Posts Tagged ‘NYU Stone Cutters Riot’

An NYU building sparks the city’s first organized labor riot in 1834

September 6, 2021

When New York University was founded in 1831, “the ‘University of the City of New-York’ (as NYU was originally known) was envisioned from the start as something new: an academic institution metropolitan in character, democratic in spirit, and responsive to the demands of a bustling commercial culture,” states the school’s website.

Yet the construction of NYU’s first building—a stately Gothic Revival structure on the east side of Washington Square (above in 1850)—touched off a labor riot and is considered to be New York’s first organized labor demonstration.

It all started in 1834, when officials in charge of the new NYU building decided to turn to the recently opened state prison at Sing Sing, 30 miles up the Hudson River, as a source of cheap stone and labor.

“While the University was building, the contractors, for economy’s sake, chose to purchase the marble at Sing-Sing, and employ the state prisoners to cut and hew it before bringing it to the city,” wrote William Leete Stone in 1872′s History of New York City.

Of course, this didn’t sit well with members of the city’s Stone Cutters’ Guild. “Believing themselves aggrieved, they held meetings, paraded the city with incendiary placards, and even went so far as to attack the houses of several worthy citizens,” Stone continued.

In August, Mayor Cornelius Van Wyck Lawrence called in the National Guard to quell the tradesmen, or “disperse the malcontents,” as Stone put it. The stone cutters also passed resolutions “condemning the ‘state prison monopoly,'” wrote Sara Trigoboth at NYUlocal.

The Stone Cutters’ Guild Riot, as it became known, ended when “the university gave in and peace was restored,” wrote Gerard R. Wolfe in New York: A Guide to the Metropolis. The NYU building opened in 1835, but was demolished in 1894. (A piece of the building remains on West Fourth Street as a memorial.)

Wolfe dubbed it “the first demonstration of organized labor in New York City.” The labor movement would only grow in strength through the 19th century, and New York was the site of the first Labor Day Parade in the nation in 1882.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: NYPL; third image: New-York Historical Society]