Posts Tagged ‘New York during the Civil War’

The 6 Civil War-era survivors of East 78th Street

May 2, 2021

There’s beauty in symmetry, so on a walk uptown I had to stop and admire the striking row of six Civil War–era brick houses at 208-218 East 78th Street, between Second and Third Avenues.

These remnants—the survivors of an original row of 15 houses—are more than eye-catching; they’re rather unusual for their era. The elliptical windows and doorways set them apart from their rowhouse neighbors. And at a little over 13 feet across, each is more slender than most brick and brownstone houses.

There has to be a story behind them, and it starts with the opening of the Third Avenue railroad in 1852. At the time, the area was part of the Village of Yorkville. New York existed mostly below 23rd Street; few streets above 42nd Street were even graded.

But thanks to the new railroad and regular horsecar service running up and down the East Side, people living in the upper reaches of Manhattan were within commuting distance to the city center. That made land on the Upper East Side very appealing to developers.

In 1861, a speculative developer named Howard A. Martin purchased 200 feet of property deemed “common grounds” and owned by the city on the south side of the block. He also paid for the right (in the form of a fine) to have East 78th Street officially opened, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

Martin was the one who subdivided the land into 15 separate 13-foot lots (probably because the smaller the lot, the more houses could be squeezed in). He in turn sold the lots to another speculator, William H. Brower, in 1862.

“Because each of the 15 lots was the same width and the same builders were responsible for the construction of all, the 15 houses in the row were probably identical in appearance even though Brower sold all of the properties to several different owners before construction was completed in 1865,” the LPC report states.

Building these modest beauties in the fashionable Italianate style took longer than usual because of the Civil War, which made materials (and perhaps men to do the work) harder to find.

The first owners of the 15 houses were a varied group of well-off but not rich New Yorkers: a dry goods businessman, a man in the varnish business, another man who worked in bags and satchels, and a widow. Some of these owners quickly resold their home. With the city expanding in the Gilded Age and the Upper East Side becoming a desirable area, they likely made a nice profit.

Over the next century and a half, owners came and went; nine of the houses were lost to the bulldozer. But amazingly, the remainders have barely been altered. Ironwork has been replaced, as have front doors. (Above, number 210 in 1940)

But the cornices remain, uniting the houses at the roofline. (Mostly; number 218’s cornice seems uneven.) And those oval doors and windows mark them as unique.

They aren’t the oldest rowhouses in the neighborhood; that honor has been given to these houses down the street at 157-165 East 78th, which were completed in 1861. Yet they might be the most charming.

[Third image: NYC Records and Information Services Tax Photo]

A Gilded Age writer’s home is now a Starbucks

November 27, 2014

I wonder what Edith Wharton would say about the Starbucks that occupies the ground floor of her former childhood home at 14 West 23rd Street, just off Fifth Avenue?


Wharton, beloved by many New Yorkers, was the witty, perceptive writer who chronicled the city’s Gilded Age and early 20th century upper crust society.

EdithwhartonyoungportraitShe noticed manners and morals, and though a coffee chain like Starbucks probably wouldn’t have been her stomping ground, she might have had some sharp insight into why some New Yorkers flock to the place, while others revile it.

Her thoughts about Starbucks can never be known, but she did pen a lovely third-person description of Fifth Avenue in the 1860s.

That’s when young Edith Jones (left) lived in what was then a new brownstone (below, on the right, in the 1880s) in the fashionable Madison Square neighborhood.

Edithwhartonhome1880picturehistory“The little girl and her father walked up Fifth Avenue; the old Fifth Avenue with its double line of low brown-stone houses, of a desperate uniformity of style, broken only—and surprisingly—by two equally unexpected features: the fenced-in plot of ground where the old Miss Kennedys’ cows were pastured, and the truncated Egyptian pyramid which so strangely served as a reservoir for New York’s water supply,” Wharton wrote in 1934’s A Backward Glance.

Edithwhartonportrait“The Fifth Avenue of that day was a placid and uneventful thoroughfare along which genteel landaus, broughams, and victorias, and more countrified vehicles of the ‘carryall’ and ‘surrey’ type, moved up and down at decent intervals and a decorous pace.”

Wharton’s family left the home in the 1870s; it was extensively remodeled, with a cast-iron front added, and barely resembles the stately brownstone it once was.

But down the block are a few brownstones that still maintain parts of their original facade. The New York Times has a piece from a few years’ back on the history of 14 West 23rd Street.

[Third photo: Picture History via The New York Times]

Herman Melville imagines the brutal Draft Riots

July 7, 2014

DraftriotsmelvilleHerman Melville wasn’t in New York City in July 1863 to actually witness the Draft Riots.

A city native born on Pearl Street, he returned to the metropolis from Massachusetts that same year, moving with his family to a farmhouse on East 26th Street.

But the horror of the city’s worst riot certainly affected him. In 1865, he published Battle Pieces & Aspects of the War, which included a poem about the four horrific days of violence and murder that began 151 years ago this week.

The riots were ignited by opposition to the Civil War and class animosity, but more specifically the new draft begun days earlier that forced poor men to fight while richer men could buy their way out.


Titled “The House-top. A Night Piece,” the poem “is an imaginative reconstruction of the awful scene with his judgment of the results,” states the introduction to The Poems of Herman Melville, edited by Douglas Robillard. It begins with a hot, restless night:

“No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And blinds the brain—a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.”

DraftriotsillustrationnyplThe steamy Monday after the draft began, thousands of mostly poor and working-class Irish immigrants, enraged by the draft lottery, began setting fires to buildings citywide and attacking and killing black residents who happened to cross their path.

“The town is taken by its rats—ship-rats
And the rats of wharves. All civil charms
And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe—
Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway
Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve
And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.”

[Below: The New York Seventh Regiment was called in to quell the rioters]


Read the full text of the poem, which hints at the military force brought in to finally put an end to the Draft Riots and serves a harsh indictment of man’s dual nature to do good and evil.

As for Melville, he spent the Gilded Age falling into obscurity, working at the Customs House on West Street near Gansevoort—a street named after his Revolutionary War Hero grandfather.

[Third image: NYPL]

The “black and tan” clubs of Minetta Street

November 8, 2010

Minetta Street and Minetta Lane, two tiny paths off Sixth Avenue in the Village, were named in the 1820s for the brook that still runs underground.

Charming, right? But from the Civil War to Prohibition, the Minettas actually had a morally reprehensible reputation.

That’s because the Minettas and the surrounding streets were home to “black and tan” clubs, bars were blacks and whites mingled freely.

The clubs were there because this is where New York’s black residents lived. The neighborhood had been settled by freed slaves, and by the Civil War, it was known as Little Africa, a poor area inhabited by thousands.

“In Minetta Street and Minetta Lane the last of the Cornelia Street colored colony remains entrenched. The crooked, narrow streets are lined with wooden rookeries, amply provided with rear tenements, accessible only through cramped alleys,” states a New York Times article dated February 13, 1910.

Within a decade, black New Yorkers relocated to Harlem, and Italian immigrants moved into the Minettas. Lined with speakeasies during the Depression, it’s now quiet and residential.

[Photo of Minetta Street and Minetta Lane in 1925: NYPL digital collection]