Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

A presentation about a notorious Gilded Age scandal—free for Ephemeral New York readers!

February 7, 2023

During New York City’s Gilded Age, wealth, power, and scandal tended to go hand-in-hand. But few contemporary New Yorkers could imagine the sensational 1890s drama surrounding the private life of lawyer and politician Robert Ray Hamilton, great-grandson of founding father Alexander Hamilton.

Robert Ray Hamilton, a scion of wealth and privilege, found himself mired in a tumultuous relationship with a beautiful and mysterious female con artist he met in a brothel. Add an abandoned baby, sham marriage, tawdry courtroom testimony, and a voracious press, and you have one of the most lurid, tabloid-ready scandals of the Gilded Age.

Author and New Yorker Bill Shaffer tells the story in his gripping and well-researched new book, The Scandalous Hamiltons: A Gilded Age Grifter, a Founding Fathers Disgraced Descendant, and a Trial at the Dawn of Tabloid Journalism. Shaffer will be giving a Zoom presentation on the drama and its impact on the late 19th century city for Landmark West! on Tuesday, February 7 from 6-7 p.m.

The Zoom presentation is free for Ephemeral New York readers. Sign up here and use the promo code ENY, and your ticket is on the house thanks to the kind folks at Landmark West!

[Photo: Landmark West!]

Williamsburg used to be Williamsburgh—when did it lose the h and why?

January 9, 2023

The Williamsburg section of Brooklyn has taken some strange and convoluted turns during its journey from farm village to urban neighborhood.

In the 17th century it was part of the Dutch town of Boswijck, which became the anglicized Bushwick when the British captured New Amsterdam in 1664.

But it wasn’t until 1802 when real-estate developer Richard M. Woodhull purchased 13 acres in Bushwick near the East River, intending to develop what had been farmland into an urban enclave. Woodhull hired an engineer, Jonathan Williams, to survey the land—then named the new development after Williams.

He called it Williamsburgh, with an h.

Williamsburgh grew rapidly. It became its own village in the town of Bushwick in 1827 and an affluent suburb of New York, according to Victor Lederer’s book Williamsburg. Riverfront industry such as shipbuilding and sugar refining attracted even more residents, and Williamsburgh incorporated itself into a town in 1840.

In 1852, the booming town—now home to 35,000 people—declared itself a separate city in Kings County. In the process, city officials dropped the h and called it the city of Williamsburg.

Williamsburg’s time as a city didn’t last long. By 1855, Williamsburg was annexed by the city of Brooklyn. And in 1898, the city of Brooklyn bit the dust, becoming the borough of Brooklyn of Greater New York City.

So it’s been 171 years since Williamsburgh became Williamsburg. What I’d like to know is why government officials decided to do away with the h in the first place.

Newspaper archives and other records aren’t giving me an answer. But my guess involves the ethnic background of Williamsburg’s newest residents in the mid-1850s. During the first half of the 19th century, thousands of Irish and German immigrants came to New York City, and a sizable number ended up in Williamsburg, laboring in the refineries and shipyards.

Perhaps “Williamsburgh” sounded a little too English. By ditching the h, Williamsburg may have been more appealing to new arrivals from nations that didn’t always have good relations with Britain.

George Washington opens his Cherry Street presidential mansion to New Year’s callers

December 26, 2022

When George Washington became the first president of the United States in 1789, he relocated to a rented four-story mansion at Cherry and Pearl Streets. There, he established his executive office and family living quarters.

New York City was the new nation’s official capital at the time, and Washington was adjusting to the city’s culture and rituals—worshipping at St. Paul’s Chapel, for example, and regularly taking the air along the Battery.

One Gotham tradition he also took part in was inviting New Year’s Day callers to his presidential mansion (below). Established by the colonial Dutch burghers of New Amsterdam more than a century earlier, the annual ritual of “calling” turned the city into one big open house, where residents hosted a succession of neighbors and friends all day with hospitality and good cheer.

It was the biggest holiday of the year. New Yorkers would spend days readying their parlors for guests, donning their finest outfits, and setting up a big table of alcohol-infused punch, cakes, and confectionaries. Callers would stop by, offer good wishes for the coming year, and then move on to the next house to repeat the ritual with full bellies and in lively spirits.

Though he was the commander-in-chief of the United States, Washington was also a New Yorker—for the time being, at least. (He departed to Philadelphia later that year after the city of brotherly love took a turn as America’s capital.)

So on January 1, 1790, he “was determined to add the power of his name as an example of the observance of this time-honored custom,” according to The Old Merchants of New York City, published in 1885.

“It was a mild, moonlit night of the first of January, 1790, when George Washington and ‘Lady’ Washington stood together in their New York house to receive the visitors who made the first New Year’s calls with which a President of the United States was honored,” recounted the Saturday Evening Post in 1899.

Who were the callers, specifically? Washington described them in his own diary as “The Vice-President, the Governor, the Senators, Members of the House of Representatives in town, foreign public characters, and all the respectable citizens.”

These callers “came between the hours of 12 and 3 o’clock, to pay the compliments of the season to me—and in the afternoon a great number of gentlemen and ladies visited Mrs. Washington on the same occasion.”

“Tea and coffee, and plum and plain cake were served by the mistress of the mansion, while her stately husband, whose fine figure was set off in the costume of the drawing room to even better advantage than in his military garb, greeted his visitors with friendly formality,” continued the Post.

By nine p.m., the Washingtons were ready to retire for the night. According to the Post, he asked his guests “if the custom of New Year visiting in New York had always been kept up there, and he was assured that it had been, from the early days of the Dutch. He paused, and then said pleasantly, but gravely:

“‘The highly favored situation of New York will, in the progress of years, attract numerous immigrants, who will gradually change its customs and manners; but whatever changes take place, never forget the cordial and cheerful observance of the New Year’s Day,'” stated the Post article.

Washington’s words that night were certainly prophetic. Though the tradition of New Year’s calling continued into the 19th century, it gradually began to die out, coming to an end during the Gilded Age. In 1888, the New York Times, lamented “the almost complete death of the ancient custom of call-making” every January 1.

[Top image: “Lady Washington’s Reception Day,” painted by Daniel Huntington, 1861, Wikipedia; second image: Washington’s Cherry Street mansion, Wikipedia; third image: Washington’s 1789 inauguration at Federal Hall on Wall Street; fourth image: plaque put up to mark the former site of Washington’s Cherry Street mansion, LOC; fifth image: Washington in 1790, painted by John Trumbull, Wikipedia]

The visiting British royal who dazzled 19th century New York City

September 12, 2022

During Queen Elizabeth II’s astounding 70-year reign over the United Kingdom, she made official visits to New York City only three times: a day-long trip involving a ticker-tape parade in 1957, a longer stay for the Bicentennial in 1976, and then a five-hour drop-in to the United Nations and Ground Zero in 2010, per a New York Times article published last week.

Excited New Yorkers waiting for the Prince’s procession to make it Broadway

Elizabeth’s visits to Gotham were certainly eventful. But they were nothing like the sojourn to New York City made by one member of the British royal family in 1860. On the cusp of the election of President Lincoln and the start of the Civil War, this 19-year-old prince was welcomed to Manhattan with a spectacular procession up Broadway, escorted to leading Manhattan landmarks, and feted at a ball so raucous, the floor of the venue actually broke.

The royal was the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, the first son of Queen Victoria and the future King of England (above, in the 1860s). His trip across the Atlantic in the summer of 1860 was at first to be limited to Canada. “Queen Victoria’s original intention was to dispatch her son simply to visit England’s western possessions in Canada and inaugurate the opening of the Victoria Bridge in Montreal,” states an article by Claire A. Faulkner on

But President Buchanan then invited the Prince to Washington, and other American cities were added to his itinerary, such as Richmond, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.

The Prince’s journey abroad wasn’t unlike the dispatches young royals take today. “As a young man…the Prince of Wales could have been likened to most other teenagers—independent, rebellious, and strong willed,” wrote Faulkner. “It was hoped that the trip to North America would mark the beginning of his formal indoctrination into the responsibilities and duties of a member of the British royal family.”

In Canada and then America, “Bertie” was treated with respect, if not celebrity. But few cities rolled out the red carpet like New York—the nation’s undisputed capital of commerce and culture, with eager daily newspapers ginning up excitement. “The most splendid and glamorous of the American events in his honor, however, took place in New York, where the crowds were also the most admiring and enthusiastic,” wrote Faulkner.

The Prince of Wales and his entourage, photographed by Mathew Brady

After the Prince landed at the Battery with his entourage on October 11, fresh from Philadelphia, he entered his carriage and became the center of a grand procession going up Broadway. An estimated 200,000 New Yorkers lined the thoroughfare to watch the slow procession, which didn’t make it past City Hall and to Canal Street until sundown, according to a New York Times piece published the next day.

Bands played “God Save the Queen” and other British songs; Mayor Fernando Wood accompanied the Prince, who “raised his hat and rose repeatedly in acknowledgement of this warm reception,” observed the Times. American and British flags were on display all along the route.

The procession continued past Grace Church, Union Square, and then to the new luxurious Fifth Avenue Hotel, where the Prince would be staying—with an army of policemen stationed in and outside the hotel for security. Of course, not everyone was thrilled by the royal visit, particularly the city’s Irish residents. People of Irish descent amounted to about a quarter of the total population and viewed the government the Prince represented as the oppressor of their home country, stated Ian Walter Radforth in his book, Royal Spectacle.

Fifth Avenue Hotel, 23rd Street in 1860

The Prince had a jam-packed schedule for the next few days, breathlessly covered by the press. He and his entourage toured noteworthy landmarks like New York University, the Astor Library, and Cooper Union; he visited Central Park and planted an English oak. On the last day of his visit, thousands of firemen from Manhattan and Brooklyn marched past the Fifth Avenue Hotel in a magnificent torch-lit parade, stated House Divided, from Dickinson College

Perhaps the pinnacle of the Prince’s trip was the ball held in his honor. What was originally supposed to be a simple dinner quickly evolved into a breathtaking event at the Academy of Music on 14th Street. Four hundred elite New Yorkers paid $100 each to host and attend the ball; up to 2,000 guests showed.

Guests dressed in “black coats, shimmering silks, and elegant velvets” began arriving around 7:30 p.m., but the Prince and his entourage, plus members of city government like Mayor Wood, didn’t arrive until after 10, according to a Leslie‘s Weekly article in 1901. Distinguished invitees included Hamilton Fish and George Templeton Strong, the lawyer and diarist who characteristically poked fun at the whole spectacle, according to Radforth.

The rush of excitement and thunderous applause broke the floor. “A few people fell through, but no one was seriously injured,” stated the Leslie’s article. The Prince was ushered into the supper room—under the command of the chefs and managers from Delmonico’s—for his own safety. Newspapers gleefully published all the details the next morning: the beautiful flowers, the Union Jack flags, and the ladies the Prince danced with.

Admit one to the Prince’s Ball

On Monday, October 14, the Prince bid farewell to New York City, heading up to West Point before a visit to Albany and then Boston, and then the trip back home across the Atlantic. Newspaper writers expounded on the royal visit; Bertie resumed life in England and took the throne upon the death of his mother in 1901.

What did the Prince of Wales think of his trip to New York? I haven’t found anything relaying his thoughts. But based on the recollections in newspapers and other first-hand accounts, a starry-eyed Gotham pulled out all the stops to impress this future king.

[First, second, and third images: LOC; fourth image: Getty Museum; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: LOC; seventh image: MCNY, X2014.12.158]

A live connection to James Madison stands tall in Madison Square Park

July 18, 2022

For a founding father from Virginia, there’s a lot of James Madison in New York City. Madison Square was named for him in 1814, when the Square was a former potter’s field turned military parade ground and Madison was serving his second term as U.S. president.

Madison Street, on the Lower East Side, got its name in 1826, and Madison Avenue opened in 1836, the year this writer, legislator, and statesman died.

Madison Square evolved into Madison Square Park, and this patch of green separating the Flatiron District from Murray Hill no longer seems to acknowledge Madison the man.

But obscured among the greenery on the east side of the park is a mighty red oak tree with a direct connection to the nation’s fourth commander-in-chief.

The red oak came to the park from Madison’s estate in Virginia, Montpelier. In 1936, the tree was transplanted as a sapling by a group of businessmen to commemorate the centennial of the opening of Madison Avenue to the east of the park.

The small, almost hidden plaque in front of the towering tree says it all, adding that it was brought and planted here by the Fifth Avenue Association, an organization that still exists.

Madison Square Park has more 300 trees of a variety of species, according to the Madison Square Park Conservancy—from red maples to ginkgos to magnolias. All are lovely and bring beauty to this popular space. But only one, still young at about 90 years old, stands as a direct connection to the man the park is named for.

[Third image:]

City Hall festooned with flags and finery to celebrate ‘Tunnel Day’

May 2, 2022

New York used to really celebrate itself. On the opening day of the Brooklyn Bridge in May 1883, fireworks blazed the skies, and a flotilla of ships sailed triumphantly on the East River. When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in October 1886, the first ticker-tape parade was held amid a day of festivities.

And in 1900, city officials were apparently so excited by the idea of the new subway, they couldn’t wait until the system was up and running to throw a party.

So a celebration open to the public dubbed “tunnel day” was scheduled to mark the start of the digging of the first tunnel and the beginning of underground rapid transit.

Tunnel Day happened on March 24, 1900, and City Hall was decked out with flags, banners, and bunting. Makes sense: City Hall was the focal point for city politicians and other bigwigs, but it was also the site of the groundbreaking of the first station—the “crown jewel” City Hall IRT station.

City Hall Park was also decorated to the hilt. “They are the finest seen in years,” wrote the Evening World the day before Tunnel Day. “The park has become an aerial maze of bright colors. Flags flutter from the treetops and branches.”

Thousands of people watched from the sidewalks of Broadway and Park Row rooftops, 1,000 policemen kept crowds under control, bands played, and officials gave speeches. Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck turned “the first spadeful of earth” with a silver spade, the World noted on March 25. (Crowds tried to grab some of that dirt as souvenirs, alarming the police.)

Tunnel Day was a grand display of pride and progress at a time when the city was on the upswing—in population, land mass, and financial and cultural power. Four years later in October 1904, an even more massive celebration commemorated the opening of the first leg of the New York City subway.

City Hall was covered in flags and bunting once again…but the tradition seems to have died out. I can’t recall a recent event that brought out so many flags and banners.

[Top image: MCNY, X2010.11.584; second image: Evening World; third image: NYPL]

The Murray Hill double house with a link to President Lincoln

February 21, 2022

During his life, Abraham Lincoln made just a handful of visits to New York City. Little is known about his first two trips to Gotham in 1848 and 1857, according to Lewis E. Lehrman, writing in Mr. Lincoln and New York, but they were likely just pitstops as he made his way north.

It was his third time in Manhattan, a three-day trip in late February 1860, that gave the Kentucky-born lawyer more exposure to the city. On this visit, Lincoln delivered his electrifying Cooper Union speech on slavery, which propelled him to national prominence and helped him win the presidential election later that year.

Speaking at Cooper Union wasn’t the only activity on Lincoln’s agenda. He stayed at the luxurious Astor House hotel on Vesey Street, had his photo taken at Mathew Brady’s Broadway studio, attended services at Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, and made an appearance at the Five Points House of Industry, addressing the city’s poorest children in this notorious slum.

Considering that Lincoln’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet in 1865, he clearly could never have set foot inside 122-124 East 38th Street, a Georgian-style double house completed in 1904. But the slain president does have a direct link to the house: It was the home of at least one (and possibly two) of the granddaughters he never knew.

The granddaughters, Mary (known as Mamie) and Jessie, were the daughters of Lincoln’s only surviving child, Robert Todd Lincoln—who bought number 122 for his two daughters, states Exploring Manhattan’s Murray Hill, by Alfred and Joyce Pommer.

Mary “Mamie” Isham and her son, Lincoln

However, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) makes no mention of Jessie living there. According to their report on the Murray Hill Historic District, Mamie bought number 122 in 1906 with her husband, Charles Isham. For many years, Mamie, Charles, and their son, Lincoln, resided in the elegant house in the fashionable Murray Hill neighborhood.

It was Isham who commissioned the attic story, “which contained servants quarters,” per the LPC report.

Lincoln for President poster, 1860

The house apparently held various “relics,” as the New York Sun put it in a 1920 article, that related to the Lincoln presidency. “Both Mr. and Mrs. Isham are deeply interested in the Lincoln traditions and have many interesting and valuable relics of the life of the Emancipator,” stated the article, which focused on Lincoln’s surviving family members.

After Charles Isham’s death in 1919, Mamie remained in the house until 1935, when she moved to Washington D.C., per the LPC report. Mary Lincoln Isham died three years later.

The lovely house on one of Murray Hill’s most beautiful blocks is another Lincoln link in a city with streets, schools, statues, a square, playground, and tunnel all honoring the martyred president.

[Third photo: Lincoln Collection; fourth image: National Park Service]

All the terra cotta beauty of an early uptown apartment building

January 31, 2022

Sometimes you come across a building so rich with decoration, it knocks you out. That was my reaction when I found myself at 45 Tiemann Place, near the corner of Broadway and just below 125th Street.

The building appears to be just another early 1900s apartment residence in the slightly askew neighborhood of Manhattanville—where the grid plan doesn’t necessarily hold and streets tend to have names based on early people and places in the area, not just numbers.

But see the doorway and first floor level: both are decorated with rich, blue-green terra cotta leaves interspersed with lion heads. On the second floor, geometric shapes between and above the windows give the building almost an Aztec or Mayan feel.

The ornamentation doesn’t end with the facade. Inside the front doorway are what look like terra cotta panels of great sailing ships and seagulls flying between them.

What’s with all the artistic trimmings? It might simply come from the imagination of the architect. The building was designed by Emery Roth, the man behind so many distinguished New York apartment buildings of the 1920s and 1930s, such as the Beresford and the San Remo on Central Park West and 2 Sutton Place.

Roth designed the building early in his career in 1909. When it opened that year, the six-story dwelling was called the Whitestone, and the address was 609 West 127th Street, per a newspaper advertisement reprinted in Eric K. Washington’s book, Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem.

The ad described the Whitestone as “one of the richest ornaments to a neighborhood full of fine, high-class apartment houses.”

I wonder if the Whitestone’s colorful entryway with the ship images was inspired by the terra cotta plaques installed in many of the new subway stations of the decade.

Sailing ships were (and still are) a popular motif: the Columbus Circle stop features plaques of the Santa Maria; the Fulton Street Station downtown depicts Robert Fulton’s steamboat, the Clermont. The South Ferry station also has sailing ship plaques.

The plaques in the entryway likely made sense in 1909 (above, when the building opened). That’s the year the entire city turned out for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, honoring the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon navigating the river that bears his name, as well as the 100th anniversary of Fulton’s steamboat.

There’s another feature at the entrance that deserves a closer look: the two lantern-like lights flanking the front door. Why are they significant? It has to do with Daniel Tiemann (below), the Manhattanville industrialist this two-block street is named for.

Tiemann served as New York’s mayor from 1858 to 1860. Since Dutch colonial days, tradition had it that twin lanterns would be installed outside the front door of the mayor’s home.

“The custom dates back to the early days of the Dutch Burgomasters,” according to the New York Times in 1917. “It is supposed to have originated with the lantern bearers who were accustomed to escort the Burgomaster home with proper dignity from the historic city tavern or other places of genial entertainment.”

Roth may have installed the lamps as a tribute to Tiemann and to a tradition kept up in the early 20th century—until Gracie Mansion became the official mayor’s residence in the 1940s.

[Fifth photo: MCNY, X2010.28.211; sixth photo: NYPL]

This was General Grant’s more modest first tomb in Riverside Park

September 27, 2021

When Ulysses S. Grant succumbed to throat cancer on July 23, 1885, the entire country, and New York City in particular, mourned a man considered to be a national hero.

Though he passed away at an upstate resort near Saratoga, the former US President and Civil War General had made Manhattan his home since 1881. He resided in a handsome brownstone with his wife, Julia, at 3 East 66th Street.

In the months before his death, as Grant finished his memoirs and battled a painful cancer, the press had something of a death watch going—writing front page articles about the doctors who came in and out of the brownstone, how well Grant had slept the night before, and what medications he was taking.

Crowds formed outside his brownstone all the way to Central Park, as this Harper’s illustration shows. “Expressions of sympathy were heard on every hand, and every one thought it marvellous [sic] that the General was able to continue the struggle for so long,” reported the New-York Tribune in April 1885.

Those same crowds were likely among the estimated 1.5 million people who lined city streets from City Hall through the Upper West Side to witness Grant’s funeral procession (above, at Bryant Park).

Before his death, Grant decided New York City would be his final resting place. “Mayor William R. Grace (who would later serve as president of the Grant Monument Association) offered to set aside land in one of New York City’s parks for burial, and the Grant family chose Riverside Park after declining the possibility of Central Park,” states

Riverside Park was a wise choice. The park, with its natural rock outcroppings and sloping hillside, had recently been developed, and the winding drive alongside it, then called Riverside Avenue, was to be a peaceful carriage road leading to the 18th century inn known as Claremont at 124th Street and beyond.

The problem was, the magnificent Grant’s Tomb we recognize today at Riverside Drive and 122nd Street—with its Doric columns and a circular cupola that can be seen from miles away—was not yet in the planning stages.

So a first tomb for Grant was built in Riverside Park a few blocks north (top two images). Much less grand, the original Grant’s tomb ended up housing his remains for 12 years.

The temporary vault was designed by Jacob Wrey Mould, chief architect of New York City’s Department of Public Works. “With outside dimensions of 17’ x 24’, it consisted primarily of red bricks with black brick trim and a semi-cylindrical asphalt-coated brick roof,” wrote

The site chosen for the vault was described in The New York Times on July 29 as “a spot of rare natural beauty away from the noise and turmoil of the great and busy city.”

While Grant’s coffin rested there, the city worked on the design and financing of the spectacular permanent tomb, which opened with great pomp and fanfare on April 27, 1897—a city holiday named Grant Day.

Grant’s remains were quietly transferred inside. Meanwhile, the first tomb was being dismantled, and the bricks became souvenirs.

“In 1897, when Grant’s coffin was transferred to the permanent tomb, the bricks from the dismantled structure became a hot item,” wrote Michael Pollack in a 2006 New York Times FYI column. “As many as 1,000 were acquired by the mayor’s office and distributed to former generals, dignitaries and others.”

And about the old joke about who is buried in Grant’s tomb, the answer is…nobody. Grant’s remains, as well as his wife’s, are entombed (but not buried) in the sarcophagi, viewable from the main entrance.

Riverside Drive is one of New York’s most historic (and beautiful!) streets. Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour of the Drive from 83rd to 107th Streets on October 24 that takes a look at the mansions and monuments of this legendary thoroughfare.

[Top photo: Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library; second image: NYPL; third image: MCNY,; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NYPL]

The 200-year history of a Bleecker Street house

August 16, 2021

Every house in New York City has a story. And the story of the Federal-style, Flemish bond brick residence at 58 Bleecker Street begins in the early 19th century with a Roosevelt.

58 Bleecker Street in 2021

Jacobus “James” Roosevelt III—Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s great-grandfather—had the house at Bleecker and Crosby Streets built for himself and his family in 1823. It was once part of a row; a two-story carriage house was constructed a few years later that still survives next door on Crosby Street.

James Roosevelt was a patrician citizen of the growing metropolis. Born in 1760, he was the fifth generation of Roosevelts in New York City since his ancestor, Claes Maartenszen van Rosenvelt, immigrated from Holland to New Amsterdam in the 17th century, according to Shannon Butler’s Roosevelt Homes of the Hudson Valley.

Roosevelt followed his father into the sugar refining and banking businesses, and he also had a farm in Harlem, wrote Butler. He dabbled a bit in politics, serving in the New York State Assembly and as an alderman on the City Council. But business and a little philanthropy were his main occupations.

When the neighborhood near his South Street primary residence became undesirable, Roosevelt relocated to newly fashionable Bleecker Street—where other prominent New Yorkers were building houses as well.

During his two decades or so living in the house, Roosevelt watched his neighborhood become one of the most elite in the 1830s and 1840s city. Still, his life was marked by tragedy. Roosevelt’s first two wives died, and he received visitors at the house in 1827 after his 19-year-old son Walker lost his life, according the Evening Post.

Jacobus “James” Roosevelt, the elite New Yorker who built the house

Roosevelt died in 1847. His widow, Harriet Howland Roosevelt, stayed in the home for several years. By 1856, however, she likely passed away or moved on; an ad in the New York Times noted that an estate sale was being held in the house and all furniture was to be sold, including the “elegant rosewood parlor furniture, covered with damask,” “mahogany bedroom furniture,” and a large carriage.

In 1857, the house entered a wildly different phase. Elizabeth Blackwell—the first female physician not just in New York City but the entire country—rented the house and opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children there on May 12.

Blackwell, along with her doctor sister, outfitted Roosevelt’s old home with a maternity center and surgical suite. The doors opened the doors to the increasing number of poor families in the once-posh neighborhood. The infirmary, which treated women at no cost, also trained female doctors.

“Forty-six indoor patients, each remaining on an average of three weeks in the house, have been treated, comprising 30 cases of general disease, 13 midwifery cases, and 3 surgical operations,” wrote the New York Times in December 1857, summing up the first six months of the infirmary.

The Roosevelt house, 1939-1941

By the 1860s, however, Roosevelt’s house was serving an entirely different function. It was home to a dressmaker, who placed an ad in the New York Daily Herald in 1863 to inform “the ladies of New York and environs that she will have her grand opening day” on March 26 and “she respectfully invites them to give her a visit.”

Through much of the 19th century, this eastern end of Bleecker Street held steady as a retail area. A furniture store occupied the ground floor in the 1870s, and a feather shop took the space in 1891, according to the LPC report.

The main house in 1975, with the carriage house behind it

Manufacturing arrived in the 20th century; the upper floors were converted to manufacturing lofts. The ground floor became a restaurant. “The house continued in that usage into the mid-20th century,” the LPC report states.

By the 1990s, things changed once again for Roosevelt’s former residence. Bleecker Street between the East Village and the soon to be named Nolita was once again a destination neighborhood. By the mid-1990s, Bleecker Street Bar held court on the ground floor. Today, the bar is gone.

58 Bleecker Street in 2011

Alterations over the last 200 years include changes to the roofline. The Dutch-style stepped gables still extant in 2011 (see above) are gone, and today it’s perfectly pitched with both chimneys rising high. Perhaps this third floor facade was rebuilt, and the coat of red paint removed.

Scaffolding currently outside the Bleecker Street side tells us that Roosevelt’s house is getting ready for its next incarnation in an ever-changing New York City.

[Third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: New York Times 1856; fifth image: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; sixth image: MCNY/Edmund Vincent Gillon 2013.3.1.68; seventh image: Wikipedia]