Early New York – Broadway In Simpler Days

“Do you know,” I said to a friend, recently, as we dived into a crowded train on the elevated railroad, ” I think we take less exercise than we did a generation ago, and are degenerating? In the matter of legs I am quite sure the decadence must be marked. The revived fashion of knee-breeches, now impending, will find us unable to cope with the traditional anatomies of stalwart George Washington, who was a prodigious jumper, and sturdy John Adams, whose lower limbs were solid as the granite hills that’ stood around his home. The art of walking has gone out of fashion with us, and it has operated to our physical loss.”

“Do you know,” calmly responded my friend, “I think you are growing old, and, as is the way with all who cultivate a sere and yellow acquaintance with old Father Time, are learning to grumble at the present, just because it is somewhat juvenile?”

Can this be true? My old friend Bowie Dash re-marked to a common acquaintance the other day that, judging by my reminiscences, I. must be somewhere in the neighborhood of ninety-five. As to Mr. Dash’s suggestion of age, I quite scorn it. Did not the same ruler warm us up, anatomically and intellectually, when we two were neophytes in the temple of learning in Franklin Street, over which Mr. Jeremiah J. Greenough presided? Indeed, we are both young comparatively. Yet a newer generation can behold in our reminiscences, as in a mirror, the day when street-cars were unknown, omnibuses a rarity, and when, in the absence of furnaces, heaters, and self – feeding stoves, the boy was solemnly admonished, as winter drew nigh, that pedestrian exercise was the best thing to keep his blood in circulation and help him defy the blasts of December.

Everybody walked to and from business when I was’ a boy. That is, everybody except those who lived in the outskirts of Greenwich Village and in Chelsea, who went by stages, and except a few invalids and octogenarians. It told against a man to pamper him-self with sixpenny rides in an omnibus. Besides, one always counted on meeting acquaintances upon the Broadway promenade at certain hours, and the hearty greetings of one’s elders were worth something, as we juniors thought. It was a physical pleasure to throw one’s self into the tide of human life that swept up the great central thoroughfare every afternoon, and to strike out homeward with it. The white- haired crest upon the human wave disappeared after a while as the club-house, the down-town home, or the political head-quarters drew it in, and then, rosy and radiant, a reflex tide of feminine loveliness swept in, and the walk became more pleasant than ever. Yes, everybody walked in those days, and, as I grew out of boyhood towards manhood, I used to think that the rosebud garden of Broadway on a crisp autumn afternoon was lovely beyond compare. The tide of pedestrians began noticeably to diverge to the left at Chambers Street, and both to right and left above Canal Street, making decided detours towards St. John’s Park and Washington Square in turn, and growing more and more scattered as it approached the up – town neighborhood above Great Jones Street and Astor Place.

I like still on brisk autumn days to turn my face to Union Square, and take up my march from the neighborhood of old St. Paul’s. If some one is with me who is interested in my gray- haired garrulity about other days, it makes the way lighter. But I never lack company. Indeed, paradoxical as it may seem, it is when I am alone that I have most companionship. As I walk along, the ghosts of other days trip out to see me. They are no noisome apparitions, but gentle, sweet-voiced spirits, whose eyes are filled with tender recollections, and whose garments bear the scent of the roses and hyacinths of many years ago. From unexpected spots they dart out to give me greeting and to bring to my recollection little occurrences long forgotten, but pleasant to recall. In this spot they recall a rosy night at the theatre; there they bring back the tender recollection of a school friend who has been dust and ashes these five and thirty years; here they call up Sunday-school days, and the prolonged and inevitable Sunday services beneath the stately spire of St. John’s Chapel ; here again, just around that corner, lived the incarnate inspiration of my first valentine, whose clustering curls never lived to sleep on any other breast than Mother Earth’s; and there, too, opposite the St. Nicholas, were the mystic rooms in which our college secret society met to initiate white-faced neophytes into the mysteries of sworn fraternity, while all around the pavement echoes to’ the feet which are silent to the rest of the world, but to my ears are instinct with a life that can never die. Come with me, then, most patient reader, and as we walk up Broadway this afternoon, close your eyes to present surroundings, and let me picture the thoroughfare as it looked forty years ago, when I strolled up from a school-mate’s home below the City Hall Park, a rosy-cheeked boy in old-fashioned roundabout and cap.

St. Paul’s Church has been growing smaller of late years, or is it the effect of the great buildings that surround it? It towered up above all the neighborhood when I was a boy, and at one time I had an uncanny dread of the marble figure of St. Paul above the portico, which was said to come down and walk the street “when it heard the clock strike twelve at midnight of St. Paul’s Day.” The late William E. Dodge, who was so earnest a man that he never appreciated a joke, in the course of a familiar lecture to some east-side youth said that his nurse once told him that that same figure of St. Paul “came down and walked around the streets at night,” thus wickedly deceiving him, and Mr. Dodge used the occasion. to warn his young friends against telling falsehoods.

Barnum’s Museum, which faced St. Paul’s Church at the corner of Ann Street, has disappeared long since, and I fear that I have never ceased to mourn its loss. Wasn’t it a wonderful place, though? The oval pictures of impossible birds and beasts that stood between the outside windows were a scientific spectacle in themselves. But the interior was one vast temple of wonder, and I never would have forgiven the man who should prove to me that the club which killed Captain Cook was not genuine; that Joyce Heth had not held baby George Washington in her black arms ; and that the dark, dank little amphitheatre was not a dramatic paradise, in which performances were given upon a cramped and rather dirty stage through so much of the day that Artemus Ward said Barnum’s actors could be seen towards 7 A.M. walking down Broadway to work, with their tin dinner-pails in hand.

Broadway, between the Astor House and Chambers Street, has changed less in forty years than almost any other portion of the city. The park has under-gone much more change. The Post-office has blotted out an oasis of grass and trees, and with the old iron fence a small army of hucksters in gingerbread and candy have disappeared. On the Broadway side of the park ,stood Peale’s Museum. I remember only one thing about it : The largest room contained the skeleton of a mastodon, at whose feet stood the tiny skeleton of a mouse. Opposite the museum, on Park Row, the famous Park Theatre was located. I stood in the City Hall Park one night and watched its roof-tree fall into the flames that devoured the building. An engine dashing along the sidewalk of Broadway had nearly run over me as I came. We all ran to fires in those days, and the engines took the sidewalk or the street, just as suited their convenience. I never was inside the Park Theatre, but how have I enjoyed Aminidab Sleek and Captain Cuttle at Burton’s Theatre in Chambers Street.

At one corner of Chambers Street the Stewart Building is a modern innovation. It displaced, among other structures, famous Washington Hall, the political foe of Tammany Hall, built by the Federalists, and occupied as their fighting headquarters for many years. The building on the opposite corner of Chambers Street and Broadway was once the Irving House, a fashionable hostlery, but it has an older memory for some of us graybeards. There at one time John C. Colt had his office, and there he murdered Adams, the printer who was getting out a work on book-keeping for him. It was the first tragedy I had ever been able to read about, and I remember vividly all the details of the body that was packed and shipped to South America ; that by adverse winds was brought ashore, and would have brought the murderer to the scaffold had he not committed suicide on the morning of the day set for his execution. Years and years after-wards I met Col. Samuel Colt, who always favored the rumor that his brother had escaped to France, and that the body of a pauper convict had been substituted to deceive the authorities. ” Is your brother John living in France?” asked a curious Hartford man. The answer was prompt and characteristic : “That is something which only God Almighty and Sam Colt know.”

Somewhere near Duane Street, on Broadway, where modern progress has as yet made little change in the buildings, the first sewing-machine was exhibited. A young girl used to sit in the window and work the rather primitive machinery, and she actually seemed to sew. Everybody watched the process with interest, but all regarded it as a toy, and impracticable for household use. The ladies set their faces resolutely against it. They would have nothing but hand-made goods. Philanthropy argued at all our tables, as I re-member, that the machine would take the bread out of the mouths of the working-women. So the pretty girl kept the pedals going in the window, month in and month out, and Wall Street was not sharp enough to see that there was a fortune in the ” toy. It might be made to sew a ruffle–yes, no doubt this had been done-but to argue that it could make a suit of clothes or do the sewing for a household was non-sense.

Just above stood the old New York Hospital, its green campus, filled with stately trees, facing Pearl Street. In the rear were the gray granite buildings which had been erected before the Revolutionary War, and which Lord Howe had surrounded with fortifications. It always seemed a pity to destroy this pretty green spot, but perhaps it was inevitable. Its destruction followed the obliteration of the campus of Colombia College at Park Place, and it was pitiable to watch the felling of the sturdy old trees that at both these points had withstood the storms of a century, and had looked down upon the camp-fires alike of the redcoat of England and the buff and blue soldier of the Continental Congress. Other obliterations were more natural. Here, on the east side of Broadway, between Pearl and Anthony, stood the Broadway Theatre, beloved of fashion in its day ; on the next block was the Broadway Tabernacle, the camping-ground of the May meetings, where I stole in often to hear the abolitionists speak when I was a boy-Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith, and the lovely white-haired Quakeress, Lucretia Mott. I thought these last a horrible crew of fanatics, for ‘I had been bred in the doctrine that slavery was no sin ; but there was a wonderful fascination for me in those gatherings of long- haired, wild – eyed agitators. Time works wonders, and yet the wildest prophet would not have ventured to predict that the boy who looked upon an abolitionist as a special ally of the Evil One would one day command a regiment marching through this city and through the border States to the fields of the South, to strike the shackles from the limbs of the enslaved African.

Between Leonard Street and Catharine Lane stood the Society Library building, a handsome structure in its day, which afterwards gave place to the publishing house of D. Appleton & Co. At Leonard Street there was a hotel known as the Carleton House; and there was another at Walker Street, known as Florence’s Hotel ; and below, on the other side, at the north corner of Franklin Street, was the famous Taylor’s restaurant, frequented by all the society belles of the day.

More than one local romance has made Taylor’s its scene of fashionable dissipation. Fashion has moved miles up-town since then, and would now vote Taylor’s a very commonplace affair. But a much more attractive place in the early part of the forties was Contoit’s Garden, which for more than a generation occupied a large share of the block between Franklin and Leonard streets. Its plain wooden entrance, bearing the legend, ” New York Garden,” was overshadowed with frets, and inside were shady nooks, dimly lit by colored lanterns, where the young woman of the period found it pleasant to sip her cream and listen to the compliments of the young man of the times. Many a match was made in these old gardens, which to-day would seem to the eye but the acme of rural simplicity, but to the older city offered all that was enjoyable on a moonlight night in the Island of Manhattan.

Crossing Canal Street-where changes are slow in coming on account of the low-lying nature of the land -as soon as one begins to mount the grade beyond Howard Street, the tokens of improvement lie thick on every side. All the landmarks have disappeared save one-the artistic beauty of Grace Church in the distance. That edifice is just as fresh and attractive to the eye as when its Gothic walls were first reared-more than forty years ago. Other churches along the line have disappeared. Old St. Thomas’s, which for many years stood gray and venerable at the corner of Broadway and Houston Street, has long since given place to stores, and few remember where, on the other side of the way, Dr. Chapin ministered to large congregations. The church was situated at 548 Broadway. Opposite, at 563, the Anglo-American Church of St. George the Martyr held forth, to which we boys of Trinity choir had contributed by singing at a concert, but which afterwards, I believe, died a lingering death. The Church of the Messiah was at 724 Broad-way. But the churches of that period for the most part kept out of Broadway, and preferred the seclusion of the more quiet side streets.

I have spoken of the old-time theatres, and as I pass the site of Mechanics’ Hall a whole host of memories comes trooping out, and with them comes the echo of old plantation songs, most of which were first heard here. It was on this spot that Christy’s Minstrels used to entertain the older New York in a decorously jovial manner. There was none of the pinchbeck glare of modern dance-and-song minstrelsy, but there was instead the song that wakened the tenderest chords of the heart and the joke that was not yet worn thread-bare. It happened that when I was twelve years old, or perhaps a little older, I was deputed at home to take six or eight children to Christy’s. I was the oldest boy in the crowd, and hence felt myself the man of the deputation. But there was a thorn to my rose. My very small brother, aged five, was to go, in charge of a stately colored girl of eighteen, whom my father had brought from the West Indies. I remember being just goose enough to be half ashamed to be seen with Ancilla in the street, though she was straight and handsome as an Indian princess in her bright turban, and afterwards captivated and married a wealthy white man in California. At the ticket-office they refused to let us in because there was a ” nigger ” in the crowd of juveniles. The cold sweat was standing at every pore in my body, when there chanced along a belated member of the troupe, who took my money, led us through the room in which the company were being ” corked” and seated us in the little side orchestra gallery which overlooked the long hall. There we were the observed of all observers. The minstrels all cracked their jokes at Ancilla, who leaned over the orchestra rail and grinned back to a delighted audience, who applauded her shrieks of laughter to the echo. To me it was an evening of prolonged and undiluted misery, for which I learned to despise myself afterwards. But it all comes back to me this afternoon as I walk by the spot, remembering that Ancilla and I are the only survivors of the little party that filled the Mechanics’ Hall orchestra gallery that evening.

How I would like to go to Christy’s again, and what a treat it would be to enter the old Niblo’s Garden and see the Ravels in their wonderful pantomimes! Surely, no place since then has held so much enjoyment for youth who have outgrown the museum, and yet have scarcely grown up to Shakespeare. And yet I must not forget the Broadway Theatre, where, as a boy in close jacket, I remember to have thoroughly enjoyed Hackett’s masterly representation of Falstaff. He first opened to me the delights of Shakespeare-a debt which I shall ever owe him. Peace to his ashes ! But it seems to me- that I can recall now every trick of the Ravels, every oddity of their marvellous panto-mime, every strange costume, from crowned king to skeleton death. Were ever nights so enjoyable to us old boys as those we passed in trying to detect the legerdemain that cheated our eyes? And how quickly they passed, and how rare were these treats in the rigid economy of a scholar’s life of years ago! Why, it is a delight even to remember them-a remark which I think one Horace, of collegiate class-room memory, has previously made in much the same connection.

I was at Niblo’s Garden the night that the Ravels opened there, as I recall by the incident that the scenery refused to workin the last act, and left a massive brick wall as a rear view of Hades. An uncle of mine, a visitor to New York from the rural regions of Missouri, had taken me there, and when the ballet appeared I noticed that he covered his eyes with his hat and blushed. When I asked him what was the matter, lie replied that “it beat the West all to pieces.

To a New York boy his Western innocence rather lent flavor to the entertainment, which in fact was perfectly respectable, and such as the modern theatre-goer might have thought to be a trifle slow in its spectacular effects. I only wish that I could carry to the theatre of to-day the same zest that I brought to old Niblo’s, and that the world of amusement-goers were as easily pleased.

But we have really not yet reached Niblo’s Garden in our walk, and the shades of evening begin to fall as we stand just beyond the stream that once swept down from the Collect Pond to the Hudson River and on the edge of the Lispenard Meadows. Stream and swamp have disappeared, and stately rows of houses have taken their places, but the old student of New York’s history knows the ground on which he stands, and it has wonderfully pleasant recollections for him. To-morrow we will take up our march again.

To the Easy Chair of Harper’s Magazine, of whom the writer has pleasant personal memories in connection with the Constitutional Convention of 1867-68, Felix Oldboy desires to return thanks for a most appreciative notice in a recent number of that periodical. It is a double delight to receive such a compliment from the author of The Potiphar Papers, to whom, in Common with a generation of New Yorkers, the writer is indebted for the most suggestive and brilliant society sketch to which New York’s literary brain has given birth. The pleasure of writing these reminiscences of a day not yet so distant but that it seems like yesterday is heightened by the interest manifested in many different quarters, and encourages the writer to grasp his pilgrim staff again and proceed upon his tour.