Posts Tagged ‘New York in 1812’

The simple loveliness of New York’s City Hall

January 27, 2014

When City Hall opened in 1812, some New Yorkers feared it was too far north; after all, the city at the time was centered at the southern tip of Manhattan.


But the city quickly marched northward and this French-inspired Federal structure (the two designers who built it won $350 for their efforts) has been in use continually for more than 200 years.

Surrounded by stately city buildings and offices and often the site of riots and demonstrations, it maintains a simple elegance.

The “counting houses” of Schermerhorn Row

April 24, 2013

At the very end of Fulton Street, just steps from where trading vessels departed and docked 200 years ago, stand these handsome Flemish bond brick and slate-roof buildings.

You wouldn’t know it from the retailers occupying the ground-floor storefront space, but they make up a slice of early New York history called Schermerhorn Row.


The land beneath them isn’t much older than the buildings themselves.

Constructed on fill between 1811 and 1812 (predating the steam-powered Fulton Ferry!) by merchant Peter Schermerhorn, they served as “counting houses,” or commercial offices, for the new shipping companies that powered the city’s 19th century economy.

Schermerhornrowcloseup“Built as a group like residential row houses, counting houses represent an early phase in the development of commercial architecture in New York when buildings had not yet acquired architectural individuality based on their function,” explains New York Architectural Images.

Like so much of old New York, they’ve changed significantly over the years. “Dormer windows were added later and project from steeply pitched roofs,” the site adds. “Chimneys and party walls were built high to prevent the spread of fire across rooftops.”

After the Civil War, storefronts were carved out of the counting houses and businesses moved in, followed by hotels, then boarding houses.

Rescued from redevelopment by preservation-minded New Yorkers in the 1960s, Schermerhorn Row is now a centerpiece of the South Street Seaport and home to the South Street Seaport Museum.

I love that the chimneys of each building line up a little like smokestacks on an ocean liner.

Chatham Square: home to the city’s whorearchy

February 16, 2012

In the 1820s, it was an open-air market for horses and dry goods bordering a genteel neighborhood of row houses (as seen here, in an illustration looking back on 1812).

By the 1850s, Chatham Square was kind of the Times Square of its day, a seedy district of flophouses, taverns, cheap merchants, and the city’s first tattoo parlors on the outskirts of the East Side’s notorious Five Points slum.

How seedy was it? Describing the prostitution rampant there in his book City of Eros, Timothy J. Gilfoyle writes:

“Along its western edge, the Bowery and Chatham Square were a bourse of sex. The patrician George Templeton Strong claimed that after nightfall, amid the theaters, saloons, dance halls, and cheap lodging houses, the thoroughfare overflowed with ‘members of the whorearchy in most slatternly deshabille.’

“Once elegant eighteenth-century residences like that of the merchant Edward Mooney at 18 Bowery now served as brothels.”

Like everything in New York, the red-light districts change as well. Prohibition, the Depression, a growing Chinatown, and slum clearance all remade Chatham Square into a messy but not sleazy intersection off the Bowery.

It’s now known as Kimlau Square, which honors American servicemen of Chinese ancestry who died for their country.

[Above photo: an 1853 Daguerreotype of Chatham Street, now Park Row, looking toward the Square]

A lovely view of City Hall in 1912

September 6, 2011

Hard to believe that New York’s city hall building was already a century old at the time this vintage card was stamped with a postmark.

It’s also strange to think that when it was completed, New Yorkers thought City Hall was located too far north of the center of the city.

Construction was delayed for decades, thanks to some minor calamities like the Revolutionary War, labor disputes, and a yellow fever outbreak.

But for workers who stuck it out, the take-home pay was $1.50 a day.