It’s always a treat to see bits of New York’s past hidden within the contemporary city.
Case in point: sections of a granite wall once part of the four-acre receiving reservoir at 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, filled in 1842 and lasting through the Gilded Age.
These walls are visible along a staircase in the south wing of the main branch of the New York Public Library, which took the reservoir’s place on that stretch of Fifth Avenue and opened in 1911.
“Chosen for its location at the highest point of Murray Hill to increase water pressure to densely populated downtown districts, the reservoir was an odd symbol of urban accomplishment,” wrote David Soll in Empire of Water.
“When completed in 1841, it had few neighbors and towered over the handful of scattered structures in the surrounding area.
Across Fifth Avenue lay ‘an open field, upon which stood a single country house.'”
By the 1860s, New York’s elite promenaded on the reservoir’s walkway, and Fifth Avenue became prime real estate.
In 20 years, calls for the reservoir’s destruction appeared and grew louder; it was obsolete, critics charged, and its Egyptian revival architectural style an eyesore, even after the city planted ivy to cover the Fifth Avenue side.
By 1898, the wrecking ball came. The granite walls in the library are all that remain.
[Third image: the reservoir in 1850; fourth image: in the 1880s; NYPL Digital Collection]