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Monday, May 24, 2010

Happy Birthday Brooklyn Bridge (and Queen Victoria)

Today, May 24, marks the 127th anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge is a fascinating subject, the focus of many books, films, and even an Italian gum. (And a full chapter in Inside the Apple.)

also marks the 191st birthday of Queen Victoria. And back in 1883 when the bridge opened, this conjunction of dates proved to be a problem.

Many of the thousands of workers who constructed the bridge between 1869 and 1883 were Irish and they had no great love for the queen. Victoria's ministers were seen as having obstructed aid to the Irish during the great potato famine (which began in 1845) and rumors circulated that the queen had donated only
 £5 to the Irish -- and on the same day she'd given the same amount to a dog shelter. That wasn't true, but it didn't matter much to New York's large Irish population, who tried to persuade the city to postpone the bridge's opening ceremonies to a different day. The city refused but then began to worry that the bridge workers would cause a disturbance and had to pay for extra police to quell any possible riots.

The grand opening -- an elaborate ceremony that included President Chester A. Arthur, Governor Grover Cleveland, and the mayors of New York and Brooklyn (then still independent cities) -- went smoothly with no violence. Indeed, the biggest problem came a week later when a throng of pedestrians (who had paid a penny each to cross the span) got scared and cried out that the bridge was collapsing, In the ensuing melee, a dozen people were trampled to death.

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Read more about the Brooklyn Bridge in

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Monday, May 17, 2010

The New York Stock Exchange turns 218 Years Old

On May 17, 1792 -- 218 years ago today -- the New York Stock Exchange was founded with the signing of the Buttonwood Agreement.

The agreement launched the New York Stock and Exchange Board (the precursor to today's NYSE) and was signed by 24 members who met underneath the buttonwood tree outside 68 Wall Street. As we write in Inside the Apple:

"The first rule [in the agreement] was that they would only trade with each other. The second rule simply stated that they would hold commissions to 'one quarter of one percent.'"
After a succession of homes, the NYSE now sits at the corner of Broad and Wall in an imposing 1903 structure by George B. Post. But a tiny forlorn tree stands in front of the new building (now safely behind the fence) as a remembrance of the exchange's humble beginnings.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Washington Square Arch Turns 115 Today

Today marks the 115th anniversary of the unveiling of the marble memorial arch in Washington Square. Designed by famed architect Stanford White, the arch was built between 1890-1892, making it the first significant edifice in the city's Beaux Arts period.

White actually built the arch twice. The first one was made of wood, plaster, and 
papier-mâché and erected on Fifth Avenue just north of Washington Square in 1889 as a part of the festivities in honor of the centennial of George Washington's inaugural. (The Washington centennial was one of the largest parties New York had ever thrown. Its massive parade not only featured President Benjamin Harrison but also former presidents Cleveland and Arthur and every governor of the 22 states then in the Union.) As soon as the centennial festivities were over, a fundraising committee was established to create a permanent, marble replacement.

Though construction of the arch proceeded quickly -- it was certainly complete by the Christopher Columbus quadricentennial in October 1892 -- the official unveiling did not take place until May 4, 1895. A huge crowd gathered to watch the military and New York's governor (former Vice President Levi P. Morton) parade down Fifth Avenue to the arch; the New York Times exclaimed that "a more orderly, courteous, and intelligent gathering of people has never been seen in New-York City than that which occupied the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue yesterday."

In fact, the arch wasn't fully complete when it was unveiled: the two statue bases on the Fifth Avenue side of the arch were conspicuously empty and would remain that way until 1915-17 when the two statues of Washington were finally erected. (Notice that the statues are missing in the early photo, above.)

The arch was the first major structure to embody the principles of the growing City Beautiful movement. That movement is often associated with the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but White's arch came first. An article in the Times in 1894 about the brand-new Municipal Arts Society, sums up the goals of the City Beautiful thinkers:

"The adornment of courtrooms and public buildings  with paintings and statuary keeps before the poorest and most indifferent citizens several things which cannot be too frequently presented to their eyes. One is that New-York is a great city with an illustrious past, a city to be loved, taken pride in, and guarded from despoilers from within and without. Another is that New-York contains many thousands of people who are not blind to the higher needs of the mass of citizens less energetic or less fortunate than themselves. The bitterness of poverty and disappointment is sweetened a little by signs of interest in, signs of respect for, the great mass of toilers."
So, head on down to Washington Square today to look at White's magnificent monument -- and show respect for the great mass of toilers -- and celebrate the beginning of Beaux Arts New York.

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Not only is the Washington Arch a stop on the Greenwich Village tour in our book, Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City, it is also featured in the special tour we put together of Stanford White's New York, which you can download here. (To do the Stanford White tour, you will need a copy of Inside the Apple, available online or at fine bookstores everywhere.)

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