Thursday, February 4, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Happy Birthday New Amsterdam

Gezicht op Nieuw Amsterdam by Johannes Vingboons (1664), an early picture of Nieuw Amsterdam made in the year when it was conquered by the English under Richard Nicolls
The picture above is a version of the only known image of New Amsterdam before it became New York. This week marks this city's birthday—on February 2, 1653, New Amsterdam became the first chartered city in the New World.

The city charter came about because a group of citizens were trying to wrest control of the city away from the Dutch West India Company. As we write in Footprints in New York, soon after Director General Peter Stuyvesant took over he
appointed an advisory board of citizens—called the Nine Men—to help guide him. It was led by Adriaen van der Donck, the colony’s only lawyer. Van der Donck, sensing an opportunity to effect change in the colony, hijacked the group.... Under Van der Donck, the board prepared a petition for the Dutch parliament, outlining how the company was ruining the colony. Van der Donck personally sailed to The Hague to deliver it. 
For a brief moment, it seemed like the government might side with Van der Donck, but ultimately they decided that New Amsterdam was better off remaining in the company’s hands. As a consolation, parliament agreed to give the colony a small measure of self-rule. New Amsterdam would now have town magistrates, and to house this new government, the city tavern on Pearl Street—built during Kieft’s administration—was handed over to them. On February 2, 1653, New Amsterdam became an official city and the city tavern became the Stadt Huis (“city hall”).

The depiction from 1664 above (attributed to Johannes Vingboons) is based on a 1650 watercolor sketch of New Amsterdam, the earliest—and most vivid—depiction of the town (below). It was probably painted by Augustijn Heerman, one of the Nine Men, and was designed to show how terrible Manhattan had become under company rule. Though it is hard to see in this reproduction of the Heerman view, a sad windmill stands to the far left with just two working arms. Compare that to the Vingboons image at the top, where the windmill is complete. The building with the red roof at the far right of both images is the Stadt Huis. Today, no trace of the Stadt Huis remains; its approximate location is marked by a yellow brick outline in the pavement on the Pearl Street side of 85 Broad Street.

(For more on 85 Broad and the Stadt Huis, see James's Curbed article about early landmarks that were destroyed.)

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Postcard Thursday: The Granite Colonnade at St. John the Divine

The next time you happen to be in Morningside Heights with a few minutes to spare, take a moment to visit the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue and walk to the building's apse to look at the massive granite columns surrounding the choir. These were originally intended by the cathedral's first architect, Heins & La Farge, to be the largest free-standing columns in the world.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
The cornerstone for the cathedral was laid on December 27, 1892—the feast of St. John the Divine—but work proceeded slowly. The sheer size of the project was daunting, and despite the rocky nature of the heights, it took workers a full two years—and 72 feet—before hitting solid bedrock. Once construction began, the architects’ grandiose plans were difficult to execute, in particular Heins and La Farge’s apse, which called for the world’s largest granite columns. A lathe had to be custom-built and only one granite quarry in the nation—in remote Vinalhaven, Maine—was deep enough for the excavations. However, the columns kept breaking under their own massive weight, and ultimately the plan had to be abandoned.
You can see one of the columns in two pieces in the postcard at the top. Today, when visiting the cathedral, if you look closely you can see the seams where pieces of stone have been connected together.

Heins & La Farge's vision for the cathedral (shown here in the black-and-white image) never came to fruition.
In 1907, before even the apse and choir were finished, George Heins died, which freed the cathedral from their contract with the firm. Once the apse was completed in 1911, the cathedral fired La Farge and hired Gothic aficionado Ralph Adams Cram to finish the church. Cram promised he could build the church faster and bigger. He also jettisoned any of Heins and La Farge’s Byzantine touches for a completely Gothic building. Cram’s work began at the crossing in 1916 and over the next twenty-five years his team completed the massive nave. On November 30, 1941, the church kicked off an eight-day festival to celebrate the nave’s completion. On the final day of the festivities, December 7, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and, for all intents, work on the cathedral stopped.

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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Trinity Place

This rare view of Trinity Place shows the rear of Trinity Church, along with the Trinity Building (left) and the American Surety Building (right).

Trinity was built three times on the same spot. As we write in Inside the Apple:
In 1696...Trinity leased the city’s burial ground at the rate of one peppercorn per year. A year later, the church received its royal charter from William III and from that point forward only church members could be buried in the churchyard. Not coincidentally, this was the same time that a separate “Negroes Burial Ground” [today's African Burial Ground National Memorial] was established outside the city. The original church, a simple stone and wood building, was erected in 1698 with both financial and material help from one of its richest congregants, Captain William Kidd, who just three years later would be hanged in London for piracy. Trinity quickly prospered. Six years after its construction, Queen Anne gave the parish an additional 215 acres of the crown’s land, stretching from Wall Street north to the village of Greenwich....
The original Trinity had burned down on September 21, 1776, in the fire that swept through the city as Washington’s army retreated. A second church was consecrated in 1790, but a series of heavy snowstorms in the winter of 1838-39 so badly damaged the roof that the vestry voted to tear down the building and start again. The snows came at an opportune moment. Already, neighborhoods like Greenwich Village had pulled prominent churchgoers northward.... Trinity needed to do something to return itself—in its own eyes, at least—to its rightful place as the city’s premiere religious institution. 
Richard Upjohn’s grand Gothic Revival building quickly restored Trinity to the forefront of the city’s social and architectural scene. In 1844, architect Albert Gilman wrote of the almost-finished church: “[It] surpasses any church erected in England since the revival of the pointed style.” Its spire, at 281 feet tall, made it not only the tallest church in the city, but New York’s tallest building, a title it would retain for nearly 50 years. Part of what made the church so perfect was that Upjohn had copied it, almost exactly, from the design for “An Ideal Church” in the book True Principals by A.W. Pugin, the leading English proponent of the Gothic Revival. And unlike many of Upjohn’s successors and imitators, he had an attention to detail—overseeing everything from the stained glass to the exterior carvings—that gave Trinity an unequalled aesthetic appeal. 
The building was also controversial, however, both inside and out. A devout “high church” Anglo-Catholic, Upjohn introduced architectural elements that were utterly foreign to most Americans, including a chancel at the west end of the church complete with a high altar and rows of choir stalls. (At first, this was deemed too Roman Catholic, and the stalls weren’t used.) Outside, the building was constructed of brownstone, a locally quarried, soft sandstone. The stone was chosen for its outward resemblance to materials used in medieval English architecture, but not only did it lack the strength of schist, it was also commonly considered a cheap building material. Though many people tend today to call all single-family townhouses in New York “brownstones,” in the 19th-century no one would have conflated cheaper brownstone buildings with their more expensive brick cousins. (In her autobiography, Edith Wharton deplored the look of New York, claiming it was bathed in a “universal chocolate-coloured coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried.”) Both at Trinity and at Ascension in Greenwich Village, Upjohn had to convince his employers that the look of brownstone outweighed its déclassé associations.

By illustrating the church from the Trinity Place side, the postcard also includes in the foreground the elevated railroad. Depicted in the postcard is the Rector Street station of the Sixth Avenue El; the line ran up Trinity Place, then connected to West Broadway, and ultimately jogged over to Sixth Avenue at West 3rd Street. (James wrote about this briefly in his West Broadway article last week.)

For a better look at the station, check out this image:

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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Postcard Thursday: West Broadway

The Bradford Plan, courtesy of the Boston Public Library
Today's not-a-postcard (see last week's post) shows New York City as it appeared on the Bradford Map, ca. 1728-30. In those days, the city barely made it north of today's City Hall Park (labelled here"Common").

This image is just one of many accompanying James's article that was published today on the history of West Broadway, the street that runs north from the World Trade Center to Washington Square.

West Broadway is one of those afterthought streets to many New Yorkers: people know it's there, but it usually doesn't make much of an impact. It turns out the street has a colorful history--and maybe has had more names (and attempted name changes) than any Manhattan thoroughfare.

Read all about it in How West Broadway Became One of NYC's Most Important Streets at -- and share with your friends!


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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Times Tower Redux

(courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Welcome to 2016! One of the things you'll notice with "Postcard Thursday" this year are more old photos, advertisements, etc. We'll still feature postcards from our collection, of course, but there such an abundance of good material out there -- why not share it all?

Last Thursday, we blogged about the Times Tower in Times Square and its role as the location of the annual ball drop on New Year's Eve.

"The great white way" B'way south from 42nd St (courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Today, we revisit the same building (pictured above before it had all the signage added to its facade). Did you know that the most expensive of those ads cost $4 million a year to rent? Even amortized over the billions of eyeballs that see them just on New Year's Eve alone, is it worth it?

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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Times Square, Western Union, and the Time Ball

Tonight, it is estimated that more than 1 billion people around the world will watch the illuminated ball drop in Times Square to ring in the new year. This New Year’s tradition in Times Square dates back to 1907—the dropping ball replaced an earlier fireworks display—but the notion of dropping a ball as a way of keeping time is a much older tradition.

In 1877, a ball was added to the top of the Western Union Building on Lower Broadway. (We couldn't find a postcard of this building in our collection; the above stereo slide from the Library of Congress will have to do.) Each day at noon, a telegraph signal from Western Union’s main office in Washington, DC, would trip a switch in New York and the ball would descend from the flagpole. Visible throughout the Financial District—and, more importantly, from all the ships in the harbor—it allowed people to reset their watches and ship chronometers. For the first time, New York ran on a standard time.

As the New York Times noted in 1877, this idea of a ball dropping to keep the time wasn’t new. For many years prior to the Civil War, the New York custom house had signaled the time with a ball drop, and in the 1870s it was common to find time balls in major European ports. However, when it began operation in April 1877, the Western Union ball was the only one in a North American port and quickly became a fixture of the Manhattan skyline.

Telegraph wires run on Broadway outside the Western Union Building. After the Blizzard of 1888, these would all be buried underground.
Western Union, afraid that the time ball wasn’t always going to work, set up a system whereby a red flag would be flown from 12:01 to 12:10 p.m. on days that the ball refused to drop. Further, information would be sent to the press each day informing them whether the ball actually dropped at noon or had fallen at the wrong time!

When the Times ushered in New Year's from their brand-new skyscraper in Times Square in 1904, they did so with fireworks shot from the building's rooftop. However, the police soon began to fear that fireworks might be a hazard in the rapidly developing neighborhood.

Instead, in 1907, the Times adopted the time ball as their symbol for ushering in the new year and placed a giant ball atop their skyscraper. That original Times Square ball, made of iron and wood and lit by 25 incandescent lights, weighed 700 pounds. We've been dropping a ball from the top of that building ever since. The current time ball, lit by energy-efficient LED diodes, now stays atop the old Times Building year round so that everyone who visits New York can see the actual ball that drops on New Year’s Eve.

Happy New Year everyone!
Michelle & James

[This article was adopted from an earlier post from 2009.]

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Postcard Thursday: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas...

'Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
Not even a mouse.

Those immortal words, first published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel in 1823, have become a central part of the American Christmas story. They were penned by Clement Clarke Moore, a prominent New Yorker, and together with Thomas Nast's depictions of Santa later in the century (such as the 1881 version above) helped shaped our modern ideas of Santa Claus.

We write about both men in Footprints in New York and Inside the Apple, though in neither case about their contributions to Christmas.

Moore was a major landowner and important to the growth of both Greenwich Village and Chelsea. As we write in Footprints:
To his contemporaries, Moore was best known as a Greek language scholar at the Episcopal Church’s General Seminary, and for his vast farm, Chelsea, which gave rise to the neighborhood of the same name. Today, people recognize him as the author of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (aka “Twas the Night Before Christmas”), the well-known poem that imbued the American Santa Claus with a healthy dose of his mother’s family’s Dutch traditions. 
In Inside the Apple, we note that
Moore was descended from distinguished New York families: his large family estate, Chelsea, which gave rise to the modern-day neighborhood, had originally been owned by his grandfather, Major Thomas Clarke, a veteran of the French and Indian War. Moore’s father, Bishop Benjamin Moore, was the head of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and twice president of Columbia College. 
In 1817, soon after Bishop Moore’s death, the Episcopal Church convened in New York to establish the General Theological Seminary. Jacob Sherred, a member of the Trinity Church vestry, donated $70,000 and Clement Clarke Moore agreed to donate 66 lots from his Chelsea estate to house the school. (The seminary met elsewhere until construction could begin in the 1820s.) Moore, already the author of a well-regarded Hebrew lexicon, was also hired to serve on its faculty, teaching Biblical languages until 1850.
Moore is also the person responsible for building the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in Greenwich Village.
Even for someone of Moore’s social station and wealth, commuting from Chelsea to [go to church all the way down in] the city was difficult. The best route was via the Hudson River by sloop, but this wasn’t always possible or practical. Overland, there were two options: the longer route via the Albany Post Road on the east side of the island, which connected to the Bowery and then to Lower Broadway or the shorter “Road to Greenwich,” which ran up the Hudson side of the island to the vicinity of 14th Street. However, this road (today called Greenwich Street), was so close to the river—and had to go through at least one swamp—that it was rutted, muddy, and frequently impassable.
Moore’s solution to this quandary was to ally with residents of the nearby village of Greenwich and convince Trinity Church to sell off part of the northern section of their land so that an independent Episcopal church could be established. The cornerstone for the church was laid in 1821 at a site on the corner of Hudson and Burrows [now Grove] Streets. The name of St. Luke, the healing evangelist, was chosen to reflect Greenwich’s role as a place of refuge for New Yorkers during summer outbreaks of yellow fever and other pestilence. Due to its rural location, the parish was soon dubbed St. Luke in the Fields and it became the center of religious life for the residents of Greenwich, Chelsea, and other outlying areas.
Thomas Nast, meanwhile, is probably best remembered today for his role in bringing down William "Boss" Tweed through his political cartoons in The New York Times and Harper's Weekly. Nast's poison pen was so famous, in fact, that there's a folk etymology that the word "nasty" comes from his name. That's not true, but it gives a sense of how damning his pictures could be.

Nast is also the person who gave us the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party and the donkey for the Democrats. In an 1870 issue of Harper's Weekly, Nast launched the donkey as a symbol of the Democratic party. In the cartoon, Nast was lambasting the Copperhead faction of the party -- which had opposed the Civil War -- and those Democratic papers that continued to criticize Lincoln's recently deceased Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. Nast's critique is not terribly subtle: Stanton is "lionized" by the cartoonist and the Democrats are branded jackasses.

In fact, the donkey had an association with the party dating back to President Andrew Jackson, who had been openly called a jackass by his opponents. But it was Nast's ongoing use of the symbol in the 1870s that brought it lasting popularity. In 1874, he introduced the elephant as his representation of the Republicans, minting the symbols that the parties still use to this day.

But despite Nast's pointed political statements, he had a soft spot for the holidays. Beginning in 1863, he would draw pictures of Santa Claus or families celebrating together for Harper's, culminating in 1881 with the image at the top of this post, which is still seen by many as the iconic depiction of St. Nick.

Have a safe and happy holiday!
Michelle & James

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Friday, December 18, 2015

Postcard Thursday: The Great Fire of 1835

The image in today's postcard (which is actually a commemorative print) depicts an event that took place over three days, December 16-18, 1835. So, technically, Postcard Thursday isn't one day late.

This year marks the 180th anniversary of the Great Fire of 1835, the most devastating fire in the Western Hemisphere since London's near-total destruction in 1666.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
On the night of December 16, 1835, a gas line broke in a dry goods store near Hanover Square in the Financial District; the gas, ignited by a coal stove, caused the store to explode and the ensuing fire quickly fanned southward along Stone Street and northeast toward Wall Street. Not only was it the worst fire in New York’s history, it wiped away almost all of the remaining traces of the old Dutch and British colonial city. 
New York had some of the nation’s strictest fire codes; buildings were never erected with common walls, and brick and stone were favored over cheaper wood (though this was as much about status as safety). Every home was required to have a leather fire bucket affixed to a hook by the door and every business had to have at least two. At the sound of the first alarm, the city’s volunteer fire companies turned out in force. As per instructions, every fire bucket was made ready, and bucket brigades formed to nearby wells and cisterns. Unfortunately, it had been so cold for so many nights that the wells were frozen solid. 
When the firefighters changed tack and headed for the East River instead, they found to their chagrin that the river was frozen, too. With no other source of running water, they were forced to improvise. At the ends of the piers, holes were hacked in the ice and fire engines lowered down to pump water. However, by the time they were able to get any water flowing, the hoses had frozen, and when they did manage to get water up, most of it was blown back as frozen ice into the faces of the firemen. In some places, the only way to stop the fire’s spread was to blow up buildings in its path to create a makeshift firebreak.

Mayor Philip Hone, one of the great diarists of New York in the 19th century, wrote:

“December 17—How shall I record the events of last night, or how attempt to describe the most awful calamity which has ever visited these United States? The greatest loss by fire that has ever been known…. I am fatigued in body, disturbed in mind, and my fancy filled with images of horror which my pen is inadequate to describe.”

In the end, the fire had to burn itself out and, in the process, it destroyed much of the area between Broadway and Pearl Street in the financial district. If you happen to be down in that neighborhood, take a walk down the block of Stone Street that connects Hanover Square to Coenties Slip. This is the area known today for its string of restaurants and pubs; the buildings themselves, however, form a sort of memorial to the fire. Almost all of them were built within a 12-month period in 1836-37 to replace countinghouses and warehouses destroyed in the Great Fire. Notice how many of the buildings have extra wide doors (to haul in cargo) and strong, granite curbs to keep goods from accidentally plunging in to the basement.

courtesy of the New York Public Library
There are supposedly no other, official memorials to the Great Fire, despite the fact that it was the largest urban fire since London’s Great Fire in 1661. But when we were writing Inside the Apple, we found one. During the worst of the fire,
a valiant attempt was made to rescue a 15-foot statue of Alexander Hamilton from the floor of the exchange, but just as the statue reached the doorway the roof collapsed, destroying it. The statue, by Robert Ball Hughes, was the first marble statue created in the United States and had only been installed eight months earlier. Though it took 45 years, the statue was ultimately replaced by Hamilton’s youngest son, John C. Hamilton, and it stands in Central Park behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This statue in the park is remarkable in that it is made entirely of granite—not the easiest stone to carve—and it has long been thought that John C. Hamilton commissioned the work out of this durable stone so that no matter what calamities might befall Central Park, his father’s statue would endure.
courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Postcard Thursday: West Broadway Walk

Today's image shows the elevated trains running in front of Ralph Walker's 1930 Western Union Building on West Broadway. The building, which was the telegraph company's headquarters until 1973, is just one of the many marvelous places we'll be visiting on our walking tour this Sunday, December 13, at Noon that explores the history of West Broadway.

We still have a few spaces available. The tours lasts about 2 hours and costs $15 per person.... or pay $25 and get a copy of Footprints in New York included in your ticket price.

To reserve:

Send an email to with your
  • Name
  • Number of people in your party
  • How many are paying $15 (tour only) and how many are paying $25 (tour plus book).
  • A cell number where we can reach you on the day of the tour in case of complications.The meeting place for the tour will be in your confirmation.

Please note: we try to send email confirmations within 24 hours.

Looking forward to seeing you!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Central Park "Improvements"

Many readers of this blog and of Inside the Apple and Footprints in New York will know that Central Park's Tavern on the Green was originally a sheepfold.

But what many people don't know is that it wasn't supposed to be in the park at all -- it was an addition made during the era that William "Boss" Tweed ran the park.

James has a story on Curbed that details many of the "mutilations, intrusions and perversions" that have been proposed over the years for the park. Most have never made it off the drawing board, but some -- like Tavern -- are now integral parts of the park.

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We still have room on our tour of West Broadway on

Sunday, December 13, at Noon.

Read all about it at

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