Archive for the ‘War memorials’ Category

A Bank Street building once held prisoners of war

September 5, 2016

BankstreetsignToday it’s a stylish clothing boutique. In the 1990s it housed a Thai restaurant. In the early 20th century, it was a hotel called Laux’s.

But whatever business occupies 417 Bleecker Street at the corner of Bank Street, it can’t beat the remarkable role the building played during the early 19th century—when it was called “The Barracks” and held more than 100 British POWs captured during the War of 1812.

You could say that New York lucked out during that military conflict, which lasted until 1815.


The city prepared for combat by putting up fortifications like Castle Clinton at the Battery and blockhouses in what became Central Park. Luckily, the British never attacked.

BankstreetbarracksvillagerYet this war also played out far overseas. “On the afternoon of Feb. 24, 1813, at the height of the War of 1812, the U.S.S. Hornet, an 18-gun warship, set its sights on a British sloop anchored on the Demerara River in Guyana, South America,” wrote Eric Ferrara in The Villager.

It took minutes for the men on the Hornet to sink the British ship, the H.M.S. Peacock (described not as a sloop but a man-of-war in the Historical Guide to the City of New York, published in 1909).

The Americans then rescued more than one hundred British seamen, recounted a 1918 article in the Daughters of the American Revolution magazine. “On reaching the city, [the British sailors] were taken straight to ‘The Barracks’ at Bleecker Street and confined there till peace was declared,” the article stated.

BankstreetprisondeptofrecordsphotoInterestingly, the Daughters noted that the Americans didn’t treat the British as awful as they treated our POWs during the Revolutionary War, when thousands of men were starved on prison ships in Brooklyn’s Wallabout Bay.

After the war was relegated to history and the sailors presumably freed, the passage of time changed the building that no one called The Barracks anymore.

“In 1901 the remains of this structure, which had been used as a private residence with a store at street level, was converted to the Laux Hotel, named after the owner,” states 1969’s Greenwich Village Historic District Designation Report.

“By the late 1930s, the building had been modified still further, faced with brick, and raised from three to four stories.”


Not much of the original Barracks is left in the modernized building. But some remnants of the prison exist here, unmarked and largely unknown.

[Third image: via The Villager; Fourth image: NYC Dept. of Records Photo Gallery, 1980s tax photo]

A solitary statue before the Williamsburg Bridge

August 18, 2016

Welcome to Williamsburg Plaza, on the Brooklyn side of the 7-year-old Williamsburg Bridge, in 1910. No bus turn-arounds, no skateboarders or cyclists, and no graffiti.


And no people either. Now called Continental Army Plaza after the equestrian statue of George Washington at Valley Forge in the center, it’s still an often empty plaza and transit hub.

Washington and his horse rise high above it all before the entrance to the bridge.

[Postcard: MCNY]

Washington Square Park’s first, forgotten arch

August 4, 2016

Modeled after Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, the white marble arch that marks the Fifth Avenue entrance of Washington Square has been an icon of Greenwich Village since it was dedicated in 1895.

Washington Square Arch

As recognizable as it is, it’s not the original arch built six years earlier to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s presidential inauguration.

Washingtonarcholdcentennial1889mcnyThat first arch (above, in 1890), made of wood and plaster, was meant to be temporary.

It was also a sneaky way for residents of still-posh Washington Square North to make sure that citywide festivities made it down to their neck of Manhattan.

“To ensure that the Centennial parades would pass near the historic park named for the president, William Rhinelander Stewart of 17 Washington Square North commissioned the architect Stanford White to design a temporary triumphal arch for the occasion,” states the website for the Washington Square Park Conservatory.

 Stewart, born and raised in Greenwich Village, was a scion of old New York, a philanthropist from a rich family with major real-estate holdings along Washington Square North (below; number 17 is on the left).

To finance the arch, however, he appealed to friends and neighbors, collecting $2,765 from them.


“Straddling lower Fifth Avenue a half block north of the park, bedecked with flags and topped by an early wooden statue of Washington, White’s papier-mache and white plaster arch was a sensation,” continued Washington Square Park Conservatory.


At the end of the centennial (see the processions in the second photo), White scored a commission to design a permanent arch in marble that would be built at the entrance to the park.

 That’s the Beaux Arts beauty recognized for 121 years as a symbol of glory and art.

[Photos: MCNY; “Wet Night in Washington Square,” John Sloan, 1928; Delaware Art Museum]

The New Yorker who captured John Wilkes Booth

August 4, 2016

BoothdohertyphotoAfter news of President Lincoln’s assassination reached the Metropolis on April 15, the city was heavy with grief.

Plans were in the works for a two-day viewing and funeral procession that would take Lincoln’s casket from City Hall up Broadway.

Meanwhile, one city resident was scouring the Virginia countryside, leading the detail of soldiers sent to capture on-the-run assassin John Wilkes Booth.

His name was Edward P. Doherty (right). A Canadian immigrant born to Irish parents, Doherty moved to New York in 1860.

When the war between the states began, he joined the 71st New York Volunteers. He spent all four war years in the military, distinguishing himself by escaping capture during the first Battle of Bull Run and earning officer status with the 16th New York Cavalry.

Boothdohertyhome144thsttruliaYet Doherty’s most important assignment came on April 24, after South had surrendered.

Summoned to gather 25 military men on horseback, he was then told by a colonel “that he had reliable information that assassin Booth and his accomplice were somewhere between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers,” Doherty said later in a report.

He was instructed to take his men south toward Fredericksburg, Virginia, and hunt down Booth and his accomplice, David Herold.

(Herold was part of the unsuccessful plot to kill Secretary of State William Seward, a New Yorker, on the same night Lincoln was shot.)

With the help of locals, Doherty and his soldiers tracked the men to a barn on April 26. There, they tried to negotiate a surrender with a defiant and injured Booth.

Booth wouldn’t let that happen. Ultimately one of the men in Doherty’s detail set the barn on fire, and another shot Booth fatally through the neck. (Herold was brought out alive and later hanged.)

Boothdohertygrave“Chance has connected my name with a great historical event,” Doherty said in 1866.

After resigning from the Army, Doherty made his way back to New York City in 1886, snagging an appointment as Inspector of Street Pavings and living at 533 West 144th Street (above, the building on the site today).

Doherty died in 1897 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery; his gravestone makes light of his most famous military assignment.

Lincoln’s assassination was felt profoundly in New York, especially considering the ties Booth had to the city, where he had performed Shakespeare with his actor brothers only months earlier.

thegildedageinnewyorkcover-1The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, delves into it the city’s grief as well as Booth’s connections to New York City.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second image: Trulia; third image: Getty Images; fourth photo:]

Once again, hat tip to Dean at the History Author Show!

The two vintage cannons on a Central Park bluff

June 13, 2016

Hike up a steep walkway below Harlem Meer on Central Park’s east side, at the site of a colonial road known as McGowan’s Pass, and you’ll end up at a magnificent bluff that puts you at eye level with Fifth Avenue apartments.


On that bluff, you’ll also find two 18th century cannons—one aimed north, the other to the east.

Cannonmap1814What are they doing there? These examples of artillery commemorate Fort Clinton, a military command post built to defend the city from this high point in the hinterlands of Manhattan well before Central Park existed.

The British occupied the site during the Revolutionary War.

“The British built a fortification here in 1776, following their invasion of Manhattan, as part of a defensive line extending west to the Hudson River,” states the Central Park Conservatory.

During the War of 1812, fearing a British attack that luckily never happened, the U.S. made it a fortification (along with nearby Fort Fish, see map) and named it after DeWitt Clinton, then mayor of New York.

“In the 1860s, the designers of Central Park recognized both the scenic and historic value of this location, and retained the original topography and remains of the fortification,” states the Conservatory.


The two cannons weren’t actually part of the fort. They were artifacts salvaged from the wreckage of the H.M.S. Hussar, which sank in Hell Gate in the East River, reportedly laden with gold, in 1780, writes Sam Roberts at the New York Times.


Donated to the park in 1865 after 80 years in the river, they harken back to the post-colonial city and serve as reminders of the bluff’s military past.

In the 1970s, vandalism and neglect led the city to put them in storage. Since 2014, they’ve been back on the bluff, on a granite base with a commemorative plaque.

The cannons are not far from another remnant of the War of 1812: the stone Blockhouse Number One, also in the northern section of the park.

[Illustration of Fort Clinton, 1828, NYPL]

“Victory gardens” bloom across the 1940s city

March 14, 2016

One was planted on Park Avenue. Another bloomed on the grounds of the magnificent Schwab mansion on Riverside Drive. A third sprouted in Midtown in the shadow of the Chrysler Building.

Others were tended to in empty lots on Ludlow Street (above), on Upper East Side apartment terraces, and in the open spaces of Brooklyn and Queens.

These victory gardens, as they were called, grew out of a national push during World War II to help ease food shortages in the states, as so much food from America was going to soldiers abroad and our allies.


New Yorkers answered the call. After the program began in 1943, the city had approximately 400,000 victory gardens, which sprouted up on 600 acres of private land.

The biggest crop: tomatoes, followed by beans, beets, carrots, lettuce, and Swiss chard.

VGjohnalbokrockcenter1943An astonishing 200 million pounds of vegetables were cultivated, according to Amy Bentley and Daniel Bowman Simon, who wrote about victory gardens in Savoring Gotham: A Food Lovers Companion to New York City.

Victory gardens were mostly about food. But they had a civic function as well, rallying communities to work together to aid the war effort.

Mayor Fiorello La Guardia even announcing that one would be started on Rikers Island.

VGschwabmansion“We have a lot of space there and a lot of guests too, and we won’t need machinery, because we can make them work,” he cheekily told the New York Times.

Experienced gardeners lent a hand showing urban green thumbs the ropes. “New York University, Columbia University, and the New School all offered courses on Victory Gardening, wrote Bentley and Simon.

Department stores like Macy’s opened gardening centers that held lectures, sold seeds, and even offered war bonds to gardeners who produced bumper crops.

When the war ended, the mini-farms appeared to have been left untended. Of course, they weren’t the last urban gardens to pop up in the city.

But with real estate values sky-high, it might be a long time before we ever see vegetables growing on Manhattan avenues again.

A Brooklyn street named for a president’s son

August 31, 2015

QuentinroadOn a street grid packed with lettered avenues, Brooklyn’s Quentin Road stands out.

Stuck between Avenue P and Avenue R, Quentin Road actually used to be known as Avenue Q. But in 1922, a petition to change the name was brought to the city’s Board of Aldermen. So who was Quentin, and why did Brooklynites want to honor him with a street name?

Quentin was Quentin Roosevelt, 21, fifth child of Teddy Roosevelt. Rambunctious and mischievous as a child, Quentin left Harvard and his fiance, Flora Vanderbilt Payne, in 1916 to volunteer for World War I.

QuentinrooseveltHe trained as a pilot at a field on Long Island (today known as Roosevelt Field), but was killed in combat over France in 1918.

The petition to rename Avenue Q for Quentin may have had to do with his father’s popularity in New York. After all, he was the former city police commissioner and state governor, not to mention U.S. president.

QuentinRooseveltgravefranceReportedly devastated by his son’s death behind enemy lines, Theodore Roosevelt died the next year.

“To those who fearlessly face death for a good cause; no life is so honorable or so fruitful as such a death,” he said.

“Unless men are willing to fight and die for great ideals, including love of country, ideals will vanish, and the world will become one huge sty of materialism.”

A 1951 stamp explains the Battle of Brooklyn

May 25, 2015

This image of George Washington evacuating his troops illustrates the dramatic escape made by Patriot forces to Manhattan after the bruising Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776.


The stamp was issued in Brooklyn in 1951, commemorating the battle’s 175th anniversary. This is Brooklyn Heights 239 years ago; the Fulton Ferry house is at right. Here’s the historical recap:

“On August 27, the Red Coats marched against the Patriot position at Brooklyn Heights, overcoming the Americans at Gowanus Pass and then outflanking the entire Continental Army,” states

“Howe failed to follow the advice of his subordinates and storm the redoubts at Brooklyn Heights, and on August 29 General Washington ordered a brilliant retreat to Manhattan by boat, thus saving the Continental Army from capture. At the Battle of Brooklyn, the Americans suffered 1,000 casualties to the British loss of only 400 men. On September 15, the British captured New York City.”

A bit of the London Blitz adorns a downtown gate

April 6, 2015

CherubgateThe front entrance to Trinity Church (and its 17th century burial ground) faces Broadway.

It’s a fascinating, haunting place to lose yourself in early New York history and read the faded gravestones of city founders.

But it’s on a lonely gate at the back of the churchyard (at left), on Trinity Place, where a curious relic—a stone cherub head—can be found.

What’s it doing there?

The head comes from St. Mary-le-Bow church in London’s East End, founded in 1080 and built in 1680 by Christopher Wren.

CherubgatecloseupDuring the Blitz in May 1941, St. Mary-le-Bow, along with thousands of other homes and buildings in London, was leveled by German air raids.

After the war, Trinity Church, a sister church to St. Mary-le-Bow (below, in the 1890s) since Trinity was founded in 1697, pledged $50,000 to help the parish rebuild.

Found in the rubble during construction, the cherub head was gifted to Trinity Church by the people of St. Mary-le-Bow in 1964 as a thank you.

Stmarylebow1890sThe strangely undamaged cherub head now adorns what Trinity has renamed “Cherub Gate” on Trinity Place.

It’s not the only bit of the Blitz to make it to New York City. The landfill used to create the FDR Drive contains pieces of bombed out buildings from Bristol.

And many New Yorkers, including Mayor La Guardia, feared the arrival of German bombers on our side of the Atlantic, so much so that they commissioned this public service poster to alert residents of what to do if a devastating attack on the city actually happened.


A chilling holocaust memorial at Madison Square

January 5, 2015

For such a stark yet provocative memorial, it’s easy to miss.

Appellatecourt25thstreetwikiBut if you head to 25th Street and Madison Avenue, on the facade of the circa-1900 marble Appellate Division Courthouse facing Madison Square Park, you’ll see it at eye level: a bas relief of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

It’s a grim and affecting aerial view of the camp. Buildings are arranged inside a high walls. “Torture Chamber” and “Commandant’s House” are inscribed beside two separate structures.

 “Execution Wall” and “Gas Chamber and Crematorium I” are chillingly noted as well.


A small plaque next to it lets us know that this is a “Memorial to All Victims of the Holocaust,” completed in 1990 by Harriet Feigenbaum, who used a photo as her guide.

Holocaustmemorial25thstreet“Feigenbaum’s choice of source material is used to question the moral character of the Allies, who, by the taking the photo itself, exhibit their awareness of the camp existence, and their simultaneous indifference to addressing that very existence,” wrote Nasha Virita at Untapped Cities.

“By doing so, she demonstrates the terrors that arise when law and justice are left by the wayside.”

The smokestack-like column that tops the memorial mimics the columns of the rest of the building. Note the flames carved on the side, above the words “indifference to justice is the gate to hell.”

New York’s postwar-planned Holocaust memorial in Riverside Park remains unbuilt.

[Top photo: Wikipedia]