Archive for the ‘Menageries’ Category

Part 3 of a 3-part story about Isaac Van Amburgh, the Richmond Hill estate in Greenwich Village, and New York’s Zoological Institute in the Bowery


In 1833, Isaac Van Amburgh, aka the Lion King, made his New York animal training debut by stepping into a cage occupied by a lion, a tiger, a leopard, and a panther at the Richmond Hill Theatre in Greenwich Village. Following this appearance, Van Amburgh took his wild animals to the Bowery Theatre at #46 Bowery, which was then under the management of Thomas S. Hamblin. Here, Van Amburgh performed in a play titled The Lion Lord (aka Forrest Monarch), in which he starred with two leopards, a pack of hyenas, and two Bengal tigers.

During the play, Van Amburgh reportedly rode a horse up a high incline, and when he reached the top, one of the Bengal tigers sprung out upon him. Man and beast struggled down the ramp to the footlights in a desperate combat.


The Bowery Theatre — originally called the New York Theatre — was constructed in 1826.

A Brief History of the Bowery Theatre

In the mid-1820s, under the leadership of Henry Astor, wealthy families that had settled in the new ward made fashionable by the opening of Lafayette Street formed the New York Association in efforts to bring fashionable high-class European drama to the new neighborhood.

They bought the land where Henry Astor’s Bull’s Head Tavern once stood, occupying the area between the Bowery, Elizabeth, Walker (present-day Canal), and Bayard streets. Then they hired architect Ithiel Town to design their new venue, which opened on October 22, 1826, as the New York Theatre.

The New York Theatre — later the Bowery Theatre — was built on land once occupied by the Bull’s Head Tavern between Bayard and Pump (now Canal) streets. The tavern opened around 1750 and was famous for serving as temporary headquarters for George Washington in November 1783.  In 1813, the tavern relocated uptown to Third Avenue and East 24th Street, where it survived into the 1830s under the ownership of local butcher Henry Astor, patriarch of the notable Astor family. 

The New York Theatre was destroyed by fire in 1828, but it was rebuilt behind the same facade and reopened under the name Bowery Theatre, shown here. This structure was damaged by a fire in September 1836, and again in 1838, and was replaced by a more opulent structure that opened in May 1839.

Under the management of Thomas Hamblin, who took over the theater in August 1830, large wild-animal acts, blackface minstrel acts, and spectacular productions with advanced fire and water effects featured prominently at the Bowery Theatre (the theater earned the nickname “The Slaughterhouse” during this period).


The Bowery Theatre — later called the Thalia Theatre — post 1845. 

Over the period of 100 years, the Bowery Theatre was damaged or destroyed by fire numerous times. Following a devastating fire in April 1845, a 4,000-seat theater was constructed by J. M. Trimble, pictured above. This structure had four more fires in 17 years, with the final fire coming on June 5, 1929.

By that time, the theater was under Chinese management and was called Fay’s Bowery Theatre. Today #46-48 Bowery is a squat, nondescript building occupied by a popular dim sum restaurant and several apartments in the heart of Chinatown.


On April 25, 1845, the Bowery Theatre was destroyed in a large fire. Museum of the City of New York Collections

The Zoological Institute at 37 Bowery

Following his stint at the Bowery Theatre, Isaac Van Amburgh moved across the street to #37-39 Bowery, which was then home to a large menagerie called the Zoological Institute. From 1833 to 1838, he performed every winter at the Zoological Institute, and in warmer months, he took his own travelling menagerie on the road.

Constructed in 1833 by a group of New York businessmen known as the Zoological Institute or the Flatfoots, the Zoological Institute was a grand structure covering four city blocks. For 50 cents, visitors could examine bears, tigers, monkeys, hyenas, and other animals, all kept in individual cells along a great hall.


From the New York Evening Post, 1836

The layout of the Zoological Institute was remarkable, even by today’s standards. Each exhibit — like the African Glen exhibit featuring a rhinoceros, elephants, and tigers — had beautiful displays and panoramas depicting the animal’s natural habitat. The floors were constructed at a slight incline leading to a drainage system that ran the length of the hall, which helped keep cages clean and eliminate odor.

Cages were numbered and corresponded to a guidebook for visitors, and the main gallery was illuminated by several skylights in the ceiling (at night, three gas-lit chandeliers illuminated the space). Above the animal floor was an orchestra promenade with a theater-like seating for special events, like lion taming, circus performances, and equestrian shows.

In 1835 the building was modified and renamed the Bowery Amphitheater, where P.T. Barnum landed a job in 1841 as an ad writer, earning $4 a week. The owners changed the name to the Amphitheatre of the Republic in 1842, and in 1844, under the management of John Tryon, it became the New Knickerbocker Theatre.

Over the next 50 years, the structure served as a circus, German-language theater, roller rink, and even an armory for the First and Third Regiment Cavalry. Today the site is occupied by Confucius Plaza, a large apartment complex constructed in 1975.

The Final Days of Van Amburgh and His Menagerie

By the mid-1840s, Isaac Van Amburgh was operating the largest traveling menagerie in England. Twenty years later, he had one of the largest traveling shows in America.

It all came to an end on November 29, 1865, when, at age 54, the brave lion tamer suffered a fatal heart attack at Miller’s Hotel in Philadelphia. Van Amburgh was buried at St. George’s Cemetery in the City of Newburgh, New York, but his name lived on for many more years.


On March 2, 1868, many of Van Amburgh’s animals were killed in a fire at the Barnum and Van Amburgh Museum and Menagerie. New York Public Library Digital Collections

In 1866, a year after his death, Van Amburgh’s manager, Hyatt Frost, entered into a partnership with P.T. Barnum, who had just lost his American Museum on Broadway to a large fire. The new enterprise at 539-541 Broadway became known as the Barnum and Van Amburgh Museum and Menagerie. Tragically, almost all of the animals and other circus artifacts formerly owned by Van Amburgh were destroyed in a spectacular fire on March 2, 1868.

Van Amburgh’s name continued to be associated with other circuses until about 1922.



Part 2 of a 3-part story about Isaac Van Amburgh, the Richmond Hill estate in Greenwich Village, and New York’s Zoological Institute in the Bowery


Dressed as a Roman gladiator, Isaac Van Amburgh emphasized his domination by using a crowbar to beat the animals into submission. It’s no wonder he had his share of critics.

In 1833, Isaac Van Amburgh, aka the Lion King, made his New York animal training debut by stepping into a cage occupied by a lion, a tiger, a leopard, and a panther at the Richmond Hill Theatre. In Part II of this old New York animal tale, I’ll tell you about the fate of the theater that once occupied the grand Richmond Hill mansion, and take a “then-and-now” look at the corner of Varick and Charlton streets in Greenwich Village, where the 26-acre estate once stood.

The Richmond Hill Estate of Greenwich Village

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During his tenure at the Richmond Hill estate (1794-1804), Aaron Burr made several improvements to the mansion and grounds. One of the things he did was widen a brook on the property to create a larger body of water, seen here in the foreground, which was known in later years as Burr’s Pond. 

As I noted in Part I, the Richmond Hill mansion was built in 1767 by Abraham Mortier on land that he leased from the Trinity Church. The home of timber construction stood on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, just west of today’s intersection of Charlton and Varick streets. It was reportedly painted yellow with a white portico supported by four large pillars.

The Richmond Hill estate has a fascinating history, which has been told many times (so I won’t get into details here). So I’ll fast forward to 1794, when Aaron Burr and his teenage daughter moved into the home (his first wife, Theodosia Bartow Prevost, had died that same year).

During Burr’s tenure at Richmond Hill, famous guests visited often and the dinner parties were lavish, to say the least. Unfortunately, Burr had difficulty supporting this lifestyle on his minuscule public-office salaries (it didn’t pay to be a senator or a vice president back then). Burr needed a plan to make more money.


Aaron Burr called Richmond Hill and Greenwich Village his home while serving as the country’s third vice president (1801-1805).

In 1797, as Manhattan’s residential development pushed northward, Burr tried to cash in on this opportunity by filing plans with the city to subdivide the estate’s grounds for “tract housing.” His plans called for the creation of three new streets running west from Macdougal Street to the Hudson River (Sixth Avenue did not yet exist): Burr; King (for Rufus King, a fellow U.S. senator); and Vandam (for Anthony Van Dam, a wealthy New York City alderman).

Although the city approved Burr’s plans, his debts prevented him from following through on them. In 1802, he allegedly tried to sell the estate for $150,000, but he received no offers. He eventually sold off some of the land and many of the home’s elaborate furnishings.

The final financial blow came in 1807, when Burr was put on trial for treason. Although he was acquitted, he could no longer hold onto the home. New York City rubbed even more salt into his wounds by expunging “Burr Street” from planning maps and renaming the proposed road Charlton Street in memory of Dr. John Charlton of the New York Medical Society, who had died months earlier.

In the end, Burr lost the Richmond Hill  estate to creditors, who in turn sold the mansion and the lease on seven acres of land to John Jacob Astor for a pittance.  Astor apparently tried to rent the home at first, according to an ad placed in the Mercantile Advertiser on April 8, 1812:

“The dwelling-house is in high and perfect order; the out-houses are numerous and convenient; the ground has a handsome forest, and affords pasture for a pair of horses and two cows. There is belonging to it an excellent kitchen garden, and the orchard has a variety of excellent fruit trees.”

I’m not sure if he got any takers on that offer, but I do know that by the 1820s Astor had begun to carry out Burr’s plans to develop the property.


These three town homes at 20-24 Charlton Street — pictured here in the 1930s — were constructed in the 1820s, when former fur trader John Jacob Astor began developing the land he had purchased from Aaron Burr’s creditors in 1807. 

Richmond Hill Rolls Down the Hill

In December 1820, right around Christmastime, John Jacob Astor applied the first major insult to the old Richmond Hill estate by rolling the mansion downhill on logs to the present-day southeast corner of Varick and Charlton Street — about 100 feet east of Varick, to be exact. (At this time, Varick Street was just a narrow dirt road that ran through the property.)

According to reports, the home was removed a distance of 55 feet in 45 minutes, without the slightest damage to the house or fixtures (even the chimneys remained intact). Astor turned the mansion into a summer resort featuring a tavern with gardens, and began leveling the hill on which it had stood.

In 1822, Astor opened Charlton, King, and Vandam streets as part of his plans to develop the neighborhood. He sold the church leases on the lots to carpenters and masons, who built the Federal-style private homes that still make up much of the neighborhood today.


Here are the same three town homes on Charlton Street as they appear today. 

The Final Days of Richmond Hill 

Astor’s summer resort was apparently unsuccessful, because by 1819 the old Richmond Hill mansion was reportedly occupied by a traveling circus featuring the popular clown Charles M’Donald. Then on November 13, 1831, Richard Russell opened a fashionable theater called the Richmond Hill Theatre on the site, which featured Italian operas and a variety of performances, including an equestrian company and the daring act of Isaac Van Amburgh the lion tamer. Miss Annette Hawley Nelson, a popular actress, managed the theater in the summer of 1836 and Mrs. Hamblin took over in 1837.

By 1840, the old mansion was called the Tivoli Gardens and Saloon. A newspaper ad that year stated that the gardens featured a promenade concert on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings: “The whole garden is brilliantly illuminated with gas; an elegant band of music is engaged.” Admission was 12 1/2 cents, which included “any quantity of ice cream of superior quality”. Omnibuses ran directly to and from the gardens on a regular basis.

In 1843, the site reverted to a theater called Tom Flynn’s National Theatre. The structure was enlarged in 1846 and named the New Greenwich Theatre, and then in 1847, it was called the New York Opera House. The old mansion enjoyed temporary fame as a roadhouse and saloon before meeting its demise in 1849. Or should I say, before most of the structure met its demise…


This illustration of the southeast corner of Varick and Charlton streets was published in 1907. As you can see, the old Richmond Hill mansion was replaced by frame homes and what was reportedly a horse stable. 

For some reason, a portion of the old theater was preserved when the homes and stables pictured above were constructed in the 1850s. On December 11, 1913, remnants of the structure were uncovered by wreckers who were tearing down the buildings on the east side of Varick Street in order to widen the road. According to news reports, some painted fresco work that once made up part of the theater’s stage was uncovered on a beam in the rear of the stable. Those watching the demolition told reporters they could clearly make out the shape of the old stage.



In 1893, George H. Brennan opened a café at 172 Varick Street, pictured here in 1911. This old frame and brick building on the northeast corner of Charlton and Varick was later called the Deutsche Apotheke, owned by German-born druggist John Hulster (John and his wife, Tillie, lived in the apartment upstairs). The building was torn down in 1914 when the street was widened (by this time, George had moved his cafe to the southwest corner of Charlton and Varick).




Here is the intersection of Charlton and Varick (looking east from Varick) in 1914. The old German pharmacy on the north corner is now gone, as are the frame houses and stables that once occupied the Richmond Hill site on the south corner.



Here is the same view looking east down Charlton Street today. Although the trolley car tracks and horse manure are gone, a few of the older buildings are still standing, including the former Charlton Street Memorial Church at #40, now the Elizabeth Irwin High School (the light-colored three-story building in the middle of the photo) and the brick building to the right of the school. 


This photo of Sixth Avenue at Charlton Street was taken in 1927 during construction of Sixth Avenue and the subway. Only months before, a townhouse at #7 Charlton had stood where the boys are standing in the left of this photo. 

I took this photo of Charlton Plaza during my recent tour of the neighborhood. The plaza is located where the boys in the photo above were standing.

Although the old frame houses no longer exist, I did find this old wooden shed on Sixth Avenue and Charlton, which is right about where the grounds of the old Richmond Hill mansion were located after Astor rolled the house off the hill in 1820. 


The deer and flying squirrels that were once in abundance in this part of Manhattan may be long gone, but the birds have found a nice home on Sixth Avenue and Charlton Street. 

Stay tuned for Part III, in which I’ll tell you about the old theater and Zoological Institute on the Bowery, where Van Amburgh developed his career as a formidable lion tamer and circus man before meeting his own demise.






Van Amburgh is the man, who goes to all the shows
He goes into the lion’s cage, and tells you all he knows;
He sticks his head in the lion’s mouth, and keeps it there a-while,
And when he pulls it out again, he greets you with a smile.–
“The Menagerie,” song by Dr. W.J. Wetmore, 1865


Isaac Van Amburgh, aka the Lion King, with his lions, tigers, and lamb at the London Theatre. Oil painting on canvas by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1839. 

Part 1 of a 3-part story about Isaac Van Amburgh, the Richmond Hill estate in Greenwich Village, and New York’s Zoological Institute in the Bowery

After years of pressure from its many critics, SeaWorld recently announced that it was no longer breeding killer whales in captivity. The announcement follows on the heels of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ decision to retire all of its performing elephants by May 2016. Although news reports suggest these announcements reflect a shift in society’s attitude toward the treatment of wild animals, one could argue that the criticism has existed for at least 200 years, going back to 1833, when a 22-year-old lion tamer from Fishkill, New York, introduced his wild animal act to New York City audiences in Greenwich Village and the Bowery.

Much has been written about the lion tamer Isaac A. Van Amburgh, and I’d prefer to focus on the New York City ties to this story, but a quick introduction to the man who came to be known as the Lion King is warranted to paint the full picture.

In 1830, at the age of 19, Isaac Van Amburgh was hired as a cage cleaner for June, Titus, Angevine & Co., a large menagerie in North Salem, New York (later to become part of the New York Zoological Institute, founded in Somerstown Plains, New York in 1835 at the Elephant Hotel). Legend has it that Isaac was fascinated by the Biblical tale of Daniel in the lion’s den, and had always dreamed of being a lion tamer. He was a natural for the job.

That year, Isaac spent the warm months cleaning animal cages and the winter months training wild animals in various barns throughout upper Westchester and lower Putnam counties. By 1831, he was ready to take his traveling Van Amburgh Menagerie on the road. For the next forty years, Van Amburgh’s name would be synonymous with menageries, the circus, and daring wild animal acts.


Isaac Van Amburgh’s menagerie bandwagon was billed as the largest ever seen in America. It was more than 20 feet long and 17 feet tall, and its canopy could be lowered for passing under low bridges. The horse-drawn bandwagon was followed in grand procession by about 30 carriages, cages, and performer caravans. In this illustration, Van Amburgh is reportedly leading his menagerie past the Astor House hotel on Broadway at Vesey Street in 1846.

The Lion King Takes His Act to Greenwich Village

In the fall of 1833, Isaac Van Amburgh announced his plans to step into a cage occupied by a lion, a tiger, a leopard, and a panther at the Richmond Hill Theatre, located at the southeast corner of Varick and Charlton streets in Greenwich Village. Strong appeals were made for him to cancel this performance, but he would not back down. He reportedly even offered to drive down Broadway and other main streets in a chariot drawn by lions and tigers, but the authorities interfered.

VanAmburghBio_HatchingCatO.J. Ferguson wrote of the performance in Greenwich Village in his biographical sketch of Van Amburgh published in 1862:

The daring pioneer approached the door of the den with a firm step and unaverted eye. A murmur of alarm and horror involuntarily escaped the audience…The effect of his power was instantaneous. The Lion halted and stood transfixed. The Tiger crouched. The Panther with a suppressed growl of rage sprang back, while the Leopard receded gradually from its master. The spectators were overwhelmed with wonder…. Then came the most effective tableaux of all. Van Amburgh with his strong will bade them come to him while he reclined in the back of the cage – the proud King of animal creation.” 

Dressed like a Roman gladiator in toga and sandals, Van Amburgh emphasized his domination of the animals by beating them into compliance with a crowbar. Oftentimes he’d thrust his arm into their mouths, daring them to attack. It’s no wonder that he had his share of critics, even in an era when four-legged creatures were called “dumb animals” and more often than not treated inhumanely.

When he came under attack for spreading cruelty and moral devastation, Van Amburgh responded to his critics by quoting the Bible: “Didn’t God say in Genesis 1:26 that men should have dominion over every animal on the earth?” To further make his case, Van Amburgh would act out scenes from the Bible, forcing a lion to lie down with a lamb or bringing a child from the audience to join them in the ring.

Does anyone else secretly wish these poor creatures would have attacked back?

The Richmond Hill Theatre of Greenwich Village

I recently took a walk along Charlton, Vandam, King, Macdougal, and Varick streets in Greenwich Village, to visit the former site of the old Richmond Hill Theatre, where the Lion King once performed. I first closed my eyes briefly and tried to imagine the scene 400 years ago, when the area was a favorite hunting ground for the Lenape, who came there to fish in the creeks and hunt deer, flying squirrels, and other wildlife.

That proving a challenge, what with traffic police and taxis and buses and bicyclists, I next tried to go back 250 years, when the area comprised the 26-acre Richmond Hill estate, one of the finest and most famous in colonial New York. The Richmond Hill mansion was built in 1767 by Abraham Mortier on grounds the British army’s paymaster general leased from the Trinity Church (99-year lease). The home of timber construction stood on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, just west of today’s intersection of Charlton and Varick streets. (At that time, before the land was filled in, the property was very close to the Hudson River shore.)
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In his book “A Tour Around New York and My Summer Acre” (1892), John Flavel Mines writes of the old Richmond Hill estate:

It was a beautiful spot then. In front there was nothing to obstruct the view of the Hudson. To the right fertile meadows stretched up towards the little hamlet of Greenwich Village, and on the left the view of the little city in the distance was half hidden by clumps of trees and rising hills. There was a broad entrance to the house, under a porch of imposing height, supported by high columns, with balconies fronting the rooms of the second story. The premises were entered by a spacious gateway, flanked by ornamental columns, at what is now the termination of Macdougal Street. Within the gate and to the north was a beautiful sheet of water, known to men who are still living and who skated on its frozen surface when they were urchins of tender years, as Burr’s Pond.

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In 1776, George Washington seized Richmond Hill and used it as his Revolutionary War headquarters (he was living here when the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed on July 4). Following the war, the estate was home to John and Abigail Adams (1789-1790). Aaron Burr acquired the mansion and church lease on the land in 1794, and he lived here until his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804.

During her brief stay there, Abigail Adams wrote about Richmond Hill in a letter to a friend:

On one side we see a view of the city and of Long Island. The river [is] in front, [New] Jersey and the adjacent country on the other side. You turn a little from the road and enter a gate. A winding road with trees in clumps leads to the house, and all around the house it looks wild and rural as uncultivated nature. . . . You enter under a piazza into a hall and turning to the right hand ascend a staircase which lands you in another [hall] of equal dimensions of which I make a drawing room. It has a glass door which opens into a gallery the whole front of the house which is exceedingly pleasant. . . .There is upon the back of the house a garden of much greater extent than our [Massachusetts] garden, but it is wholly for a walk and flowers. It has a hawthorne hedge and rows of trees with a broad gravel walk.

Traveling back in my mind to the 1700s also proved difficult, as you can imagine, so as I tried to take photos in between bouts of traffic, I decided to ponder on the demise of Richmond Hill and the events that led to present-day Charlton and Varick streets. Stay tuned for Part II, in which I’ll share what I’ve discovered about the final years of the old Richmond Hill mansion/theater where the Lion King once dominated a lion, tiger, leopard, and panther. And then in Part III, I’ll explore the old theater and Zoological Institute on the Bowery, where Van Amburgh developed his career as a formidable lion tamer and circus man.