Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1840s’

An odd 1848 building known as Odd Fellows’ Hall

November 21, 2016

Sometimes a building you’ve passed a thousand times in New York suddenly stops you in your tracks.

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That’s what happened on a walk to Grand and Centre Streets, when I took a hard look at the curious fortress-like rectangle on the southeast corner.

oddfellowshallnypl1863Its handsome brownstone facade, Queen Anne mansard roof, and many decorated chimneys looked out of place in an area of mostly tenements and low-rise lofts.

The building came off like a visitor from another New York. And in a way, it was.

It was constructed way back in 1848 as the New York headquarters of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization that aided the poor.

[Why the term “odd fellows”? When the group first formed in 17th century Europe before spreading to various cities in America, it was considered odd that people would come together to help the disadvantaged in their community, according to the Odd Fellows website.]

Designed by Trench and Snook, the architects behind retail king A.T. Stewart’s Marble Palace at Broadway and Chambers Street and many of New York’s cast iron edifices, this “Corinthian pilastered palace,” as the AIA Guide to New York City described it, originally had just four stories and a domed roof.

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Still, it was celebrated for its beauty and uniqueness. At a dedication of the building in 1849, a large procession marched down Broadway, blocking all omnibus traffic, until it reached Grand Street amid cheering and music, according to The Evening Post on June 5.

oddfellowshall1975mcnyInside was just as lovely, according to Miller’s New York as It Is, from 1866. “It contains a series of highly ornamented lodge-rooms, richly furnished and in different styles of architecture,” the guide noted.

Odd Fellows’ Hall only served as the organization’s home base in Manhattan until the 1880s.

The group moved uptown, and an extensive renovation—two more stories, the mansard roof—was done to make it more appealing to new commercial and industrial tenants.

Photos from the 1970s show the building to be rundown and vacant. Today, this odd reminder of a pre–Civil War architectural loveliness seems to have been restored.

[Second and third images: Odd Fellows’ Hall in the 19th century; fourth image: the building in 1975, MCNY 2013.3.1.32]

Edgar Allan Poe’s haunted walks on High Bridge

October 7, 2016

Like so many other New Yorkers, Edgar Allan Poe was known to take long, contemplative walks.

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After he moved from a farmhouse in today’s Upper West Side to a wooden cottage in rural Fordham (below), Poe regularly journeyed across the High Bridge, opened in 1848, two and a half miles from his home.

A graceful feat of engineering, the High Bridge carried fresh Croton Aqueduct water from Westchester to Manhattan.

poecottage“During Mr. Poe’s residence at Fordham a walk to the High Bridge was one of his favorite and habitual recreations,” wrote Sarah Helen Whitman, a literary contemporary who Poe tried and failed to court.

The dramatic views of the Harlem River and the rocky shores must have suited Poe’s mood. After all, his life was in free fall.

His wife, Virginia Clemm, succumbed to tuberculosis in 1847. And though he would write some of his best work during his Fordham years, including “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee,” Poe’s literary career was falling apart.

He was broke, he drank a lot, and his behavior was becoming increasingly erratic.

poehighbridge1900nypl“In the last melancholy years of his life—’the lonesome latter years’—Poe was accustomed to walk there at all times of the day and night; often pacing the then solitary pathways for hours without meeting a human being,” continued Whitman.

The 1930 lithograph by B.J. Rosenmeyer (top) captures Poe crossing the High Bridge.

There’s some contention that the dates and image don’t line up. The lithograph depicts a winter scene; Poe wasn’t in New York much during the winter of 1848-1849, the last winter of his life, according to this High Bridge website.

poehighbridgetodayAlso, the pedestrian span of the bridge hadn’t been built until 1864, the site explains. (Above, High Bridge around 1900.)

On the other hand, another witness decades after Poe’s death gave a colorful and distressing chronicle of his High Bridge walks.

“With a faded old army cloak over his shoulders, a relic of his old West Point life, he was a familiar object to the staid villagers as he went loitering by through the lanes and over the fields,” a former Fordham acquaintance of Poe’s told a New York Times writer in 1885.

“His favorite route was the aqueduct road, leading over the High Bridge.”

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: NYPL]

The first confidence man was a New Yorker

August 29, 2016

Of course the first confidence man would perfect his scheme in Manhattan. New York was all about making money, a place where greed overtook common sense and hucksters found plenty of victims.

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One of those swindlers was a suave, 20-something with dark hair named Samuel Thompson, who also went by the name of Samuel Willis, among other aliases.

Conman1872attackonaswindlerIn the booming, increasingly anonymous mid-19th century city, Thompson would approach a stranger who appeared to be well-off, pretend to know the man, and after a little conversation ask, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow,” explained the New-York Herald in July 1849.

“The stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing ‘confidence’ in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do.”

After stealing from marks all of the city, Thompson was finally arrested in 1849; he mistakenly hit up a man he already stole a watch from the year before.

Conmannytribune1855The press made a big deal out of Thompson’s arrest, dubbing him the “original confidence man” and taking a certain glee in the fact that so many New York fat cats fell for the ruse. One writer even proclaimed that the new breed of Capitalist businessmen were the real con men.

“Let him rot in ‘the Tombs,’ while the ‘Confidence Man on a large scale’ fattens, in his palace, on the blood and sweat of the green ones of the land!” seethed a writer from Knickerbocker Magazine.

Thompson was convicted of grand larceny and spent a few years in Sing Sing, then apparently took off to ply his act around the country, though he ripped off another rube in New York in 1855, according to the New-York Tribune.

ConmanmelvillebookNaturally, all kinds of scammers began copying Thompson’s brilliant con—leading to the term con artist and continuing a long tradition of New York swindles, from bunco to the selling the Brooklyn Bridge to three-card monte.

Thompson even inspired Herman Melville, who published The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade in 1857, one of many Melville characters who originated in the headlines.

Hat tip to Jonathan from New York Local Tours for this entertaining bit of New York trivia, via the Crime in NYC tour.

[Top image: NYPL Digital Gallery; second image: New-York Tribune 1855; third image: NYPL]

A Village church’s secret presidential wedding

April 18, 2016

ChurchoftheascentionwikiThe beautiful Church of the Ascension, on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street, has a long history in New York. It started in 1829 in a Canal Street building, where the city’s growing Evangelical population gathered.

After the original church was destroyed by fire a decade later, the parish moved to a Gothic Revival cathedral designed by Richard Upjohn in 1841 in what was then the outskirts of town.

In 1844, it earned fame as the site of a small wedding for a very prominent groom: United States President John Tyler.

And amazingly, the entire ceremony was pulled off without the press or public finding out until after the couple said their vows.

ChurchoftheasensionjuliaTyler (of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” fame) had ascended to the White House when his Whig party running mate, William Henry Harrison, died one month after taking office.

After meeting her at a Washington reception, Tyler fell hard for Julia Gardiner, a beautiful 24-year-old from a wealthy New York family.

Following the death of Tyler’s first wife in 1842, the president was determined to win Julia’s hand.

The independent-minded Julia (who shocked society when she posed on the arm of a man who was not related to her in a store ad) eventually accepted.

The wedding was set for June 26, and the goal was to keep the press from finding out—and making a big to-do about the short time between Tyler’s first wife’s death and his second marriage, as well as the couple’s 30-year age difference.

Churchoftheascensionjohntyler“Tyler was so concerned about secrecy that he did not discuss his plans with his other children until after the wedding,” stated one source.

Tyler, 54, did tell his son John Tyler, Jr., who arrived in New York for the wedding with his father. They stayed at Howard’s Hotel on Lower Broadway, where the staff were kept on lockdown so no one would find about about the famous guest.

The secret ceremony was pulled off successfully, with only one newspaper reporting the nuptials. “The bride is a very beautiful and elegantly formed woman of apparently 20 years of age,” wrote The New York Morning Express.

Churchoftheascension1840“She was robed simply in white, with a gauze veil depending from a circlet of white flowers wreathed in her hair.” Less than 10 people attended, and afterward “the party departed for the residence of the bride in Lafayette Place (below)…the wedding cortege consisted of five carriages.”

After a wedding dinner, the couple boarded a steamer. Apparently Tyler was recognized, because people on passing ships “cheered most heartily” and presidential salutes were fired from “various ships of war.”

Julia was only First Lady for a short time. After Tyler’s term ended, he moved back to his Virginia plantation.

Churchoftheascensionlagrangeterrace1886There, the couple had seven kids—in addition to the seven Tyler fathered with his first wife.

On another note, incredibly, two of Tyler’s grandchildren—children born of a son Tyler had with Julia—are still alive today.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; fourth image: Church of the Ascension; fifth image: NYPL Digital Gallery]

The oldest street scene photos of New York City

March 7, 2016

France’s Louis Daguerre perfected the earliest form of commercial photography in 1839. It didn’t take long for others to seize the new technology and create daguerreotypes of New York City street scenes.

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These surviving early photographs offer a fascinating (if faded) glimpse into the city during an era when images were generally recorded with paint or ink, not copper plates.

At top is the Unitarian Congregational Church of the Messiah, which once stood on the east side of Broadway at the end of Waverly Place, surrounded by small free-standing houses.

Daguerreotypechathamsquare

The photo was taken in 1839 or 1840 from the rooftop studio of Samuel F.B. Morse and John Draper, who worked together at New York University. (Draper also took what might be the first daguerreotype portrait in 1840—of his sister, Dorothy.)

The second daguerreotype captures Chatham Street (now Park Row) northeast of Chatham Square. It dates back to 1853-1855 and shows a commercial, working-class section of the city known for its shops, taverns, and dance halls.

nycoldestdaguerreotype

“Unlike the period’s printed views, which were generally designed for clarity and filled with drafting table anecdote, this photograph shows the city as an inelegant confusion of traffic, commercial signs, and pedestrians,” explains the link to the photo (which can be enlarged for careful study) on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.

And though it doesn’t necessarily count as a street scene because the street at the time was rural farmland, the third daguerreotype is an 1839 image of a lovely house and white fence on Bloomingdale Road, once a part of today’s Upper West Side.

A dazzling City Hall fountain sprays Croton water

October 13, 2014

It took five years to build the Croton Aqueduct—the engineering marvel that brought fresh upstate water to Manhattan through a series of pipes and reservoirs.

Crotonfountain1842

When this incredible delivery system of clean drinking water finally opened on October 14, 1842, a celebration was in order.

CrotonfountainsongThe most thrilling moment took place at City Hall Park, when the park’s new Croton Fountain was turned on—and a magnificent propulsion of Croton water rose dozens of feet in the air.

That’s some water spray, right? But the Croton Aqueduct really was something—it even inspired a song, the “Croton Jubilee Quick Step” (right).

“On opening day in 1842, President John Tyler was on hand to witness the plume from the Croton-fed City Hall fountain surge 50 feet high,” wrote The New York TimesSam Roberts in his new book, A History of New York in 101 Objects.

President Tyler wasn’t the only dignitary in the crowd. Former presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren also attended.

Crotonfountain1871

The Croton Fountain, which had a 100-foot stone basin, was the city’s first decorative fountain. Its spire of water dazzled New Yorkers until 1871, when a new fountain designed by Jacob Wrey Mould (he designed bridges in Central Park and decorative elements at Bethesda Terrace) replaced it.

The second fountain didn’t spray water quite so high. But it was Victorian spectacular, with several pools and gas-lit bronze candelabras. When Victorian style fell out of favor in the 1920s, it was shipped off to Crotona Park in the Bronx.

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Seventy years later, the Jacob Wrey Mould fountain was restored and reinstalled in City Hall Park in 1999. There’s no 50-foot plume of Croton water, unfortunately, but it’s a lovely fountain nonetheless.

A 19th century writer gripes about the noisy city

September 30, 2013

Complaining about New York—it’s too crowded, trendy, has lost its edge—is a huge pastime of residents.

Portrait of Washington IrvingThere’s just something about the city that makes us think it was better, in some way, in the past.

We’ll never know if Washington Irving preferred the New York he grew up in because it really was a quiet, friendly place, or if nostalgia is clouding his memory.

Born in 1783 to a prosperous merchant, Irving became a journalist before publishing his satirical A History of New York in 1809 and short stories like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by 1820.

His thoughts on the city in 1847—written in a letter to his sister—could have come from any contemporary resident:

Williamstreetoldhouses

“I often think what a strange world you would find yourself in, if you could revisit your native place, and mingle among your relatives.

“New York, as you knew it, was a mere corner of the present huge city; and that corner is all changed, pulled to pieces, burnt down and rebuilt—all but our little native nest in William street, which still retains some of its old features, though those are daily altering.

Washingtonirvingbust“I can hardly realize that, within my term of life, this great crowded metropolis, so full of life, bustle, noise, show, and splendor, was a quiet little city of some fifty or sixty thousand inhabitants. It is really now one of the most racketing cities in the world, and reminds me of one of the great European cities (Frankfort, for instance) in the time of an annual fair.

“Here it is a fair almost all the year round. For my part, I dread the noise and turmoil of it, and visit it but now and then, preferring the quiet of my country retreat; which shows that the bustling time of life is over with me, and that I am settling down into a sober, quiet, good-for-nothing old gentleman.”

[Above: old houses on William Street, from Valentine’s Manual, via the NYPL Digital Collection. Left: Irving’s bust outside his namesake high school on Irving Place]

The long-gone East Side hamlet of Odellville

March 8, 2012

Busy, corporate Third Avenue at 49th Street is often referred to by the bland Midtown East, or the more illustrious Turtle Bay.

But more than 170 years ago, in the 1840s, it was the rural outpost of Odellville—named for the barkeep who ran a tavern there, according to New York: Old & New, a guide from 1902.

How country was it? “Open fields lay to the west of Odellville in that slow-moving time, but to the east a few scattered houses flecked the river-bank, and one of these, set down at the foot of Forty-Ninth Street, was for a time the country home of Horace Greeley,” the book states.

The only communication Odellville had with the city to the south was an hourly stagecoach Third Avenue.

Another memoir of 19th century life, A Tour Around New York, by John Flavel Mines, recalls Odellville:

“At forty-ninth Street and Third Avenue was a tiny hamlet known as Odellville, which owed its patronymic to Mr. Odell, who kept a country tavern at the corner first named, and with whom life agreed so well that he nearly lived out a century.”

[Illustration: 49th Street at the East River, circa 1840, from New York’s Turtle Bay Old & New by Edmund T. Delaney]

A popular 1840s literary salon on Waverly Place

October 12, 2011

Even in the 1840s, Greenwich Village was a literary hub.

No wonder a young teacher and poet named Anne Charlotte Lynch (left) moved there when she relocated from Rhode Island in 1845.

While trying to break into the periodicals of the day, Lynch began hosting literary salons at her house at 116 Waverly Place.

Extroverted and unpretentious, she attracted lots of big-name writers.

Edgar Allan Poe, living just over on West Third Street, was a regular; supposedly he read “The Raven” aloud one night.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (below), Herman Melville, and Horace Greeley were also among the frequent guests.

“She received every Saturday evening,” recalls an 1894 journal called Literary News. “American literature was just beginning to make itself felt, and her house became the weekly gathering-place for aspiring poets, writers, and novelists.”

After she married, her salon moved to her new home on West 37th Street. She ran it each week at least through her 60s, carving out an unpretentious, creative space that helped nurture American talent.

Astoria’s Irish potato famine cemetery

September 1, 2010

The real name of this tidy 19th century burial ground on 26th Avenue and 21st Street is “The Graveyard of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.”

But it’s always been known by its nickname, because many of the people buried there immigrated from Ireland in the 1840s during the potato famine.

Back then, 21st Street was the heart of a small Irish enclave in Queens, populated by immigrants who worked as servants for Anglo and Dutch families and in local factories.

It’s a small cemetery wedged between residences. Peer through the iron fence and you see all Irish names on the stones: Donnelly, Kelly, Muldarry, Joyce.

Many of them list the deceased’s county of birth. And all the gravestones face East, toward Ireland.