joyriding, according to the Carriage Journal.

Joyriding meant going fast and thrilling passengers, as visitors to the city noted.

One of these visitors was Boston resident Sarah Kemble Knight, who wrote in her 1704 travel diary that New Yorkers’ winter fun involved “riding sleys about three or four miles out of town” in the Bowery.

While out with friends, “I believe we mett 50 or 60 sleys that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’d turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart,” Knight wrote.

By the 19th century, the appearance of sleighs became a carnival, one of speed, fun, and thrills.

In 1830, after a heavy snow fell in early January and temperatures plunged, “the New York carnival began, and the beautiful light-looking sleighs made their appearance,” wrote James Stuart in his 1833 UK travel memoir, Three Years in North America.

New York ladies apparently loved flying through the city on runners.

“The rapidity with which they are driven, at the rate of 10 or 12 miles an hour, is very delightful, and so exciting, that the most delicate females of New York think an evening drive, of 10 or 20 miles, even in the hardest frost, conducive to their amusement and health.”

The sleighing carnival last through the end of the century. (Above left, in Prospect Park.) Snow arrived in New York mid-January 1892, recalls the Carriage Journal, “and a regular sleighing carnival was the result.”

“The popular hours were from 3 to 5 p.m., during which thousands of sleighs thronged the Park and every imaginable vehicle that could possibly be used for pleasure riding was brought out.”

“Where all came from was a matter for surprise.”

[Top image: Currier & Ives, 1860s; second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY 45.271.1; seventh image: NYPL]

Santa’s dashing appearance in an 1868 candy ad

December 18, 2017

He looks a lot like the modern-day Santa Claus: red coat, whiskers, a sled pulled by reindeer. (That pipe, of course, has been erased.)

This 1868 sugar plum advertisement featuring Santa appeared five years after Harper’s illustrator Thomas Nast famously reinvented the image of St. Nicholas from the “jolly old elf” in Clement Clark Moore’s poem to a grandfather-like guy in a red suit.

The US Confection Company, headquartered on West Broadway, wisely chose Santa to help shill their sugar plums—and Santa’s image has been used to sell products to children and adults ever since.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 has lots more about how New Yorkers invented the contemporary Christmas: the first public park tree lighting happened in Madison Square Park, electric lights were invented by a New Yorker, and the department stores of Ladies Mile claim the first holiday window displays.