Tag Archives: parks

Where was Manhattan Square? The Gilded Age remaking of a neglected park

Theodore Roosevelt Park (77th and 81st Streets, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue), which contains the beloved American Museum of Natural History, is the oldest developed section of the Upper West Side, purchased by the city in 1839 as a possible strolling park to be called Manhattan Square.

Museum of the City of New York

Central Park was but a gleam in the eye back in 1839! The Grid Plan of 1811 had divvied up upper Manhattan into organized blocks but not much was properly developed in the early 19th century. There were few suitable transportation options and thus upper Manhattan was only sparsely populated.

Near this spot on the grid was the old African-American settlement of Seneca Village, which was later wiped away with the development of Central Park.

Below: A sketch by Egbert Viele from 1857 showing the remains of the small village of Seneca Village. Manhattan Square would have been off to the upper left portion of this image.

The original grid plan had no significant parks built into it so later city planners had to carve some out themselves. Unfortunately, the city almost literally forgot all about Manhattan Square — it’s even included in an 1860 New York Times article headlined NEWLY-DISCOVERED CITY PROPERTY

To be fair, the land had been granted to the Central Park Commission which was rather busy developing the park proper. As a result, Manhattan Square’s rugged and unpleasant terrain became an eye sore and rather dangerous for any actual visitors.

Samuel Ruggles, developer of both Union Square and Gramercy Park, once squawked, “It is a disgrace to the city. It is in some places forty feet below the grade and well characterized as ‘a pestilential hole of stagnant water.’”

Below: From the late 1870s, the solitary American Museum of Natural History building sits on the spot of Manhattan Square, now leveled out for public enjoyment, even if the lots surrounding it are quite barren.

In the early 1860s, the city proposed selling off this sorely underused area of land. At one point, during the Civil War, some suggested it be turned into a proper military parade ground. “Manhattan-square [has] been proposed for the parade-ground; over Manhattan-square the Commissioners have control and it is understood that they are willing to assign it, but, just now, they have not the funds which its preparation would require.” [source]

The next plan was to make a zoo! Animals had accumulated near the Central Park Arsenal as a make-shift ‘menagerie‘ — abandoned pets, former circus animals, far-flung beasts brought over on ships. At one point it was determined to move those animals to a more formal Zoological Garden, to be built on the much abused area of Manhattan Square.

From 1865: “The Zoological Gardens are about to be commenced at Manhattan-square, and the commissioners fully expect to have this valuable garden completed before the Summer wanes.”

Below: The chaos of the Central Park menagerie, depicted in an 1866 illustration

Harpers Weekly

Those planned fell through of course. Today the Central Park Zoo marks to location of that former menagerie.

By 1872, the Central Park Commission would utilize Manhattan Square for another mission, designating it the home for the American Museum of Natural History. The first structure would be completed in 1877. (For more information on the institution’s development, check out our podcast on the subject.)

Apartment developers later flocked to the park’s edges, drawn to its proximity to other fashionable apartment houses in the neighborhood like the Dakota Apartments (at 72nd Street, built in 1884). Luxury apartment living soon transformed the Upper West Side, and the fate of Manhattan Square — renamed Theodore Roosevelt Park in 1958 — changed with it.

Below: 44 West 77th Street. Manhattan Square Studio Apartment, photographed in 1910

MCNY

Of course, you may not know it by that name today either. From the New York Department of Parks and Recreation: “Neighborhood residents have traditionally referred to the parkland as Museum Park or Dinosaur Park.”

Below: The fully expanded museum as it looked in 1913

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

The mysterious death of Calvert Vaux

On November 19, 1895,  Calvert Vaux went for a morning walk from his son’s home in Brooklyn. He never returned.

The 70 year old architect had helped create New York City. His landscape collaborations with Frederick Law Olmsted had given Manhattan its Central Park and Brooklyn its Prospect Park and Fort Greene Park. His own architectural work could be seen at Jefferson Market Courthouse, the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1895 he still retained an honorary role as the parks department’s landscape adviser, although he had mostly retired from public life.

Calvert Vaux, circa 1865-1871

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

His son Calvert Bowyer Vaux lived in a house on Twentieth Avenue between Bath and Benson Avenues in today’s neighborhood of Bath Beach. The elder Vaux often stayed with his son was known for taking morning walks along the waterfront

On November 19, 1895, it was gray and foggy on the morning that Vaux departed his son’s home, leaving behind “a gold watch and chain and his vest” with about two dollars in his pocket.

Below: The New York Tribune made a brief mention of Vaux’s vanishing in the following one-sentence bulletin:

Trib Nov 21

At some point during the day he was spotted by a “Captain Ditmar” — possibly Captain Walter Earl Ditmar — on a pier near the water, and the two briefly spoke. Vaux is reported to have said to the captain, “I’m admiring the improvements you’ve made hereabouts.” The two briefly talked about methods in which to make the beach area more amenable  to visitors before Vaux proceeded to walk the piers by himself.

Ditmar was the last person to see Vaux alive.

The architect must have been known for taking very long walks for he was only discovered missing in the late afternoon.   By the evening his family became worried; the police were called the following morning. All the local hospitals and hotels were checked. While it was well-known that Vaux was a frail man, he was often known to walk up to Prospect Park, several miles from his son’s home.  But the fear that he may have fallen into the bay were already present.

Below:  An 1889 map of the district Vaux’s son lived in. The elder Vaux was last seen along the shoreline depicted here.

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The following day the body of Calvert Vaux was indeed found in Gravesend Bay at the foot of Bay 17th Street, very close to the site of today’s Bath Beach Park.

As described by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“A workman on Fry’s coal dock [later identified as Benjamin Butler] first saw the body being tossed about in the rough water, but when he rushed to the shore to secure the corpse it disappeared. It was some minutes later before Mr. Fry himself saw it drifting alongside the bulkhead out to sea again. With a boat hook he succeeded in bringing it close to shore.”

Below: Headline from the New York Sun

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The police were called, bringing Vaux’s son down to the shore to identify the body. He could scarcely bring himself to look into his father’s face, recognizing his father’s well-worn suit before looking away.

“There was a bruise on the head, a slight cut over the eye, and the hat, spectacles and left shoe were missing,” reported the Times.

Given the circumstantial evidence, it seems clear as to what may have happened to Mr. Vaux. While on a walk along the shore, he may have fainted or tripped, falling into the water and drowning in the waves.

Below: An engraving from the New York Tribune:

tribune

The Sun further speculated: “As he was interested in the construction of the pier, it may be that he leaned over the stringpiece to examine the foundation piles. In doing so he may have fallen into the water, as he was ill and feeble, being 70 years old.”

Most press reports of the day made it clear no foul play was suspected. Vaux Jr. brushed away any suggestions of suicide on his father’s part. “The theory of suicide has been disclaimed by his relatives who said that [Vaux] had been cheerful and mentally able the evening before he disappeared.” [source]

But not everybody was convinced, and the Tribune reported that the “theory [of suicide] prevails with some people.”

Weeks earlier Vaux had told his daughter that he wanted to live long enough to see the completion of his plans in Central Park. “If I can only manage to live until 1898, my plans for the improvement of Central Park will be completed, and I won’t worry about any other work.”

Sadly Vaux’s death did have a certain impact on Central Park. Without the dutiful eye of its co-creator, maintenance on the park gradually deteriorated, and it would not be until the installation of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses that the condition of the park would be improved.

Today, nearby the place where Vaux’s body was discovered, you may enjoy a picnic and a sunset at Calvert Vaux Park in Gravesend.

Below: Calvert Vaux Park (the former Dreier-Offerman Park) has greatly improved since the 1960s when it was essentially an undeveloped mess, linked by a pedestrian bridge. Picture courtesy the New York City Parks Archives

1968

It was once called Dreier-Offerman Park for the former home for unwed mothers which once sat here. It was changed to honor the architect in 1998 when it was radically re-landscaped and improved. Knowing that he died close to here, I kind of think being named after an unwed mother’s home is the less depressing name.

 

 

Picture at top: A forlorn pier from 1890, located at West Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

Photograph by Robert Bracklow. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Photograph by Robert Bracklow. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

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