Tag Archives: landmarks

Visit the glorious High Bridge, New York’s tribute to the ancient world

The thirst for water has transformed New York.

The Dutch were sold on the island’s placement in the harbor at the mouth of the mighty Hudson River, making it a convenient waypoint for explorers and traders. Soon its ports had built the foundation for New York’s—and later America’s—financial sector.

The city’s most influential nineteenth-century businessman, Cornelius Vanderbilt, got his feet wet in business first with ferries and steamships before building his mighty railroad empire. Manhattan is surrounded by water, and yet early New York would almost be undone due to a lack of it.

Traces of the city’s centuries-long quest for clean drinking water can be found from the island’s tip to its top—from the site of spring water wells down in Bowling Green to the relics of old water systems that we’ve visited in the past few chapters.

But no monument to freshwater dominates quite like the High Bridge, the Romanesque wonder linking Manhattan to the Bronx over the Harlem River.

Courtesy NYPL

For many decades this majestic artifact, seemingly plucked from the hills of ancient Gaul, was a vital link in that great engineering triumph: the Croton Aqueduct.

With the dense river traffic below and the icky-brackish composition of the surrounding rivers, early New Yorkers had to look beyond their waterways for drinking water. They dug cisterns and hunted down springs, but these couldn’t support the growing city.

By the late eighteenth century, Collect Pond, a so-called freshwater source located northeast of today’s City Hall, had become polluted by the industries that surrounded it, and valiant efforts to bring water from other sources during the Colonial era were dampened by debt and war.

Courtesy MCNY

In 1799 future vice president/murderer Aaron Burr hatched a grand business plan to construct a reservoir system that would distribute water via an elaborate network of hollowed-out logs. (Above: The reservoir and grandest structure of the Manhattan Company system, pictured here in 1825.)

Unfortunately for parched New Yorkers, he ended up using most of the funding for his company to establish a successful bank instead. More than a century and a half later, Manhattan Company merged with Chase National Bank to become Chase Manhattan, known today simply as “Chase,” one of the largest banks in the world. But his water distribution efforts ended up being woefully inadequate, and left Manhattan high and dry.

NYPL

By the 1830s the city was on the verge of a health crisis, as putrid water, poor sanitation, and all-around squalid living conditions culminated in a series of health epidemics and breakouts—which only heightened the urgent need for clean water.

In April 1835 New Yorkers were so desperate for a freshwater supply that they voted in favor of a seemingly impossible plan: a pipeline that would bring the pure waters of the Croton River, forty miles north in Westchester County, down to city residents. Only underscoring the emergency, eight months later the Great Fire of 1835 would ravage the city. The aqueduct couldn’t be constructed quickly enough.

 

Wikipedia

The elaborate project employed thousands of mostly Irish immigrants for many years (1837–1842). They constructed a sophisticated system of iron piping and brick masonry, which drew upon gravity to run the water through pipes and over arches, across the lush terrain of Westchester, and through the small towns that would later form the nucleus of the Bronx.

But how would the water get into the island of Manhattan? The aqueduct’s architects would need to find a way to keep it flowing across the Harlem River. Drilling technologies were not advanced enough in the 1840s to allow for a tunnel, so planners thought bigger—and higher.

NYPL

The High Bridge, at an elegant 1,450 feet long, is the oldest surviving bridge in New York. Completed in 1848, it not only brought the Croton water into the city, but it also made one heck of a statement noticed around the world.

New Yorkers had pulled off a technological miracle, borrowing engineering and architecture principles not attempted, on this scale, since the glory days of the Roman Empire. They were changing the course of one river forty-one miles away and sending its waters high above another.

“Water! Water!” wrote diarist and former mayor Philip Hone on October 12, 1842, “is the universal note which is sounded through every part of the city, and infuses joy and exultation into the masses.”

When the water was finally turned on—flowing on October 14, 1842—the city threw a bash bigger than any since the expulsion of the British in 1783.

The water flowed through pipes across the High Bridge and to a receiving reservoir in the area of today’s Central Park, and from there to a distributing reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

From there it moved through the city, eventually to City Hall Park, where good, clean water shot high into the air and down into the City Hall fountain, to the delight of the public. Imagine— enough water to waste in a fountain!

(At the time of the celebration, the High Bridge had not yet been completed, so Croton water crossed a temporary low bridge. The lofty span replaced the modest one a few years later.)

Below: New Yorkers gathering at City Hall in celebration at the completion of the Croton water system. For more information, check out our podcast on the construction of the Croton Aqueduct

NYPL

 

But the celebrated new system struggled to keep up with the demands of the growing city. In 1872, as masses of new arrivals from far-off lands crammed into tenements, an attractive water tower was constructed near the High Bridge to help increase the water pressure into the city.

The High Bridge and tower in 1915

By this time the High Bridge itself had turned into an attraction, a festive promenade where young gentlemen and their parasol-clinging lady companions could stroll, taking in the striking views of the still-forested landscape that surrounded them, while millions of gallons of clean water coursed beneath their feet.

MCNY

But New York, growing larger every day, would need more water. Much, much more. The introduction of indoor plumbing would require an entirely new and much larger Croton system to be built, which opened in 1890 and employed the massive Jerome Park Reservoir in the Bronx to satisfy the demand.

But alas, with a million flushes came the end of the High Bridge as an active part of the water system. Its function replaced by unromantic pipes buried underground, the bridge and water tower were retired from service by 1949, and soon these structures modeled after antiquity became historical relics themselves.

Below: The High Bridge, lost in a haze, photographed in 1920

MCNY

In a surprising twist given the unforgiving tendencies of city planners of the day, it was probably the beauty of the bridge and the tower that kept them from being ripped down in a bit of “progress.” Motorists along the Major Deegan Expressway took moments from their traffic jams to reflect on the possible story behind these strange and magnificent artifacts, which grew more incongruous as the modern highway system developed around them.

MCNY

Two years ago this month, the High Bridge was restored, not for the movement of water but for those visitors and their parasols (replaced by headphones, we imagine) to enjoy a one-of-a-kind perspective on their buzzing metropolis.

If you go — or rather, when you go, because you really must see it — reflect upon the water that once passed below you—it helped this city grow.

HOW TO GET TO THE HIGH BRIDGE

Mass Transit: Take the A/C or the 1 train to 168th Street, get out and walk east. OR the M101 bus takes you right up to Highbridge Park

On the Bronx side, you can take the 4 train to Mt Eden Ave but it’s a bit of a walk west. Instead take the Bx11 or Bx13 bus

From the NYC Parks website:

“If you are entering the High Bridge from the Manhattan side, please enter Highbridge Park at West 172nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue and walk east to the High Bridge Water Tower Terrace staircase down to the bridge level. If entering from the Bronx side, enter at University Avenue and 170th Street in Highbridge, Bronx.”

Some images from my trip there in November. It’s three times as beautiful now!

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

History in the Making (9/9): So Many Vices Edition

In this blog roundup, a Bowery Boys appearance in Vice, a threat to preservation, a classic restaurant closes, the story of two hotels with very different histories and more!

In the photo above and below — From the Museum of the City of New York collection, some images of the so-called Prize Fighters Saloon (at Sixth Avenue and 33rd Street) owned by boxer James J. Corbett.

LINKS OF INTEREST

— Vice Magazine’s John Surico wrote a great piece called ‘Why New Yorkers Love New York” and interviewed the Bowery Boys for it! Also — if you want to see us dressed in ridiculous Mermaid Parade costumes, you should definitely check this out. [Vice Magazine]

— An inconceivable and dangerous threat to New York landmark preservation is being debated at City Hall today.  “Intro. 775 would for the first time impose ‘do-or-die’ timeframes for buildings and neighborhoods being considered for landmark designation. If the deadlines are not met, buildings and neighborhoods, no matter how worthy or endangered, would automatically be disqualified for designation.” [Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation]

—  Destruction update! The beloved original location of The Palm restaurant — with its quirky wall of murals — has been closed for good. “The beloved hand painted caricatures were housed on walls made of plaster, which made it impossible to remove the caricatures for preservation purposes.” [Vanishing New York]

Below: The exterior of Corbett’s Prize Fighters Saloon:

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

 

— The spectacular tale of the Pierrepont Hotel in Herald Square, built in 1898 as a rare residential hotel for unmarried men.   “It is not so very long ago that the bachelor was not considered to be entitled much consideration; any old thing was good enough for him….” [Daytonian In Manhattan]

— That rather strange, kinda seedy, little-Flatiron hotel in Chelsea called the Liberty Hotel?  That building has actually been standing there for well over one hundred years. Oh if only those walls could speak! [Ephemeral New York]

— Some rather sweet and amusing images pop up in this New York Times photo essay on the first day of school through the years. [New York Times]

— “The coolest place to eat is outside a smallpox hospital.[New York Post]

TICKETS ARE GOING FAST for our live event with The Ensemblist this Sunday, September 13th, at 54 Below.  Click here for more information or go directly to 54 Below’s website to get your tickets!

Below: Another look at the interior of Corbett’s fancy saloon.

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

 

Movin’ out! The Bronx Zoo closes the Monkey House

The charismatic Baldy the Chimp, on display during the 1910s, was one of the House of Primates’ most famous inhabitants. (Pic courtesy Wildlife Conservation Society)

The landmarked Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo was officially closed as an exhibition space this past Monday. It was really quite a throwback, a lovely fossil of a building but an artifact of antiquated zoological style. Even as the Bronx Zoo’s popularity soared due to regional exhibits like the Congo Forest, Wild Asia and Madagascar, the Monkey House was kept open, displaying smaller primates like marmosets and tamarinds.

While hardly ideal for any type of primate today — inmate or visitor — the Monkey House is one of the few links to the zoo’s beginnings.

Originally called the House of Primates, the quirky Beaux-Arts structure by Heins & La Farge was finished in 1901, making it the oldest landmark in the park. (The Reptile House, which opened in 1899, is not landmarked, presumably because most of the building has been replaced.) The zoo once kept all its apes, baboons and monkeys here, including Baldy the Chip (at top), amateur roller skater and acquaintance of President William Howard Taft. Today, you can still find baboon adornments atop the entrance, made by famed animal sculptor Alexander P. Proctor.

This building has been closed before, in 1950, when the inhabitants were shipped out to the newly built Great Apes House* (which no longer exists). It was reopened in 1959 and has housed the smallest monkeys from that date until this past Monday.

The Monkey House was also witness to the sorriest moment in Bronx Zoo history — the exhibition of the Congolese pygmy Ota Benga at the House of Primates in 1906.

For more information on Ota Benga and the rest of the zoo, check out our podcast on the history of the Bronx Zoo.

*As evidenced by this depressing article, the Great Apes House was no great place with primates either.