Posts Tagged ‘New York City in the 19th Century’

An 1838 East Village townhouse’s radical history

November 10, 2014

When the handsome townhouse at 110 Second Avenue was built in 1838, Second Avenue was shaping up to be a posh residential street, with other Greek Revival homes going up alongside it for merchants and assorted wealthy New Yorkers.

Isaachopperhouse

An elite Second Avenue didn’t last long. By 1844 the merchant owner of the house declared bankruptcy, and after a few more owners and Second Avenue’s slide into a less respectable German immigrant enclave, the home was purchased by the Women’s Prison Association.

IsaachopperFormed in 1845, the Women’s Prison Association was one of the many benevolent organizations addressing social conditions in the 19th century city.

Group founders Isaac Hopper (left) and his daughter Abigail Hopper Gibbons (below) were already known as fervent abolitionists.

But they also took a strong interest in women’s prison reform, appalled by the conditions of female jails and the lack of support incarcerated women received once they were back in their communities.

AbigailhoppergibbonsAfter taking over the house in 1874, the group renamed it the Isaac T. Hopper house (he died in 1852) and turned it into the first halfway house ever for women who were newly released from prison.

“The home’s original mission was to rehabilitate these women by providing short-term shelter, religious counseling, domestic training in sewing and laundry work, and job placement,” states the Landmarks Preservation Commission report designating it a historic landmark.

“The aims of the management of the Home . . . is to prevent the recently liberated prisoners from falling back to their former evil courses, and to make an upright life easier for them,” explained King’s Handbook of New York, published in 1892.

Isaachopperhouseold“The privileges of the institution are free to the inmates, of whom their are about fifty.”

Throughout the 20th century, the home continued as a halfway house, quietly assisting hundreds of women per year.

It serves the same purpose today, an easy-to-miss house that’s undergone almost no remodeling since its 19th century beginning. It blends right into Second Avenue’s mix of bars and bodegas and tenements.

[Photo bottom left: via the Women’s Prison Association]

A squalid lane nicknamed “murderers’ alley”

December 15, 2011

If the Five Points section of Manhattan was the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhood of the mid-1800s, then perhaps Donovan’s Lane was the worst part of Five Points.

Called “Murderers’ Alley,” it was a tiny rookery a few blocks from City Hall that linked Baxter and Pearl Streets, providing an escape route for criminals as well as a resting place for drunks.

“One reporter described Donovan’s Lane as an ‘Arcardia of garbage,’ filled with ‘rambling hovels and Alpine ranges of garbage heaps,'” writes Timothy J. Gilfoyle in A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth Century New York.

“Like other Baxter Street alleys, such as Bandit’s Roost and Bottle Alley, the thoroughfare was more accurately a small, unkempt courtyard behind the teeming, densely packed tenements.”

Inside Donovan’s Lane were opium dens—and mixed race couples, wrote Thomas N. Doutney, a temperance reformer, in his 1883 autobiography:

“Miscegenation held high carnival in Donovan’s Lane; black men and white women cursed and stunk and loafed and brawled and suffered there; the ‘basements’ in some of the old houses in the lane were so vile, that we approached their broken-down doors with our fingers to our nostrils.”

In the late 19th century, social reformers built a wall that cut off Donovan’s Lane, making it a dead end—eventually paved over and de-mapped.

[Above: Baxter Street in 1875, where Donovan’s Lane ran from]

What life was like in a rundown city tenement

April 12, 2011

If you were a poor city resident in the late 19th century, you may have called an old-law tenement home.

These were dumbbell-shaped buildings with four apartments to each floor, three rooms in each, one after the other.

As you can see here, your living quarters probably were probably dark and dank.

That’s because before 1901, tenements were only required to have one window per apartment or a tiny air shaft for ventilation.

The kitchen may have looked like this. It came equipped with a bathtub and stove. A spigot for water may have been in the hall.

As for toilet facilities, they were communal. You either went in the hall or in an outhouse between tenements (as seen below), or on the roof.

Tenement life improved somewhat after 1901, when new-law tenements were mandated by the city: These were required to have bathroom facilities and running water in each apartment, and a window in every room.

A major improvement, but not for the thousands of people still stuck in hot, stinky, firetrap old-law units.

[All photos courtesy of the NYPL digital collection]

A rich neighborhood in 19th century Manhattan

May 3, 2010

Tribeca is a trendy place to live today, just as one little nook of it was in the 1830s and 1840s. 

All that’s left of this exclusive nook, however, are a few alleys: St. John’s Lane and York Street.

They’re remnants of a genteel enclave centered around St. John’s Chapel, built in 1807 on Lispenard Meadows, then a dreary swamp.

After the chapel was built, private St. John’s Park sprang up next, attracting rich New Yorkers who built Federal-style row houses along the park.

[“View of St. John’s Chapel From the Park,” a sketch by The New-York Mirror, from the NYPL digital collection]

The St. John’s Park neighborhood was one of the city’s most fashionable, but as Manhattan grew northward, its appeal went south. The chapel, park, and the homes that surrounded it were all gone by 1920.