The Crest Of Murray Hill
( Originally Published 1918 )
Stretches of the Avenue—The Crest of Murray Hill—The House of " Sarsaparilla " Townsend—A. T. Stewart's Italian Palace—The Knickerbocker Trust Company—The Coventry Waddell Mansion—A House at Thirty-ninth Street—The Present Union League—A Tavern of the Fifties—The " House of Mansions "—The Old Reservoir, and Egyptian Temple—The Crystal Palace—The Latting Tower—" Quality Hill."
ALTHOUGH the name it now bears and has borne for four or five years is the Columbia Trust Company, the building at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street is likely to be known and referred to as the Knickerbocker Trust for a long time to come. As such it was the storm centre of the great panic which shook the country in 1907, ruining many, shaking some of America's supposedly most solid fortunes, and involving a dramatic suicide. The story of the site goes back almost three-quarters of a century. There, at the beginning of the Civil War, was the residence of " Dr. Samuel P. Townsend. Originally a contractor, he had " discovered " a sarsaparilla, advertised it on an extensive scale, acquired a fortune and the nickname of " Sarsaparilla " Townsend. His house, a four-story brown-stone, was one of the wonders of the town. For some reason he did not live in it long, selling it in 1862 to Dr. Gorham D. Abbott, an uncle of Dr. Lyman Abbott of the " Outlook." For a number of years Dr. Abbott, who had been the principal of the Spingler Institute on Union Square, conducted a school there. Then A. T. Stewart, the famous merchant, bought the site. He found brown-stone and left marble. " Sarsaparilla " Townsend's pride and folly was tumbled to the ground, carted away, and in its place there went up the Italian palace that is still a familiar memory to most New Yorkers. It cost two million dollars. Stewart did not live long to enjoy it. But after his death in 1876, his widow occupied the palace until her death in 1886, when the property was leased to the Manhattan Club. There was a story to the effect that during the club's occupancy it was found necessary to make certain interior alterations. One of the committee in charge was an Irishman. He complained that the work was unduly expensive for the reason that the woodwork was all marble."
But before Stewart demolished and built, and before " Sarsaparilla " Townsend built what Stewart later demolished, there had been a famous mansion in this neighbourhood. Thackeray, in one of his letters to the Baxter family, alluded to the long journey he was about to undertake in order to travel from his hotel to a certain famous house up in the country at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-seventh Street. That was the Coventry Waddell house, on land where the Brick Presbyterian Church now stands. Waddell was a close friend of President Jackson, and his fortune sprang from the services he rendered as financial representative of the " Old Hickory " Administration. In 1845, when he went "into the wilderness " to build, the Avenue, beyond Madison Square, was nothing but a country road lined with farms. It is told that when he was bargaining for the Iand, his wife sat under an apple-tree in a neighbouring orchard. Nine thousand one hundred and fifty dollars he paid for the tract, which ten years later brought eighty thousand dollars, and for part of which the Brick Church paid fifty-eight thousand dollars in 1856. The Fifth Avenue Bank monograph contains a print of the villa, as it was called, reproduced from "Putnam's Magazine." What the print apparently shows is the Thirty-seventh Street stretch, with the wicket fence near the corner, and the low brick wall extending westward beyond. The villa was of yellowish grey stucco with brown-stone trim, Gothic in style, and had so many towers, oriels, and gables, that when Waddell's brother saw it and was asked what he would call it, replied, " Waddell's Caster; here is a mustard pot, there is a pepper bottle, and there is a vinegar cruet." There were a conservatory and a picture-gallery, and the house stood considerably above the Avenue level upon grounds that descended to the street by sloping grass banks. A winding staircase led from the broad marble hall to a tower from which there was a fine view of the rolling country, the rivers to the east and west, and the growing city far to the south. There were celebrities other than the author of " Vanity Fair " who sampled the quality of the Waddell hospitality. For ten years the Waddells lived there, entertaining magnificently. Then came the financial crash of 1857, Mr. Wad-dell was one of those whose fortunes tumbled with the market, and he was obliged to sacrifice his estate. The villa was torn down, and the grounds levelled. " I remember," " Fifth Avenue " quotes Mr. John D. Crimmins as saying, " very vividly the old Waddell mansion. I was taken into it by my father the day they began to dismantle it, and remember very distinctly the courteous manner in which we were received by Mrs. Wad-dell, and how she regretted the destruction of her home. At that time the Reservoir was an attraction for the view it furnished. There were no buildings high enough to interfere, and visitors could get a bird's-eye view of the entire city and the Palisades. The neighbourhood at that time is well illustrated in the old New York print showing the Reservoir and the Crystal Palace, 1855. There were no pretentious houses north of Forty-second Street. It was interesting to see the drovers-tall men, with staffs in their hands, herding eight, ten, or twenty cattle—driving the cattle to market, generally on Sunday, as Monday was market day."
About the time that the Waddell villa was being pulled down there was going up, two blocks to the north, a New York residence that has endured to the present day. The original Wendell and the original Astor were partners in the fur trade, and at the time of the death of the late John Gottlieb Wendell his holdings in Manhattan real estate were second only to those of the Astors. There was a General David Wendell, known as " Fighting Dave," who fought in the War of the Revolution. The first Wendell and the first Astor, his partner, married sisters, and they bequeathed to their descendants the sound principle of buying land and buying beyond. The John Gottlieb Wendell of recent memory, a great-great-grandson of the founder of the family for-tune, was distinguished for his eccentricities. Al-though he collected his own rents, would never give more than three-year leases, and could not be persuaded to part with a foot of his land holdings, he was characterized as " one of the squarest land-lords in the city." In the old-fashioned brick and brown-stone house he lived in extreme simplicity. From the top of a passing bus may be seen the garden beyond the high board fence. Many covetous eyes of commerce have regarded it; many tempting offers have been made. But according to popular tradition Mr. Wendell clung to the garden because his sisters desired it as a place in which to exercise their dogs. Now, after the death of John Gottlieb, the three elderly sisters still live in the house, in a state of the same old-time plainness. They, with a married sister, are the sole heirs of the eighty million dollars in New York real estate left by their brother. The house, a few years ago, was assessed at five thousand dollars, the site is valued at two million.
Directly across the Avenue from the Wendell house is the Union League Club, on land that formerly was occupied by Dickeys Riding Academy, fifty years ago the fashionable equestrian school of New York. The early story of the organization will be found in another chapter. The present home at the northeast corner of Thirty-ninth Street was built in 1879-1880 at a cost of four hundred thousand dollars. The building is in Queen Anne style, of Baltimore pressed brick, with brown-stone trimmings, the interior decorations are the work of John La Farge, Louis Tiffany, and Franklin Smith, and the club's art collection includes Carpenter's Inauguration of Lincoln. The long room on the first floor facing Fifth Avenue, from the windows of which at any hour of the day may be seen comfortable-looking gentlemen blandly surveying the passing procession, is the Reading Room, decorated in Pompeian style.
On the corner above where the Union League now stands there was, in 1854, a small country tavern known as the Croton Cottage. It took its name from the Croton Reservoir, a block above, then on the other side of the Avenue. A yellow, wooden structure, with a veranda reached by deep stoops from the sidewalk, and surrounded by trees and shrubbery, it flourished by vending ice cream and other refreshment to those who came to view the city from the top of the Reservoir walls. During the Draft Riots in 1863 it was burned down, and Commodore Vanderbilt bought the site in 1866 for eighty thousand dollars, built a house, lived in it, and left it to his son, Frederick W. Vanderbilt. It is the Arnold, Constable site. On the same side of the Avenue as the Croton Cottage, in the block between Forty-first and Forty-second Street, was the Rutgers Female Cottage. This institution was first opened in 1839 on ground given it by William B. Crosby in Madison Street. The Madison Street property had been part of the estate of Colonel Henry Rutgers, of Revolutionary fame, after whom the college was named. In 1855 certain buildings known as " The House of Mansions," or " The Spanish Row," were erected opposite the Reservoir by George Higgins, who thought " that eleven buildings, uniform in size, price, and amount of accommodation, of durable fire-brick, and of a chosen cheerful tint of colour and variegated architecture," would suit the most fastidious home-seeker. In his prospectus to the public he informed that the view from the windows was unrivalled, as it commanded the whole island and its surroundings. But either " The House of Mansions " had some defect, or the situation was still too remote from the city. The project was not a success, and in 1860 the Rutgers Female College, incidentally the first institution for the higher education of young women in the city, moved from its down-town home and occupied the neglected buildings.
Then there is the story of the great square opposite, running from Fifth to Sixth Avenues, between Fortieth and Forty-second Streets. The Public Library holds the eastern half of it now and Bryant Park the western. Like Washington Square and Madison Square the land once served as a burial place for the poor and the nameless dead. Between the years 1822 and 1825 that northern square was the Potter's Field. Then, on October 14, 1842, the massive Reservoir, which remained to see almost the dawn of the twentieth century, was opened with impressive ceremonies. The distributing reservoir of the Croton Water system, it occupied more than four acres, and was divided into two basins by a partition wall. The enclosing walls, constructed of granite, were about forty-five feet high. This vast structure, resembling an Egyptian temple, contained twenty mil-lion gallons of water. The Reservoir had been there eleven years, when the Crystal Palace, modelled after the London Crystal Palace at Sydenham, was formally opened July 14, 1853, by President Franklin Pierce. Six hundred and fifty thousand dollars was the cost of the building, which was shaped like a Greek cross, of glass and iron, with a graceful dome, arched naves, and broad aisles. Upon the completion of the Atlantic Cable in 1858 an ovation was given in the Palace to Cyrus W. Field. Beyond the Palace, to the north, was the Latting Tower, an observatory, three hundred and fifty feet high, an octagon seventy-five feet across the base, of timber, braced with iron, and anchored at each of the eight angles with about forty tons of stone and timber. The tower was the design of Warren Latting, and cost one hundred thousand dollars. Immediately over the first story there was a refreshment room, and above three view landings, the highest being three hundred feet from the pavement. The proprietors were as sanguine as the promoters of the Crystal Palace and the builder of " The House of Mansions " had been. They took a ten-year lease of the ground and counted on reaping a fortune. But like the other ventures the Tower was a failure. It was sold under execution and destroyed by fire August 30, 1856, twenty-five months before the burning of the Palace. In 1862 Union troops camped on the site of the latter building, and the ground became known in 1871 as Reservoir Park, which name was changed to Bryant Park in 1884.
Like other world-great cities, New York has many hearts. The spot that means the very centre of things varies according to mood, occupation, and manner of life. To high finance and those who play feverishly with it, the heart of the town is where Wall Street, running from Trinity Church down to the East River, is crossed by Nassau zigzagging into Broad. At high noon the colossal figure of Washington on the steps of the Sub-Treasury looks down on the centre of the earth. To the swarming thousands of the Ghetto, who seldom venture west of the Bowery, there is a point on the East Side that represents the pivot of things. There are descendants of the Knickerbockers who cling arrogantly to the corner facing the Washington Arch. Profound is the belief of the pleasure seeker in the lights, signs, theatres, and lobster palaces of Longacre Square. To others nothing counts as the trees and fountains of Madison Square and graceful Diana and the great clock in the Metropolitan Tower count. But in these stirring days of the spring and early summer of 1918, for the throb of the universe climb Murray Hill to a point on the Fifth Avenue sidewalk opposite the stone lions that guard the entrance to the Public Library. There, as nowhere else, has the quiet of other days been changed to the clamour of the present. To the passing thousands the uniforms of khaki or of navy blue and the blaring band are calling. " In this the vital hour let us show that the Spirit of '76 is not dead! Americans, to arms ! " And yesterday it was " Quality Hill," of which Mr. Clinton Scollard sang:
" Quality Hill ! Lo ! It flourishes still,
And who can deny that forever it will?
A blending of breeding with puff and with plume; A strange sort of mixture of rick and mushroom. Some amble, some scramble, (some gamble), to fill The motley and medley of Quality Hill."