Posts Tagged ‘Cat Stories’


In the late 1700s, The Hermitage residence was right about where McCaffrey Playground is today, on West 43rd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenue. New York Public Library Digital Collections

Part I of this Old New York cat tale begins in 1825 at the old Hermitage Farm on the west side of Manhattan…

In 1825, John Leake Norton distributed some handbills advertising a raffle for his land on the west side of Manhattan. His plan was to divide his portion of the Norton Farm, aka The Hermitage Farm, into parcels of 4 to 16 lots, and sell them at a price beginning at $600 for the smaller parcels.

According to The New York Times, the drawing took place in the Shakespeare Tavern at Fulton and Nassau Street. “Over mugs of ale, between smoke rings drawn from long pipes, adventurous citizens bought the Norton farm.”

That same year, John L. Norton ceded to the City of New York all that land which would be required to open 39th through 48th streets. The city paid him $10 for this land.


The “sunken lands” along the Great Kill are clearly depicted on the Randel Farm Maps, drafted between 1818 and 1820. John L. Norton’s Hermitage is also shown (far right) as well as a few other smaller buildings on the family’s estate.  

The Hermitage Farm had been in the family since about 1780, which is when John Leake purchased a tract of about 80 acres between present-day Broadway and the Hudson River from Matthew Hopper. Much of the property west of the Eleventh Avenue comprised “sunken lands” that were under the Hudson River and the Great Kill, a large stream that emptied into the Hudson at the foot of what is now 42nd Street.

When Leake died in 1792, he bequeathed the land and the home he called The Hermitage to his niece, Martha, the wife of Samuel Norton. Upon her death in 1797, the property passed on to her sons John Leake Norton, Samuel John Leake Norton, and Robert Burridge Norton.

hermitagefarmmappaintThe Hermitage Farm was a diagonal tract between Broadway and the Hudson River, from about 40th Street to 48th Street. The Great Kill stream is also noted on this 1872 map. Click here for a more detailed view. Museum of the City of New York Collections 

In the years following the sale of the Norton Farm, residential development was brisk, particularly after the city’s first street railway — the New York and Harlem — began running from Prince Street to the Harlem Bridge in 1832. Commercial development also picked up along the Hudson River after the sunken lands of the old Hermitage Farm between Eleventh Avenue and the Hudson River were filled in to create Twelfth Avenue in 1862-63.

The Green Line Car Stables

In 1864, the car stables of the Forty-second-Street and Grand Street Ferry Railroad were constructed on land that had once been under water, on the east side of Twelfth Avenue at the foot of 42nd and 43rd streets. Immediately to the south of the three-story brick car stables was the large Consolidated Gas Company, and just to the north was the E.S. Higgins & Co. Carpet Factory.


This old car barn at 65th Street (circa 1900) was probably very similar to the car stables on Twelfth Avenue and 42nd Street. Notice the streetcars inside the building and the horses waiting outside. NYPL Digital Collections

The Forty-second-Street and Grand Street Ferry Railroad, also known as the Green Line because of the green lights on the cars, was a horse-drawn streetcar line that ran a zigzag path from the Weehawken Ferry (the West Shore ferry terminal) at the foot of 42nd Street to the Grand Street Ferry on the East River.

Approximately 570 horses were stabled in the Green Line car stables, along with about 50 trolley cars plus all the harnesses, bales of hay, and other equipment required to care for the horses.


The Grand Street Horse Car Depot at 653 West 42nd Street, E.S. Higgins & Co. Carpet Factory, and Consolidated Gas Co. were all constructed on what were once sunken lands on the old Norton Farm. (The blue line denotes the old Great Kill stream and the boundary of the old sunken lands.) Numerous brick and brownstone tenements and frame buildings are also evident on this 1885 map.  

The Great Car Stables Fire

At about 10:30 p.m. on June 12, 1886, night watchman John Horner noticed smoke coming from the third-floor paint shop at the northeast corner of the car stables. He ran out and sounded the alarm, but by the time the fire engines arrived a few minutes later, the entire stable, covering 8 lots on 42nd Street, 8 lots on 43rd Street, and the entire river front, was on fire.

At the time of the fire, about 565 horses were in the building, including five that were upstairs in a special hospital for the horses. One sick horse was in slings awaiting treatment.


The Forty-Second Street and Grand Street Ferry Railroad terminated at the Grand Street Ferry depot at the foot of Grand Street and Broome Street on the East River. Here, passengers could take a ferry to either Grand Street or Broadway in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The New Metropolis, 1899; Collection of Maggie Land Blanck.  

Under the direction of Superintendent John M. Calhoun, all of the employees on site were able to lead the horses safely outside (quite an amazing feat, considering that most car stable fires of this period resulted in the deaths of hundreds of horses). Only one horse — the one in slings — perished in the flames. The other horses were taken to Justice Murray’s coach lot on 42nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenue.

After all the horses were out, the men focused on saving the cars by pushing them out on the tracks along 42nd Street. All but 4 cars were saved, and almost all but 40 harnesses were also saved.


While all this was going on, about a dozen or more cats that lived in the stables, including one especially brave tabby, were fighting for their lives as the building continued to burn all around them…

In Part II, I’ll tell you what happened to the cats, and how one very brave cat found a new home at a firehouse in Chelsea following this event.




The Union Square Theatre on East 14th Street was constructed within the walls of the Union Place Hotel (later, the Morton House) in 1871. In 1887, a year after taking over the management, James Hill made extensive renovations to the exterior and interior of the theater.

In Part I of the Old New York cat story, we met Union Square Jim, the large, blue-eyed, orange tabby mascot of the old Union Square Theatre in New York City. Jim was born in the theater sometime around 1886, a year after James Hill took over as manager of the theater.

Jim was certainly well-loved by all the actors and stage hands — especially when he performed his many tricks for them — but his favorite person was janitor Michael Sweeney. Every night as Michael made his rounds, Jim would be at his side.


The old Union Square Theatre, located at 58 East 14th Street, is noted in the top left quadrant of this 1885 map. The adjacent Star Theatre (previously Wallack’s Theatre; demolished in 1902) is just south on Broadway at 13th Street. 

The Great Fall

One afternoon during the summer of 1887, a skylight on the roof of the theater sprung a leak during a heavy rainstorm. Michael reportedly went on the roof to fix it, and he took his feline friend along to get some fresh air and sunshine.

As Michael was in the progress of repairing the skylight, he heard a loud crash. Looking up from what he was doing, he saw that Jim had fallen through another skylight and was frantically trying to hang on to the framework with one paw.

Right before Michael’s eyes, Jim lost his “grip” and fell down about 80 feet to the center of the auditorium below.


Jim fell about 80 feet from the roof skylight to the auditorium seating of the Union Square Hotel.

Michael rushed down the stairs and ran into the auditorium, where he found Jim lying motionless between two rows of chairs. Micheal carried the unconscious cat into his room, where he tended to his feline friend as best he could with alcohol and bandages.

Two weeks later, Jim was alert and back on his feet again, making the rounds with Michael as if the plunge from the roof had never happened. On September 26, 1887, he made his accidental stage debut during opening night of The Henrietta, a romantic comedy written by Bronson Howard and produced by the comedians Stuart Robson and William Henry Crane.


James M. Hill took over the Union Square Theatre in 1885.

The Union Square Theatre Fire of 1888

On the afternoon of February 28, 1888, a fire broke out in a loft between the ceiling and roof of the auditorium of the theater. The flames were discovered just before 1 p.m. by stage carpenters and painters, who had been working on the stage with Ben Teal, the stage manager. James Hill was also in the building at the time; one of the stage hands ran into his office to warn him of the fire.

Union Square Jim was in the basement of the building, but no one came to warn the cat as he slept peacefully in his wicker basket.

The large fire caused extensive damage as it burned through the partitions that separated the theater from the Morton House (all the hotel guests had been safely evacuated). The two upper stories of the hotel facing Union Square caught fire, and the roof of the theater was demolished.

When the firemen got the fire under control at about 4 p.m., the walls of the hotel and theater were still intact.


Most of the damage to the theater was caused by the freezing water, which destroyed the seats, curtains, and stage scenery.

Union Square Jim Is Saved

“Has anyone seen Jim?” Michael Sweeney asked everyone when he arrived on the scene later that afternoon. When no one answered, Michael asked one of the firemen to help him find the mascot cat.

Using a lantern, the two men made their way through the basement corridor to the dressing room where Jim spent his days sleeping. There, in the flooded room, they found Jim perched on top of his basket, trying to stay dry with no means of escape in sight.

That evening, there was a reception in honor of Jim at the Criterion, followed by a “general jollification” at the Hotel Hungaria across the street.  James Hill told everyone he would have the theater reopened on March 26 with Syndey Rosenfeld’s A Possible Case.

Three months after the fire, The New York Times reported:

“Jim was in troubled spirits and was moving about with an air of dejection. The chaotic and unsafe condition of the old building since the fire drove the petted darling Jim to the narrow confines of the property room in the rear of the theater, as dark and uninviting as a tomb. He was kept by himself in this room, on a 15-foot chain. He has been slowly withering in spirit and flesh in this chilly back room, and last week refused to eat at all. This alarmed the old stage hands, and after a solemn council it was decided to take Jim each night to the Madison Square Theatre in the hope that it would revive his health and spirits.”

Jim’s mood did change as soon as he saw his old friends at the theater. According to the news article, “He purred, jumped from chair to tables, frisked about the carpet, and peeked through the curtain from time to time to watch the assembling audience.”

One night during the performance of A Possible Cause, Jim decided to take the stage again, this time leaping onto the lead actor during a very dramatic scene. Jim brought the house down with laughter as he purred and licked the actor’s head and forehead in “a delirium of delight.” Although he was led off stage, there were many bursts of laughter as the drama progressed, and, after the last curtain, repeated calls were made for the theatrical cat to come and take a bow.

I do not know for sure what happened to Jim, although a story about him in the book “Lady Lee and Other Animals Stories” by Harmon Lee Ensign suggests that he died at the Madison Square Theatre in a very dramatic fashion when he pounced on some flames on stage (an actresses’ dress caught fire when she walked too close to the gas lights). I have a feeling the author made this up (a small news article in the May 5, 1890, issue of The Sandusky Register suggests that Jim died from an illness after an unsuccessful visit with Dr. Dovey, a veterinarian on 4th Street.

The Demise of the Union Square Theatre

A year after the fire, the Union Square Theatre reopened. It had been almost completely rebuilt to the designs of John Terhune and Leopold Eidlitz (although some of the design was by Charles P. Palmer, the manager of the property). Because of the cramped site, Palmer developed a horseshoe balcony that rose in the center to make good use of the high, narrow space. The interior was painted in old gold and ivory, and the proscenium arch (the part of the stage in front of the curtain) featured a large medallion with a painting of Shakespeare. The hand-carved cherry chairs were upholstered in electric blue.


In the 1890s, the old Union Square Theatre was a vaudeville theater operated by B.F. Keith and Edward Albee. NYPL Digital Collections

In 1893,  Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward Franklin Albee,  the most powerful and successful vaudeville producers of their time, purchased the lease for the Union Square Theatre and completely remodeled it. The offered continuous vaudeville — George M. Cohan made his New York debut on its stage.

In 1906 the theater exhibited some early motion pictures; in 1908, it was converted once again to showcase only films. As B.F. Keith’s, the theater dabbled in “the most dubious activities that a picture house can indulge in,” according to The New York Herald Tribune (alluding to racy films and lectures about sex.)  The theater was sold and renamed the Acme in 1921, which featured primarily Soviet Russian films.


In May 1920, the old Morton House (then called the Hotel Churchill), B.F. Keith’s theater, and Union Square Hotel were sold at auction for the benefit of the Courtlandt Palmer heirs. The theater continued to run films until 1936, which is when the ground floor was  divided for some dry goods stores, destroying the orchestra section of the auditorium.

In 1986, the Philips International Corporation acquired the site and completely vacated the buildings. Demolition of the theater began in 1989, and, a few later, as the building was peeled away, this amazing photograph revealed the ruined remnants of the old Union Square Theatre  — complete with its finishes still brown with smoke from the fire that almost took the last of the nine lives of Union Square Jim.


Here is 58 East 14th Street today. Photo by P. Gavan




Part I of an Old New York Cat Story


This is not Jim, but I can imagine him looking quite similar to this vintage theatrical cat.

Like most cats that became the popular mascots of New York City police stations, fire stations, hotels, and theaters in the 1800s and 1900s, Jim began his life as a vagrant cat without friends or influence.  It didn’t take him long, however, to win the hearts of the managers, actors, and patrons of the old Union Square Theatre.

In fact, one might say he literally stole the show.

As a reporter for the Detroit Free Press wrote in a feature story about the cat on August 14, 1887, Union Square Jim was “either an exceptional cat or a proof of my ignorance concerning the kind.” The reporter noted that the large sorrel cat (think “Morris” from the old 9-Lives commercials) was first and foremost a sociable cat who loved human companionship.

Jim made his home under the stage of the Union Square Theatre at 58 East 14th Street (between Broadway and Fourth Avenue), which at that time was under the management of James M. Hill. His favorite person was janitor Michael Sweeney, but he also enjoyed visiting all the members of the acting companies in their dressing rooms before every performance.

Jim could also do quite a few tricks – for example, he could “sing,” shake paws, and stand on his hind legs — and he found himself in the spotlight on more than one occasion. Let’s just say that Jim had a knack for turning a sorrowful and serious drama scene into a comedy act that brought down the house with laughter and howls of delight.


The Union Square Theatre opened on September 11, 1871. This photo was taken between December 1, 1874, and June 15, 1875, which is when “The Two Orphans” starring James O’Neill (father of Eugene) ran at the theater (then under the management of Albert M. Palmer).  NYPL Digital Collections

Our story begins in 1886, in an unused dressing room at the Union Square Theatre. There, according to the book “Lady Lee and Other Animals Stories” by Harmon Lee Ensign, a quiet brindle cat named Roxy gave birth to five kittens. The kittens were discovered by janitor Henry Sweeney, who cared for the mother cat for several weeks so she in turn could feed her kittens.

According to Ensign’s version of the story, the mother cat was severely injured (broken ribs and other injuries) when a disgruntled actor kicked her against a corridor wall. Although she suffered greatly, Roxy cared for her kittens for five more days until she passed away.


The interior of the Union Square Theatre

Within a few days, four of the five kittens also died (Henry tried to save them, but he did not know how). The smallest survived, and within a few weeks, poor little Jim was a bright and mischievous kitten.

Now, I have no historical proof of this specific part of the story — author Ensign, a New York animal rights supporter and philanthropist, may have taken liberty to embellish the tale of Jim’s birth for his book — but it makes for a good narrative.


A color illustration of the photo of the theater shown above. NYPL Digital Collections

As a kitten, Jim spent most of the day under the stage, either in the dark passageways or in the dressing room. At night, after the final curtain came down and the crowds dispersed, Jim would follow Henry on his janitorial rounds. Man and cat would walk together from the cellar, where the scenery was stored, to the roof, where the moonlight came streaming through the skylights.

During their time together, Henry taught Jim many tricks, like standing erect, walking and “boxing” on his hind legs, and flicking his tail to the left or right on command. Jim was quite intelligent, and over time he also learned how to put on a show by weeping in mock mews, posing like different actors, and performing numerous acrobatic tricks.


Madame Helena Modjeska

A few months after his first birthday, Jim was introduced to the theater proper, where he mingled with stagehands, actors, and other prominent people of the New York theater world. He was cuddled and coddled by his admirers and friends, who all considered him the mascot of the institution. And he was welcomed by manager James Hill, who considered him a good-luck charm for the theater (Jim would discharge any employee who tried to harm the cat, after giving the employee a lecture on animal cruelty).

One of Jim’s biggest fans was Madame Helena Modjeska, a renowned actress who specialized in Shakespearean and tragic roles. She gave him a wicker cradle stuffed with rich bedding materials. Jim was quite partial to this bed, and reportedly would not sleep anywhere else.

Jim also had a lady admirer in Bangor, Maine, who once sent him a plump package of catnip, which, according to The New York Times (February 19, 1888), he enjoyed “with the relish of an epicure.”

Union Square Jim Makes His Stage Debut

On September 26, 1887, The Henrietta, a romantic comedy written by Bronson Howard and produced by the comedians Stuart Robson and William Henry Crane, opened at the Union Square Theatre. Jim also chose to make his debut on the stage that night. According to a story in The New York Times, Jim got a bit frisky on stage and almost spoiled a scene.


Stuart Robson as Bertie the Lamb in The Henrietta at the Union Square Theatre in 1887. NYPL Digital Collections

Robson and Crane were angry at the large orange tabby at first, but they came to love Jim over the next few months. They even offered to buy Jim from Manager Hill and sought to have his name changed to Henrietta. Mr. Hill had to decline because one, Jim was a male, and two, he brought good luck to the theater (at least up to that time…)

A Brief History of the Union Square Theatre

In 1871, Sheridan Shook, a former butter and cheese merchant and collector with the Internal Review Service under Abraham Lincoln, signed a ten-year lease with Courtlandt Palmer, a wealthy hardware merchant and real estate speculator who owned what was then called the Union Place Hotel.

Shook renamed the hotel the Maison Doree and hired chief constructor H.M. Simons to build a variety (vaudeville) theater within the walls of the hotel. Construction began on May 1, 1871, and in a few months, a a 55- x 140-foot theater that could seat about 1,500 people replaced what had been the grand dining room of the Union Place Hotel.

The main entrance to the theater was on 14th Street and a separate entrance to the gallery and stage was on Fourth Avenue.


The Union Place Hotel, on on the southwest corner of Broadway and 14th Street, was constructed in 1849. In 1871, the Union Square Theatre was constructed within the walls of the hotel. That year, the hotel was renamed the Maison Doree by Sheridan Shook. In 1881, it was renamed the Morton House Hotel. NYPL Digital Collections  


Here’s an earlier illustration of the Union Place Hotel, immediately to the left of Broadway. Grace Church on Broadway and 11th Street is in the background.

The new theater opened on September 11, 1871, under the management of Robert W. Butler, a variety manager and former proprietor of the American Concert Saloon at 414 Broadway. One year later, Albert M. Palmer, Shook’s clerk at the IRS, took over. Under Palmer’s management, the theater operated as the Union Square Theatre Stock Co.


From 1871 to 1881, the old Union Place Hotel was called the Maison Doree. In this photo from that period, you can just make out the hotel name; just to the left, you can see the Union Square Theatre. 


Sheridan Shook

The Old Peter Stuyvesant Farm

The land on which the Union Place Hotel and adjunct Union Square Theatre occupied was once part of a 33-acre farm owned by Cornelius T. Williams, the son of Mary Magdalene Tiebout and Edward Williams, and the stepson of the late Cornelius Tiebout, a New York merchant.

Tiebout had acquired the land in 1748 from one of Peter Stuyvesant’s heirs. He built a farmhouse near the present-day intersection of East 18th Street and Park Avenue South, and named his estate Roxborough.

The land had originally been conveyed to Stuyvesant in 1651 by the Dutch West India Company. Stuvesant’s farm extended from the Bowery to the East River between present-day East 3rd Street and East 30th Street.

UnionSquareSouth1828This 1885 painting by Albertis Del Orient Browere depicts Union Square, looking south from today’s 14th Street, as it appeared in 1828. The Union Place Hotel was constructed 20 years later, right about where the white house stands. 

In 1811, when the Commissioners’ Plan established Manhattan’s street grid, the area around Union Square was mostly farmland, as pictured above. In addition to the grid, the Commissioners’ Plan provided for a public square called Union Place at the intersection of the Bowery and Broadway, just to the west of the Williams’ property. In 1832, additional land was acquired for the park, which opened to the public as Union Square in 1839.

The Final Years of Jim and the Union Square Hotel

In Part II, I’ll share some more amazing stories about Jim, the Union Square Theatre cat, and about the final years of the old hotel.