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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Washington Square Tombstone Unearthed -- Part 2

photo courtesy of the New York City Parks Department.

Following up on our post yesterday, the Parks Department has revealed the tombstone that was recently uncovered in Washington Square Park. It reads:

"Here lies the body of James Jackson, who departed this life the 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years native of the county of Kildare Ireland."

You can read more about the discovery in Gothamist and the New York Times.

(And, of course, you can read more about Washington Square Park its role as a city cemetery in Inside the Apple.)

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Washington Square Tombstone Unearthed

image courtesy of the LIFE Magazine archive on Google.

As has been reported in Gothamist, Curbed, and elsewhere, the WSP blog broke the news yesterday that a tombstone has been unearthed during the ongoing renovations of Washington Square Park.

It is well-known that the park was once a potter's field and by some estimates up to 20,000 people were buried there. (We write about the park's early history in depth in Inside the Apple.) However, what has people scratching their heads is the fact that you don't normally find a tombstone in a potter's field.

The tombstone isn't so mysterious, however. Only a portion of today's park was the potter's field. As Luther Harris writes in his wonderful book, Around Washington Square:

The land area [of the original square]...was about 6-1/4 acres, a respectable public space, but not a grand one. Much narrower than today's square, the potter's field was limited on the east by a strip of church cemeteries, and on the west by Minetta Creek, which ran southwest from the foot of Fifth Avenue to the corner of MacDougal and West Fourth Street. (italics added)
Thus, it seems likely considering where the current excavations are happening that what's been unearthed is a tombstone from one of these church graveyards. The Scotch Presbyterian Church owned the largest cemetery and vehemently opposed the park's usurpation of their land. Perhaps this is one of their brethren? We await a full report.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

New York City "Bucket List"

We've mentioned in the past that we've written and narrated a few tours for our friends over at CityListen Audio Tours, which produces wonderful (if we do say so ourselves) walks of New York, Paris, Chicago, and San Francisco.

We are guest blogging for CityListen today; they asked us to come up with a "Bucket List" of places in New York that everyone should see before they die. That list, of course, could have hundreds of entries, but we limited ourselves to ten. What would be on your list? Head on over to the blog and let us know!

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Continue to Celebrate New York’s 400th at the New York Public Library, South Street Seaport, and the Bard Graduate Center

In the last week, we were able to visit three exhibitions currently on view that are tied to the ongoing celebrations of Henry Hudson’s arrival in New York in 1609: New Amsterdam: Island at the Center of the World at the South Street Seaport Museum; Mapping New York’s Shoreline, 1609-1909 at the New York Public Library; and Dutch New York Between East and West: The World of Margrieta van Varick at the Bard Graduate Center. Each show has something to recommend it and together they make a great way to explore the importance of Dutch New Amsterdam and the influence of the Dutch on future generations.

Mapping New York’s Shoreline, 1609-1909
This exhibition has the broadest mission of the three. However, it lacks focus, presenting everything from early views of New Amsterdam to aerial maps of Hoboken, New Jersey. And while the exhibit bills itself as four hundred years of maps, the Dutch period is only slightly represented (and in maps and images that are better seen at the South Street Seaport show; see below).

On the other hand, the show’s overly broad scope is also its strong point: the (late) Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal of Jordan Map Division is one America’s finest cartographic collections and with such a rich variety of New York maps to choose from, the curators do a good job of illustrating the growth and change of the island over the last four centuries. Particularly interesting is the section on Henry Rutgers’s farm, which occupied what is now the Lower East Side south of Division Street, and the maps that depict how the area was turned into the wealthy suburban enclave in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. (The Lower East Side was gentrified even then!)

New Amsterdam: The Island at the Center of the World
The New Amsterdam exhibition at the South Street Seaport Museum also features a number of maps, many of them borrowed from the Dutch National Archives, and they are stunning. The best piece in the show is the Castello Plan, the 1660 map of New Amsterdam drawn by surveyor Jacques Cortelyou, which was the first accurate depiction of the city. Many of the images in the collection are by cartographer Johannes Vingboons. Though Vingboons never left the Netherlands, he worked from charts, maps, and other sketches to create incredible watercolor views of Dutch territories from New Amsterdam to Indonesia.

What has been touted most about this show is the inclusion of “Manhattan’s birth certificate” – a letter from Pieter Schagen that mentions the 60 guilder deal struck by Peter Minuit in 1626 to purchase the island of the Manhattan. As we mention in Inside the Apple, there was once an actual deed for this transaction, but it was thrown away or auctioned off over 200 years ago. So what we have today isn’t the original birth certificate, but more of a birth announcement. (Alert the birthers!)

The exhibition is well worth savoring, but don’t expect it to be easy to follow. The rooms are poorly arranged the explanatory text panels are sometimes confusing (or just plain wrong). But that shouldn't stop you from visiting this wonderful show.

Dutch New York Between East and West: The World of Margrieta van Varick
To round out your exploration of Dutch America, head up to the Bard Graduate Center to get a peek into the sort of life a wealthy New Amsterdammer would have lived.

The show revolves around the inventory of Margrieta van Varick (of the Varick Street van Varicks), which enumerates Margrieta’s extensive holdings when she died in Flatbush in 1695. Having lived in the Netherlands, Dutch-controlled Malaysia, and Brooklyn, Margrieta had acquired a tremendous array of objects. On top of that, she owned a textile shop and would have had goods in the inventory that were her stock in trade. Finding the actual objects listed was impossible; instead, the curators found contemporary examples of the types of things she owned, from a Japanese silk robe to incredible detailed silver children’s toys. If you are interested in New York’s early history or just simply like looking at wonderful decorative art, this show is a must-see.

Mapping New York’s Shoreline, 1609-1909. On view at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (that’s the main branch) at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Through June 26, 2010.

New Amsterdam: The Island at the Center of the World. On view at the South Street Seaport Museum at 12 Fulton Street. Through January 3, 2010.
Dutch New York Between East and West: The World of Margrieta van Varick. On view at the Bard Graduate Center, 18 West 86th Street. Through January 3, 2010.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cooper Mania: Free access into the Great Hall at Cooper Union and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

Two great architectural spaces in New York are having free events this week and next that will grant you access to some of the city’s great interior spaces. (If you are not already worn out from last weekend’s openhousenewyork events.*)

On Thursday, October 15, the Cooper Union is continuing their year-long celebration of their 150th birthday with “Great Evenings in The Great Hall: Science and Technology,” a multimedia lecture featuring such notables as Adam Gopnik, Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus, and a slew of writers and actors. The Cooper Union was founded by industrialist and inventor Peter Cooper, to whom we devote a chapter in Inside the Apple. Among Cooper’s many notable accomplishments, he patented edible gelatin (a by-product of his glue factory), thus giving the world Jell-O. When Cooper Union opened, its Great Hall (where the lecture will be held) was the largest auditorium space in the city and in 1860 it was the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Right Makes Might” speech, which was instrumental in garnering him the Republican nomination and the presidency.

Then, starting on Monday, October 19, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is opening doors free of charge for a week to celebrate National Design Week.

The Cooper-Hewitt was founded by Amy, Eleanor, and Sarah Hewitt who were daughters of Mayor Abram Hewitt (more on him in a later post) and granddaughters of Peter Cooper. It is housed in the former home steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and the house is the subject of another chapter in Inside the Apple.

So, grab your copy of the book and head out to enjoy these two wonderful spaces!

* Many thanks to those who were able to join us for our exploration
of Gramercy Park with openhouse
we look forward to doing similar tours in the future.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Contrast by Royall Tyler at the Metropolitan Playhouse

The Metropolitan Playhouse, one of the best small theaters dedicated to perpetuating America’s theatrical heritage, is back with a great new production of Royall Tyler’s The Contrast. Written in 1787, it was the first play performed in the new republic by a professional acting troupe. Set in post-Revolutionary War New York, it provides a fascinating (if exaggerated) glimpse into the city’s residents and their love/hate relationship with Great Britain’s fashions and mores.

Born in Boston, Tyler had served in the Continental Army and after the war was part of the Massachusetts troops that put down Shays Rebellion. On a visit to New York, Tyler saw Sheridan’s School for Scandal and was inspired to write an American version. The play premiered on April 16, 1787, at the John Street Theater (New York’s only theater) and was enough of a success that it was repeated multiple times.

Like many comedies of manners, the story revolves around a love triangle: three women (Charlotte, Letitia, and Maria) are all in love with Mister Dimple, the local fop, who spends his time reading Chesterfield* and practicing bowing in a mirror. Dimple, the audience finds out early on, is from an old New York Dutch family named Van Dumpling; his name change is an affectation following a grand tour of Europe.

The play contains many other New York references, from walks on the “Mall” (perhaps the fashionable end of Lower Broadway) to excursions to the Battery. More importantly, it illustrates that in the decade after America’s victory in the Revolution, New York was caught between forging a distinct American identity and taking its cultural cues from Europe.

At the Metropolitan Playhouse, director Alex Roe makes the very smart decision to eschew the costumes in this costume drama. Instead, the talented company dressed in tank tops, pants, and skirts pantomimes when necessary but mostly just allows the audience to concentrate on the words – which are often hysterical. Particularly funny is the relationship between two servants: Jessamy, who works for (and apes) Billy Dimple, and Jonathan, a clownish Yankee, who serves a former Continental army colonel.

The play opens on Friday, October 9 and runs through November 1. The run time is a little more than 2-1/2 hours with one intermission. Tickets are $20 (with discounts for students and seniors); for more information, please visit

* In the 1740s and 50s, the Earl of Chesterfield wrote a series of letters to his son instructing him on manners, decorum, and how to go about finding a rich patron.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Guest blogging at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

In conjunction with our talk tonight at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, they have graciously asked us to blog for them today. Those of you familiar with the neighborhood may know tiny Petrosino Square, which has been undergoing renovation and is slated to reopen soon. In our blog entry (HERE), we look at the square's namesake, along with that of its former appellation, Kenmare Square.

Hope to you see you tonight at the museum.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Manhattan Gets Its Name

The celebration of New York's 400th anniversary is winding down, but today -- October 2 -- marks a significant moment in the city's history: the 400th anniversary of Robert Juet (Henry Hudson's first mate) writing down the name Manna-hata for the first time.

The 1609 voyage was Juet's second with Hudson and there was no love lost between the two men. On their previous voyage together, Juet had organized the crew against Hudson, but it had stopped short of mutiny. Why exactly Hudson re-hired Juet in 1609 is unclear, but Hudson clearly recognized the mate's talents, including that of a diarist. Juet kept a clear and concise record of their trip -- still grumbling in places about Hudson's leadership -- and his chronicle of their trip up and down the Hudson River is the first European account of the area.

As they voyaged back from the Albany area, the Half Moon anchored on October 2, 1609, near the palisades. In his log, Juet wrote:

[W]e saw a very good piece of ground; and hard by it there was a cliff that looked of the colour of white green, as though it were either a copper or silver mine; and I think it to be one of them by the trees that grow upon it; for they be all burned, and the other places are green as grass; it is on that side of the river that is called Manna-hata.

Thus, on October 2, 1609, Manna-hata had its name written down by Europeans for the first time and Manhattan was born.

(Hudson sailed one more time, in 1610, looking -- as always -- for a northwest passage to the Pacific. On this voyage, Juet finally led the crew in an uprising and Hudson was cast out of the ship in a small boat, never to be seen again.)

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