Tag Archives: Lafayette Street

A Witness to Violence: Colonnade Row and the Astor Place Riots of 1849

On May 10, 1849, Astor Place erupted into bloody violence as crowds took to the streets and battled it out — over a Shakespearean actor. It was the first time in American history that a state militia trained its muskets upon the very population it had been sworn to protect.

Courtesy NYPL

Yet of the many structures today surrounding Astor Place, only Colonnade Row (at 428–434 Lafayette Place) still remains from that dreadful day. From between its columns that May night, residents observed the horrifying violence firsthand. These old buildings, distinctive for their Corinthian columns, seem especially weathered when compared with the dazzling Astor Library across the street, home to the Public Theater since 1967.

(Colonnade Row, it should be noted, is also something of an off-Broadway landmark. The Astor Place Theatre, located in the basement, has been home to the flamboyant Blue Man Group spectacle for so long that the original performers have since turned gray.)

Vauxhall Gardens (Courtesy NYPL, lithography by George Haywood)

In 1805 this area was home to Vauxhall Gardens, an outdoor recreational venue that functioned something like a privately run park. But the city was expanding north, and wealthy fur trader–turned–real estate tycoon John Jacob Astor understood high society’s desire for more refined residential quarters.

In 1826 Astor sliced a street right through Vauxhall Gardens and named it after the Marquis de Lafayette.

Upon the western side of Lafayette Place (now Lafayette Street) he commissioned an upscale housing complex originally called La Grange Terrace, named for the marquis’s estate back in France.

An image of Colonnade Row from 1899 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

As historian Alvin F. Harlow later observed, Astor “was ridiculed for his folly in building such mansions on the very outskirts of town, but he was right.”

Completed in 1833, La Grange Terrace was quite a large and lavish address, boasting nine residences (today’s Colonnade Row contains only four of these original houses) that attracted notable members of high society—a relation of Washington Irving, the father-in-law of President John Tyler, even Astor’s own grandson. They were among the toasts of the town, hosting dinner parties in their twenty-six-room(!) mansions, and enjoying such state-of-the-art luxuries as central heating and indoor plumbing.

Some residents of La Grange Terrace were home on the evening of May 10, 1849, the night that all hell broke loose.

Inside the Astor Place Opera House for the Ball of the New York Fire Department (Courtesy NYPL)

Located just up the block between Astor Place and 8th Street, the Astor Place Opera House had opened two years before as a place for the city’s elite to gather, flaunt their good fortune, and take in an evening of (often imported) culture. Indeed, this was the case on the night of May 10, when they gathered to witness a highly antici- pated performance of Macbeth, starring William Charles Macready, England’s most famous tragedian.

For years Macready had been engaged in high-profile thespian warfare with New York’s most celebrated hometown actor, Edwin Forrest, a charismatic star whose rugged, brawny performances endeared him to working-class audiences.

Below: William Macready in costume, painted by John Jackson

At first, the publicity surrounding their rivalry was a boon to both actors and to ticket sales wherever they performed. Both Macready and Forrest toured the United States in separate productions, many times visiting cities just days apart from each other. Audiences would attend both shows and argue for days about the superiority of one performance over the other.

Soon, however, it seemed these boisterous theatrical arguments were about something larger than the delivery of a Shakespearean soliloquy. Tensions were simmering about something deeper than any actor or performance, but rather that which they represented.

Forrest’s popularity among the Bowery crowd, especially the new Irish immigrants seeking to survive on the lowest rung of New York life, emboldened them against Macready. Macready’s fans, meanwhile, were eager to associate themselves with the fineries of English society. To Macready’s rarified audiences, Forrest represented the growing dangers of the impoverished immigrant class in the rapidly expanding city.

Below: Edwin Forrest, in a later photographic portrait by Mathew Brady

As the actors’ public feud grew more heated, so too did the ire of their respective audiences. And here, in May of 1849, both actors were performing in the same city at the same time. Tensions were high.

On May 7, Forrest supporters had disrupted a performance of Macbeth at the Opera House, pelting the stage with wilted vegetables and rotten eggs. Scorned and embarrassed, the English actor vowed never again to perform in New York and packed his bags to head back to London.

Prominent city leaders (including Washington Irving, a frequent guest at La Grange Terrace) convinced him to stick around for his final, highly anticipated performance three days later. Macready begrudgingly acquiesced.

That night, May 10, thousands of anti-Macready rioters packed into Astor Place, pushing up against the police forces gathered around the theater.

Tensions mounted as the crowds swelled, raising their voices—and then the stones started flying. Protestors pulled cobblestones from the street, pelting the police officers while screaming to burn the theater to the ground.

Inside, the audience tried to keep its focus on Macready, who gave a fine performance, given the circumstances, the drama of the evening enhanced by the growing sense of danger in the air. Once the show was over, Macready wisely disguised himself and made a quick exit through the back of the theater, never to perform in America again.

As darkness fell, the police struggled to contain the crowd and needed backup. The state militia marched from Washington Square and gathered inside the stables of La Grange Terrace, ready to disperse the agitated crowd that filled the square.

The soldiers fired shots into the crowd, seemingly without a distinct target. Anger turned to panic as thousands pushed and shoved, pulling in and trampling innocent bystanders in their path. By the time the crowd finally dispersed, at least twenty-five people had been shot and killed, some from stray bullets that hit them inside their homes.

This violent episode signaled the beginning of the end for Astor Place as an elite destination. Soon, ritzy developments opened farther north near Union Square, Gramercy Park, and later, Madison Square, and the old Opera House was torn down.

In the 1850s Astor Place saw the opening of two institutions that would give it a new educational purpose: the private lending library owned by the Astor family (opened in 1853) and the Cooper Union institution of higher learning (in 1859).

The remaining structures from the 1930s (Courtesy NYPL/Wurts Bros)

Unsurprisingly, La Grange Terrace experienced a spectacular fall from grace. It played various roles over the next several decades, functioning as various hotels and boardinghouses, before five of the nine houses were demolished in 1902.

The other four continued into the twentieth century as curious relics of a bygone era. In 1965 they were among the inaugural structures to be saved by the newly formed Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Even with battered old columns, this landmark tells a marvelous story of New York—from blue bloods to Blue Men.

The above is an excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

The Puck Building and its mischievous tenant, Puck Magazine

PODCAST  A 6-foot plump gold impish figure stares down at you as you look up to observe the gorgeous red-brick design of the Puck Building, built for one of the 19th Century’s most popular illustrated publications. But this architectural masterpiece was very nearly wiped away by a sudden decision by the city. How did it survive?

Puck’s utterance “What Fools These Mortals Be!” is the slogan for Puck Magazine and words written by Shakespeare.

WITH several new minutes of material outlining the Puck Building’s recent history!

ORIGINALLY RELEASED APRIL 23, 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-#79), subscribe to The Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive feed, on iTunes, directly from our host page, or directly via our RSS feed.

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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.

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The Puck Building, before the cut — When Lafayette Street was drilled further south, the western part of the Puck had to go…

British Library
British Library

After the cut — A new western face greets construction workers building Elm Street (later Lafayette Street)

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

 

Courtesy Beyond My Ken
Courtesy Beyond My Ken

 

FOR YOUR READING PLEASURE! The entire first issue of the first Puck Magazine produced in New York City.  (There were of course issues before this one produced in St. Louis.)  12 North William Street was the magazine’s address for a brief time before moving into the Puck Building later that year.

This issue is courtesy the Hathi Trust, Google Books and the University of Iowa. Read a whole stack of Puck Magazines from 1877 here:

The cover introduces Puck to the chicken coop of newspapers:

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“TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:

I am here.  And I don’t apologize for being here. I only hope my appearance will be as agreeable to you as it is to me. I have a mission to fulfill. Everybody has; but like almost everybody else I can’t exactly tell what that mission is until I have found out definitely myself.  I know I am expected to be good-natured and smile at things as they pass: I intend to. I may even venture to observe that I shall smile at some things whether they pass or not. But while putting my girdle round about the earth, I hope I shall gather, in a genial, pleasant way, a harvest of things that may sink deep into the soul of even those who refuse to smile on the slightest provocation. I shall have pensive moods — occasionally; no oftener than circumstances compels, but often enough to prove that I have not come merely as a flippant plaything to amuse you in your idle moments, but rather as a pleasant confidential companion, who will be the best-natured fellow in the world — if you will only let him.

Faithfully yours,

PUCK”

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“A man complained that he had a pane in his stomach. On investigation, it was found that he’s only swallowed blue glass.”

Note the droll political poem about Rutherford B Hayes at top left:

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The satire of one of New York’s gentlemen’s artistic clubs might actually be based upon actual men. The writing is so dry it’s a bit hard to tell. “The members are as jolly a set of fellows as you ever met; they have peculiarities, of course, but they are pleasant ones; they have equally, of course, their weaknesses, but they are amiable ones.  Let me attempt to describe some of them.”

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America’s first free animal hospital, at 350 Lafayette Street, with a roof garden for sick horses

The first official patient of the Free Hospital and Dispensary for Animals at 350 Lafayette Street, under the care of veterinarian Bruce Blair.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was formed in 1866 by philanthropist Henry Bergh.  Eight years later, he helped co-found the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Yes, animals came first.  Animals were not only better understood than children, they were instrumental to the daily flow of the city.  Almost every vehicle on the street was horse powered.  The skills of animal husbandry and veterinary medicine were adequately developed in a country that was mostly rural, while the psyches of the human adolescent were only just being appreciated.

At right: Mrs. N.H. Barnes and her dog Mousie, circa 1910-1915, courtesy Library of Congress

And don’t underestimate the power of the upper crust and their favorite luxury items — exotic pets.  New Yorkers were perhaps empathizing with animals, if not exactly knowing how to treat them.

After all, the menagerie of the Central Park Zoo was created from the bad decisions made by wealthy people, regretting their decisions in bringing unusual animals into their homes.  In 1907, New York even experienced a bit of a monkey craze, with dozens of small primates becoming adorably mischievous fashion accessories.

Animal rights became an interesting tangent of New York’s progressive movement, a focus on the well-being of four-legged creatures that culminated, one century ago this week, in the opening of the Free Hospital and Dispensary for Animals (at 350 Lafayette Street), the first institution of its type in the United States.

Like many progressive institutions of the day, the animal hospital was a life’s ambition for a wealthy socialite — in this case, Ellin Prince Speyer, the wife of railroad banker James Speyer (founder of the Provident Loan Society.)

Above: Work horses compete in an obstacle course in Union Square, during the Work Horse Parade of 1908. Picture courtesy Shorpy

Speyer formed a Women’s League of the ASPCA in 1906 and quickly organized public displays that would bring attention to the plight of work animals.  The following year, on Memorial Day, she organized the first annual Work Horse Parade with contests and exhibitions, all in an effort to bring attention to the condition of horses on city streets.

People were given prizes if their old horses were in good shape!  “An effort has been made to induce the peddlers and hucksters of the city to enter,” said the New York Times.

The Women’s League provided watering station for horses during the summer and even free “horse vacations,” renting a farm in upstate New York for the care of older animals.

But the League was concerned with the health of all animals, not just horses.  (Indeed, the New York Sun takes note of Mrs. Speyer’s favorite animal — “the life saving Japanese spaniel Trixie.”)  Members visited area schools to lecture on the proper care and feeding of pets, speaking to the young owners of dogs, cats and birds.

They believed that beneficence to the animal kingdom was a signal to a healthy, moral household.  “You don’t find wife-beaters who are fond of pets and lovers of animals,” said the League in an editorial in 1912.

This sophisticated devotion to animal care was considered truly unique. For instance, when an impressive animal clinic opened at Cornell University in 1911, the New York Times replied with the headline, “Where Sick Animals Are Cared For Like Humans.

From the New York Times, February 1913

Speyer opened a small animal clinic in New York that same year, but it was woefully inadequate to the needs of New York’s animal population.  So, with the help of lavish benefits and donations from other wealthy families (including many of her banking friends), the Women’s League raised $50,000 and opened up a proper animal hospital on March 14, 1914, the first animal hospital of its kind in the United States.

The five-story building is still there today.  New York’s first free animal hospital could accommodate fifty horses and 150 cats and dogs. “There are also operating rooms where every modern appliance for animal surgery is at hand.” [source]

Horses were mostly kept and operated upon on the second floor.  But a rooftop garden accommodated the most sickly horses in need of fresh air and sunshine, lifted there by a large, state-of-the-art elevator.  I suppose it was also used for patients from the third floor — dogs, cats and birds.  Autopsies were also conducted on the roof, and dead animals were disposed of in a basement incinerator. (The Times actually calls it ‘the death room.’)

Perhaps most curious of all — an entire floor was given over to a new apartment for the hospital’s lead veterinarian Dr. Bruce Blair (pictured at top) and his new bride.

On its opening on March 14, Speyer showed the waiting dignitaries a mysterious envelope which contained a $1,000 bill, anonymously donated for the purposes of buying the hospital’s first animal ambulance.

Perhaps the hospital’s most famous patient on opening day was not not a horse, but a green parrot named Abe, who was a bit of a minor film star in 1914.  I believe this was the star of the 1914 Oliver Hardy film The Green Alarm.

Today, the Animal Medical Center  traces its lineage to this first animal hospital and to Speyer’s organization.  It moved to its current location on the Upper East Side in 1962. (You can read more about their history here.)

Here’s the building as it looks today:

Let us be your Park Avenue Summer Streets companion!

This Saturday is the final Summer Streets festival, when traffic is closed down from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park, along Lafayette Street and Park Avenue all the way up to 72nd Street. Get up early and enjoy a corridor of unencumbered walking and biking, with tons of activities along the way, from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Since you’re walking around and don’t have to worry about much traffic, put our podcast in your ears! We’ve actually spoken at length about many destinations along this route. So take one of these shows with you and experience a little history right where it happened. [I’m reprinting this list from last year with recent additions.]

As always you can download it from iTunes or other podcast aggregators, or you may right-click onto the links below. You can also stream directly from our Libsyn site and can also listen to any of these episode on Stitcher Radio:

1. African Burial Ground
The Summer Streets route begins near Foley Square, partially situated atop the remains of an ancient burial ground belonging to New York’s original black population. Take a gander at the extraordinarily unusual monument to the west of the square. [Download]

2. Collect Pond
You’ll progress up Lafayette Street and past Collect Pond Park. Below you once sat the city’s source of 18th century drinking water and an eventual cesspool that had to be drained via a canal (that then became Canal Street). [Download]

3.  Petrosino Square (featured in ‘Case Files of the NYPD’)
Four blocks north of Canal Street sits a small park named after legendary cop Joseph Petrosino. In our ‘Case Files of the NYPD’ show, Tom recounts the thrilling tale of Petrosino’s rise into the police force — and his tragic demise. [Download]

4. Puck Building
Lafayette Street seems nice so far, right? The street is a bit of a destroyer however, lobbing off an original section of the Puck Building when the road was expanded south. Oh, but this former home of a 19th century satire publication is full of many surprises…. [Download]

5. The Astors 
Lafayette Street was named by John Jacob Astor who developed many luxury properties in this area — and hundreds of far less luxurious ones everywhere else. To your right above 4th Street is the old Astor Library (which today houses the Public Theatre) and to the north is the great Astor Place. So why not learn a little about the family? [Download]

6. The Apple Orchard at 11th Street (featured in ‘The Grid’)
The path now moves from Lafayette to Fourth Avenue. At 11th Street, notice that the street doesn’t cut through to the west. Grace Church sits there like a fortress! In our show on the Commissioners Plan of 1811, we recount the tale of Henry Breevort’s apple orchard that once sat here and managed to break up the city’s grand uniform plans. [Download]

7. Union Square
You’ll take Fourth Avenue all the way to 14th Street, where you will be greeted with one of New York’s most popular parks. Union Square used to be an oval and also the centerpiece of high society in the mid 19th century. As you begin your walk up Park Avenue South, take note of the petite sculpture of the namesake of the street where you began your walk — the Marquis de Lafayette. [Download]

8. Radio History of Park Avenue
Radio pioneer Lee de Forest experimented with sending sound signals from his laboratory on Park Avenue and 19th Street. It was from here that the first music was broadcast, received by a radio operator at the Brooklyn Navy Yards. That’s just one of a few amazing stories in our podcast on New York’s role in the development of the radio. [Download]

9. Park Avenue Tunnel (featured in ‘New York’s Elevated Railroad’)
As you enjoy your stroll up an empty Park Avenue, take note of the now-carless tunnel that plunges under the street at 33rd Street. The origin of this strange underground detour stretch back to the 1830s and the early days of the New York and Harlem Railroad. I retell the story of this former ‘open sore’ in our show on the New York’s Elevated Railroad. [Download]

10. Grand Central
Oddly enough, one of my favorite parts of Summer Streets involves the one moment you’re blocked from the sun. With no vehicles, pedestrians are able to walk around the classic structure via the elevated road. You can also closely check out the statue to Cornelius Vanderbilt, who changed the city forever with his railroad and ferry acquisitions. [Download]

11.  Met Life Building (Pan Am Building)
This is probably the structure you’re the least excited to see, but hopefully, in our podcast (a personal favorite of mine), we make a convincing case for giving this building its proper due. [Download]

12. St. Bartholomew’s Church and Schaefers Beer
The beautiful St. Bart’s on Park Avenue and 51th Street was built on property that once held the Schaefers brewery plant. You can hear all about it in our show on the history of New York City’s glorious beer history. [Download]

13. Steinway
The sleek Seagram Building on Park Avenue and 52nd Street is definitely eye-catching, or at least that weird union scab rat statue in front of it is. But a hundred years before the Seagram was even built, Henry Steinway had a huge manufacturing plant here, where he delivered to music-minded New Yorkers the finest instruments in town. The factory was almost destroyed during the Civil War Draft Riots. (You’ll have to listen to the show to find out how they saved it!) [Download]