Archive for the ‘Maps’ Category

2 pre-Civil War homes laying low on the East Side

August 26, 2019

In 1856, a mason named Hiram G. Disbrow decided to build himself a modest home off Second Avenue and today’s East 58th Street.

At the time, Second Avenue above 42nd Street (below illustration, from 1861) was a sparsely populated, slightly shabby area marked by detached, humble houses—similar to the two-story dwelling Disbrow was planning to construct.

Today, 163 years after it was completed, Disbrow’s house—as well as a companion house next door—are still standing.

Hemmed in by towering apartment residences and the traffic-choked approach to the 59th Street Bridge, these antebellum anachronisms serve as humble reminders of pre-Civil War Manhattan.

The houses, at 311 and 313 East 58th Street, are slightly different.

But each reflects design styles popular in the 1840s and 1850s: huge windows, French doors, pilasters, shutters, small front lawns, and a (charmingly crooked) front porch.

Think of them as examples of the “modest, semi-suburban houses which dotted the uptown side streets of mid–19th century New York,” stated the Landmarks Preservation Commission in a 1970 report.

Two hundred years earlier, in the 17th century, the land beneath these homes was basically countryside, interrupted by Eastern Post Road and the occasional tavern. One tavern-hotel nearby was the Union Flag, located where the bridge approach is today.

Later, in the 1850s, Disbrow and another man decided to make their homes here, far from the hustle and bustle of the city. (Above, a map of the area circa 1854, before the houses were built.)

Number 313 was Disbrow’s house. Now landmarked, it’s described in the LPC report as “a perfectly scaled, classically conceived small townhouse…a little gem of human proportion.”

Number 311 is also a city landmark. The LPC called it a “historically anonymous” two-story plus basement dwelling with “painted brick walls and stone trim” that’s “refreshing to behold,” via a 1999 New York Times article.

Throughout the next century and a half, the original owners departed. Industry took over the neighborhood. In the 20th century, factories were gradually replaced by wealthy enclaves like Sutton Place and postwar luxury apartment blocks.

Today, number 311 is occupied by an English antique furniture business (the business bought the house for $1.1 million in 1999).

After stints as the headquarters of the Humane Society, and then as a restaurant and celebrity nightclub called Le Club in the 1970s and 1980s, number 313 is once again a private dwelling.

[Second image: Wikipedia; third image: NYPL, undated; fourth image: NYPL map collection]

A downtown alley’s Belgian block paving stones

May 6, 2019

Franklin Place is another one of those delightfully hidden alleys you stumble upon in Lower Manhattan—a one-block thread connecting Franklin and White Streets between Church Street and Broadway.

 Somehow, a new luxury condo managed to get an address on Franklin Place.

But no other business or residence opens onto this former 19th century lane, known as Scott’s Alley until the early 1850s, according to the Tribeca Citizen.

Long lined with loft buildings used for manufacturing, Franklin Place is actually a private street, owned by the property owners whose buildings run along either side of the alley, the Citizen reported in 2017.

Franklin Place is an evocative place to stand and imagine what today’s Tribeca was like almost 200 years ago. (Above, looking toward Franklin Street today; at right, the same view shot between 1970-1990.)

One aspect of the street that makes it even more redolent of the post-colonial, antebellum city?

The Belgian block paving stones, which nearby alleys like Cortlandt Alley and Benson Street don’t have.

The blocks are appropriately worn down and broken in some places, a testament to the industry Franklin Place (below, looking toward Franklin Street) has seen.

That’s not to mention the horse hoofs, wagon wheels, and foot traffic pounding the blocks day after day after day.

New York City still has roughly 15 miles of granite block streets, according to a 2017 Historic Districts Council report.

It’s unclear why these paving stones are called Belgian block, but the city began laying them down as early as the mid-1850s.

“The surviving stone we refer to as Belgian block began to be used in the 1870s,” notes the HDC report.

“Belgian blocks were hard, durable, and offered a much smoother and more regular surface than cobblestones—’a very solid and impervious roadbed,’ according to an 1895 report in The City Record,” the report explains.

“Such qualities made them particularly suited for use along waterfronts and other areas with heavy commercial traffic.”

“By 1900, the stones used for such purposes were shaped to a relatively uniform width of between 4 and 5 inches, apparently proportioned to the size of a horseshoe.”

Still, Belgian blocks had their problems. In the rain, they became slick and slippery. And they were especially noisy, according to the HDC.

Asphalt came into use in the 1890s, and slowly, Belgian blocks disappeared from the cityscape. You can still find them downtown, though, and Franklin Place contains a treasure trove of them.

[Third photo: MCNY, 2013.3.1.285; Fifth image: NYPL, 1925]

What remains of Manhattan’s Rose Hill enclave

September 3, 2018

While walking past the NYPD’s 17th Precinct on East 51st Street recently, I noticed that the front door listed all the nearby neighborhoods the precinct house served.

There was Turtle Bay, Kips Bay, Murray Hill, and Rose Hill. Rose Hill?

The East Side of Manhattan did once have a neighborhood called Rose Hill, taken from the name of a 131-acre farm purchased by a New Yorker named James Watts in 1747.

The epicenter of Rose Hill the farm was roughly at today’s Park Avenue and 29th Street.

Watts didn’t stay at Rose Hill very long. He was a Loyalist, and he left New York in the late 18th century, never to return.

A merchant named Nicholas Cruger was apparently the next occupant, and then it was the home of Revolutionary War general Horatio Gates (left).

But while the areas around the former Murray estate and Beekman mansion retained the names of the families who owned them, Rose Hill all but disappeared, swallowed up by the neighborhood in the east 20s and 30s rebranded as NoMad today.

Back when Manhattan north of 14th Street was the outskirts of the city, however, Rose Hill appeared to be a small but lively enclave.

The neighborhood’s boundaries generally stretched from 23rd to 32nd Streets and Third Avenue to Madison Avenue, per the AIA Guide to New York City.

In the early 19th century, Rose Hill was home to a “female seminary,” a five-acre botanic garden, and a boarding house-hotel for the wealthy.

A newspaper ad described the former farm as “peculiarly airy, pleasant, and healthful.”

By the mid-1800s, Rose Hill had been cut into parcels, subsumed into the city street grid.

A savings bank at Third Avenue and 21st Street, a hall for meetings, a hotel, and a couples of churches all popped up.

By the turn of the 20th century, however, the name seems to have been on the wane.

Today, few New Yorkers would know where it was—or they would confuse it with Rose Hill in the Bronx, home of Fordham University’s main campus.

But remnants of Manhattan’s Rose Hill still exist.

The Rose Hill Baptist Church remains on Lexington Avenue (above right), though now it’s the First Moravian Church (at right).

The Rose Hill Methodist Episcopal Church is also extant (above left). These days, it’s St. Illuminator’s Armenian Apostolic Cathedral, located on 27th Street between Second and Third Avenues.

An iron gate in front of a pretty brownstone on East 31st Street keeps the Rose Hill name alive.

So does this plaque at the Roman Catholic Church of the Epiphany on Second Avenue and 22nd Street, which commemorates General Kosciuszko’s visit to Rose Hill to see his former commander, General Gates, in 1797.

Interestingly, “Rose Hill” is carved into the facade of a tenement on 14th Street near Second Avenue (top image). It’s a little south of the real Rose Hill, but perhaps the name inspired the tenement builder.

[Second image: The Evening Post, 1830; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: MCNY, 1820, 29.100.3176; fifth image, MCNY, 1915,X2010.11.5361; sixth image, MCNY, 1975, 2013.3.1.653]

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]

A ship captain built this 1830 Allen Street house

April 9, 2018

In the early 19th century, the city of New York was booming and expanding.

Eyeing undeveloped land on the east side of the Bowery, city officials issued a proclamation in 1803 that ordered “all the streets on the ground commonly known by the name of ‘De Lancey’s ground’ be opened as soon as possible.”

‘De Lancey’s ground’ was a 300-acre estate on today’s Lower East Side (and the namesake of Delancey Street, of course.)

The land was once owned by James De Lancey, a prominent New Yorker of French Huguenot descent who sided with the British during the Revolutionary War and subsequently had his land seized by the city.

Within a few decades of the city order, roads, building lots, and then houses went up on the former De Lancey estate. By the 1820s, the area was filling up with tidy 2- and 3-story homes.

One of these homes was the Federal-style house at 143 Allen Street, built in 1830 and a rare survivor of this early 1800s building boom.

Number 143 and five others just like it were developed by George Sutton, a ship captain who sailed between New York and Charleston along what was called the “Cotton Triangle.”

Like so many other New Yorkers, Sutton made his money off Southern cotton.

His ships would bring cotton picked by slaves on plantations to Manhattan, where it would be transferred to ships heading to England, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

“The six houses at Allen and Rivington Streets were maintained as investment properties, although Sutton seems to have preferred renting the buildings to friends and business associates—many of whom also participated in the Cotton Triangle trade,” states the LPC report.

Perhaps realizing that middle and upper class New Yorkers were now moving into fashionable neighborhoods north of Houston Street, Sutton sold the Allen Street houses by 1838.

As early as the 1840s, Number 143 was chopped into a multi-family dwelling. Over the decades the occupants reflected waves of immigration, from a Prussian family of eight in the 19th century to 15 tenants, mostly salesmen, in the early 20th century.

Number 143’s stoop was removed at some point in the 1900s—but so were the elevated train tracks that since 1879 had cast Allen Street in darkness (in the above left photo, you can just see the house’s dormers peeking out above the tracks).

A group of artists bought 143 and its surviving sister house, 141, in 1980 (the above photo shows the two homes in 1985.) Number 141 was eventually sold and demolished.

But 143 Allen Street is still with us and mostly intact—built with money made off Southern cotton and today surrounded by luxury dwellings in the new-money Lower East Side.

[Second image: Wikipedia; Third image: NYPL; Fifth Image: Landmarks Preservation Committee Report]

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]

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.]

A Revolutionary War hanging near the Bowery

November 20, 2017

The man sentenced to die in a field beside the Bowery was Thomas Hickey.

Hickey was an 18-year-old private, described as a “dark-complexioned” Irish deserter of the British army who then signed up to serve on the American side as the Revolutionary War was heating up.

In spring 1776 he was part of the personal “life guard” George Washington put together before the British were expected to occupy New York City.

The 50 or so men in the life guard protected Washington and his headquarters. Decked out in stylish coats (below left) and hats with a blue and white feather, they were “made up of the most physically fit and best performing soldiers,” states Henry M. Ward in George Washington’s Enforcers.

But in June, Washington got word that Hickey and another life guard member were part of a much wider treasonous plot.

Hickey “was implicated in a scheme to sabotage the Continental Army that was reportedly coordinated by royal governor William Tryon,” states Cruel & Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment, by John D. Bessler.

After an investigation, 20 or so more men were accused of being in on the sabotage scheme—including the city’s Loyalist mayor, David Matthews. The scheme may have included a plan to kidnap or kill Washington.

Hickey wasn’t the only member of the life guard to be accused—but he was the one who was made an example of.

“At the subsequent court-martial proceeding, [other accused men] gave sworn testimony that Hickey had joined the conspiracy, accepted small sums of money from a gunsmith named Gilbert Forbes, and tried to recruit additional participants,” states a 2002 article on Hickey in the Irish Echo.

“Even if true, the testimony makes it clear that Hickey was probably on the lowest end of the conspiracy’s hierarchy and that many others were at least as susceptible to the charge of mutiny and sedition.”

In any event, a jury found Hickey guilty of mutiny, sedition, and “holding a treacherous correspondence with the enemy.” He was sentenced to die the next day.

“Handbills went up all around the city announcing June 28 as the date of Hickey’s execution,” states the Irish Echo. “On that day, Hickey was led to a field near the Bowery where a hastily constructed gallows stood.”

“At 11 a.m., before a cheering crowd of some 20,000, he was hanged.”

Sources place the site of the hanging at today’s Bowery and Bayard Street as well as Bowery and Grand, both well out of the city and in the Manhattan countryside, as the above illustrations show.

It was the first execution by the Continental Army; Washington signed the death warrant. He also insisted that every soldier not on duty attend the execution as a warning “to avoid those crimes and all other so disgraceful” to a soldier.

[Second image: Ratzen map, NYC 1767; Last image: Washington on his triumphant return to Manhattan in 1783, Evacuation Day]

The gritty history of an 18th century Village lane

October 2, 2017

Prison inmates, slaughterhouse workers, runaway pigs, and unlucky sailors are some of the New Yorkers who tread the paving stones of Charles Lane—a Greenwich Village alley between Perry and Charles Streets that has a colorful history.

The prisoners walked here first. The lane was laid out in 1797, states the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. It formed the northern border of Newgate State Prison (below), built at the foot of the Hudson River that same year.

Newgate was supposed to be a new kind of prison a mile or so from the city downtown; it gave rise to the saying “sent up the river.” The novel idea was to provide moral instruction rather than just harsh corporal punishment.

But it quickly became overcrowded, and inmates frequently rioted.

Prisoners sentenced to death likely had to walk past Charles Lane to get to Washington Square Park, where execution awaited, according to Mike Wallace, coauthor of Gotham, per a New York Times article.

After Newgate was shuttered in 1828, the lane became “Pig Alley,” thanks to “the slaughterhouse which formerly graced the middle of it,” explains a 1913 Evening World article.

“There were always stray pigs about the place then, without sense enough to leave the spot where they were to meet their certain dooms.”

Men who worked the ships met terrible fates here too. “It was a wicked place of nights,” the Evening World continued, rather illustriously.

“Many a poor sailor or longshoremen has been carried out from under its yellow lanterns never to wake again except among the company of harped and winged saints who came by way of the Potter’s Field. . . . “

By 1893, Charles Lane got its current name and was officially mapped, states GVSHP.

When photographer Berenice Abbott shot Charles Lane in 1938 (left), the view looking north toward Washington Street shows us an unkempt alley filled with debris—but oh, those beautiful old blocky stones!

Today the alley is cleaned up, and the West Street end buts up against luxury glass co-ops. I don’t know if those co-op owners ever walk through Charles Lane, but I hope they do. I hope they tread lightly and feel its ghosts.

[All Photos © Ephemeral New York except photo 2, from the NYPL, image 3, from the NYPL, and image 5, from MOMA]

A short history of short Elk Street near City Hall

September 4, 2017

As one of New York City’s oldest sections, Downtown is a minefield of cut-off and leftover streets, of demapped alleys and oddly placed thoroughfares that have no place in the modern city street grid.

Case in point is Elk Street. It’s about as short as its name, stretching just two blocks from Chambers Street to Duane Street, anchored on the southern end by the 1907 Surrogate’s Court building.

Yards later it ends east of the African Burial Ground, where free and enslaved black New Yorkers were buried from the 1690s to 1794.

Since there’s no record of elk roaming around what would have been the outskirts of the colonial city, how did this little spit of land get its name?

Elk is actually the last remaining stretch of Elm Street, which once ran from Chambers Street all the way to Spring Street.

When the city decided to enlarge Lafayette Street and make it a bigger north-south thoroughfare in the early 1900s, they incorporated the existing roadway of Elm Street and another now-defunct street, Marion Street.

So why Elk, not Elm? The current name is a nod to the first Elks Lodge, which was organized in 1866 at a rooming house at 188 Elm Street farther north. (At right, Elm between Grand and Broome Streets, 1900)

The first Elks Lodge was a group of “15 actors, members of an informal drinking association called the ‘Jolly Corks'” and “formed to circumvent the state’s Sunday dry laws,” explains a New York Times FYI article from 1998. “It was the golden age of American fraternal orders, and the Elks’ declared purpose was the practice of charity, justice, brotherly love and fidelity.”

The Elks went national, and in 1939, Mayor La Guardia, himself an Elk, decided to rename Elm in honor of the lodge to which he belonged.

[Fourth and fifth images: NYPL]