Early New York – Old Theatres On Broadway

AN unknown correspondent writes gently to chide Mr. Oldboy for not mentioning “Palmo’s Opera-house, which preceded Burton’s in Chambers Street, and Thompson’s famous restaurant, which was quite as popular as Taylor’s,” and situated near it. He adds: “When Mr. 0, gets above Howard Street, he forgets to mention the original Olympic Theatre (Mitchell’s), which was a very popular little box ; also Wood’s Minstrels, which, though later, were quite as much liked as Christy’s. He also fails to mention Wallack’s Theatre, near Broome Street, where they had a splendid company.”

Peccavi, especially in forgetting Thompson’s, where many a time and oft the inner boy and man was sweetly refreshed. As a matter of fact, I do not re-call Palmo’s Opera-house, but I have the liveliest kind of remembrance of Burton’s Theatre, and ” Aminidab Sleek ” is as vivid a portraiture in memory as it was in life the first time that I beheld it. Fancy going down to Chambers Street to meet the beauty and fashion of the metropolis at its most select theatre ; and yet it was only yesterday, or not longer ago than the day before ! As to opera, I first fell in love with it at Castle Garden, when a youth, and certainly I never got as much delight out of a dollar as came to me from that amount of money expended in the purchase of a ticket which admitted me to both a matinee and evening performance. The artists were Alboni, Sontag, etc., and the opera for the evening was ” Lucrezia Borgia.” Since then I have never entered Castle Garden without recalling the wonderful effect of “Il segreto ” as sung by Alboni, which roused the vast audience that filled the great floor and galleries to wild enthusiasm. Women as well as men rose to their feet, and the encores were like an echo of Niagara. Somehow I cannot get as much value out of $5 invested to-day in opera, and I really do not think the fault is wholly my own.

It is over sixty years since the Garcia troupe gave New York its first taste of Italian opera. They made their appearance at the Park Theatre in ” II Barbiere di Seviglia,” and carried the town by storm. No wonder, for Mlle. Garcia, afterwards known the world over as the great Malibran, made her debut here at the time, though but seventeen years of age. New York recognized her genius, and laid its tribute of praise at her feet, crowding the old Park Theatre to listen delightedly to the same opera for thirty successive nights. The queer part of Malibran’s experience here was her subsequent appearance at the Bowery Theatre in English opera. One can hardly fancy the opera flourishing at the new theatre opened in 1826 on the site of the old Bull’s Head, and it did not succeed. The queen of song drew large audiences, and was paid at the rate of $600 a night, but after three weeks the attempt was abandoned, and the Bowery was turned over to the legitimate drama. It was after this failure that Palmo opened his tasteful little opera-house with a choice troupe of artists, and for a time achieved the success that he deserved. But at last he was compelled to abandon the enterprise. The Astor Place Opera-house was an operatic failure from the time of its completion in ‘846, and four years later had been converted into a menagerie which the boys delighted to visit, and into which I stole surreptitiously to save my dignity as a college student. The Academy of Music opened in 1855 with a blare of trumpets, and on that site have since been witnessed an infinite variety of entertainments and performances, many of which were not contemplated ‘in the original projection of the institution.

My correspondent halts me again at Canal Street, and as we stand here I recall having read that Trinity Parish once offered to the congregation of another creed-Lutheran, I believe-a plot of several acres just where we stand, and that it was refused by the church authorities on the ground that they did not think it worth fencing in. It was all low, swampy ground hereabouts at the opening of the present century, tenanted by frogs and water-snakes, and covered by brambles. The boys and girls skated on the brook that flowed from the Collect Pond to the North River, eighty years ago, and went across it into the marshes to gather wild flowers and berries. The people who were gray-headed when I was a boy have told me many an exciting adventure they had in the marshes when the century was young, and they usually wound up with a reflection that I caught myself making the other day-that if they had only known how rapidly the city was to grow, they could have made themselves millionaires by investing a “mere song ” in real estate.

There was one building on Broadway, below Canal Street, which I well remember, and which I should not have forgotten to mention-Masonic Hall, covering the site of the stores now known as 314 and 316 Broadway. The building was erected in 1826 by the Masonic fraternity, and was, for its time, an imposing affair. The saloon on the second floor, too feet long, 50 feet wide, and 25 feet in height, finished in the richest style of Gothic architecture, and intended to imitate the Chapel of Henry VIII. in London, was considered the most elegant apartment of the kind in the United States. It was used for public meetings, concerts, and balls, and as such I remember it. The building was then known as Gothic Hall, having passed out of the hands of the Masonic-fraternity, in consequence of the serious and prolonged troubles growing out of the ” Morgan” excitement. Gothic Hall stood between Pearl and Duane streets, and towered high above the small frame buildings on either side. These streets did not always bear their present names. Duane Street was formerly known as Barley Street, because of a famous brewery situated just west of Broadway, and Pearl Street was known as Magazine Street, because it led up from the magazine on an island in the Collect Pond. Worth Street was known as Anthony Street a generation ago, and its first name, Catharine Street, is still perpetuated in Catharine Lane. Franklin Street was formerly known as Sugarloaf Street. Even Broadway at this point has not always been thus designated. The lower portion of our great thoroughfare has been known from time immemorial as ” The Broadway ” and ” Broadway Street,” but from the City Hall Park to Astor Place it was called ” St. George ” or Great George ” Street up to the close of the last century, and still later it was commonly spoken of as the “Middle Road.

The original Olympic Theatre was at 442 Broad-way, and later was known as the old Circus. It stood next door to Tattersall’s. The later Olympic Theatre, which was first known as Laura Keene’s, was situated between Houston and Bleecker streets. Wallack’s Theatre, in 1853, was located at 485 Broadway. It had been, known previously as Brougham’s Lyceum. The Winter Garden Theatre succeeded Tripler Hall at 677 Broadway, and for a good while was a favorite place of amusement. A number of hotels, in addition to the Metropolitan and St. Nicholas, congregated in this neighborhood. On the east side were the American, the Union Hotel, the Collamore, and the Carroll House; and on the west side the new City Hotel, between Canal and Howard streets, the Prescott House, New York Hotel, and Astor Place Hotel. These were the hotels that marked the transition period between the down-town houses, which sought still to make the City Hall Park the hotel centre, and the erection of vast marble caravansaries beyond the Bowery cross-roads. For it is not much more than the flight of a generation since Franconi erected his Hippodrome tents upon the vacant lots in the rear of what is now the Fifth Avenue Hotel, and we boys went “out of town,” as we thought it then, to see his imported curiosities. And no hotel-keeper of the day had summoned up sufficient courage to charge more than one dollar and a half for a day’s board and lodging. One dollar a day had been the tariff at the Astor House, and an advance of 50 per cent. was all that conscience would allow. The old-fashioned hostlery at Broadway and Twenty-second Street, with broad verandas, shaded by great oaks and elms, which was the stopping-place of all the fast trotters of the day, would have blushed crimson over its clean white front had it ventured to present such a bill as the modern Boniface presents with a smile.

A man whom I often heard spoken of when a boy was Stephen B. Munn, a large property-holder in the vicinity of Broadway, Grand, and Broome streets, whose office was at. the corner of Grand Street, and who had built, on Broadway above Broome, the two best houses standing in the neighborhood, which were very superior buildings for the times. In one of these he lived for a number of years, and he had for neighbors many of the sons of old settlers On the block above were the houses of Dr.. Livingston, and of Dr. Henry Mott, father of Dr. Valentine Mott. Robert Halliday and a branch of the Beekman family were also neighbors, and above Prince Street stood a handsome residence which had been erected by John Jacob Astor, and was occupied by his son-in-law, Walter Langdon. Opposite, in a modest brick house, lived at one time James Fenimore Cooper, the novelist. I remember his personal appearance, for in literature he was one of my chief heroes the other was Washing-ton Irving. Personally there was a marked contrast between the two, Mr. Cooper being. as robust and athletic as Mr. Irving appeared delicate and of artistic fibre, but each somehow came up to my boyish ideal. They were devout Episcopalians, and always attended the diocesan conventions as delegates, and it was my delight to sit up in the gallery and watch their movements, and wonder how it must seem to be able to entertain the world with Rip Van Winkle, and Harvey Birch, the spy.

There was not much of Broadway above Union-Square at that time. In fact, this great highway, des-tined to be trodden, as Horatio Seymour once told me, by more people than ever migrated through- any other avenue- of travel on the globe, was in reality an accident. Originally it was supposed that the city’s main artery of travel would turn -to – the east of the commons and follow the old Boston Road. In point of fact, provision was -made to that end. Park Row and Chatham Street, in -connection with the lower part of Broadway and the Bowery, formed the original highway leading from the city into the interior, long known as the High Road to Boston. Business for -.a long time insisted upon turning to the east of Broad-way at the -City Hall Park, and owners of property were determined to keep the west side sacred to residences. But it was not so to be. Pearl Street ceased to absorb the dry-goods trade half a century ago, and when A. T. Stewart spread his dry-goods nets on the “shilling side” of Broadway, that settled it.

But no one dreamed, a generation ago, that Union Square would be invaded by traffic, either in this century or in the next. It was a veritable paradise of exclusives. Its solid brown-stone and brick mansions frowned forbiddingly upon the frowzy little park in front, which they had found an unfenced triangle of waste land at the junction of Bowery Lane and the Middle or Bloomingdale Road, but which they had fenced in and planted with trees for their exclusive use. Here dwelt a solid race of men, and they meant to remain so. A single church stood on the west side, the Church of the Puritans, of which Dr. Cheever was pastor. It was a headquarters of abolitionism, and more than once I stole in there at night, when a college student, prepared to hear something “perfectly awful,” which, as a matter of course, I did not hear! The late Frederic de Peyster told me that when he came to live in the house in which he died, in University Place, near Thirteenth Street, there was but one house which obstructed his view of the East River, and none that rose between him and the Hudson. That was only fifty years ago, and yet within that time a city of quiet homes rose about him and gave place to a dusty, noisy city of business. At the time of his death his was the only house in the block that had not been converted to business purposes, and from the outside it appeared lonesome enough.

The country-seats which had adorned ” Sandy Hill, at the upper end of Broadway,” and the “Minetta water” beyond, rapidly disappeared before the levelling hand of improvement, as soon as Union Square became fashionable. The Elliot estate passed into the hands of Captain Robert R. Randall, who in turn deeded it to the Sailors’ Snug Harbor. It is on a portion of this land that Stewart built his up-town store. Adjoining was the farm of stout old Hendrick Brevoort, through whose homestead, between Broad-way and the Bowery, the new Eleventh Street was planned to run. When the opening of this street be-came desirable, Mr. Brevoort resisted with so much of ancient Dutch stubbornness that the improvement was abandoned. An ordinance for the removal of the house was passed as late as 1849, but the venerable occupant refused to remove, and it was rescinded. In his palmy days, Mr. Tweed, the head of the Department of Public Works, was represented as sitting at his desk with a map of the city’s most desirable street openings spread before him. In settling disputes as to candidates and offices, it was said that this renowned statesman would compromise matters beautifully by means of his map. As a sop to disappointed ambition he would remark : ” No, I cannot let you go to Albany this winter, but here is something which is almost as good. You can have this street opening and make a good thing out of it.” At one time Tweed determined to cut Eleventh Street through from Broadway to Fourth Avenue, or make Grace Church pay handsomely. The vestry thereupon met and challenged Tweed to go ahead. He never did. Trinity Parish, by the way, presented a silent argument against the proposition to cut Pine Street through the old church-yard. It built a monument to the unknown dead of the Continental Army who perished in British prison pens in this city. The pedestal is all right, but the public have waited a long while for the “old. Continental” in white marble, who was to stand under the brown-stone canopy and complete the picture.

The old farm-house of Henry Spingler-built originally by Elias Brevoort -stood within the limits of the present Union Square, and the twenty-two acres of the estate lay west of the Bowery Road. The latter road, then known as Bowery Lane, curved some-what in passing the Square, and at Sixteenth Street turned and pursued a straight course to Bloomingdale. In order to join this course, the direction of Broadway was changed at Tenth Street, and a junction effected on the other side of the Square. One of the persons most actively engaged in the improvements connected with Union Square and its neighborhood was the late Samuel B. Ruggles, a resident and large property-holder in the vicinity. It was from this court-end of the city that Grace Church drew its large and wealthy congregation. For forty years that beautiful edifice has been the pride of all who loved Broadway, for it crowned magnificently its upper end, and stood sentinel above its Sunday stillness at a time when hand-some church buildings were the exceptions to the rule. Its roll of membership was at one time, and no distant one, a roll of the most select society of which New York could boast. Its rector, Dr. Taylor, was not much of a pulpit orator, but he was a great social power, and its sexton, the immensely impressive Brown, was society’s chief oracle. One by one the neighboring churches have migrated, and now Grace Church stands her ground almost alone, and yet with a full congregation. The sons of the fathers follow in the path of their sires, and it is a good sign that it is so.

To me, as the city grows larger, busier, and more cosmopolitan, one of the things I most miss is the sound of the old familiar church bell. The city was drenched with silence on Sundays when I was a boy, and there was no sound to break the stillness except the clangor of the bells. At nine and at two they summoned us to Sunday-school ; at half-past ten and at three they called the people to church. I suppose they ring as usual now, but the rumble of street-cars, the continual rush of other vehicles, the rattle and roar of the elevated lines, and all the modern combination of noises comes between their music. and my ear, and sometimes the Sunday of my boyhood seems altogether lost. And this reminds me that New York, as well as Philadelphia, is owner of an historic bell. It was cast in Amsterdam in 1731, and it is said that many citizens cast in quantities of silver coin at the fusing of the metals. The bell was a legacy of Col. Abraham de Peyster, who died while the Middle Dutch Church, on Nassau Street, was building, and directed in his will that the bell should be procured from Holland at his expense. When the city was captured by the British, and the church was turned into a riding-school for the dragoons (Johnny Battin has told me often how he used to practise his troop there), the bell was taken down by the De Peyster family and secreted until shortly after the evacuation of the city, when it was restored to its original position. It never rang in honor of British oppression, but was patriotic to the core. When the church was sold to the Government for a post-office, the bell was removed to the church on Ninth Street, near Broadway, and thirty years ago, when the building changed hands, it found another resting-place in the church on Lafayette Place. Now it has made some other migration. But, of right, it should pass to a place of honor in the rooms of the Historical Society. A bell with such ancestry and ‘ history (and he who reads ancient Dutch may read its story in the inscription) deserves to be tenderly cherished by a city that has preserved too few of the mementos of its eventful story.