The Slope Of Murray Hill
( Originally Published 1918 )
Stretches of the Avenue—Murray Hill: a Slope in Transition—Early Astor Land Purchases—The Brunswick Building—A Deserted Clubland-Churches of the Stretch—The Marble Collegiate—The "Little Church Around the Corner " and its Story—When Grant's Funeral Procession Passed—The Waldorf and the Astoria—On the Hill in 1776—When the Red-Coats Loitered.
AFTER its half-mile journey between the great, square sordid mountains of stone and steel that lie to the north of Fourteenth Street, Fifth Avenue emerges into the sunshine of Madison Square. There it draws in deep breaths of pure ozone before resuming its way as a canyon at Twenty-sixth Street. Reverting to the past, from the Square to Thirty-first Street, the lane runs through what was the Caspar Samler farm. North of that were the twenty acres that John Thompson bought in 1799 for four hundred and eighty-two pounds and ten shillings. A little later, a more familiar name appeared on the maps. In 1827 the Astor hand reached up to this then remote section, William B. Astor purchasing a half-interest, including Fifth Avenue from Thirty second to Thirty-fifth, for twenty thousand five hundred dollars. While other real-estate investors who considered themselves astute were planning for the future by gobbling up stretches of land along the shore of the East River the Astors were buying across what was primitively known as the backbone of the island.
The sharp rise to what was the old summit and to the modified hill of the present does not begin until Thirty-third Street is reached. But there is perceptible a grade of a kind as soon as the Avenue leaves the northern line of the Square. Today it is a slope in transition. Here and there the change has been wrought. A modern structure reaches superciliously skyward. Beside it and below it the buildings of yesterday give the impression of feeling acutely conscious of their impending doom. They know. Their race is almost run. Tomorrow the old bricks will be tumbled down, the chutes will roar with their passing, and the air will be shrill with the steam drills and riveters ushering into the world the young giants that will take their places. At the northeast corner of Twenty-sixth Street, where the Avenue touches the Square, there is a vast edifice of surpassing ugliness. It is the Bruns-wick Building, on the site of the old Brunswick Hotel, once famous as the headquarters of the Coaching Club. At one end the principal establishment of one of those firms that have given the term " grocer " a new meaning, at the other, a great book-shop of international reputation, and between, a booking office where the pictures and maps in the show windows stir the passer-by to disquieting dreams on streams of Canada and Maine in the summer, and of semi-tropical verdure in the winter.
Now and again, on the way up the slope, there is a house, which, sturdily and stubbornly, has remained what it was built for, a place of residence, despite the encroachments of commerce. But there are only four or five such. Until a few years ago this was a section of Clubland with the Reform, and the Knickerbocker, the latter at the Thirty-second Street corner, and the New York, just above the Thirty-fourth Street crossing. But the clubs, too, have moved on to the north, and the stretch of today is a riot without order or design, tailors, auto-mats, art shops, opticians, railway offices, steamship offices, florists, leather goods, cigars, Japanese gardens, Chinese gardens, toys, pianos, and even an antique shop or two, which have somehow found their way over from Fourth Avenue to the more aristocratic thoroughfare to the west, and where the visitor, like Raphael of Balzac's " Le Peau de Chagrin," may wander in imagination up and down countless galleries of the mighty past. At the Twenty-eighth Street corner there is a tall apartment house, retaining a sort of left-behind dignity; and there are two churches which belong to the Avenue's story, one of them on the Avenue itself, and the other in a side street, a stone's throw to the east. The first is the Marble Collegiate Church, which is at the northeast corner of Twenty-ninth Street, adjoining the Holland House. It is one of the six Collegiate churches that trace their origin to the first church organized by the Dutch settlers in 1628. Its succession to the " church in the fort " is commemorated by a tablet, and in the yard is preserved the bell which originally hung in the North Church.
Then, in East Twenty-ninth Street, is the rambling old Church of the Transfiguration, loved by all true New Yorkers irrespective of creed, under the name of the " Little Church Around the Corner." From it the actors Wallack, Booth, and Boucicault were buried, and in it is the memorial window to Edwin Booth, executed by John La Forge, and erected by the Players Club in 1898, in loving memory of the club's founder. Below the window is Booth's favourite quotation.
" As one, in suffering all:
Often as the story from which the church derived its familiar name has been told, no narrative dealing with New York would be quite complete without it. As it deals with Joseph Jefferson, let it be related in the words of the stage Rip Van Winkle's Reminiscences. Mr. Jefferson was trying to arrange for the funeral, and in company of one of the dead actor's sons, was seeking a clergy-man to officiate. Here is his story :
"On arriving at the house I explained to the reverend gentleman the nature of my visit, and arrangements were made for the time and place at which the funeral was to be held. Something, I can hardly say what, gave me the impression that I had best mention that Mr. Holland was an actor. I did so in a few words, and concluded by presuming that this would make no difference. I saw, however, by the restrained manner of the minister and an unmistakable change in the expression of his face, that it would make, at least to him, a great deal of difference. After some hesitation he said he would be compelled, if Mr. Holland had been an actor, to decline holding the service at his church.
"While his refusal to perform the funeral rites for my old friend would have shocked, under ordinary circumstances, the fact that it was made in the presence of the dead man's son was more painful than I can describe. I turned to look at the youth and saw that his eyes were filled with tears. He stood as one dazed with a blow just realized; as if he felt the terrible injustice of a reproach upon the kind and loving father who had often kissed him in his sleep and had taken him upon his lap when a boy old enough to know the meaning of the words and told him to grow up to be an honest lad. I was hurt for my young friend and indignant with the man—too much so to reply, and as I rose to leave the room with a mortification that I cannot remember to have felt before or since, I paused at the door and said: ` Well, sir, in this dilemma, is there no other church to which you can direct me from which my friend can be buried?' He replied that ` There was a little church around the corner' where I might get it done—to which I answered, ` Then if this be so, God bless the Little Church Around the Corner,' and so I left the house."
A photograph from the collection of J. Clarence Davies, reproduced in the book issued by the Fifth Avenue Bank, shows Grant's funeral procession climbing the slope of Murray Hill, Au-gust 8, 1885, and passing the residences of John Jacob Astor and William B. Astor, on the sites of which is the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel of the present. The house of John Jacob was at Thirty-third Street, and that of William B. at Thirty-fourth Street, and there was a garden between shut off from the Avenue by a ten-foot brick wall. The Waldorf, named after the little town of Waldorf, Germany, the ancestral home of the family, occupies the site of the John Jacob house, and was opened March 14, 1893. Four and a half years later, on November 1, 1897, the Astoria came formally into being, and the two hotels linked by the hyphen and merged under one management. That point where Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street cross is one of the great corners of New York. It is the one that made the profoundest impression on Arnold Bennett: " The pale-pillared, square structure of the Knickerbocker Trust against a background of the lofty red of the AEolian Building, and the great white store on the opposite pavement." A city of amazement has been left behind. Here we are at the threshold of still another city. It is different at every hour of the day. But whether we see it in the sweet-scented dawn, or at high noon, or at the shopping hour, or later, when, to use Arnold Bennett's words, " the street lamps flicker into a steady, steely blue, and the windows of the hotels and restaurants throw a yellow radiance, and all the shops—especially the jewellers' shops—become enchanted treasure houses, whose interiors recede away behind their facades into infinity," it is ever the essence of our New York of Anno Domini 1918.
Then, in an instant, the Hill of today vanishes. The show windows of the great shops, gorgeous with display, the vast hotels, the clubs, the fluttering Starry Banners and Tricolours and Union Jacks, the stirring posters that bring the heart into the throat and send the hand down into the pocket for Liberty Loan or Red Cross, the line of creeping motor-cars on the asphalt, the swarming sidewalks, swim away in a mist, and in their place there is rolling woodland, and a silver stream, and in the distance, a great white house. The years drop away. A boy of eight, curled up in a big chair, is dipping for the first time into the pages of his country's history. His face is flushed, his eyes are bright. With that vividness that belongs to impressionable childhood, and to no other period of life he is seeing bits of the past that he will never forget. To the end of his days the rhetorical phrases will ring in his ears and the letters forming them will dance before his eyes.
Boston Common. The line of defiant Minute Men drawn up. The curt order, " Disperse, ye Rebels! " and the volley that followed so closely upon the words. This was the first blood shed in the American Revolution. The morning of an impending battle : the Continental leader exhorting his men. "There are the Red Coats! We must beat them, today, or Molly Stark's a widow!"
Again, the boy is being awakened from sleep in his bed in a quiet street of eighteenth-century Philadelphia. The voice of the watchman is crying the hour and the thrilling tidings. "Two o'clock in the morning! All's well, and Cornwallis has surrendered!"
Here, on the Murray Hill of May, 1918, the man becomes the boy once more. Perhaps the suggestion comes from one of the women's faces that are looking straight at him, beseechingly and rebukingly, from the posters that line the Avenue; the face of " The Greatest Mother in the World," or that younger face beyond which the eye perceives dim outlines of marching men in khaki. The veil with the Red Cross is transformed into a coiffure of powdered hair, crowning the countenance and figure of a grande dame of the` eighteenth century. She is standing before the doorway of a great country house, smiling and beckoning welcome, and at the invitation officers on horseback halt the column of rapidly moving men. The soldiers break ranks and throw them-selves down in the shade of the trees. The officers advance bowing, and enter the house. The lady is smiling.
The hostess with the powdered hair is Mrs. Mary Lindley Murray, wife of Robert Murray, British sympathizer and Quaker, and mother of Lindley Murray, the grammarian of later days; the house is the Murray Homestead, or the Manor of Incleberg, that in Revoluntionary times stood in the neighbourhood of what is now Park Avenue and Thirty-seventh Street; the Red Coats whose march westward she has interrupted are the troops of Lord Howe, in close pursuit of the badly demoralized soldiers of General Washing-ton; the day is one of September, 1776.
A few weeks before the disastrous battle of Long Island had been fought. The Continental cause seemed at the point of immediate collapse. Day by day the list of deserters swelled. Washington, leaving his campfires burning to lull the suspicions of the confident victors, had transported his men across the East River. On September 15th the British began sending over boat-loads, landing them at Kip's Bay, where the Murray estate ended, now the easterly point of Thirty-fourth Street. In overwhelming numbers, fully equipped, and with elated morale, they began the pursuit of the shattered Americans. The detachment of Continentals left at Kip's Bay to oppose the landing had fled without firing a shot. Washington, watching the debacle, had spurred his horse furiously forward, striking the men with the flat of his sword, lashing them with his tongue, in vain attempt to stop the panic. He was on the point of advancing alone when his bridle-rein was seized by a young officer. In an instant, again completely master of himself, he was building new plans in the hopes of saving his army.
The situation on Manhattan Island was this. To the south was General Knox, in command of a fort known as Bunker Hill on an eminence of what is now Grand Street. Near-by was General Israel Putnam—probably less known to posterity (above all, to youthful posterity) for his qualities as a commander than for the mad dash down " Put's Hill " at Greenwich by which he escaped the closely pursuing Red Coats. With Putnam was Alexander Hamilton, in charge of a battery. To the generals Washington sent word to retreat to the north in order to effect a junction of forces. Knox withdrew men and cannon from Bunker Hill. The young man who guided Putnam's troops along obscure paths and by winding lanes close to the Hudson was named Aaron Burr. The busy Washington chanced to spend a night in the Murray home. If there had been any hesitation in Mrs. Murray's patriotism before, it vanished entirely under the grave charm of the Virginia leader. Henceforth she was heart and soul with the Continental cause.
Two days later the British came. Mrs. Murray knew the danger that threatened the Americans. Her woman's wit and woman's charm must save the hour. So smiling she stood in the doorway, curtseying and inviting. The day was hot; the officers thirsty. To the minds of the British, contemptuous of the prowess of the troops in ragged blue and buff, what difference would an hour or two make when the coup de, grace was so easy to deliver? The lady was charming, grande dame., and her husband was known for devotion to King George. So they stayed and drank and drank again, while the American forces were meeting on the site of the present Longacre Square. A few days later came the Battle of Harlem Heights, where the Continentals gloriously redeemed them-selves. The wine cups of Mrs. Murray made possible the victory of the " Bloody Buckwheat Field." Had not a lady with powdered hair been standing before the door of her house on Murray Hill, the signers of the Declaration of Independence might, instead of hanging together, have hanged separately.