Posts Tagged ‘New York History’


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.




Crispin’s Crispian was the pet Kerry blue terrier of children’s book author Margaret Wise Brown, and the inspiration for her last book, Mister Dog, which she wrote in her tiny studio in the Lenox Hill section of New York City sometime around 1945. 

In February 1966, the demolition of several old apartment buildings and a church on York Avenue between East 71st Street and East 72nd Street revealed a very tiny frame house — believed to be an 18th-century farmhouse — that had been hidden from public view for about 75 years.

It was in this little house that Margaret Wise Brown, author of such children’s classics as Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, wrote what turned out to be her very last book.

Inspired by her pet terrier, Crispin’s Crispian, Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself is about a conservative dog who goes looking for a friend. The book was illustrated by Garth Williams (of the Little House books and Charlotte’s Web fame), who no doubt used the little house on York Avenue as the model for Margaret’s fictional dog (as you’ll see later in this old New York story).


From Margaret Wise Brown’s Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself

Much has been written about the Brooklyn-born Margaret Wise Brown and her career, so I’m going to jump right to the history of this little house, where she spent just a brief time during her incredible career as one of America’s most favorite authors of children’s picture books.

Part I: The Old Louvre Farm

“It was the last fastness of the forest primeval that once covered the rocky shores of the East River, and its wildness was almost savage.”–Early account of the area known as Lenox Hill


In Part I, we go way back in time to when the area we know today as Lenox Hill on the Upper East Side of Manhattan was a dense and spooky forest situated on the bluffs overlooking the East River and located far, far away from the city proper.


It was here in a clearing that one could find a farm of about 90 acres that extended from the Old Boston Post Road (near today’s Third Avenue) to the East River between present-day 66th Street and 75th Street.


Our story of Crispin’s Crispian and the little frame house that he shared with Margaret Wise Brown takes place on the west side of Avenue A (today’s York Avenue) between 71st Street and 72nd Street, also known as Lot 4 of the Louvre Farm subdivision of 1855.


On this 1868 map of the old Louvre Farm, most of the lots are still vacant. There are a few buildings near the East River, including a large barn, ice house, several dwellings, and the old David Provost mansion at the foot of present-day 69th Street. There are also 2 swimming “pools” along the river.  Click here to explore this map from the Museum of the City of New York digital collections.


We start on October 9, 1677, when Sir Edmund Andros, the governor of the Province of New York, granted about 60 acres to John Bassett and 30 acres to Cornelius Mattyson. Over the next 100 years, the 60-acre plot was conveyed from Bassett to William Green, to William Hallett, and to George Hallett. The 30-acre plot was conveyed to Johannes Peterson and then to George Hallet.

In 1727, Hallett conveyed the entire 90-acre farm to Abraham Lameter, who in turn sold the land to David Provost on September 11, 1742.

Provost, a New York City merchant and privateer, was extremely wealthy and thus known as Ready-Money Provost (there were rumors that he hid his money in a cave on the farm near the East River). He built a large country mansion near the river, smack in the middle of what would become East 69th Street. He called his estate the Louvre Farm.


Following his death at the age of 90 in 1781, David Provost was buried in a tomb built into a high hill at the East River and today’s East 71st Street. His first wife, Johanna Rynders, was buried here many years earlier (1749) following her death at the age of 43. 

On December 6, 1777, David Provost gifted the 90-acre farm to his former housekeeper and second wife, Sarah Bolton Loftus. Ten years later, in 1787, Sarah conveyed the property to James Provost, David’s grandson. James in turn conveyed equal parcels of the property to his seven siblings (keeping one parcel for himself).

Jones’ Woods

Sometime around 1800, a successful innkeeper and merchant by the name of John Jones purchased the land from the Provost siblings in order to have a country seat near New York. (The Provost house became his country seat.) After his death in 1806, the farm was divided once again into lots among his children: Sarah Schermerhorn (wife of Peter Schermerhorn), James I. Jones, John Jones, Isaac Colford Jones, Frances M. Pendelton, and William H. Jones.

In time, the old Louvre Farm became known as Jones’ Woods.


The Provost tomb was still standing in 1875 when this illustration was made, although by that time it was called the Smuggler’s Tomb. It had also been broken into and vandalized over the years — an 1857 news article reported that several human bones were scattered about. Needless to say, it was the source of many ghost stories in the 1800s. New York Public Library digital collections

In 1853, following a long debate, an act was passed in favor of creating Central Park by a vote of 12 to 10. The act authorized the purchase of the land (eminent domain) lying between 3rd Avenue and the East River from 66th Street to 75th Street.

Much opposition arose, especially because the land was inaccessible and bounded on one side by the swift current of a deep stream (some nearby property owners were in favor of the park, as they believed it would raise their property values).  In the end, the Jones’ heirs refused to sell the land.


The first uptown site that was considered for a “great park” was Jones’ Wood.  The deal fell through in 1854 and the rest, as they say, is history. 

The act was repealed on March 6, 1854. A year later, the Jones’ siblings leased a small portion of their land (400 lots between 66th and 69th streets) for use as a public picnic ground. The northern portion, from 69th to 75th Street, was advertised for residential development.

Jones’ Wood, as the picnic grounds were called, has been called “America’s first amusement park.” It featured attractions such as billiards, bowling, a shooting gallery, donkey rides, dancing, concerts, hobby horses, and much more. (During the Civil War, the land was used extensively by the military.) There was a large coliseum near Avenue A between 68th and 70th streets, a shooting range on 70th Street, and a platform for outdoor dancing also near 70th Street.

The old Provost mansion became the Jones’ Wood Hotel under the proprietorship of Valentine Mager (pronounced Major), who leased the land from 1858 to 1860.
joneswoodhotelOver 15,000 Irish Americans gathered in Jones’ Wood in 1856 to greet countryman James Stephen. The old Provost mansion at the foot of East 69th Street — later the Jones’ Wood Hotel — is in the distance. NYPL digital collections

caledonian_joneswood_hatchingcatThe New York Caledonian Club, a Scottish social club organized in 1856, held their second annual games at Jones’ Wood on September 23, 1858. (The first event took place at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, NJ). The club referred to the site as “a convenient and pleasantly situated park.” 

In 1857, the only public road that traversed through Jones’ Wood was Second Avenue. However, Avenue A was under contract at this time, and cherry trees were beginning to be felled for development (an old newspaper account noted that the sunshine could be seen for the first time). Several streets were opened, including 65th, 66th, 71st, and 74th streets.

joneswood1861lagententA number of tents were pitched in the woods near the river for use during the season, as this illustration from about 1861 depicts. NYPL digital collections

During the 1860s and 1870s, Jones’ Wood was the resort of working-class New Yorkers, who traveled by excursion steamers and the horsecars on Second and Third Avenue to enjoy beer, athletics, and other rowdy entertainments that were banned in Central Park.


This 1885 map shows John F. Schultheis’ Coliseum (built in 1874) and a new picnic ground called Washington Park. Development had begun along Avenue A, particularly between 70th and 72nd Street, but there’s no sign of the little house where Crispin’s Crispian lived yet…

In 1872, John F. Schultheis became the proprietor of Jones’ Wood Park. He erected his “Coliseum” about 1874 (it had seating for 14,000 spectators), and to the north, he established a second picnic ground called “Washington Park.” By this time, the old Provost mansion, aka the Jones’ Wood Hotel, although still occupied by Schultheis, was a dilapidated ruin.

On May 16, 1894, at about 4:30 a.m., a fire broke out in the kitchen of the Coliseum, near the northeast corner of the building, which was very close to the old Provost mansion and Schultheis’ horse stables. Although the fire was contained to the east side of Avenue A, it destroyed almost everything on about 11 acres of land. When the fire was out, the only things left standing were the kitchen chimney and a merry-go-round.


A scene from Jones’ Wood in 1872. Note the merry-go-round in the background (left), which was all that was left standing following the fire in 1894.

In Part II, we’ll return to 1868, which is when William Glass purchased a couple of lots for his dairy operation on Lot 4 of the old Louvre Farm.







Handsome tabby Trent and Melvin Vaniman, the chief engineer of America, shortly after being rescued by the crew of the RMS Trent in October 1910.

The story of Trent, the large tabby cat made famous by an unsuccessful flight across the Atlantic in the airship America, has been told many times. My version of the story has a New York City history twist that you will not find in any other tale about Trent.  


On October 22, 1910, a month after the new Gimbel Brothers Department Store opened at Greeley Square in New York City, Walter Wellman’s 27-foot lifeboat and the large tabby cat that was rescued from his hydrogen dirigible, America, were on exhibition on the fourth floor of the new department store.

Trent, lying atop comfy pillows in a gilded cage, attracted crowds of sightseers — especially women and children — who couldn’t wait to meet the famous cat that attempted a trans-Atlantic crossing in an airship. As a continuous line of people tried to pet and woo him, Trent ignored their attention and declined to be sociable.

I’m going out on a limb here, but maybe the poor cat was trying to ignore everyone because he had just gone through a very dramatic experience that I know for a fact would have traumatized most cats for all the rest of their nine lives.

From Atlantic City Stray to Airship Mascot

americahangarThe America was a 165-long, non-rigid airship built by Mutin Godard in France in 1906 for the journalist Walter Wellman‘s attempt to reach the North Pole by air. The airship took off from Atlantic City, New Jersey, on October 15, 1910. 

In October 1910, journalist and pioneer airman Walter Wellman and five companions prepared to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the airship America. Trent was just a stray cat living with his twin brother in the airship’s hangar in Atlantic City when the airship’s navigator, Murray Simon, decided it would be good luck to have a cat on board the historic flight.

Trent — then called Kiddo — was tossed into the lifeboat, which was attached just under the airship. Here, radio man Jack Irwin had his post (America was the first aircraft to carry radio equipment).


Melvin Vaniman and Trent look like the best of friends in their publicity portrait. 

No surprise, Kiddo was not too fond of his predicament, and he put on a great display of anger and terror by meowing and running around the small space in hysterics.

Chief Engineer Melvin Vaniman was reportedly so annoyed by the antics of Kiddo that he made the first-ever in-flight radio transmission to a secretary back on land. “Roy, come and get this goddamn cat!” he yelled.


Kiddo was renamed Trent following the rescue. 

The plan was then to lower the cat in a canvas bag to a motorboat that was running beneath the airship. Unfortunately, the seas were too rough for the boat to catch the bag, so Kiddo was forced to continue the journey.

Eventually, Kiddo settled down and took his job as feline co-pilot quite seriously. (One of his duties was to try to keep the napping men awake by lounging on their faces.)

Navigator Murray Simon, who had told the press that one must never cross the Atlantic in an airship without a cat, wrote that Kiddo was “more useful than any barometer.”

Although the airship set several new records by staying aloft for almost 72 hours and traveling over 1000 miles, weather and other problems forced the crew to ditch the airship and join Kiddo in the lifeboat. Somewhere west of Bermuda, they sighted the Royal Mail Steamship Trent. After using  Morse code to attract the ship’s attention, Jack Irwin made the first aerial distress call by radio.

As the airship drifted out of sight — never to be seen again — the crew of the RMS Trent rescued all the men and their cat Kiddo and returned them to New York. Murray Simon reminded the crew that it had been a good idea to bring Kiddo on the journey, because cats have nine lives.


The airship America, as seen from the deck of the RMS Trent en route to New York City. 

Trent Goes to Gimbels

Following the airship’s rescue, Melvin Vaniman and Kiddo — now called Trent — were invited to help the Gimbel brothers celebrate the opening of their New York store on Broadway and 32nd Street. As this blog explores the history of New York City through animal stories, a pictorial look at the history of Gimbels is in store.

Although Gimbel Brothers New York officially opened on September 29, 1010, the history of this particular store at Greeley Square goes back to 1874, when the Hudson Tunnel Railroad Company initiated plans to construct a railroad that would connect New Jersey and New York City via a tunnel under the mile-wide Hudson River (today we call this the PATH train).

Construction began in 1874, but litigation and lack of funding caused numerous delays over the years. Finally in February 1902, the New York and Jersey Railroad Company took over all of the railroad company’s tunnels and lines of railway, including 4,000 feet of tunnel that had already been constructed.


Under the direction of William Gibbs McAdoo, the president of the New York and Jersey Railroad Company, the McAdoo Tunnel or Hudson Tubes, as it was called, accommodated electrified surface rail cars. The cars operated from a terminal in Jersey City (Journal Square) to a terminal in Manhattan at Christopher, Tenth, Greenwich, and Hudson streets. 

In 1904, the newly formed Hudson and Manhattan Railroad Company (H&M) filed an application to extend the McAdoo Tunnel to a larger underground terminal on Sixth Avenue at 33rd Street. The proposed site was occupied by several landmarks, including Trainor’s hotel and restaurant and the Manhattan Theatre (formerly the Standard Theatre) on Sixth Avenue, all of which were condemned and demolished in 1905.


The old Standard Theatre on Sixth Avenue and 33rd Street (later called the Manhattan Theatre), was being managed by James M. Hill when this photo was taken in 1895. The theater was one of many buildings demolished to make way for the 33rd Street terminal and, later, the Gimbel Brothers department store. New York Public Library digital collections. 

Many smaller old buildings on West 32nd and West 33rd streets were also condemned, including a house of prostitution called the House of Nations and six other properties owned by Albert J. Adams. Incidentally, Al Adams, as he was called, also had grand plans for the same site: In 1905 he had proposed to build a 42-story hotel on the site that was to be the tallest building in the world — more than 125 taller than The Times building and the Park Row Building, which were then the world’s tallest buildings.


Greeeley Square between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, looking southwest from about 34th Street. When this photo was taken, the Manhattan Theatre and Trainor’s restaurant were still standing across from the Sixth Avenue elevated train station. It was here that the Gimbel Brothers department store would be built in 1909.  NYPL digital collections.


The Broadway side of Greeley Square, as seen in 1807. NYPD digital collections.

On April 23, 1909, five years after the site was cleared to make way for the McAdoo system concourse at 33rd Street, the Gimbel brothers — Jacob, Isaac, Charles, Daniel, Ellis, and Louis — signed a 21-year lease with the Greeley Square Realty Company for the land atop the proposed terminal (the 33rd Street station did not open until November 1910).  Daniel Burnham (of Flatiron Building fame) was hired to design the new building.


Following five months of excavation work, construction on the new department store started in October 1909. NYPL digital collections

On January 30, 1909, The New York Times announced that the “massive store” would “be the terminal of the McAdoo tunnel system, or Manhattan tunnels, which, by the time the store building is completed, will connect with the Pennsylvania Railroad, Central Railroad of New Jersey, the Erie system, and the Lackawanna & Western Railroad, handling, it is estimated, 1,000,000 persons daily.”

On December 8, 1909, a copper box containing a history of the Gimbels and other data was placed in the cornerstone. The $12 million building was completed ahead of schedule on  June 11, 1910.


Here is Gimbels in 1920, three years before the department store merged with Saks (directly across 33rd Street), and five years before the Gimbels purchased the 18-story Cuyler Building (directly across 32nd Street) . NYPL digital collections 


Here’s a look under and above Greeley Square at Sixth Avenue and 32nd Street in the early 1900s. At the bottom, 50 feet below the street, is the new Pennsylvania Tunnel leading out of Penn Station. Above that is the Rapid Transit subway and then the tracks of the old McAdoo system (today’s PATH). Back then, there was also a surface railroad and an elevated train with a foot bridge that served Gimbels shoppers. 

In October 1925, Gimbel Brothers announced the purchase of the Cuyler Building on the south side of 32nd Street. To connect the Gimbels store with the Cuyler Building, a three-story, copper-clad sky bridge was constructed. This bridge still stands today, albeit, it is no longer functional (check out these amazing photos taken inside the sky bridge in 2014.)


The three-story sky bridge as it looks today. Photo by P. Gavan

On June 6, 1986, the Associated Press reported that Gimbels was going out of business. Today, the building that once paid tribute to a hero cat named Trent houses a JCPenney and the Manhattan Mall.

As for Trent, he lived out the rest of his eight remaining lives on land with Edith Wellman, the daughter of Walter Wellman, in Washington, D.C.


The Manhattan Mall and JCPenney now occupy the old Gimbel Brothers building, and Greeley Square is occupied by an open-air food market called Broadway Bites. Photo by P. Gavan