Manhattan History – The Money Mart – Old And New

THE old Dutch town, lying east of Broadway and north of the fort, was not mapped until 1656, though title to individual plots was granted as early as 1643, the first of record being a lot on Brugh Street (now Bridge Street), thirty by one hundred ten feet, for twenty-four guilders or somewhat less than ten dollars. In the intervening years, the citizens apparently built their houses where they pleased on their tracts, but the innate Dutch sense of order brought some conformity. The survey of all land inside the Wall, in 1654, interrupted several times but completed in 1656, shows seventeen streets, all short and joining one an-other at different angles, to accommodate the thorough-fares to the blunt triangle at the lower end of the is-land, which was then much more constricted in area than at present. Pearl Street was the East River line; present Greenwich Street, though not even in existence as a thoroughfare, is roughly the Hudson River line. Almost all of present Battery Park is made land, and north of the Battery along both rivers wide stretches which once were water have been reclaimed and covered with buildings. Within quite modern times customers seeking refreshment at Castle Garden, the renovated Fort Clinton which now houses the Aquarium, crossed a bridge to get there. The filling of the Battery began in 1693, but was not completed to its present proportions for nearly two hundred years.

In the early years of the eighteenth century, when Anne was Queen of England and her loyal city of New York had only 5,000 inhabitants, a fashionable thoroughfare was Queen Street, a northern extension of Pearl Street, the thoroughfare of the East River shore. Whitehall and Stone streets were also well thought of by the more prosperous burghers. Business was more or less mixed with residence in those simple days, merchants commonly living over their stores and alongside their warehouses. Pearl was perhaps the busiest trading street, partly because it lay near the more favored and protected eastern waterfront, to which flocked the few sailing ships which made this port. They came chiefly from England and New England, New York being a stop-over on many voyages from Salem and Boston to the West Indies and return: outbound with furs, meat, and grain; inbound with rum, sugar, and slaves from the West Indies, and with cloth and mixed manufactures from England.

Philadelphia, growing swiftly and solidly after its founding in 1682, forged ahead of New York in population in spite of the latter’s more favorable position as a port, so that by the middle of the eighteenth century New York stood in third place to Boston and Philadelphia. “But with regard to fine buildings, its opulence and extensive commerce,” wrote Peter Kalm, the Swedish traveler, in 1748, “it [New York] disputes the preference with them.”

Kalm’s description shows the old town within the Wall to have been a pleasant place, with at least one improvement upon the modern scene—the shade trees:

The streets do not run so straight as those of Philadelphia, and have sometimes considerable bendings; however, they are very spacious and well built, and most of them are paved, except in high places, where it has been found useless. In the chief streets there are trees planted, which in summer give them a fine appearance, and during the excessive heat at that time afford a cooling shade. I found it extremely pleasant to walk in the town, for it seemed quite like a garden. .

Most of the houses are built of brick and are generally strong and neat and several stories high. Some had according to old architecture, turned the gable end toward the street; but the new houses were altered in this respect. Many of the houses had a balcony on the roof, on which people used to sit in the evenings in the summer season; and from thence they had a pleasant view of a great part of the town, and likewise of part of the adjacent water and of the opposite shore… .

For a full century down to the land boom just pre-ceding the Revolution there was no great advance in land prices. Through fifty years a lot might double in value, offering so little incentive to subdividing farms except along the main thoroughfares, that agriculture went on undisturbed within half a mile of town. Within that radius the poor man could find pasturage for his cow, which would be driven back and forth each evening for the milking. A country retreat two or three miles out was considered far enough away to offer the complete change from the rush of trade to the delights of calm rusticity, the week-end journey to and from these estates being made by entire families in a horse-drawn carriage; and in the summer many a sturdy merchant walked back and forth between his country seat and his place of business.

The Seven Years War with the French brought to New York from 1756 to 1763 a considerable number of British troops, stimulating trade so decisively that once victory had perched upon British banners a speculative wave fairly doubled Manhattan’s land prices, and encouraged subdivision of farms in the suburbs of the city. Those who had held farms over long periods, and those who had invested in farm lands during the long period of stagnation, soon acquired, says Valentine, the reputation of being farsighted characters. “All through the suburbs the lands were then mapped into lots and an era of adventurous operations commenced, in consequence of which many suffered in those days, as in later periods, from too freely partaking in the intoxicating draught of speculation.”

A lot on Pearl Street “in the most valuable location for business” was purchased in 1700 for the equivalent of $425, which may be taken as the top price of the period. Good residence lots could be bought for $150. But when the boom began to get under way about sixty years later, a new level of values was reached. In 1762 Samuel Fraunces bought on the corner of Broad and Pearl streets the house known to fame as Fraunces Tavern, for £2,000, provincial currency, or almost $5,000, from Oliver De Lancey. The price was considered high at the time, but within a few years the wiseacres agreed that Fraunces had picked up a bargain. This was the old De Lancey house, built some fifty years before Fraunces bought it, by Stephen De Lancey, a French Huguenot emigre, who founded the famous New York colonial family of that name, his son James being the chief political power in the province for many years. The old house still stands, and is still used for the refreshment of man, after having been the scene of many events in American history, chief of which was, of course, Washington’s famous farewell to his officers on November 25, 1783, prior to his resigning his commission.

In 1728 the Old Middle Dutch Church bought a lot on Nassau Street between Cedar and Liberty for £575 provincial pounds, or about $1,400. The United States Government bought it in 1861 for $200,000 for use as a general post office.

The financial district has furnished, of course, the most rapid rise of prices. The lot at the southeast corner of Wall and Broad streets, now occupied by J. P. Morgan & Co.-16 feet 8 inches on Broad, 30 feet on Wall Street—sold in 1700 for £163 ($407). In 1789 it was bought by the city for £450, nearly a three-fold rise. In 1816 Peter Burtsell bought it for $11,300, and in 1832 Philip Hone records in his Diary (January 27) the sale of this same lot at auction for $17,750.

As previously stated, the north side of Wall Street was “organized” by Governor Dongan, who came into possession of the northern strip for a considerable distance east of Broadway in 1685. Four years later Abraham DePeyster and Nicholas Bayard, acting as partners, bought the Dongan property from Broadway to William Street. They plotted the property into lots of approximately 25 by 122 feet except where the openings of King and William streets made it profit-able to shorten the Wall Street lots and establish back lots with cross frontage. The developers scored a master stroke by bringing the City Hall to the present location of the Subtreasury in 1701. Some of the other sales by De Peyster and Bayard were:

1706, house and lot, north side of Wall Street, £116 ($280).

1718, lot 88 by 124 feet near Broadway to the congregation of Presbyterians for £350 ($875). This was the first Presbyterian church in the city and continued to be used by that congregation until 1857, when it moved to the present site on Fifth Avenue between Eleventh and Twelfth streets.

1721, Lot No. 1, northwest corner of Wall and William, £120 (about $300).

A considerable frontage of the De Peyster and Bayard plot was long occupied by the Bayard Sugar House, erected by Samuel Bayard. This humble and smelly business monopolized that site until after Mr. Bayard’s death in 1745, much to the disgust of the owners who occupied handsome houses in the neighborhood. After the offending structure was razed excellent dwellings took its place, one of them being the Verplanck mansion on one of the sugar-house lots. There Gulian C. Verplanck, one of the notable chroniclers of the New York of his day, was reared.

On the south side of Wall Street, Captain William Kidd owned a large lot of 75 feet frontage during the period when he was a respectable mariner. Here he expected to build himself a mansion after he had made a few more successful voyages. But shortly before sailing away on his questionable adventure to Madagascar, he sold his Wall Street lot, which was immediately broken up into three 25-foot lots, one of which was sold by Bradley to Clerke for about $60. Those who like to puzzle over the riddles of history can add this query to the hundreds which have already arisen in connection with the moot journey of Captain Kidd, who was hung as a pirate but whose whole previous record belied his guilt.

When Captain Kidd last walked through Wall Street, to show his lot to his prospective purchaser, was he already determined to sweep the seas as a pirate? Was he selling out because he knew that never again could he live at peace in a civilized port? His haste to be rid of the property indicates that, and yet he may have sold because he wanted capital with which to buy a larger share of the proceeds of his voyage, a syndicate enterprise with many prominent New Yorkers in the lists. At any rate, off he went into the distant seas, to overstay the time limits of a respectable voyage, to earn a black reputation for piracy, to generate a myth over his buried treasure. On his return to New York he was arrested, sent to England for trial and there beheaded too promptly for his own good or the comfort of historians who have been trying ever since to decide whether Kidd really turned pirate or was hurried to the scaffold by interests which wanted him speedily reduced to the status of those who tell no tales. The accusing finger has been pointed at his partners in New York, and at the East India Company in England.

No attempt is made here to pass judgment on the case of Captain Kidd, but since his exploits have been recently in print through another publication of the famous Astor-Kidd-Olmsted hoax, it is in point to say that the recurring attempts to explain the Astor fortune in terms of Captain Kidd’s treasure are all nonsense. The Astor fortune grew from the golden earth of Manhattan, not from Madagascar treasure buried in Maine and recovered by the shrewd John Jacob. The origin of this hoax in the mind of a jolly Chicago lawyer is, or ought to be, common property, since it has been frequently exposed in print by those who were present when the story was first told in a whimsical vein since taken seriously—all too seriously by many writers who believe everything they read and are too lazy to look up sources.

Wall Street’s heyday as a residence thoroughfare was over by 1793, when General Alexander Hamilton sold his house and lot (42 by 108 feet) there for £2,400, or about $6,000. One could trust this shrewd young man to live in the best quarter and to depart at a profit as soon as it began to suffer from the taints and rewards of business. Two years before he sold his residence, Hamilton brought into Wall Street his first bank, the Bank of New York, which located on the corner of Wall and William in 1791. It was followed by the Bank of the Manhattan Company in 1799; by the Merchants’ Bank in 1805; by the United States Bank in the same year and by the Mechanics Bank in 1810. Insurance companies followed the banks. In 1815 there were thirteen insurance firms in Wall Street. In its entire length the character of the street remained mixed for some years, the banks all being in the western end of the street. During its transition period Wall Street contained everything from trash to dignity, fine residences going to seed, upstart businesses rising fast, schools, newspaper offices, stores, coffee houses, taverns, the Post Office and the City Hall. But gradually the street became dignified and took on its modern reputation as the center of American finance.

Present-day valuations of certain sites of the old town inside the Wall remain among the highest in the city, although other sections of it are not extremely valuable. In the well built portions, some of the most impressive assessment valuations for land and buildings combined are as follows:

Address Building Stories Valuation

120 Broadway Equitable 42 $29 500,000 40 Wall Street Manhattan Co. 70 22,750,000 8—14 Wall Street Bankers Trust Co. 39 20,750,000 1 Wall Street Irving Trust Co. 51 20,000,000 15 Broad Equitable Trust 42 16,250,000 William and Bea St. Farmers Trust Co. 59 14,350,000 26 Broadway Standard Oil 34 11,000,000 18 Pine Street Chase NationalBank38 10,250,000 67 Broad Street I. T. & T. 35 8,100,000

The leader in this list is surpassed in value only by the new Empire State Building at Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, but on land value alone the Old Town holds its own, still boasting the most highly assessed frontage in the city, that of Number 1 Wall Street. This banner lot sold for $700,000 in 1905, when it had a four-story office and store building on it. Now assessed on the basis of $30,000 a front foot, it has doubled in value in twenty-five years.

Where once the Dutch burghers of New York took their ease under their fruit trees, is now a closely built section dominated by skyscrapers in which goes on the business of dividing a considerable portion of the national income through the high arts of finance. There are fewer varieties of life in evidence there than went on in the old days—no tilling of the soil, no cows coming home to be milked, no weeds in the streets, no trees or flowering shrubs, no innocent neighborliness in the long evenings. Nothing is left but business, per-formed by a commuting population which sleeps and makes merry elsewhere, gathering here merely the revenues to pay for its fun after hours. But the Lower Town business is itself of bewildering complexity, being nothing less than dividing up, as per debt contract duly sealed and delivered, a large part of the world’s earnings, past, present, and future. Its activities range all the way from the fiduciary to the speculative; its materials all the way from cabbages and fish to gold and precious stones. It is the place where books are kept in large figures, and where, as Stevenson saw with prescient eye from a vast distance, little clerks, fortunately blind to the net results of their activities, murder distant men with figures neatly placed in columns on the ruled sheets of their ledgers. Destroy some, yes; and exalt others. Apparently there must be, for a good while yet, some such cosmic accounting room as Lower New York.