Posts Tagged ‘Shot Tower 53rd Street’

The view from the last shot tower in Manhattan

May 7, 2018

Nineteenth century New York was a very low-rise city.

At 281 feet, Trinity Church’s spire dominated the skies above Manhattan, with other church steeples and fire watchtowers aiming toward the heavens as well.

Shot towers were part of the skyline too. These were built to manufacture shot balls; lead was heated and then dropped through a sieve down a thin tower, and as it cooled, round pieces of ammunition formed.

In the mid-1800s, manufacturers put up shot towers on Centre Street, Water Street, Beekman Street, East 15th Street, and East 53rd Street beside the East River.

But the East 53rd Street tower held out the longest and became an early 20th century icon.

Originally built in the early 1820s as Youle’s shot tower, it was “partially destroyed by an explosion and fire,” in 1857, explains “It was rebuilt with imported Holland brick with walls that were seven feet thick.”

Perhaps because of its bucolic location miles from the center of the city, or maybe due to its lighthouse-like design, the 53rd Street shot tower was a frequent subject for painters and illustrators.

Landscape painter Jasper Cropsey painted it in 1845, at the top left, showing the small inlet where boats ferried people to the institutions of Blackwell’s Island.

The second illustration was done in 1831 and included this caption: “It is about four miles and a quarter from the city, and rises to the height of one hundred and fifty feet in one of the pleasantest spots on the island.”

Landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church took a stab at it in this 1846 oil painting, showing the shot tower peeking through thick trees. (And look, cows!)

The last two photos show the shot tower in 1905 and 1906, long after the cows and trees had been cleared and manufacturing took over East 53rd Street.

In 1920, Youle’s tower—almost a century old—met the wrecking ball. The New York Herald published a fitting elegy.

“What sights of municipal history it has viewed. What scenes of lovemaking it has witnessed on the nearby Kissing Bridge. What changes it has seen on Blackwell’s Island and on the island of Manhattan in its vicinity.”

“The fields which once comprised the Spring Valley Farm are now a wilderness of gas works, breweries, stone yards, and tenement houses….How these bluffs would be tended and beautified if they existed in the heart of certain European capitals is a thought that accentuates the present ugliness.”

These days we don’t have shot towers or manufacturing in the East 50s. Apartment towers loom on 53rd Street down to the river, and on the Queens side too.

[Fourth photo: MCNY x2010.11.5519; fifth photo: x2010.11.5523]