Posts Tagged ‘New York in 1840s’

The last years in Edgar Allan Poe’s Bronx cottage

October 7, 2019

Like so many people who come to New York with literary dreams but no money, Edgar Allan Poe was always moving from one low-rent place to another.

In the late 1830s and early 1840s, the struggling writer (with his young wife, Virginia, and his mother-in-law, Maria, in tow) bounced around Greenwich Village, Turtle Bay, East Broadway, back the the Village on West Third Street, then to a farmhouse in today’s Upper West Side.

In 1846, with Virginia sick with tuberculosis, the little family made one final move.

Hoping that fresh country air would help his ailing wife, Poe paid $100 a year to rent this small cottage (above) in Fordham, then a bucolic hamlet in Westchester but today firmly within city boundaries in the Bronx.

That rustic, “Dutch” cottage, as it was described in 19th century books—where Virginia (below right) succumbed to TB and Poe wrote some of his best-known poems—is still in the Bronx. (Above, in 2007)

Moved about 500 feet from its original location on Kingsbridge Road to the then-new Poe Park in 1913 (the site of an apple orchard when Poe lived nearby), the cottage is open to the public.

While the preserved home sits at the edge of an urban park surrounded by gritty apartment buildings and the 24-hour noise and traffic of the Grand Concourse, imagine the place as it was in Poe’s day.

Outside the front porch were trees, flowers, and songbirds—quite a different feel from the haunting romance and gloom of many of Poe’s writings.

“In Poe’s time the cottage was pleasantly situated on a little elevation in a large open space, with cherry trees about it,” James Albert Harrison quotes one historian in his 1903 Poe biography.

One visitor, a fellow American writer, described it as “half buried in fruit-trees, and having a thick grove of pines in its immediate neighborhood,” wrote Harrison.

“Round an old cherry-tree, near the door, was a broad bank of greenest turf,” the writer said. “The neighboring beds of mignonette and heliotrope, and the pleasant shade above, made this a favorite seat” where Poe was often found.

Poe kept tropical birds in cages on his front porch, “which he cherished and petted with assiduous care,” the writer noted.

Inside, the cottage—just a kitchen, a sitting room with Poe’s desk, a small bedroom for Virginia, and then steep stairs leading to a second floor with a low ceiling—was described as tidy and warm. (Below, in 1894)

“The cottage had an air of taste and gentility that must have been lent to it by the presence of its inmates,” wrote writer and friend Mary Gove Nichols. “So neat, so poor, so unfurnished, and yet so charming a dwelling I never saw.”

“The floor of the kitchen was white as wheaten flour. A table, a chair and a little stove that it contained, seemed to furnish it completely. The sitting-room floor was laid with check matting; four chairs, a light-stand, and a hanging book-shelf composed its furniture.”

By autumn, Virginia was close to death.

In her bedroom, “everything here was so neat, so purely clean, so scant and poverty-stricken, that I saw the poor sufferer with such heartache.”

Virginia “lay on the straw-bed, wrapped in her husband’s great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat in her bosom….The coat and the cat were the sufferer’s only means of warmth; except as her husband held her hands, and her mother her feet.”

After Virginia died and was buried in the Valentine family vault at a nearby Dutch cemetery, grief-stricken Poe began his “lonesome latter years.”

On one hand, his output was excellent. He finished some of his most famous works; in addition to The Bells, he wrote Annabel Lee and Ulalume.

But he was despondent and began drinking heavily. Remaining at the cottage (above, in 1898) with Maria, he was known to take long walks through the pines and cedars of Fordham and into Manhattan across the High Bridge (below, in a 1930 lithograph.)

Poe died in 1849 in Baltimore, of course, leaving Maria as the cottage’s sole occupant.

She moved to Brooklyn (and lived another 22 years). As the 19th century continued, the cottage fell into disrepair. Meanwhile, Fordham and other Westchester villages were annexed to New York City and began to slowly urbanize (below, 1898)

With Poe’s literary genius finally recognized 50 or so years after his death, his uninhabited cottage, one of few original dwellings left from Fordham’s rural days, was moved to the new Poe Park and restored with state funds.

Poe’s house is now a very small museum. But for three years, it was his world.

“It was the sweetest little cottage imaginable. Oh how supremely happy we were in our dear cottage home,” Maria Clemm recounted in 1860 (at left).

[First, third, and fourth photos: Wikipedia; eighth photo: MCNY, 1894, x2010.11.671; eleventh photo: 1930 lithograph; twelfth photo: MCNY, 1898, x2010.11.6718; thirteenth photo: Wikipedia]

An 1843 orphanage behind a Manhattan cathedral

August 24, 2015

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine—begun in 1892 and still unfinished—is one of the city’s most magnificent houses of worship, occupying 13 acres on a plateau on Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street.

Leakeandwattsorphanage

But there’s a building on the cathedral grounds that predates St. John’s by 49 years and stands as a reminder of how 19th century New York handled parentless or unwanted children.

LeakeandwattspamphletThe lovely building is the former home of the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum, built in 1843 when this part of Manhattan was wide open countryside.

Leake and Watts cared for “full orphans, between the ages of three and twelve years,” according to the 1892 King’s Handbook of New York City.

The orphanage was founded by wealthy lawyer John Leake, who died in 1827 with no heirs. He left his fortune to a good friend’s son, Robert Watts, on the condition that he either adopt the surname Leake, or forfeit the money so it could be used to open an orphan asylum.

Watts died before he could inherit the fortune, however, so the orphanage got the go-ahead.

Leakeandwatts19thcentury

At its opening, the orphanage housed 60 boys, and soon girls were cared for there as well.

Leakeandwattscathedral1900“Here the institution cares for homeless and friendless orphans, educating them and, at the age of 14, finding Christian homes for them,” states King’s Handbook.

After four decades in the open country of Morningside Heights, Leake and Watts sold their land to the trustees who planned to build the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Leake and Watts moved their orphanage to Yonkers, abandoning the Greek Revival-style building with its impressive Ionic columns.

LeakeandwattscathedralOne wing was sheared off in the 1950s, but the Ithiel Town Building—named after its architect, who also designed Federal Hall downtown and St. Mark’s Church on East 10th Street—still remains.

It’s a link to the city’s institutional past, when orphanages abounded and were considered a humane alternative to turning unwanted and homeless kids out into the street. [Fourth image: MCNY Collections Portal, 1900]

New York’s 1849 skyline seen from Union Square

February 2, 2015

The square itself looks different—it’s oval, first of all, and that’s some water spray from the new Croton fountain.

Bachmannlithographunionsquare

But amazingly, the streets are instantly recognizable in this 1849 bird’s eye lithograph by Swiss immigrant printmaker John Bachmann.

There’s Broadway, with that slight bend at Grace Church (built just one year earlier), and Fourth Avenue, which still curves east at about 12th Street.

Steeples and ship masts dominate Lower Manhattan. The George Washington statue has yet to arrive in at the southeast corner of Union Square (that comes in 1856), and the theaters and music halls that made 14th Street the city’s entertainment district are a decade or so away.

The level of detail is amazing and inspiring. And look at how built up New York is compared to this same view in 1828.