Tag Archives: New York Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace: A new gallery show brings its marvels to life

Bryant Park is a rather remarkable physical space. During the winter it becomes a skating rink and outdoor market, while in the summer, its lawn host hundreds of movie buffs every Monday for the park’s popular outdoor film festival. Its neighbor — the main branch of the New York Public Library — keeps millions of volumes within rooms below the park. And once, long ago, Americans came to this spot to witness the technological marvels of the age.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations was the first major industrial fair in the United States, showcasing the rising manufacturing prowess of the young country. It was housed in a jewel box of an exhibition center, the extraordinary Crystal Palace, a wonder of glass and steel, modeled after a similar structure in London. When fire eventually took the building in 1858, New York City lost its most valued tourist attraction.

A new show at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery (18 West 86th Street,  just steps from Central Park) reanimates a bit of the Crystal Palace Exhibition, bringing the wonder of visiting this wondrous place to life with displays of original artifacts and an absolutely sensational interactive component.

The gallery features a selection of items both displayed at the fair and used to promote it. Americans were so enthralled by the exhibition that they decorated their homes with promotional items include one example featured in the gallery of an ornate parlor clock affixed with an image of the Crystal Palace. High end tchotchkes, indeed!

The fair displayed fine art and experimental technologies alongside examples of American craftsmanship.  Featured in the gallery are samples of American-made items from the 1850s proudly shown at the fair — porcelain, glassware, furniture, pottery and sculpture.

You’re perhaps used to seeing such items in a museum; the things you’re seeing here, however, weren’t originally displayed for their historical worth. At the opening of the Crystal Palace in 1853, they were literally the embodiment of a growing country.

An early sewing machine from I.M. Singer, 1856. While perhaps it seems almost medieval today, this would have been considered a modern marvel in the 1850s.

 

And here, in this intimate space, there are little delights behind tiny thick curtains — daguerreotypes and photographic salt prints from the fair itself, so delicate that they must be protected from even the gallery’s gentle light.

As always with Bard’s historical exhibitions, they accompany their physical displays with rich, detailed interactive displays and online material.  Take a stroll through the Crystal Palace along a meticulously labeled panorama or click through a replica of a tourist guide suggesting things to do around the city. 

In fact, I would highly suggest getting lost in their digital resources before heading over to see the physical objects. (You’ll be able to play around with them at interactive displays at the exhibit as well.) There are also some engaging audio ‘walking tours’ from three different perspectives of people visiting the fair.

(Personally, I would also recommend listening to our podcast on the Crystal Palace which we recorded exactly two years ago. Putting it all together with the gallery show will the closest thing to boarding a time machine!)

The Monster Tree: A California Sequoia Visits New York City 1855

The mighty Sequoia tree,  principally existing today in northern California, embodied the breathtaking diversity of the North American continent when it was first discovered by European explorers in the 1830s.  The Native American tribes of the west coast revered them.  Early European explorers too marveled at this display of nature’s great flourish, spinning fantastic tales of ‘monster trees’ that breached the sky.

From a photograph in 1866 -- The Three Graces, 272 feet high, circumference 32 feet, Mammoth Grove, Calaveras County (Library of Congress)
From a photograph in 1866 — The Three Graces, 272 feet high, circumference 32 feet, Mammoth Grove, Calaveras County (Library of Congress)

 

The legends were proven true in the 1840s at the start of what would become known as the California Gold Rush.  The first hotel, monopolizing on the wondrous discovery, was built near a Sequoia grove in Calaveras County. Each of the trees were given nicknames like ‘The Salem Witch’ and the ‘Old Bachelor’. **  But the grandest was ‘Mother of the Forest’, 363 feet tall and thousands of years old.

So naturally in 1854, the Mother of the Forest was stripped of much of its its bark and taken on a tour of the east, courtesy the entrepreneur George L Trask.

The Mother of the Forest, pictured with 78 feet of the tree’s bark already removed.

Courtesy New York Public LIbrary
Courtesy New York Public LIbrary

 

The  bark was carefully sheared from the tree, to a height over 110 feet. The disembodied bark was then “carted overland 80 miles to Stockton, whence it was shipped down the river to San Francisco, and then on a clipper vessel around Cape Horn to New  York.”  It arrived sometime in early 1855 for a grand display in the city.

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But where in New York City in 1855 could you exhibit such a gigantic thing? Why, there was only one place — the Crystal Palace.

The famed Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations — detailed in our podcast on the Crystal Palace — had recently closed, a well-publicized financial failure. However the Palace structure remained open for visitors and the Latting Observatory across the street was still attracting audiences.  (It would not burn down until the following year.)

That summer, on July 4th, 1855, the tree bark, laid over a tall scaffolding, was carefully reconstructed in the Palace at the very spot where the George Washington equestrian statue once stood. An appropriate spot, as the exotic trees were originally given the scientific name of Washingtonea Gigantea.

Alongside the constructed tree were a display of daguerreotypes of the tree in context with the forest, well before she was stripped of bark.

Below: From a listing in the New York Daily Tribune, July 6, 1855:

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It was promoted with a certain Barnum-eque style although without Barnum of course. (His failed tenure as the Crystal Palace president has soured him to the spot immeasurably.)  According to the New York Sunday Courier, over 7,000 visitors came on the first day to admire the tree.

Even a few jaded journalists of the age were impressed by the tree. From a short-lived newspaper called the Leader, under the headline, “The Eighth Wonder of the World – the Mammoth Tree”:

“We have paid a visit to the Crystal Palace and have been gratified beyond our most sanguine expectations. We supposed that this concern was closed and that we should find nothing to please the eye beyond naked walls and vacant space; but, judge of our astonishment, when we found the space under the dome occupied by one of the greatest curiosities of the age….

Sebastapol has not been taken yet [a reference to a lengthy battle in the Crimean War] but this towering monarch of the forest has, and is now in exhibition at the Crystal Palace.”

Because the tree was so clearly cobbled together from parts, others rationally questioned its validity.  From the New York Times, August 8, 1855:

“We very much enjoyed [the tree] but so we did the Automaton Man and the Charmed Snake story … and several other things which a more curious examination of reveals as belonging to the department of questionables.

[W]e have no assurance, from seeing this clothed skeleton, that this tree was actually so large. A little skepticism is somewhat pardonable, taking into account the temptations held out to those who recollect the proverbial gullibility of New York site-seers.”

The journeys of this poor tree husk were not quite done.  After the New York display, the pieces were placed upon a ship and taken to London to be displayed at their Crystal Palace.  In 1866 a fire swept through London’s Crystal Palace, destroying this remainder of the Mother of the Forest.

The tree as it appeared at the London Crystal Palace, 1856

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**By the 1860s most of the trees would be given names. There were even specimens named for Henry Ward Beecher, Daniel Webster and — William Cullen Bryant! (source)

 

 

 

The Crystal Palace, America’s first World’s Fair and bizarre treasury of the 19th century

PODCAST  New York’s Crystal Palace seems like something out of a dream, a shimmering and spectacular glass-and-steel structure — a gigantic greenhouse — which sat in the area of today’s Bryant Park. In 1853 this was the home to the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, a dizzying presentation of items, great and small, meant to exemplify mankind’s industrial might.

We take you on a breathtaking tour of the Palce and its legendary exhibition, including the Latting Observatory (the tallest building in New York!)

Whatever happened to the Crystal Palace? And what inventions contained within do we still benefit from today?

FEATURING: PT Barnum, Henry Ward Beecher, Elisha Otis and literally millions of items!

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 #178: The Crystal Palace

EDITOR’S NOTE – I mis-pronounced the name of the Fresnel light (actually pronounced fre-nell). Its modern ancestor is used in theatrical lighting today.

 

This is one of the earliest photographs of New York City ever taken. As the Crystal Palace hosted examples from the early days of photography, it’s no surprise that one of these early pictures is of the Crystal Palace itself.

A rare photograph of the New York Crystal Palace by Victor Prevost. Courtesy Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University
A rare photograph of the New York Crystal Palace by Victor Prevost. Courtesy of the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

 

A look into the pit surrounding the Crystal Palace during construction. There were many delays, somewhat sullying the lofty ambitions of the project at the very start. Courtesy New York Public Library
A look into the pit surrounding the Crystal Palace during construction. There were many delays, somewhat sullying the lofty ambitions of the project at the very start. Courtesy New York Public Library

 

A very church-like plan of the Crystal Palace building by Petermann and Guildemeister. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
A very church-like plan of the Crystal Palace building by Petermann and Guildemeister. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

Theodore Sedgwick, who spearheaded the New York Crystal Palace -- and bore some of the criticisms of the Exhibition's rocky opening.
Theodore Sedgwick, who spearheaded the New York Crystal Palace — and bore some of the criticisms of the Exhibition’s rocky opening.

 

Birds Eye View of the New York Crystal Palace and Environs by John Bachmann. Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Birds Eye View of the New York Crystal Palace and Environs by John Bachmann. Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

 

Illustration of the center of the Crystal Palace by J Wells. Courtesy New York Public Library
Illustration of the center of the Crystal Palace by J Wells. Courtesy New York Public Library
The view from one of the naves, looking towards the George Washington statue. Courtesy New York Public Library
The view from one of the naves, looking towards the George Washington statue. Courtesy New York Public Library

 

Another view of the inside, this time during the inauguration of the New York Crystal Palace in July 1853 -- looking at a platform in the north nave. Courtesy New York Public Library
Another view of the inside, this time during the inauguration of the New York Crystal Palace in July 1853 — looking at a platform in the north nave. Courtesy New York Public Library

 

A hand-colored stereoscope of a selection of Crystal Palace statuary. There seems to be some kind of Egyptian thing going on in the background! Courtesy Museum of City of New York
A hand-colored stereoscope of a selection of Crystal Palace statuary. There seems to be some kind of Egyptian thing going on in the background! Courtesy Museum of City of New York

 

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Busts, tapestries, machinery, weapons and various finery! A couple illustrations of the different divisions. Just rooms and rooms of items! Courtesy New York Public Library
Busts, tapestries, machinery, weapons and various finery! A couple illustrations of the different divisions. Just rooms and rooms of items! Courtesy New York Public Library

 

A selection of saws and tools from Marsh Brothers & Co. that one might have seen in the US section. Courtesy NYPL
A selection of saws and tools from Marsh Brothers & Co. that one might have seen in the US section. Courtesy NYPL

 

Genin's Bazaar, containing items for the infant. Courtesy New York Public LIbrary
Genin’s Bazaar, containing items for the infant. Courtesy New York Public LIbrary

 

This photo of Commodore Matthew C. Perry was taken by Matthew Brady and displayed at the Crystal Palace, one of the first photographs many people may have seen!
This photo of Commodore Matthew C. Perry was taken by Matthew Brady and displayed at the Crystal Palace, one of the first photographs many people may have seen!
A selection of saws and tools from Marsh Brothers & Co. that one might have seen in the US section. Courtesy New York Public LIbrary
A selection of saws and tools from Marsh Brothers & Co. that one might have seen in the US section. Courtesy New York Public LIbrary

 

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This engraving shows the Latting Observatory in relation to the Crystal Palace, separated by 42nd Street.

 

A reprinted advertisement from Valentine's Manual of old New York, outlining some of the charms of Latting Observatory
A reprinted advertisement from Valentine’s Manual of old New York, outlining some of the charms of Latting Observatory

 

One of several illustrations of the Crystal Palace fire, a dramatic blaze that destroyed the building in under an hour.
One of several illustrations of the Crystal Palace fire, a dramatic blaze that destroyed the building in under an hour.

 

An illustration from an 1887 book "Our firemen. A history of the New York fire department" Courtesy Internet Image Book Archives
An illustration from an 1887 book “Our firemen. A history of the New York fire department” Courtesy Internet Image Book Archives

 

Another view of the blaze, in perspective to the rest of New York to the south. Couirtesy New-York Historical Society
Another view of the blaze, in perspective to the rest of New York to the south. Couirtesy New-York Historical Society

 

An illustration made in 1858, depicting the aftermath of the horrible fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace. NYPL
An illustration made in 1858, depicting the aftermath of the horrible fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace. NYPL

 

Some original documents that you may enjoy reading:

How To See the New York Crystal Palace: Being a Concise Guide to the Principal Objects in the Exhibiton

A Day in the New  York Crystal Palace and how to Make the Most of It

And for some comparison, a guide to the London Crystal Palace can be found here.

‘The Measure of Manhattan’: The grid plan of New York comes to life, as does its eccentric creator


BOWERY BOYS BOOK OF THE MONTH Each month I’ll pick a book — either brand new or old, fiction or non-fiction — that offers an intriguing take on New York City history, something that uses history in a way that’s unconventional and different or exposes a previously unseen corner of our city’s complicated past.  Then over the next month, I’ll run an article or two about some of historical themes that are brought up in the selection. 


The Measure of Manhattan: 
The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel Jr.
by Marguerite Holloway
WW Norton & Company

The man at the center of Marguerite Holloway’s ‘The Measure of Manhattan’ is a genuine riddle.

The surveyor John Randel Jr. rarely wrote about himself, jotting down observations of land elevation and incompetent workmen as he mapped out the legendary grid plan along the island of Manhattan.

This ambitious task, occurring early in his career, would assure his place as a pivotal, if quiet, figure in American history.  During this period, he is studious, focused and, let’s just say it, a mite uninteresting.  But just as the grid is completed, Randel’s personal story comes to life.

A traditional historian might not know what to do with the life of Randel, a man who ages into astonishing eccentricity and temperament.  But.Holloway, a journalism professor at Columbia University, treats this story as a two-fold mystery, turning something that could into a real unexpected — and often unpredictable — treat.

Her first concern is the grid itself, the orderly row of streets and avenues that arose out of the former hills and streams of Manhattan, following researchers who are attempting to determine how drastically the landscape has been altered over the years.

Evidence of the original surveying job — which sliced through private property and reorganized nature into something unrelenting and orderly — can be found in Central Park.  In fact, a bolt sits lodged in a rock, the last remaining evidence of Randel’s assiduous work.  It’s an astonishing discovery.

As is Randel, the man who probably put it there.  The young surveyor, taken under wing by the well connected DeWitt family at the start of the 19th century, worked on the grids to Manhattan and Albany before he was 30 years old, braving the wrath of farmers to mark rectangles in the landscape.  So unusual was the island’s terrain that Randel invented his own surveying equipment specifically suited for the job at hand.

But even as Holloway goes deep into Randel’s technique, there appears to be a vacuum at the center of the story.  Randel’s personality seems opaque, even non-existent.  But wait.

The most fascinating aspects to Randel’s character come after the grid is completed, when the surveyor attempts to cash in on his remarkable accomplishment.  He naturally attempts to sell copies of his maps but, in these heady days before copyright, is thwarted by a competitor who basically duplicates his work

From that point, he seems to spend as much time in lawsuits as he does doing field work.  He goes to work on an upstate length of the Erie Canal, only to annoy his peers and tarnish his reputation.  Is it professional jealousy at Randel’s enormous skills, or is the great, embittered surveyor becoming obstinate?

As Benjamin Wright, canal engineer and enemy of Randel’s, once said of his rival in 1824: “I think him the most complete hypocritical lying nincompoop (and I might say scoundrel if it was a Gentlemanly word)…..”

At left: A notice for another of Randel’s great projects, the New Castle and Frenchtown railroad, the first railroad in Delaware 

Far from a career of increasingly applauded works, Randel becomes stepped in controversy at every turn, even as he moves from canals to railroads.  He’s perpetually strapped for cash, even attempting to build his own estate (amusingly called Randelia) with unfortunate results.  In a desperate act of “piracy”, according to the author, he even attempts to collect his very own tolls from a canal he himself surveyed and engineered!

Holloway, employing an extraordinary depth of research, describes a man of great talent who gets ripped asunder by America’s rapid growth, defined not by accomplishment but debt.  In a way, this is as pure an American story as it gets.

The tale often pulls back at times to modern day, constantly reminding us of Randel’s most stunning accomplishment, a New York grid plan so implanted that it seems impossible to imagine that anything else ever existed here.  In particular she turns her focus to Eric Sanderson and his amazing 2009 Mannahatta project, pulling a reverse-Randel in trying to map out the original landscape as it appeared in the year 1609.

Randel returns to New York near the end of his life for the industrial exhibition held at the Crystal Palace in 1853, America’s first great show of its technological prowess. It is here that Randel reveals his last, greatest idea — an elevated railroad transporting passengers up and down the length of avenues he had himself marked over forty years earlier.

His visionary ideas were rejected.  Over fifteen years later, well after Randel’s death, New York built an elevated railroad anyway.

The phantom of a great fire in Bryant Park

Were you in Bryant Park yesterday? Did you happen to imagine that you sniffed a very slight whiff of smoke? It was just a ghostly reminder of one of the most famous fires in all of New York history — the destruction of the legendary Crystal Palace exhibition hall, which sat here for five glorious years until its consumption in flame on October 5, 1858.

One of New York’s most spectacular and famous buildings (modeled after a similar structure in London), the Crystal Palace housed the marvels of American technological might for display, a glimmering temple to the industrial age. Some historians speculate that the Crystal Palace was the first American building to be photographed. Inside, one could find the a model of the first operating elevator here, or cable wires that would later be used with success on the Brooklyn Bridge.

And to the area before fire safety. Amount of time it took for the Crystal Palace to be entirely destroyed? Twenty-five minutes.

Illustration courtesy NYPL

Mayor Westervelt: “Police officers must wear uniforms!”


KNOW YOUR MAYORS Our modest little series about some of the greatest, notorious, most important, even most useless, mayors of New York City. Other entrants in our mayoral survey can be found here.

Mayor Jacob Westervelt
In office: 1853-1855

Dutch-blooded Jacob Aaron Westervelt, 24th man to become mayor of New York since the British evacuation of 1783, lived in a two-family home at 308 East Broadway near Grand Street. This seems like a rather odd spot for a mayoral residence today, and perhaps even then. Today there is no 308 East Broadway, there’s only a grim-looking public school and a barren traffic island.

But there are some surviving row houses just down the block — preserved Federal-style buildings at 247-249 East Broadway — so just imagine a fancier version of these on the spot that Westervelt’s residence once stood, many years before this neighborhood would become associated with squalor and overcrowding.

Now image this: an angry mob of 5,000 men with torches, surrounding this very home in the winter of 1853, painting a cross on the doorway and crying for his head. His crime: he sides with Catholics. Scandal! What would a mayor have to do garner that sort of reception today?

Westervelt is better known today for his original profession as master ship-builder. Few men who served as mayor of New York were better regarded internationally as Westervelt, who once received an honor from the king of Spain for making them some of the fastest ships in the sea.

Jacob was born twenty days into the year 1800 in Tenefly, New Jersey, but moved with his family into New York when he was only four years old. His father was a builder and constructed several new homes along Franklin Street, near the area being drained of that marshy, polluted mess known as Collect Pond.

By age 14, Jacob was apprenticing with famed shipbuilder Christian Bergh at his shipyard off Corlear’s Hook — not coincidentally more than a few blocks from Westervelt’s later residence as mayor.

Bergh would spawn one of New York’s wealthiest families, although incongruently his son Henry Bergh would become the best known member — as the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Henry is also known for this weird mausoleum at Green-wood Cemetery.

The Berghs would eventually abandon shipbuilding after Christian’s death. His young apprentice Jacob would carry the torch for him, eventually taking over Bergh’s shipyards, expanding with other business partners up and down the East River shore, and using southern American and European connections to soon dominate the shipbuilding business. By 1845, Westervelt had overseen the construction of dozens of clippers, schooners and steamships, among the fastest and most reliable on the Atlantic Ocean.

Below: an illustration of various boatbuilders in 1861, including Westervelt at bottom

As a pioneer of reliable and innovative shipping vessels, Westervelt’s influence was felt internationally. In the world of mid-19th century politics, that made him an ideal candidate for public office, and especially to Democratic machine Tammany Hall. As one of Manhattan’s most visible men of industry, Jacob employed hundreds of new Irish immigrants, Tammany’s prime voting bloc. In fact, Westervelt had already briefly served as council alderman for his district in 1840.

In 1852, Tammany could use a man of relatively unblemished character. The stench of corruption was already swirling around the powerful, entrenched Democrats in office — and this was in the years before Boss Tweed! Derisively known as the Forty Thieves**, the Democratic aldermen in City Hall were easily and openly bought, by everyone it seems but the mayor at the time, anti-Tammany reformer Ambrose Kingsland. City expenditures swelled, the elaborate web of political kickbacks and bribery gelling during this period.

But Tammany was looking to start fresh — or at least strike the apperances of doing so — choosing Westervelt as their reform-lite candidate in 1853, a symbol of prosperity in a wobbly New York economy. Westervelt, on the surface, looked like somebody who could quell the city’s massive over-expenditure. On the strength of a surging Democratic national ticket with presidential candidate Franklin Pierce, Westervelt was easily elected by the largest margin yet during a mayoral race, defeating the now-forgotten Whig Morgan Morgans.

Although, this being the 1850s, one can assume that total to be highly suspicious. “No registry law was in force to hinder men from voting…as often as twenty times,” claimed one early history.

Westervelt inherited several massive projects which were bloating the city budgets, including Central Park. Already a done deal when Westervelt entered office, the mayor sought to cut the park space in half due a bloated, overwhelmed city budget. Had Westervelt ruled the day, Central Park would have started on 72nd Street! His plans would be reversed a few years later by Mayor Fernando Wood.

More appropriately, Westervelt became president of a world’s fair in 1853, more specifically called the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations and housed in the glorious Crystal Palace in the area of today’s Bryant Park. Having a man of industry preside over a fair of industry was both fortuous and apt; certainly examples of his own creations were displayed with other technological marvels of the age like the elevator.

Below: the well-uniformed Crystal Palace police officers (pic courtesy NYPL)

One of the mayor’s lasting contributions was in New York police reform, creating a Board of Police Commissioners with himself in charge to apply a strict code of ethics to an already chaotic, corrupted body. In doing so, he wrangled away from his more corrupt Democratic brethren their ability to buy and sell police jobs as a form of political patronage.

But his most radical idea is today the most obvious: he mandated that every police officer should wear a uniform, an “expensive and fantastical” requirement according to his opponents who believed it “unrepublican to put the servants of the City in livery.”

Westervelt managed to make himself with one very unpopular with one group: the Know-Nothings, a ‘native American’ group who feared the swelling hordes of Irish and Catholic immigrants and the Catholicism they brought with them. The group would reach peak influence across the country in the mid-1850s, and they would actually gain significant political traction in other cities. In New York, they more often showed their moxie in the form of rioting.

The mayor earned their ire on December 11, 1853, when he ordered a street preacher arrested for gathering a group of 10,000 to listen to his frothing Know-Nothing spiel. It probably didn’t help matters that said preacher had organized on Westervelt’s own wharfs on the East River!

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned Jacob’s address — 308 East Broadway. A bit out-of-way of New York’s high society, sure, but Westervelt wished to be close to his ships. In fact, he and his partner Robert Connelly both built adjoining houses on this spot, facing Grand Street. According to Harper’s, “Over the door was a large stone cap on which was carved the representation of a ships taffrail.” (Taffrail is nautical for “the upper part of the ship’s stern“)

Thus, the angered Know-Nothing crowds were scant blocks from the mayors door. A reported 5,000 men gathered outside Westervelt’s home, demanding retribution and the release of the arrested preacher. To remind the mayor what this argument was all about, they painted a gigantic cross upon the door.

This story outlines Westervelt’s uneasy dual role as city leader and businessman. In 1855, the ships won out. Jacob bowed out, allowing Wood to finally ascend to the mayor’s desk for the first time. His best work as a shipbuilder was indeed ahead of him, though he would make brief returns into the political fray, first as a state senator, then in a newly created job in which he was most qualified — the New York commissioner for docks and ferries, from 1870 until his death in 1879. He died at his home on 63 West 48th Street, in the area of Rockefeller Center today.

Pictured at right: Westervelt at age 70

** Not to be confused with New York’s first gang, also called The Forty Thieves

Would ‘Post’ master Bryant like his Park today?


Above: Painting of Bryant Park by artist Mike Rohner. Visit his website for some other lovely works.

Editor-poet William Cullen Bryant, the 19th century’s most influential publisher of the New York Post, never lived to see Fashion Week or the yearly outdoor Summer Film Festival, the star events hosted in the park that was named after him, Bryant Park. Of course, prior to becoming that park, it might not have been considered the most flattering memorial.

Like Washington Square before it, Bryant Park was declared a potter’s field in 1823, a public cemetery. Think about that this summer as you fight for that stretch of grass before the super-popular film screenings on Monday nights.

Many New York parks share this as part of their history. At least in the case of Bryant Park, however, the bodies were eventually moved out to Ward’s Island. (Unlike Washington Square, where you apparently can’t dig without finding a few human remains.)

Two remarkable landmarks of New York’s past sprung up here next. First, the Crystal Palace, a dazzling exhibition center of glass in a delicate iron skeleton, held examples of national industrial progress during 1853 Great Exhibition, an early ‘world’s fair’. Within five years, it would be destroyed in a fire, the entirety of the technological innovations inside destroyed.

Ironically enough, it sat right next to New York’s largest depository of water, the fortress-like Croton Reservoir, constructed a few years earlier in 1847.

More details on the Palace and the Reservoir can be found in our podcast of the New York Public Library, the elegant building which has stood on the site of the Reservoir since 1911.

So how did Bryant wind up here? By the 1880s, plans were underway to remove the Reservoir, and with the eastern portion of the lot given to the library, a park was planned for the Western part, officially called Reservoir Square.

Bryant, one of New York’s most respected men, was a literary genius, a powerful political figure, and godfather to Central Park, having proposed the idea in the Post and run the design competition that eventually picked Oldstead and Vaux as the park’s eventual architects.

In 1884, the name was changed to honor one of New York’s most prolific citizens. However, by the time Bryant died in 1888, not much had actually been done to beautify this early version of Bryant’s park. In fact, it sounds a bit like a nightmare.

It sat next to a massive construction site over a decade, as the Reservoir was ripped down and the Library slowly built in its place. Making matters worse, the elevated railroad had been built right across its western edge in 1878. Bryant Park had to have been one of the loudest places in the city. The replacement of the elevated for an underground subway only made matters worse, as the park was torn up then used as a storage yard for subway materials.

The park was rescued by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and designer Lusby Simpson, who swept out the debris and shaped a French-style courtyard and walking paths, an open space that would only seem more idyllic as the city skyscrapers crept up around it. After the now-predictable slump in the 1970s, the park is now midtown’s most perfectly kept public space. The fashion industry’s showcase Fashion Week arrived here in 1993, raising the park’s prestige even further.

A year earlier, in 1992, came the annual summer film festival, featuring Hollywood classics on a gigantic outdoor screen. This year’s festival, now sponsored by HBO, starts on June 16.

And that imposing statue of Bryant (below), with a prime seat to the film festival overlooking the park? He came along in 1911, at the opening of the library, a tribute to the Post publisher designed by New York sculptor Herbert Adams.

PODCAST: New York Public Library


The New York Public Library may be one of the most revered libraries in America, but it took a farflung combination of bookworms, millionaires and do-gooders to make it into the institution it is today. Also: find out why the architectural style of the Beaux Arts sometimes reminds us of an old French prostitute.

Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

Before the lions of the New York Public Library — now less imposingly called the Humanities and Social Sciences Library — parked themselves at 40th and 6th Ave, the Croton Reservoir stood imposingly there, holding the city’s water supply. As you can tell from this picture, it looked a bit like an Egyptian pyramid, or perhaps a alien spaceship.

This was a distribution reservoir, which received water from a larger ‘receiving reservoir’ in what is now Central Park, but what was then on the outskirts of town.

Meanwhile, the space now considered Bryant Park was, in the 1850s, the location of the New York Crystal Palace, home of America’s technological and engineering marvels. Here’s a look at the Crystal Palace in all its glory:

And a dramatic illustration of its final moments, felled in a quick burning fire.

The construction of the library took nine years — sixteen if you consider the time from original design to dedication. The most ambitious marble building of its time, it was covered in Vermont marble so carefully chosen that two-thirds of the shipped stone was rejected for not being refined enough. The marble is at a thickness of almost a foot all around. The net effect even now gives the structure an immovability that makes the modern skyscrapers around it seem light and temporary.

On the frontispiece above the entrance to the library is a tribute to its three creators — millionaire John Jacob Astor, collector James Lenox and former governor Samuel Tilden:

However, the area of 41st street that runs between 5th and 6th Avenue is now called ‘John Bigelow Plaza’, after the man who brought the Astor and Lenox collections together with the Tilden Trust.

James Lenox has originally kept his collection in his own library on 5th and 70th street. This scratch illustration displays Lenox’s ‘indestructible’ limestone library, which housed most of the items held at the Public Library today, including Lenox’s personal copy of the Gutenberg Bible.

Meanwhile, the rest of the collection came from the Astor Library, constructed with money bequeathed by the millionaire. Thankfully the building remains pretty much intact, thanks to its present occupants, the Public Theatre, whose decades of success on Broadway, off-Broadway, dance, performance art and especially Shakespeare in the Park would have confused but satisfied the building’s original benefactor.

Some pictures from inside the New York Public Library building illustrate some of its more Beaux-Art-ish features. The broad vaulted arches:

And ornate muralled ceilings in the McGraw Rotunda. The effect is a bit like the Vatican apartments mixed with an old bank:

Its all dwarfed, however by the massive Rose Reading Room, whose basic organization came not from the architects but from the library’s first director, Dr. John Shaw Billings, from a sketch he made on a postcard!

And finally, a beautiful picture I found on a World War I website, showing the fairly new library in all its glory, as New York’s 369th Regiment passes by.

Thanks to the New York Public Library official website for providing us with some of our trivia. And there’s lots more there to intrugue you. Click here for visiting hours and facts about some of the branch libraries.