Early New York – Houses On The East Side

No historian of New York gives half so graphic a picture of the embryo metropolis of fifty years ago as my correspondent, who writes: ” I do not think that people can understand the size of our city in these days. We all knew `who was who.’ Old Mrs. Stuart, in black brocade, selling candy by the penny’s worth at Chambers and Greenwich streets; Katy Ferguson, on Hudson Street, making all the jelly and sweet-meats, and Mrs. Isaac Sayres, in Harrison Street, pre-paring all the wedding-cake, were types of the time. Everybody knew them, as all knew the ministers and our few rich men.”

The city is changed, indeed, since then. Not many months ago I stood at my window on Washington Square, looking out upon a desolate fall day, and hesitating whether to venture into the power of the storm. A drearier morning I had never seen, and there at my feet was a little funeral procession ready to start from the apartment-house next door. One becomes used to such sights in a great city, but my heart ached that morning for the people who had to carry their dead to the grave amid such utterly desolate surroundings. They were strangers, as I supposed, and I had no curiosity to watch them, but a day or two afterwards I learned that this had been the funeral of an old and dear friend. He had gone away from his Long Island home a year before in search of health, and had recently returned to the city to die. It is infinitely easy in this cosmopolitan community to drop out of the cur-rent, and tears for the dead are a luxury which a busy age is apt to grudge.

From the top of Chatham Square one could once look upon two celebrated mansions – the Walton House and the home of Col. Henry Rutgers. When Pearl Street was known as Queen Street, and was an aristocratic quarter, when its gardens reached down to the East River, and its neighborhood was free from the contaminations of shops, the Walton House was in its glory. The richness of its furnishings, its gold plate, and its magnificent entertainments, were quoted in Parliament as an excuse for taxing the American colonies. As a boy I read of this, and I used to go out of my way, as opportunity offered, to look at it, and try to recall in my mind its vanished splendors. Its gentility then had grown very shabby. The high ceilings were there, and the door-ways through which Howe and Clinton and Andre had passed, and the floor on which a future King of England had danced a minuet with the fairest of New York’s rebel daughters ; but it was inexpressibly sad to witness the advance of squalor, and I was not sorry when the building was torn down. The Rutgers homestead occupied, when I was a boy, the block bounded by Clinton, Rutgers, Madison, and Cherry streets, a relic of the great Rutgers farm. Colonel Rutgers was a model citizen. They had no coal strikes in his day, for they used no coal then, but once in a while they had a fuel famine. Once, during the ’20s, the city was ice-bound, and no wood could be brought in across the rivers, and the suffering of the poor was terrible for a while. Colonel Rutgers distributed his supply among his poor neighbors ; and when this was exhausted, even tore down his fences and cut down his trees for their use. It was from the limb of a tree in his orchard that Capt. Nathan Hale, the martyr spy of the Revolution, is believed to have been hanged. But even here tradition is at fault; for one authority stoutly maintains that he was hanged on Beekman Hill, near the Beekman mansion, and another insists that the place of his execution was the Commons, the present City Hall Park. The weight of testimony favors the Rutgers orchard. At any rate, he was sacrificed on our city’s soil, and we seem to have forgotten it. Andre has his monument ; Hale has none. As I turn into the Bowery from Chatham Square I am once more reminded of the sad story of Charlotte Temple. On the north side of Pell Street, just west of the Bowery, are two frame houses painted yellow. In one of these the unfortunate girl, whose sorrows set a whole generation weeping, ended her life-murdered by a British officer to whom she had trustingly given her heart. The stone house in Art Street in which she had lived was torn down long ago. The frame house that screened her last agonies from the sight of those who loved her and would have rescued her still survives, though few are aware that there is any romance connected with such an apparently commonplace building.

But the Bowery has never been a place of sentiment or romance. Its life was largely passed out-doors ; its people loved the street and its excitements. Those who are living and remember all about it, have told me of the crowd that daily gathered around No. 17 Bowery to see the Boston stage, carrying the United States mail, depart and arrive. It was a great event in that day. Those who travelled by coach down into the wilds of Massachusetts Bay were regarded as a species of Argonauts, and indeed the journey by such mode would be a formidable one to-day. Beyond the Bowery Village the line of travel that is now known as Third Avenue was called the Boston Road, a title that is still maintained on the other side of Harlem River, in spite of changes caused by annexation. To my young mind the Bowery was al-ways associated with the excitement of the venerable but lively institution known as Bull’s Head. I can recall that institution as it existed on Third Avenue, where a bank stands as a monument to its name, and the legends that I have heard in connection with the

old Bull’s Head Tavern are legion. From the time of our Dutch ancestors until modern monopoly swept the business into the New Jersey abattoir, New York did not know how to exist without its cattle market, and when it disappeared one of the liveliest features of the city’s trade was blotted out.

The Bowery Theatre was erected on the site of the Bull’s Head Tavern in 1826, the Mayor laying the corner-stone. One of my correspondents writes of this theatre that ” it was burned to the ground in the summer of 1828, at an early hour of the evening. When its huge columns fell it shook the whole city from centre to circumference, as I well remember.” Alarms

of fire were frequent even then, sometimes reaching five hundred in a year. The firemen worked well (and, it must be admitted, they fought well, too), but their methods were not sufficient to check such fires as the burning of the Park Theatre and the Bowery made. When the Park Theatre burned, the site was abandoned as a place of amusement, but the Bowery Theatre rose again from its ashes, and kept its old features unchanged for half a century.

The street itself has always been a great place for ” shows.” One of my earliest memories of the Bowery is standing in front of a brilliantly painted canvas on that thoroughfare, not far from Chatham Square, staring in open-eyed wonder at the pictures of a calf with two heads, warranted to move two ways at the same time, and a pig of enormous proportions. This is a characteristic of the street to this day. Then, too, there was the New York Circus Amphitheatre, an earthly paradise to the small boy of the period. Ah, what a lovely place it was! That is, it was not beautiful to the eye, but, on the contrary, coarse and common. The canvas overhead was unclean, the seats were dirty, the sawdust smelled abominable, and the surroundings were cheap and tawdry. But when the oil lamps were turned up, and began to glare and smoke, when the band played, when the solemn procession of equestrians entered, when the vividly painted goddesses of the arena followed them on prancing steeds, we boys began to climb up to the seventh heaven. We reached it when the burly clown threw himself at a jump into the sawdust and uttered the welcome, ” Here we are again !” I hardly expect to enjoy anything sublunary as I enjoyed those afternoons at the Amphitheatre. The smell of sawdust brings it all back to me at times, and then phantom horses and riders paw the air, and a ghostly clown compels my very soul to chuckle over a joke that tickled the children of Pythagoras.

Along the old Boston Road once stood a series of mile-stones that extended from New York to and through the land of the Puritans. One of these still stands on the Bowery, near Prince Street, bearing the legend, ” One mile from the City Hall.” Another mile-stone was in the Bowery Village, which .half a century ago clustered around the site of the present Cooper Institute and old St. Mark’s Church. Beyond this point the Bowery stretched, always a noble avenue, but never an aristocratic one, in spite of the fact that it owed its existence to the country-seats of gentlemen-the ” bouweries ” of the solid Dutch burghers of two centuries ago.

As I remember this noted thoroughfare, it was a land of many rival carpet-stores, from which long lines of carpeting swayed to the breeze for blocks, festooned even from the roof a land of dry-goods and notion stores that have since emigrated to Grand Street ; a land, even from ” way back,” of the pawnbroker and dealer in musical instruments and jewelry ; a land of the ” original Jacobs” and ” the real original Jacobs; a land of oyster-saloons, in which one used to sit in a curtained stall, and need not be at table with disagree-able neighbors : a land in which the signs of the oyster-houses were as primitive as economy could suggest, consisting only of a round red ball of canvas, into which a candle was thrust for illumination at night ; a land of daguerrotypes and ambrotypes, in the day in which the invention of Daguerre (which our own Dr. Draper had just anticipated while Professor of Chemistry at Hampden-Sydney College, Virginia) was still spoken of as wonderful ; a land of flannel shirts and ” dickeys “-the latter being false shirt-fronts tied with strings over the masculine breast to conceal the flannel on dress occasions ; a land in which the church building did not flourish, but where the tavern and bar were frequent ; a land with few foreigners, but where stalwart American artisans were indigenous a land in which one could get shaved for sixpence or have the hair cut for a shilling, in a shop whose floor was sanded and whose gentlemanly proprietor handed you a small glass at the close to see whether the operation was successful ; a land in which life could be made comfortable at a dollar a day, and board could be had at its hotels for four or five dollars a week, though horse-cars were unknown, the telegraph an infant industry patronized only by the rich, and lager beer a vulgar innovation which even Bowery society was trying to frown out of sight.

It was over two hundred years ago that the Govern-or and Council of New Amsterdam gave permission to establish a hamlet near the ” bouwerie ” of Governor Stuyvesant. A tavern, a blacksmith-shop, and half a dozen other buildings were the result. Old Peter Stuyvesant contributed a chapel, in which Hermanus Van Hoboken (from whom the city of Hoboken is named), school-master in the city, read service every Sunday. His widow devised the edifice to the Re-formed Dutch Church ; not many years afterwards it passed into the control of the Episcopal congregation of ” St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery.” Under its consecrated walls rest the remains of the stout old Dutch soldier and statesman, and I wonder how many who pass by care to read the inscription on the tablet set into the wall that records the life and death of one of New York’s great men of old time ? The old Governor’s mansion, a large, square, imposing edifice, built of small yellow brick imported from Holland, stood upon a site close by, and was destroyed by fire in the Revolution. His well was still in existence in a vacant lot between Eleventh and Twelfth streets when I was a boy. Two other mansion-houses were erected by his descendants, one near the East River shore, close by the present Avenue A and Sixteenth Street. There are many who still remember the winding lane that led to it from the old Stuyvesant pear-tree at Third Avenue and Thirteenth Street. The other mansion, known as the “Bowery House, stood at Second Avenue and Ninth Street. There is a host of us who can recall the famous pear-tree, said to have been planted by the hands of doughty Peter Stuyvesant himself, which had become a landmark early in this century, and which patriotic care had protected with an iron railing. The whole city mourned when the patriarch of more than two centuries at length fell. An effort was made to plant a tree of the same stock on the old site, but it did not prove a success.

At the upper end of the Bowery, Vauxhall Garden maintained its reputation as a fashionable place of refreshment and amusement until the middle of the present century. A handsome saloon, in which performances were held, and trees and groves under which tables were set, were the features of this once famous resort. Admission to the garden was free ; to the “saloon,” two shillings. Here Russell sang, classic tableaus were exhibited, and the ballet was danced in properly lengthened skirts.

An old friend writes to me that a two-story, peaked-roof brick house, on the east side of the Bowery (now Fourth Avenue), and upon the site of the present Cooper Institute, was known as the haunted house.

It never had a permanent tenant,” writes my friend, the lawyer, ” from the time I first recollect it, nearly sixty years ago, until the time of its demolition, some thirty years since. The ghosts, it was said, unceremoniously flung the rash occupants into the streets as soon as the shades of evening had descended upon their first day of attempted occupation.”