Category Archives: Parks and Recreation

Book Review: A History of Brooklyn Bridge Park

A stroll at dusk along the waterfront paths of Brooklyn Bridge Park presents a look at New York City like no other — the fading skies over Liberty Island and New Jersey, the silhouettes of downtown Manhattan as the lights flicker on, the bridges of the East River awakening for another beautiful night.

You can be forgiven for not liking every element of this 85 acre park along the western waterfront, from Brooklyn Heights to DUMBO. Some aspects are breathtaking, others a bit too phony. Construction began almost nine years ago and bits and peaces have slowly opened to the public.

It’s ravishing but does not as of yet feel comfortable. The interruptions of the BQE, separating the park from Brooklyn Heights, may have something to do with that. See also: the luxury condos, the closed Squibb Park bridge, etc.

9780231171229

But after reading A History of Brooklyn Bridge Park by Nancy Webster and David Shirley, I’ve gained a new appreciation for this  varied and well-sculpted public space. The decades-long struggle to get it constructed is emblematic of modern New York, and the fact that succeeds for the most part is, in fact, a miracle.

Below: The Brooklyn waterfront sometime in the 1900s.

Courtesy Shorpy
Courtesy Shorpy

The waterfront has served two purposes — as a thriving port until the mid-20th century (when container shipping effectively destroyed Brooklyn’s pier industries), and as an unobtrusive platform for those that enjoy the gorgeous views of Manhattan from the vantages of the Brooklyn Promenade and the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights.

In 1965 the waterfront was designated a LH-1 (Limited Height) district, meaning that buildings couldn’t be constructed here that were higher than 50 feet. Of course, it didn’t specify the purpose of those buildings.

For a moment in the 1980s, it seemed both of those original purposes would disappear as Port Authority considered selling the piers to private developers. An interesting struggle between the city and neighborhood activists exposed a litany of complicated issues.

Courtesy Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Courtesy Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

The community activists of Brooklyn Heights seemed to be working in support of the public’s interest in fighting to transform the waterfront into parkland. (The project’s original name was Harbor Park.) But weren’t they also preserving the values of their cliffside homes along the Promenade? Was this really in the best interest of all New Yorkers?

Webster and Shirley take you through every contentious step of the park’s evolution from the 1980s until today. This book places the park alongside an interesting continuum of long-gestating New York projects, from the Second Avenue Subway to the One World Trade Center plaza.

Courtesy Bowery Boys
Courtesy Bowery Boys

They also give a pointed impression of Brooklyn Bridge Park’s most unique quality — its location to the Heights which has protected it from routine development.  In comparison, further north in Brooklyn, the waterfronts of Williamsburg and Greenpoint have been swallowed up with condominiums of massive height.

Along the way, Brooklyn Bridge Park paints a fascinating portrait of Brooklyn Heights and its residents who first came together in 1986 as part of a Piers Committee to find use for the land.  For instance, of the neighborhood’s deep social roots, one chair of the committee remarked, “There was nobody you couldn’t get to by knowing somebody in Brooklyn Heights.”

A History of Brooklyn Bridge Park
How A Community Reclaimed and Transformed New York City’s Waterfront
Nancy Webster and David Shirley
Columbia University Press

 

PODCAST REWIND: A Short History of Prospect Park

PODCAST REWIND Prospect Park, Brooklyn’s biggest public space and home to the borough’s only natural forest, was a sequel for Olmsted and Vaux after their revolutionary creation Central Park. But can these two landscape architects still work together or will their egos get in the way? And what happens to their dream when McKim, Mead and White and Robert Moses get to it?

ALSO: what classic Hollywood movie actor is buried here?

ORIGINALLY RELEASED JUNE 5, 2009

THIS IS A SPECIAL ILLUSTRATED PODCAST!  Chapter headings with images have been embedded in this show, so if your listening device is compatible with AAC/M4A files, just hit play and a variety of pictures should pop up.  The audio is superior than the original as well. (This will work as a normal audio file even if the images don’t appear.)

For this and our older episodes (Episodes #5-#83), subscribe to The Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive feed, on iTunes, directly from our host page, or directly via our RSS feed.

___________________________________________________________________________

The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

________________________________________________________________________

Some images of Prospect Park from 1895 to 1920 from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

The boat house, photographed in 1910, but could very well be a picture from today with an Instagram filter!

MCNY
MCNY

Anybody for a game of polo on the lawn? Pictured here in 1896.

MNY38164

MCNY
MCNY
MCNY
MCNY

 

The entrance to Prospect Park, with Grand Army Plaza (a fairly new edition in this photograph from 1900) and the Mount Prospect Reservoir on the hill.

MCNY
MCNY

 

Sheep attending to the meadow in a photograph (from early 20th century) by Robert Bracklow.

MCNY
MCNY

 

You can thank McKim, Mead and White and the rising preference of neoclassicism in the Gilded Age for the abundance of statuary in Prospect Park (pictured here in 1903).

MCNY
MCNY

 

The park is an arresting synthesis of Olmsted and Vaux’s original vision (as seen in this picturesque view from 1909), McKim, Mead and White’s neoclassical alterations, and Robert Moses’ pragmatic additions from the mid 20th century.

MCNY
MCNY

 

A former feature of the lake called Fire Island, named for its flamboyant flowers!

MCNY
MCNY

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE HISTORY OF PROSPECT PARK, CHECK OUT OUR PODCAST ON THE HISTORY OF PARK SLOPE.

History in the Making 3/16: Here Be Dragons (And Battleships) Edition

Yesterday the normal bustle of Union Square was interrupted with a dragon attack courtesy a promotion for the HBO show Game of Thrones.  Either that, or Mayor De Blasio needs to work harder to keep our public parks safe from mythological beasts.

996134_10154837194944852_7647879352015460387_n

If you think this might be the weirdest stunt ever pulled in Union Square, you’d be completely, utterly wrong.  The park that was both the location of America’s first Labor Day parade and the first Earth Day celebration has certainly seen it all.

My favorite Union Square stunt took place 99 years ago this spring when the USS Recruit, a wooden battleship, was installed in Union Square in support of the American war effort during World War I. The faux vessel remained in the park until war’s end. An extraordinary image:

USS_Recruit_(1917)
17781203618_6ea349496b_o

20750497092_540c696908_o

18552309550_1c37ef62a9_o

Photos courtesy Library of Congress

———————————————————————————

Speaking of parks, New York’s newest park — or certainly a public space that will expand the word ‘park’ — The Lowline is currently being developed within a former trolley terminal on Delancey Street. Among the big changes to the neighborhood over the next few years will be a big move to new digs by the vendors at Essex Market, the shopping space that has served New Yorkers since the 1940s.

Join The Bowery Boys this Sunday at a special talk about the future of Essex Market. We’re moderating this discussion on The History and Future of Markets in NYC with Essex Market vendors Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheesemongers, and Giulia Della Gatta of Arancini Bros; as well as Rohan Mehra, Principal at Prusik Group. And there’s going to be delicious food!

The event is from 12-1pm at The LowLine Lab (140 Essex Street) so come on out and meet us there! You can find more information on this event here via EventBrite.

——————————————————————————–

And now a few links which you may find fascinating:

The West Goes West: You’ve seen classic building disappear with the wrecking ball. How about an entire street? Everything on West Street, from Clarkson and Leroy Streets, has just been demolished. [Vanishing New York]

In the Right Direction:  An extraordinary and colorful map of Manhattan — “one of the best pictorial maps of the 1920s in the United States” — gets a lovely tribute. [Gothamist]

What’s In Fashion? A designer is featured in what may be the latest must-see museum show: Isaac Mizrahi! [New York Times]

A Clean Home: The magical Midtown Manhattan mansion of Harley T. Procter aka from the Procter & Gamble empire.  [Daytonian In Manhattan]

And Then There’s This …. “Before municipal sewer systems, excreta piled up in the privies of people’s homes—essentially a deep hole in the ground. But these poop storage units did not have unlimited capacity.  When the privies were eventually filled, that’s when the night soil men were called in.” [Atlas Obscura]

 

And how about a couple more pictures of the ole Recruit?

19305643396_4c86d2c1b1_o 24505057463_762c4e21ea_o

The Convent of Central Park and a famous Revolutionary War site

Pictured above is a remarkable structure that once dominated the scenery on the northern side of Central Park. This was the Academy of Saint Vincent on a hill that bore its name.  Located on the northern portion of the park, next to the charming Harlem Meer (and nearest 103rd Street), the Academy sat nestled amid a collection of hills and bluffs left over from its original pre-park topography.

Below: House on the hill: the stark and mysterious convent of Central Park, 1861

 

A narrow passage next to the convent was named McGown’s Pass after Andrew McGown, owner of a popular tavern that sat alongside here called the Black Horse Tavern**.

It was through McGown’s Pass that George Washington traveled on September 15, 1776. He and a portion of the Continental Army had escaped up to today’s Washington Heights area; when hearing that part of his army had been stopped by the British, Washington rode down the pass and led the remaining troops back up to their fortification in the Heights. He rode back through the pass again seven years later, this time as the victor.

The British and their Hessian mercenaries built forts here to cut Manhattan off from the mainland. Later New Yorkers would seize upon this idea during the early days of the War of 1812. Not willing to become property of the British once again, Manhattan mobilized for any potential battles, building forts all over the island and throughout the harbor.

It was here at McGown’s Pass that a couple fortifications were built, including Fort Clinton (not to be confused with the fort in Battery Park, although both were named for DeWitt Clinton) and Fort Fish, named after Major Nicholas Fish, father of the New York senator Hamilton Fish.

Nothing much remains of these two old forts, which were never used as the war thankfully never made its way to the city. There are, however, two remaining structures from the early days.

A stone ledge overlooking the meer is all that remains of Nutter’s Battery, named after a farmer who owned the property. And nearby stands the Block House, its stone face still fairly solid, once armed with cannons and used to hold ammunition — that were, of course, never needed. The Block House was fairly intact when Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux included it in their plans for the new park, incorporating the existing building as a ‘picturesque ruin’ covered in vines.

Here’s an illustration of how the Block House looked in 1860:

Before there was a park, however, there were nuns. In 1847 the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul arrived at the still-bucolic region of Manhattan and opened the Academy of St. Vincent, a school and convent.

The nuns left when the area was incorportated into the park, however the building remained standing and utilized for several purposes. During the Civil War, it was briefly used as a hospital; later, it was a “restaurant and hostelry,” with some certainly spectacular views for guests.

Below: Some sculptured works of Thomas Crawford in the interior of Mount St. Vincent’s Convent, Central Park, north end.]

 

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

The stone chapel was even refashioned as an gallery for artwork and “stuffed specimens of animals of considerable value.” Unfortunately, the structures were destroyed in a fire in 1881. (This site has some great pictures of where the convent once stood.)

Below: The buildings on the hill, circa 1863. By this time, the Catholic sisters had moved onto a new location in the Bronx (from Wikimedia)

 

While the convent was gone by the 1880s, the area was not through with McGown or his old tavern. Although the Black Horse Tavern had been torn down decades earlier, a two-story refreshment pavilion was constructed at this site — “heated throughout by steam and lighted with Edison’s incandescent lights” — and later renamed McGown’s Pass Tavern.

In 1895, McGown’s was strangely granted its own election district as, being inside the park, it lay outside normal district boundaries. “There were four voters in this territory last year,” declared the New York Times. “They are four men employed at McGown’s Pass Tavern.” The tavern was eventually torn down in the late 1910s.

Below: McGown’s Pass Tavern (date unknown, but possibly around the early 1910s)

This is a bit tangental, but I love this story. A plaque was erected at the old site of Fort Clinton in 1906 and unveiled in a publicized community event for children. It was apparently difficult for some people to find the location and “several chivalrous lads” guided people through the park to the unveiling.

However, the Times reports an incident that might be the only real battle that ever occured at this storied historical spot:

“Among the boys interested in the tablet unveiling were several whose spirit of mischief overcame their sense of the proprieties. These made misleading arrow signs …. and caused a number of persons to go far afield and arrive at the exercises late and angry. These mischievous youngsters were caught at their annoying trick by boys who were more sober and serious. Then there was a short scrimmage, and the mischievous lads scurried away through the Park.”

Finally, from a 19th century book on the War of 1812 comes this spectacular map of the various fortifications built in anticipation of battle. Its dimensions are greatly distorted of course, but it lists the forts and blockhouses that stood in this area as well as those such as Fort Gansevoort and Fort Greene (click on the image to look at it more closely):

**This story originally ran in 2011. All pictures courtesy the New York Public Library except where otherwise noted

Bryant Park: The Fall and Rise of Midtown’s Most Elegant Public Space

NEW PODCAST  In our last show, we left the space that would become Bryant Park as a disaster area; its former inhabitant, the old Crystal Palace, had tragically burned to the ground in 1858.  The area was called Reservoir Square for its proximity to the imposing Egyptian-like structure to its east, but it wouldn’t keep that name for long.

William Cullen Bryant was a key proponent to the creation of Central Park, but it would here that the poet and editor would receive a belated honor in the 1884. With the glorious addition of the New York Public Library in 1911, the park received some substantial upgrades, including its well-known fountain. Over twenty years later, it took on another curious present — a replica of Federal Hall as a tribute to George Washington.

By the 1970s Bryant Park was well known as a destination for drug dealers and most people shied away from its shady paths, even during the day.  It would take a unique plan to bring the park back to life and a little help from Hollywood and the fashion world to turn it into New York’s most elegant park.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #179: The Fight For Bryant Park

_____________________________________________________________________________

The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

Starting with this episode, we are doubling our number of episodes per month. Now you’ll hear a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  And we need your help to make these expansion plans happen.

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

________________________________________________________________________

William Cullen Bryant, photo taken by Matthew Brady

2

William Cullen Bryant in bust form, but Launt Thompson.  It seems this bust has made its way back to the Metropolitan Museum of Art!

2

 

William Cullen Bryant installed in his marble niche behind the New York Public Library.  This picture was taken in 1910, well before the radical redesign of the park in the 1930s. (Museum of the City of New York).

3

 

During World War I, the YMCA had a special ‘Eagle Hut’ built in the park for traveling servicemen. (Library of Congress)

2

A colorful depiction of the Bryant Park ‘demonstration gardens’ that were planted during the war. (Library of Congress)

7096409143_3df8bc2aa4_b

2

Bryant Park in 1920. Looking west on 42nd Street at 6th Avenue (you can see the elevated railroad!) In the distance is One Times Square. Note the reappearance of the Chesterfield Cigarettes billboard from the picture above. (Museum of the City of New York)

Bryant Park in 1920. Looking west on 42nd Street at 6th Avenue (you can see the elevated railroad!) In the distance is One Times Square. (Museum of the City of New York)

Constructing a replica of Federal Hall in a barren Bryant Park. (Picture taken by the Wurts Brothers, Museum of the City of New York)

8x11mm_X2010_7_1_ 703

The Federal Hall reconstruction had a corporate sponsor — Sears Roebuck & Co.  Here’s how it looked in better days.  Believe it or not, the reproduction of Mount Vernon actually did get built in New York — in Prospect Park in Brooklyn!  (Bryant Park Corporation)

2

Bryant Park’s Federal Hall, May 1932. (Museum of the City of New York)

Bryant Park's Federal Hall, May 1932. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The interior of Bryant Park’s Federal Hall. (Museum of the City of New York)

The interior of Bryant Park's Federal Hall. (Museum of the City of New York)

The reconstruction of Bryant Park in 1934, overseen by new Parks Commissioner Robert Moses

The reconstruction of Bryant Park in 1934, overseen by new Parks Commissioner Robert Moses

This photo was taken by Stanley Kubrick during his years as a photographer for Look Magazine. The caption reads “Park Bench Nuisance [Woman reading a newspaper, while a man reads over her shoulder.]” Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

This photo was taken by Stanley Kubrick during his years as a photographer for Look Magazine. The caption reads "Park Bench Nuisance [Woman reading a newspaper, while a man reads over her shoulder.]" Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

People enjoying the New York Public Library’s outdoor reading room, 1930s. (New York Public Library)

2

Bryant Park at night, photo by Nathan Schwartz, taken in 1938. (New York Public Library)

1a

The hedges of the central lawn, photo taken in 1957.  These were removed in the desperate effort to clean up the park in the late 1980s. (Library of Congress)

2

Bryant Park in the 1980s.  High walls allowed for suspicious behavior to occur in the at all hours of the day. (Bryant Park Conservancy)

2

Overlooking the new renovations in the late 1980s (Bryant Park Corporation)

2

 

 

Bryant Park after the clean-up, taken sometime in the 1990s. Photo by Carol Highsmith (Library of Congress)

2

 

 

Great overhead shots directly from the Bryant Park Conservancy!

2

3

 

 

Reservoir Square — 150 years ago!

Here are three stunning stereoscopic views of old Reservoir Square, the park next to the Murray Hill Reservoir that became sadly vacant after the fiery destruction of the Crystal Palace.  These stereoscopes — ancestors to the View-Masters which some of you may remember from childhood — were taken in 1865.

Now without its dazzling occupant, the park was landscaped for recreational use, but its location next to the imposing Egyptian-style reservoir made it a grim place to wander about in at certain times of the day.

During the 1860s this was still a sparsely populated area, even as Fifth Avenue on the other side began slowly filling up with luxury mansions and townhouses.

Just a couple years earlier, a horrible event occurred just nearby.  During that violent week of the Civil War Draft riots in July 1863, the Colored Orphan Asylum (just across the street, between 43rd and 44th Streets) was burned down by the mob, the children fleeing for their lives.

It’s a bit unsettling to look at this pictures from so long ago and realize how close they were to this terrible stain in New York history.  Many years after these pictures were taken, the park would be renamed after one of the city’s most prominent citizens — William Cullen Bryant.

Pictures courtesy the New York Public Library. Presumably these originals are located in Bryant Park today!

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e0-1a8a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wnypl.digitalcollections.510d47e0-1a90-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wnypl.digitalcollections.510d47e0-1a92-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

 

 

Ten Images of Bowling Green and Ten Facts about its Marvelous History

Bowling Green, at the very tip of Manhattan island, is a small oval park so calm in comparison to its surroundings that it’s hard to believe this is one of the oldest sections of the city of New York.   Here are ten facts about Bowling Green, accompanied by ten images and photographs from various periods in this tiny park’s extraordinary history:

"The Plaine" -- where the trees are to the left -- is where Bowling Green would eventually be constructed. This depicts the early Dutch years. (Courtesy the Internet Book Archive)
“The Plaine” — where the trees are to the left — is where Bowling Green would eventually be constructed. This depicts the early Dutch years. (Courtesy the Internet Book Archive)

1) The land comprising Bowling Green was situated next to Fort Amsterdam.  During the days of New Amsterdam, this was the site of the first public well, dug in 1658 and would remain the only well within the city until 1677, long after the Dutch were replaced by the British.

Ship On A Parade Float Drawn By Horses Past Bowling Green, New York, 18th Century. (Courtesy New York Public Library)
Ship On A Parade Float Drawn By Horses Past Bowling Green, New York, 18th Century. (Courtesy New York Public Library)

2) Since it was next to the fort, it’s not surprising to discover that the area was a parade ground during the early 18th century.  In 1733, it was leased to three local landlords — Peter Jay, John Chambers, and Peter Bayard — to develop an English-style park. It quickly became the destination of lavish homes of the wealthy.

Charcoal drawing of Bowling Green, New York, 1845. (New York Public Library)
Charcoal drawing of Bowling Green, New York, 1845. (New York Public Library)

3) Yes there was actually bowling here. Or rather, the traditional form of lawn bowling, enjoyed by the residents that lived around the park.  This required perpetual maintenance of the lawn. Before the invention of the lawnmower, this was usually accomplished by sheep. I’m not sure whether sheep were employed into service here at Bowling Green. But there were pigs in the street so you never know.

Pulling down the King George statue 1776
Pulling down the King George statue 1776

4) In 1770, loyalists to the crown erected an equestrian statue of King George III in the center of the park.  Six years later, it was ingraciously torn down by New Yorkers after hearing George Washington read the newly crafted Declaration of Independence.  Parts of that statue still exist in the city.

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e1-0ec5-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

5) George Washington lived here. No really. He had two residences here during the time when New York was briefly the nation’s capital.  The first, over on Cherry Street, provided him and his wife Martha with breathtaking views of the East River, but they soon found it quite unsuitable.  So in 1790 they moved to a home at 39-41 Broadway, at the northern tip of Bowling Green, residing here until the capital was finally moved to Philadelphia.

Bowling Green, how the vacinity looked in 1850 whnen Jenny Lind sang in New York.  (Courtesy Museum of the City of New  York)
Bowling Green, how the vacinity looked in 1850 whnen Jenny Lind sang in New York. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

6) Bowling Green was still the destination for the New York’s oldest, snootiest families at the start of the 19th century.  In fact, it was given a rather inappropriate nickname — Nobs Row. As the town moved northward, the wealthy left their houses around Bowling Green.

Bowling Green 1900 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Bowling Green 1900 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

7) In the 1820s, the first velodrome was situated near Bowling Green featuring a precursor to the bicycle called the draisine.  New Yorkers loved this curious device. “Near Bowling Green these vehicles were first exhibited.  Around City Hall Park and the Bowery, at all times of the days, riders might be seen.

Bowling Green 1915 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Bowling Green 1915 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

8) Bowling Green soon became known as a transportation terminus for coaches and omnibuses which strode up and down Broadway. In the 1820s, when the entertainment venue Castle Garden opened, the streets around Bowling Green became clogged with busy street life.  By the 1850s, Castle Garden became the principal immigration station, filling the once elite neighborhood with a bustling cross-section of classes. In the 1890s, New York’s short-lived cable-car line terminated here.

Bowling Green, 1939, Wurts Brothers photography (courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Bowling Green, 1939, Wurts Brothers photography (courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

9) The park was much abused and generally unimpressive during the 1950s and ’60s but was rebuilt during the 1970s to approximately resemble  how it once looked.  The fence which surrounds the park is the original which was first placed around the park in 1773.  This makes it one of the oldest free-standing artifacts in all of Manhattan.

Bowling Green 1975, photo by Edmund V Gillon (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Bowling Green 1975, photo by Edmund V Gillon (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

10) During the late 1980s the park met its weirdest neighbor yet — the Charging Bull sculpture by Arturo Di Modica.  Arguably better known and more beloved by tourists, the bull was originally planted illegally in front of the New York Stock Exchange.  By the time the city removed the statue, New Yorkers had come to love it.  They eventually placed it next to Bowling Green in 1989.

 

Brooklyn’s Forgotten Lake: Pictures of Mount Prospect Reservoir

As you can see, the Bowery Boys: New York City  History blog has gone through some major changes this week.  We have a new URL (boweryboyshistory.com) and a dynamic new layout which will present articles, photographs and podcast audio is a more user-friendly way.  There’s still some backlogged clean up to do so thank you for your patience.  But we think this new format is more reader friendly and makes these old photographs look so much more amazing.

And so, on that note, I thought I’d test out the expanded-image waters here by presenting a few views of one of the most enchanting places from the 19th century, a place that no longer exists — the Mount Prospect Reservoir.

Photographed by Robert Bracklow, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Photographed by Robert Bracklow, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

 

Back when it was an independent city, Brooklyn received most of its drinking water from Long Island, pumped into to a large receiving reservoir in Ridgewood.  Some of that was then send southward to a reservoir built in the late 1850s at the second highest point in Brooklyn — Mount Prospect — rising 200 feet above sea level.

The reservoir was 3 1/2 acres, holding 20 million gallons of water at a depth of 20 feet. Or, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “containing just about enough water to cook the breakfast of the people of Brooklyn for a week

The elevation was not included in the original design of Prospect Park, conceived in the 1860s as Brooklyn’s own Central Park. ** Especially odd when you consider that Prospect Park takes its name from the hill where the reservoir resided.

Pump house at the old reservoir on the East Side Lands, with Flatbush Avenue behind it, and Prospect Park in the background.
Pump house at the old reservoir on the East Side Lands, with Flatbush Avenue behind it, and Prospect Park in the background. [Courtesy Museum of the City of New York]
 Standing besides the man made lake was a pumping station and a grand Gothic tower, 30 feet tall. The world could be seen from here. “From the top of the tower … could be afforded a grand view overlooking the Park and City of Brooklyn; south may be seen the Atlantic Ocean; west, Staten Island and New Jersey; north, the Bay and the City of New York; east, the Navy Yard, Williamsburgh and the East River, altogether affording one of the grandest views imaginable.” [source]

Below: Circa 1900, looking north from the reservoir over Eastern Parkway into what is today’s Prospect Heights neighborhood.  Below that, looking out over Grand Army Plaza. Photos by George Hall and Sons. Courtesy Museum of City of New York

3

4

When Brooklyn was incorporated into the consolidated Greater New York, they also were brought into New  York’s central water system (i.e. the Croton Aqueduct, later blended with the waters of the Delaware and the Catskills).  The Mount Prospect Reservoir was dismantled in 1940 and turned into a park. And the tower was torn down as well when the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library was constructed.

According to BPL’s blog,  “The wrecking company in charge of tearing it down announced in the Eagle that the Connecticut pink granite used to build the tower would be made freely available to anyone who wanted it.”  So there may be pieces of the old tower incorporated into buildings all across the borough!

Looking over Brooklyn and Manhattan
Looking over Brooklyn and Manhattan (Library of Congress)

 

 

Unsurprisingly, the reservoir was a bit of a tourist attraction as evidenced by this postcard. (Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)
Unsurprisingly, the reservoir was a bit of a tourist attraction as evidenced by this postcard. (Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

 

Viewing the entrance to Prospect Park with the reservoir and tower behind it. From this vantage you can see the Brooklyn Museum and the Mount Prospect Laboratory.

 

** See Matthew’s comment below about Mount Prospect’s appearance in the original Prospect Park plan.

The Secrets of Gramercy Park (and you don’t even need a key)

Gramercy Park

Looking down on Gramercy Park, 1944 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
PODCAST Gramercy Park is Manhattan’s only private park, a prohibited place for most New Yorkers. However we have your keys to the history of this significant and rather unusual place, full of the city’s greatest inventors, civic leaders and entertainers.

Literally pulled up from swampy land, Gramercy Park naturally appealed to the city’s elite, a pocket neighborhood with classic old brownstones so vital to the city’s early growth that two streets sprang from its creation — Irving Place and Lexington Avenue.

Within the story of Gramercy Park there are echoes of modern debates over class and land usage.  The area’s creator Samuel Ruggles was a New York developer before his time, perfecting techniques that modern developers are still using to convince both the city and its residents of the importance and vitality of their high-end projects.

At right: Inside the park with Edwin Booth (Photo by Helaine Magnus, courtesy NYHS)

In this show, we give you an overview of its history — a birds eye’s view, if you will — then follow it up with a virtual walking tour that you can use to guide yourself through the area, on foot or in your mind.  (You can follow along virtually starting here.)  In this tour, we’ll give you the insights on an early stop on the Underground Railroad, the house of a controversial New York mayor, a fabulous club of thespians, and a hotel that has hosted both the Rolling Stones and John F. Kennedy (though not at the same time).

ALSO: We tell you the right way to get into Gramercy Park — and the wrong way.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #171: The Keys To Gramercy Park

Below: Looking west onto Gramercy Park, photo between 1909-1915.  You can see both the Flatiron and the Metropolitan Life Tower in the distance. [LOC]

____________________________________________________________________

And we would like to thank our sponsors:

—  Squarespace, the all-in-one platform that makes it fast and easy to create your own professional website or online portfolio.  For a free trial and 10% off (your first purchase), go to squarespace.com and use offer code BOWERY.


— Audible, the premier provider of digital audiobooks. Get a FREE audiobook download and 30 day free trial at www.audibletrial.com/boweryboys. Over 150,000 titles to choose from for your iPhone, Android, Kindle or mp3 player Audible titles play on iPhone, Kindle, Android and more than 500 devices for listening anytime, anywhere.
____________________________________________________________________

Samuel Ruggles, the mastermind behind the Union Square and Gramercy Park developments, two parks with drastically different fates.  While Union Square would eventually be considered ‘the people’s park’ and a center of working class protest, Gramercy Park would retain its guarded, exclusive character.

A 1831 map outlining the lands owned and developed by Samuel Ruggles. Lexington Avenue and Irving Place have already been planned by this time. (Courtesy MCNY)

Lands of Samuel B. Ruggles in the Twelth Ward in the City of New York

The 1918 unveiling of Gramercy Park’s one permanent resident — the statue of Edwin Booth. (NYPL)

The esteemed Dr. Valentine Mott who lived (with his large family) at 1 Gramercy Park. (

3 and 4 Gramercy Park from 1935 — and they look exactly the same today!  The lampposts indicate that this was once the home of former mayor James Harper.  (Photo by Berenice Abbot, NYPL)

A architectural cross-section of 4 Gramercy Park, showing the size of the house.

New York governor and almost-U.S. president Samuel Tilden lived in Gramercy Park. His home would later be transformed into the National Arts Club.

Enjoying a banquet at the National Arts Club in 1908.  As you can see, the membership has always been open to both men and women, a trait few social clubs of the day enjoyed. (NYPL)

The Players Club in 1905.  In this photo the building is mournfully adorned in black crepe in honor of the actor Joseph Jefferson.

The Friends Meeting House in 1965. It would become the Brotherhood Synagogue ten years later. (Courtesy Wurts Brothers, MCNY) 144 East 20th Street. Exterior of Friends Meeting House.

Children within the park, 1944. The Edwin Booth statue stands in the background here (MCNY)

Child drinking from water fountain, Gramercy Park

Never Too Cold: Crazy kids conquer Central Park on sleds

During one particular winter in the early 1910s, Central Park was invaded by an army of young sledders, tearing over the snow-covered terrain without thought to temperatures or bodily injury.

Believe it or not, the city encouraged children to use the city parks for sledding, especially given that the alternatives were slicked-up city streets.  In fact, New York did everything possible to make parks an ideal sledding destination.

“Snow from the sidewalks around Hamilton Fish, DeWitt Clinton and East River parks has been thrown over the fences to form an embankment from which the youngsters can coast.” reported the New York Tribune in 1910.  In Central Park, “never before were so many coasters in evidence.”

Indeed, automobiles posed a grim and dangerous threat to children sledders. The newspapers between 1909-1919 are filled with sad stories of children killed in sledding accidents, with autos frequently involved.  Vehicles from the early days (not to mention, their novice drivers) were simply ill-equipped for icy conditions.

While some in the community lamented the mess made in public parks, most preferred keeping children safe.  These pictures kind of make you want to make a go of it, don’t you think?

Of course, wealthy people could always go on a sleigh ride in the park, but the mass production of individual flyers (like the one advertised below) and homemade facsimiles soon brought middle and working class into the park for fun.  I would like to think this sled model (advertised in a Dec. 4, 1914 edition of the Evening World) was used by some of those intrepid spirits pictured above:
And you think that all looks a little dangerous, here’s some adventurers from 1860, using Broadway as their personal ice sheet, with a child tied to the back!
Images courtesy Library of Congress and New York Public Library