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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Plymouth Rock

Today, December 21, marks the date the Pilgrims left the Mayflower and landed in the town they'd call Plymouth (or "Plimoth"). According to legend, the first boulder they encountered was what we now call Plymouth Rock, which sits on the shore of Plymouth Harbor inside a classical pavilion.

Plymouth Rock today
The story of the Pilgrims is extremely relevant to the history of New York City, because Manhattan was their intended destination.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
The Pilgrims’ voyage to the New World, which started out from the Dutch city of Leiden where they’d lived in exile, worried the fur traders. In the common Thanksgiving story, it’s usually left out that the Pilgrims weren’t en route to Massachusetts at all (which lay outside English territory) but instead had been granted the island at the northern limit of the Virginia colony: Manhattan. (Virginia’s claim to Manhattan was long-standing. When John Smith wrote to Henry Hudson about a Northwest Passage, it was because the river he was describing was part of Virginia.) 
After a rocky start, where the Pilgrims were forced to abandon one of their two ships—perhaps because of sabotage by Dutch merchants—they continued on to the New World on the Mayflower, disembarking in Plymouth after a half-hearted attempt to sail further south. When it became clear that the English settlers were not going to move to Manhattan, Dutch traders hurriedly began staking a firmer claim to their territory.

By 1820 — the 200th anniversary of their arrival —  the Pilgrims had long been an important part of the cultural DNA of New England, a section of the country that saw itself as separate from (and inherently better than) both the south and the Mid Atlantic states. As an anonymous contributor to the second volume of the New England Quarterly wrote in 1802: “If the inhabitants of New-England are superior to the people of other countries, their superiority is to be attributed to their moral habits.”

In the 1740s, a 94-year-old man named Thomas Faunce had first identified Plymouth Rock as the spot where the Pilgrims had come ashore; on the eve of the Revolution, the boulder was dragged by a team of twenty oxen to Plymouth’s town square to be placed at the foot of a liberty pole. During the move the rock broke in two — a sign of America’s impending war with Britain, some thought — which only served to endow it with greater meaning.

At the December 1776 Pilgrim anniversary, Sylvanus Conant, a descendant of Plymouth resident Roger Conant (who’d gone on to found the town of Salem), preached a sermon in “grateful memory of the first landing of our worthy ancestors” where he laid out the case for the Pilgrims as God’s chosen people. Conant compared the Pilgrims to the Israelites exiled to the wilderness, a “little persecuted flock,” and noted that despite their many afflictions, God “set their feet upon a rock, and established them so firmly that none of the powers or machinations formed against them have been able to pluck them up; but the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew.”

Conant also compared the persecution of the Pilgrims to the impending war. In the same way the Mayflower’s passengers had fled oppression under King James I, so, too, would the American Revolution throw off the shackles of King George III. Though Conant wasn’t explicit, his meaning was clear: the Pilgrims had come to America as a place of exile; their descendants — by overthrowing the British monarchy of Old England and completing the journey — would truly make New England the Promised Land.

On Forefathers' Day — December 22, 1820 — John Quincy Adams gave a speech in Plymouth where he outlined the Pilgrims as America's true founders. After first dismissing older settlements like the 1607 colony in Jamestown, Virginia (“avarice and ambition had tuned their souls to that pitch of exaltation. Selfish passions were the parents of their heroism”), Adams noted that it was “reserved for the first settlers of New trample down obstructions equally formidable, to dispel dangers equally terrific, under the single inspiration of conscience.” Indeed, most remarkable to Adams were not the religious struggles of these Pilgrims — a term he helped popularize with this speech — but their civic-mindedness. In drawing up and signing the Mayflower Compact while at anchor off the coast of the Massachusetts, Adams argued that the Pilgrims created
the only instance in human history of [an] original social compact, which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government. Here was a unanimous and personal assent, by all the individuals of the community, to the association by which they became a nation.
Of course, by the end of the 19th century, the story of the Pilgrims would have grown far beyond the confines of New England and become an integral part of the new Thanksgiving Holiday.

Happy Forefathers' (and Foremothers') Day!


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The Death of George Washington

"First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in humble and enduring scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding; his example was as edifying to all around him.... [V]ice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues. ... Such was the man for whom our nation mourns." -- Henry ("Light Horse Harry") Lee

On December 14, 1799, former president George Washington breathed his last at Mount Vernon. Washington was not the first Founding Father to pass away -- Benjamin Franklin had died nine years earlier -- but he was already widely acknowledged as the "Father" of his country and quickly transformed into a symbol of America. Dozens of cities, towns, parks, lakes, and boulevards are named from him across the country, and he is memorialized with countless statues and other monuments.

One of the most famous of these statues, by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, was completed during Washington's lifetime. Houdon was hired by the Virginia General Assembly in 1784 and traveled from France to Mount Vernon in the summer of 1785. He stayed at Mount Vernon that fall, measuring Washington limbs and taking a life mask (below) from which he could work once he was back in France. The statue was completed around 1792 and installed in 1796 in the rotunda of the Virginia state capitol.

Starting in the 1850s numerous casts of the Houdon statue were made, including a bronze copy that now stands in the rotunda of New York's City Hall. Prior to that (from 1883 to 1907), the work stood in Riverside Park between 88th and 89th Street near the Soldiers and Sailors monument. According to Peter Salwen's Upper West Side Story, the statue had been unearthed in the arsenal in Central Park by parks commissioner Egbert Viele. According to a contemporary guide to the city, "children of the public schools of the city" raised the funds to have the statue erected in the park, very near Viele's home. By 1907, it had been moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to a 1908 edition of the New-York Tribune, because the statue was only life size and not "heroic size, as statues have to be to look well out of doors," it was taken to the Met to be put on display. When, precisely, it then migrated to City Hall is unclear, though it seems to be sometime in the 1960s.

Of course, New York has many other Washington monuments, including Henry Kirke Brown's equestrian statue in Union Square, JQA Ward's standing figure on the steps of Federal Hall National Memorial, and the Washington Square Arch, erected to honor the centennial of Washington's inauguration.


Thursday, December 7, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Planned Communities

courtesy of Tudor City Confidential

James has a story in today's New York Post about planned communities -- from Tudor City (above) to Garden City, Long Island, to Battery Park City -- and their utopian overtones.

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Postcard Thursday: St. John the Divine, 1941

On November 30, 1941—76 years ago today—a celebration kicked off at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights to mark the completion of its massive nave.

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...[the] apse, which called for the world’s largest granite columns.
In 1907, before even the apse and choir were finished, [chief architect] George Heins died, which freed the cathedral from their contract with [his] firm. Once the apse was completed in 1911, the cathedral...hired Gothic aficionado Ralph Adams Cram to finish the church. Cram promised he could build the church faster and bigger.... 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.
Though some additional construction work on the cathedral has taken place in the intervening decades, most of the development on cathedral property today involves apartment buildings.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Happy Thanksgiving

Last year, James wrote a brief history of Thanksgiving for the Guardian US. Our national holiday has less to do with the Pilgrims (shown above landing on Plymouth Rock in December 1620) and more with northern abolitionism and a writer named Sarah Josepha Hale, who launched the celebration we know it today.

Not everyone was on board. As James writes in the piece, one critic complained that "Thanksgiving was an attempt to replace the 'legitimate Christian holiday' of Christmas with a secular day where 'an astonishing quantity of execrable liquor will be guzzled.'"

Here's hoping that you guzzle an astonishing quantity of the beverage of your choice today while remembering Hale's call for this to be a charitable day of “benevolence of action” and that “every American home” should be a “place of plenty and of rejoicing."

Read the full story at The Guardian's website and feel free to share with your friends and family.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The Battle of Washington Heights

Should you find yourself in Washington Heights, stop by Fort Tryon Park (home to the Cloisters); today marks the 241st anniversary of the battle of Fort Washington, where 3,000 Hessian troops and 5,000 British regulars overwhelmed the American troops. 

In the fall of 1776, the Americans were on the run. They'd abandoned Lower Manhattan in September and despite a minor American victory in Harlem Heights on September 16, George Washington's troops were then routed at White Plains on October 28. In the wake of that loss, Washington ordered General Nathanael Greene to abandon Fort Washington in Upper Manhattan and head to New Jersey. However, Greene and the post's commanding officer, Colonel Robert Magaw, convinced Washington that the fort was defensible. That turned out to be a grave miscalculation, in part because one of Magaw's soldiers, William Demont, turned out to be a traitor, and had already given the British details of the fort's defenses.

By the end of the battle, 59 Americans had been killed and nearly 3,000 taken as prisoners of war. Many of these prisoners would subsequently die in the fetid conditions of British prison ships in Wallabout Bay, Brooklyn.

One American killed was John Corbin. His wife Margaret, a nurse who been allowed to join the soldiers in the fort, took his place at his cannon and continued firing until she was gravely injured. She never fully recovered from the wounds she received that day and later became the first woman to receive a military pension.

Fort Washington itself stood where Bennett Park sits in Washington Heights. After the British victory, the fortifications were renamed after Sir William Tryon, the British governor; today, the main road in Fort Tryon Park honors Margaret Corbin.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Armistice Day and Sgt. York

This Saturday marks the 99th anniversary of the end of World War I. In 1919, America created a new holiday, Armistice Day, to mark the fact that the peace treaty was signed on November 11, 1918. In 1954, that holiday became Veterans Day, honoring all those who have served in the armed forces.

The photo above shows Wall Street in 1918 celebrating the end of the war with a spontaneous barrage of ticker-tape.

After the war, Avenue A on the Upper East Side was named York Avenue after one of the heroes of the war, Sgt. Alvin C. York. Below is the text from one of our most popular posts (slightly modified) about York and his eponymous street.

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Most New Yorkers probably haven’t given a second thought to York Avenue, the thoroughfare that runs from 59th Street to 91st Street just east of First Avenue. And if they have thought much about its name, they probably ascribed it to the Duke of York, for whom the city was named back in 1664.

However, York Avenue is actually a much more recent appellation: it was named in 1928 to honor Sergeant Alvin C. York, America’s most renowned World War I hero. Alvin York (1887-1964) was drafted in 1917. Though a conscientious objector (his application for CO status was denied), York became a hero during the Battle of the Argonne Forest. In an improbable feat of courage, York found himself in charge of his unit after many of his compatriots were killed and he managed to kill over 20 Germans soldiers and capture 132 more.

York was awarded the Medal of Honor and upon his return to the United States was feted in New York with a ticker tape parade. York regularly stayed in the news over the next decade, both for his efforts to help the rural poor of Tennessee (his home state) by building a school as well as for his aversion to accepting charity. When offered a free honeymoon, he turned it down stating it would just be a “vainglorious call of the world and the devil.”

In April 1928, York had the honor of having Avenue A from 59th Street northward named for him. The move was sponsored by the First Avenue Association in an effort to revive the fortunes of the east side, which was better known for its German enclave (later dubbed “Yorkville”) and Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert’s brewery. Back in 1807, when the city deployed surveyor John Randal, Jr., to map out the new Cartesian grid plan, he and his team chose to create twelve wide avenues that ran the length of the island from Houston Street north. However, this left the problem of the area of the Lower East Side and Upper East Side where there was enough room east of the grid plan for more streets. Randal solved this problem by naming these eastern avenues “A,” “B,” etc. and on the original 1811 map of Manhattan, there is both an Avenue A in today’s East Village and one on the Upper East Side. (East End Avenue was originally designated Avenue B.)

This idea of renaming a street after a war hero to bolster its real estate values was not new. Anthony and Orange streets—two of the worst streets leading into the old Five Points neighborhood—were renamed Worth and Baxter in the early 1850s after two of New York’s two great heroes from the Mexican-American War, General William Jenkins Worth and Colonel Charles Baxter.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Martin Luther

In the midst of Halloween and the terrorist attack in Lower Manhattan, it may have slipped by that October 31 was also the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, perhaps the most important moment in western culture in the last millennium.

James wrote a travel story for The New York Post about visiting sites in Germany associated with Luther and his circle. You can read it at:

(James was also interviewed for this story about haunted New York, also in the Post

Friday, October 27, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Dodging Trolleys

While some New Yorkers may have tuned out after the Yankees were eliminated from contention, there's a World Series going on between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles (née Brooklyn) Dodgers. Tied at one game apiece, the series now moves to Houston.

The Dodgers were founded in Brooklyn in 1883 as the Brooklyn Grays, but by 1895 had acquired the nickname "Trolley Dodgers" after the increasing need for residents of Brooklyn to speed across streets to avoid oncoming trolleys. Not everyone was successful, and news reports of the era are filled with trolley accidents, such as the one in Newark (above) that killed ten children. 

For years the team went by many names, including the Brooklyn Bridgegrooms and Hanlon's Superbas and did not officially adopt the Dodgers moniker until 1933.

To get some sense of what trolley dodging was like, watch this film from the early 1900s taken from the front of a trolley making its way around Manhattan.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Seward's Folly

This past Wednesday was Alaska Day, the holiday when the denizens of our 49th state commemorate the finalization of the purchase of Alaska from the Russians. This took place on October 18, 1867 -- 150 years ago -- in Sitka, Alaska, then known as New Archangel, which was the capital city of Russian America.

We visited Sitka in March for the kickoff of the town's 150th events and James wrote a piece for The New York Post which was published this week. Read all about it here:

William Seward, the Secretary of State who oversaw the transfer (dubbed by some "Seward's Folly"), was governor of New York and very nearly the 1860 Republican candidate for president. As Lincoln's Secretary of State,Seward was attacked on the same night that the president was killed as part of John Wilkes Booth's attempt to throw the Union into chaos. Today, a handsome statue of Seward sits in Madison Square Park.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Androboros at Fraunces Tavern

Three hundred years after it was written, America's first published play, Androboros: Villain of the State, has just had its world premiere at Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan.

The play was written by Governor Robert Hunter as a commentary on the fractious political climate of New York in the early 1700s. Following the English takeover of New Amsterdam in 1664, a succession of governors were appointed by the crown, each of whom had his own conflicts with the local populace. At the heart of Androboros lies the fact that three factions were constantly vying for power in the colony: the appointed governor (always an outsider), the colonial assembly (made up of locals, but fractured from within by its own disagreements), and the church. The rector of Trinity Church, William Vesey, had a particular dislike for Hunter. When someone befouled the vestments in the church sacristy in 1714, Vesey blamed Hunter, while Hunter -- as evidenced in this only lightly veiled satire -- clearly thought it was an inside job designed to make Hunter look bad.

If you are a student of early American drama or fascinated by the real-life drama that was New York in the English colonial era, then this play is for you. An able cast under the direction of the Peculiar Works Project's co-artistic director Ralph Lewis inhabits these roles with glee. In keeping with the commedia dell'arte origins of the play, the characters are all given ridiculous names (Vesey is Fizzle, Hunter is the Keeper, and the pompous man meant to save them all is Androboros ("man eater")), and the actors live up to their monikers, particularly Matt Roper as Androboros and Caiti Lattimer as Aesop, who is always quick with a story -- whether anyone wants to hear it or not.

The company also does a good job keeping the 80-minute play moving at the brisk clip that farce necessitates. While Fraunces Tavern is mostly a 1907 recreation of a colonial building, it is nice to see the work staged in a building that at least has its origins in Hunter's era.

The play runs on weekends through the end of October; tickets are $20 each and are available at

Monday, October 9, 2017

The History of the Bowery; The Fall of a Slumlord

In case you missed it, James had a wonderful story in Curbed this week tracing the history of New York's oldest street, The Bowery. Originally a deer path, the trail was used by subsequent generations of Native Americans and then widened by the Dutch settlers into a road to their farms, or bouwerij. The English corrupted the name to "Bowery" and the street became -- and remains -- a crucial thoroughfare in New York.

Read the entire story at

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Last week, notorious slumlord Steve Croman was sentenced to a year in jail for his shady dealings. James highlighted Croman in his exploration of Hans Haacke's conceptual artwork in a piece he wrote for Curbed back in 2015. You can read that interesting walk through the Lower East Side at

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The 1973 ITT Bombing

In the early morning hours of September 28, 1973, a bomb exploded at the ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph) Building at 437 Madison Avenue. A few minutes before the explosion, a caller who identified himself as a member of the Weather Underground phoned to warn the company of the bomb and to let them know it was a protest against ITT's role in the coup earlier that year in Chile.

No one was injured, though that was not normally the case with Weather Underground bombings. Since 1969, a series of robberies, bombings, and "National Actions" by the Weathermen, as they came to be known, had targeted what the members saw as corrupt government practices. In 1970 alone, there had been over 25 bombings or attempted attacks, many of them in New York City. Perhaps most famously, on March 6, 1970, the townhouse on West 11th Street that Weathermen were using as a bomb factory blew up, killing three of the bomb makers. (Kathy Boudin and Cathy Wilkerson would escape, becoming fugitives.)

That Greenwich Village explosion did not set the Weather Underground back; in fact, bombings increased. On June 9, 1970, the New York City Police Headquarters was bombed; on March 1, 1971, the Weathermen placed an explosive device in the US Capitol to protest US military action in Laos; on May 19, 1972 (Ho Chi Minh's birthday), the Pentagon was attacked -- and these were just the most high-profile cases.

ITT had been founded in 1920 after the purchase of telephone interests in Puerto Rico and Cuba. The company expanded greatly over the next fifty years, but continued to have a strong Latin and South American presence, including owning 70% of the Chilean telephone company. Alarmed at Salvador Allende's government (and likely facing the loss of the monopoly on Chilean communications), the company helped finance Pinochet's military coup. In retaliation, the Weather Underground bombed both 437 Madison (a 1967 skyscraper by Emory Roth and Sons) and ITT's headquarters in Rome, Italy.

You can read more about the bombing at

By 1976, the Weather Underground had reorganized and most violent actions stopped, though Kathy Boudin -- who had fled the 1970 Greenwich Village townhouse explosion -- was part of the 1981 Brinks truck robbery at the Nanuet Mall near Nyack, New York in which two police officers and a security guard were murdered. Paroled in 2003, Boudin now teaches at Columbia University's School of Social Work.

Read more about NYC history in


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Walking Tour of Riverside Park | Sunday, October 8 | 10am

Another Walk in the Park with James Nevius

author of "Inside the Apple" and "Footprints in New York"

For our autumn public walking tour, we are going to explore the monuments of Riverside Park. From the largest presidential mausoleum in the United States to statues of patriots, politicians, and fallen soldiers, Riverside Park has a little of everything.

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 8, at 10:00 AM (the tour will be approximately two hours)

$20 per person for those who reserve on or before Monday, October 2, 2017

PLEASE NOTE: This tour covers a lot of ground and not all of it is paved, so please be prepared! There are some stairs and a lot of undulating terrain.


Email with
  • Your name
  • The number in your party
  • A cell number where we can contact you in case of last-minute changes
  • The tour's meeting place will be emailed to you within 24 hours of receiving your reservation.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Frank Lloyd Wright in NYC

In today's New York Post, reporter Lauren Steussy takes a peek inside Crimson Beech, the only home in New York City designed by celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

To accompany that article, James has written a piece about other ways to explore Wright's legacy in New York. You can read it at

And to read more of James's work on Wright check out:

Read more about NYC history in


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Last Chance to Sign Up for Central Park

We still have a few more spots left for our tour of the northern sections of Central Park this Sunday, at 10:00 am. All the details are below.

Join us for Walk in the Park -- Central Park, that is....

On Sunday, September 10, at 10:00 AM, join us a walking tour of the northernmost -- and often least-visited -- section of Central Park.

Some potential highlights (though the itinerary is still in flux):
  • The block house from the War of 1812 (above)
  • The Harlem Meer
  • The memorial the "Father of Greater NYC"
  • The loch
  • The Conservatory
The tour costs $25 per person.

PLEASE NOTE: This tour involved many stairs and a certain amount of uphill climbing and uneven terrain. While not exactly a strenuous hike, this isn't the best outing for those who aren't as nimble as they used to be.

To register send an email to
  1. Your name
  2. Number of people in party
  3. A cell number where we can reach the day of the tour in case of emergency
The meeting place will be emailed to you within 24 hours of your reservation.

Best wishes,
Michelle and James Nevius | authors of "Inside the Apple" and "Footprints in New York"

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Carriage Houses

Once upon a time, the only wheeled mode of transport around New York City was via horse and carriage. But what happened to all the stables that once housed those four-legged forerunners to the automobile? James looks at that question in the Home section of today's New York Post -- read the whole story at:

(And get caught up on his travel/real estate pieces at

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Have you signed up for our Walking Tour of the northern section of Central Park on September 10th?

Click on last week's blog post (here: for all the details -- there are a few spots left!

Read more about NYC history in


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