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New York - Vacant Land And Typical Houses

( Originally Published 1902 )

WHEN Manhattan Island was first settled, it was covered with trees, with the exception of the low-lying salt meadows. Much of the timber was soon cleared away to make room for meadows and gardens, so necessary to the comfort and pleasure of the English as well as the Dutch.

What is now Exchange Place was originally called Garden Street, and this Street was again called Garden Street in 1728. Maiden Lane was originally the Green Lane. The Corporation under the English rule were always willing to have the city beautified. The inhabitants in 1708 received permission to plant trees in front of their houses. Fifty years later, trees were still a conspicuous feature of the streets.

Swamps, marshes and streams were plentiful. Broad Street was originally a marshy tract through which the Dutch had made the " Graft" or canal. At the foot, it was crossed by a bridge that gave its name to Bridge Street. At the mouth of the inlet was one of the principal landing places for vessels.

Other swampy districts that became well-known landmarks were Beekman's Swamp or Cripple Bush, and a swamp on De Lancey's estate in Greenwich village. The former was below Pearl Street and was not drained till comparatively late. William Walton's house was only about a hundred yards distant from it. In 1734, were " To be sold 6 Lotts of Land on the West Side of the Swamp or Criplebush, 3 of them front the Road that leads from Spring Garden to the Fresh Water, the other three the Street next to the Swamp ; there is 4 good small Houses on them, one in the Possession of Mrs. Scot."

Open spaces even within the narrow confines of the city were not inconsiderable. Besides gardens, there were meadows that were not occupied by houses. Duyckinck's map of 1755 shows King's Farm, west of Broadway, between Dye and Warren Streets, with only " part of it layd out in plots." On the other side of Broadway, facing the King's Farm, was the Common, or Park, which at the northern end was separated from the negroes' burial ground by palisades. The latter adjoined Fresh Water, a lake from which water flowed down both to the North and East River. On the Common, near the site of the present City Hall, was a powder-house. In 1725, a gallows was also erected on the Common.

From time to time, we find complaints of encroachments on the common rights of citizens by individuals. As the houses multiplied and private gardens and open spaces were built over, the importance of common land for pasturage and recreation increased. In 1767, a writer complaining of the high price of milk and its adulteration thinks it arises " from the scarcity and expensiveness of pasturage near this City ; and this again proceeds from the late practice of leasing out the Common Lands to people who have large farms of their own adjoining.

They afford us at a small expense earth for the red brick used in all our new buildings and if we were deprived of those lands a great advance in the price of bricks would certainly be the consequence. We should also be deprived of the stone, now much used for underpinning and other purposes. . . . They might at the common expence be put into the best order for pasture, meadow, etc., with proper enclosures and other conveniences, and keepers be hired to look after the cattle, and drive them to and from town and pasture. . . . It is also worth noting that since we are prohibited from hunting or shooting upon other men's lands, it is necessary that the citizens should have some other place for that manly diversion or exercise ; otherwise they will be in danger of forgetting to use their firearms with dexterity, however necessary they may be for their own defence, and of sinking into effeminacy and meanness."

In the above communication, the allusion to the prohibition of hunting or shooting on other men's lands shows that an old grievance had only lately been remedied. In fact, only two years previously had an Act been passed to prevent hunting with firearms in the City of New York and the Liberties thereof. By this Act, a twenty shillings fine was incurred by anybody but the owner or his servants " that fires a gun in any orchard, garden, cornfield or other inclosed land, or enters into or passes through it."

"It has long been the practice of great numbers of idle and disorderly persons in and about the City of New York and the Liberties thereof to hunt with firearms and to tread down the grass, and corn, and other grain standing and growing in the fields and enclosures there, to the great danger of the lives of His Majesty's subjects, the ruin and destruction of the most valuable improvements, the grievous injury of the proprietors, and the great discouragement of their industry."

Another open space was in front of the Fort. At the beginning of the English rule, a market fair had been ordered to be held every Thursday, Friday and Saturday " att the market-house and plaine afore the Forte." Later, however, it was called The Parade, on account of the English garrison exercising here. In 1732, the Corporation resolved to " lease a piece of land lying at the lower end of Broadway, fronting the Fort to some of the inhabitants, in order to be enclosed to make a Bowling-Green there, with walks therein, for the beauty and ornament of said street, as well as for the delight of the inhabitants of this city." It was leased to John Chambers, Peter Bayard and Peter Jay for eleven years at a rent of one pepper-corn per annum.

The lower part of Broadway, being near the residence of the Governor, was always a fashionable quarter. The lots on the west side of Broadway averaged about fifty feet in width and extended back to the Hudson, which was nearer than it is now. Where is now the corner of Battery Park and Broadway, Captain Kennedy, the naval commander and collector of the port, built a fine dwelling-house in 176o, having purchased some ground on which were some small buildings for 66, from Abraham Depeyster. The Stevens, Livingston and other families followed his example, and the shady stretch reaching up to Trinity Church became known as the Mall.

A rival fashionable district was Pearl Street. One of the old houses built in the Eighteenth Century survived till very recently. Here lived Mr. William Walton, and his house and grounds were typical of many a rich city merchant of his day. It was a brick house, three stories high, relieved by brown stone water-tables, jambs and lintels. His large and fine garden extended down to the water. Another fine residence in this district was the de Peyster house, erected in 1695, in Queen Street, nearly opposite Cedar. This was also three stories high, with a balcony over its double door. Governor Clinton lived here and this house was used by Washington for headquarters. At Broad and Pearl Streets, was the famous Fraunces's Tavern, still standing.

The rich merchants sometimes had their stores and counting-houses adjoining, or in, their dwellings. Sometimes they lived in manor-houses or country-seats in the island a few miles away from the city and drove in to business. The merchants' usual business hours were from 10 A. M. to 2 P. M. In the middle of the century, Hanover Square was the centre of trade ; here were the counting-houses of Walton, Desbrosses, Borche, and other great merchants of the City ; Lewis Morris lived here, and so did the Waltons.

We find houses of all sizes on lots of varying dimensions. A few extracts from the newspapers will serve to show what kinds of houses could be bought or rented here :

" A lot of land lying on the South side of Queen's Street, thirty two Foot six Inches Front and the same in the Rear, the Length being from said Street to Low Water Mark part of the ground at the old Slaughter House." (1730.)

"A certain House and Lot of Ground, situate, lying and being in Hanover Square in the East Ward of the City of New York, now in the tenure and occupation of Mr. John Aubernau, containing in the Front, Twenty-eight foot in the Rear, Thirty-five foot; running from Hanover Square aforesaid to the Lane formerly called Drain Ditch and now The Sloat."

" The two lots of Land with the Brew-House and Malt-House thereon and a very good Well situate in Ann Street to be sold." (1732.)

" To be sold, the House and Lot of John Symense in the Broad-Way in New York, the House is as good as new, and has very good Stone-Walls; there is a small Kitchen, a Grass Plot, Wood-Yard, several Fruit Trees, and other Conveniences be-longing to it, enquire of John Symense now in possession of the Premises." ( 1734.)

" A good dwelling-house and lot of ground North side of Pearl Street. The house is two stories high and has two rooms on a floor with a kitchen back, a gang-way on the side of it, with a large yard back bounded by the Fort Garden."

" To be let, the storehouse of Mr. Isaac Latouch's, adjoining the dwelling-house; it has a very neat warm room with a fireplace annexed to it, and is an exceedingly commodious store, with proper shelves, and well noted as a dry goods store. It would be very convenient for a batchelor." (1754.)

" A new two-story house and several adjoining lots are for sale fronting Fore Street, 44 feet and Nassau Street 46 feet. It is well built of brick and stone, has three rooms on a floor, seven fireplaces in all, spacious garret, good kitchen, fine large cellars, large entry through the middle of the house and a hand-some staircase. Its situation is extremely pleasant near the Rev. Mr. Barclay's and Alderman Van Cortlandt's, where, from the chamber windows you have a beautiful prospect over the Commons and up the North River, being a seat suitable for a gentleman or merchant, having a large storehouse on the back part 40 feet long with a double door in the front, and a very fine garden, all in good fence." (1754.)

"A house and lot of ground in the Broad-Way, late belonging to Mr. Thomas Duncan, deceased, being in front, 31 feet 34, in rear, 41 feet 1012, in length on the north side, 323 feet and on the south, 321 feet 12 ; from the back of the lot runs a water lot of 41 feet, 10-12 front and rear and 200 feet in length to be sold with the house : In the house are four good rooms on the first and second floors, and an entry all lined with hangings, besides a fine pantry and a bed room; also two convenient rooms in the third story, a good cellar, a cellar kitchen, underneath; to this adjoins a back building of two stories high with four convenient rooms and two cellars." The house was brick. On the bank of the river was a handsome hanging gar-den, with two flights of stone steps, and a summer-house at the water's edge. The yard was laid with flag stones and there were two cisterns and a pump." (1761.)

It will be noticed that the houses were not numbered. They were identified by signs. These must have made the streets look exceedingly picturesque. The signs were usually appropriate to the occupation of the tenant or owner of the house. Thus, we have John Brinner at the Sign of the Chair, a cabinet-maker. Other instances are : C. O. Bruff (gold-smith) Teapot and Tankard; James Duthie (drug-gist) Golden Pot ; Peter Goelet (ironmonger) Golden hey ; Jacob Wilkens (brass-founder) Andiron and Candlestick ; Robert Boyle (pewterer) Dish ; Peter T. Curtenius (ironmonger) Golden Anvil and Hammer; Joseph Cox (upholsterer and cabinet-maker) Royal Bed and Star ; Thomas Brown (ironmonger) Cross-daggers; Samuel Lawrence (coach-maker) Chariot and Phaeton ; Cornelius Ryan (tailor) Sun and Breeches; Jos. Stephens and Jno. Newstead (livery stable) Two Running Horses ; Moses Taylor (brazier) Cat and Kettle; William Anderson (tailor) Hand and Shears, etc., etc. Other signs include the Dove and the Rainbow ; Bible ; Bible and Crown ; Blue Ball ; Golden Broad-Ax, Lock and Key ; Horse and Cart ; The Rose and Crown ; Sign of the Two Cupids ; Golden Fleece ; Chariot ; Unicorn and Mortar ; Highlander ; Chair Wheel ; The Admiral Vernon ; Chair Box and Carriage ; Platter ; Three Pigeons ; Black Horse; Quadrant and Surveying Compass ; Dog's Head in the Porridge Pot ; St. George and the Drag-on ; Bunch of Grapes ; King's Arms ; Duke of Cumberland ; Prince of Orange ; etc., etc.

It was not alone the house of business that was known by its sign. Occasionally we meet with a notice such as this : " To be sold, a good brick dwelling-house in John Street, near Alderman Courtlandt's and known by the Sign of the White Bear."

It would seem that flagstaffs and vanes were rare on the buildings, or, at least, that they were worthy of special notice. For example : " John Browne, lately married the Widow Breese, continues his Leather Dresser's business in Smith's Fly near Beekman's Swamp, or Cripple Bush ; at the south end of the house a staff is erected, with a Vane on the top of it."

When Kalm visited New York in 1748, he noted that there was no good water in the city ; and he mentions that "at a little distance there is a large spring of good water, which the inhabitants take for their tea and for the uses of the kitchen. Those, however," he continues, " who are less delicate on this point, make use of the water from the wells in town, though it be very bad." The spring that he refers to became the Tea-Water Pump, situated at what is now Roosevelt and Chatham streets. Here an engine was soon erected that forced the water up. This is some-times referred to as the " Fresh-Water Engine from which the town is supplied." This was the chief source of tea-water until about 'Soo. The well was about twenty feet deep and was capable of producing daily a hundred and ten hogsheads, each containing a hundred and thirty gallons. The water was carted to town in hogsheads and casks. This spring was also a favourite resort and near it an ornamental garden had been laid out and called the " Tea-Water Pump Garden."

Among the wells in the city, the most frequented was that near the pond known as the Collect and the one in Greenwich between Thames and Cedar Streets near Comfort's Dock. Every morning and evening the slaves came in great numbers to fill their kegs with " Comfort's Tea-Water."

The pleasure that the inhabitants of New York took in gardens is constantly in evidence. As the town grew, it was natural that real estate in the business centre should become more valuable, and consequently that the gardens should be sacrificed and cut up into town lots. We sometimes meet with announcements like the following (1734): "To be Sold. The house, Store house and garden of Benjamin D'harriet, situate in Wall St. and several lots of ground in John St. on the West Corner of Gold St., formerly the garden of Mr. John Outman."

The gardens were laid out according to the national or individual tastes of the owners. In the early years of the century, the formal Dutch garden predominated, but as the English, French, Italian or Chinese garden came into vogue abroad, people of wealth and fashion here eagerly adopted the new styles. Advertisements of able gardeners in want of situations are plentiful, and so are offers of all sorts of flower-seeds, fruit-trees, and other necessaries for a well-appointed garden. In 1771, there is a notice of a man being killed by a summer-house, that he was moving, falling upon him. This was in the garden of a Mr. Faulkner, near Cowfoot Hill. The famous grottos of Twickenham and other English estates were imitated here. In 1765, Henry Smith, Church Street, wants to sell a fine collection of curious shells for grotto-work. In 1751, the following announcement appears :

"Any gentlemen or others desirous of adorning their gar-dens, Tops of their Houses or doors, etc. with Flower Pots, Incence Pots, Urns, Vases, or any other Ornament capable of being made with clay, may be supplied by Edward Annerly near the Fly Market, he having Set up the Potter's Business by Means of a Family of Germans he bought, supposed by their work to be the most ingenious in that Trade that ever arrived in America, at his Estate at Whitestone, where he has clay capable of making eight different sorts of Earthenware, a large quantity of various kinds being already made fitting to be baked, which will be soon."

The varieties of architecture, landscape-gardening, etc., most in favour in the middle of the century are shown in the following advertisement :

" Theophilus Hardenbrook, surveyor, designs all sorts of buildings well suited to both town and country, Pavillions, Summer Rooms, Seats for Gardens, all sorts of Rooms after the taste of the Arabian, Chinese, Persian, Gothic, Muscovite, Paladian, Roman, Vitruvian and Egyptian; also Water houses for Parks, Keepers' Lodges, burying Places, Niches, Eye Traps to represent a Building terminating a Walk, or to hide some disagreeable object, Rotundas, Colonades, Arcades, Studies in Parks or Gardens, Green Houses for the Preservation of Herbs, with winding Funnels through the Wall so as to keep them warm, Farm Houses, Town Houses, Market Houses, Churches, Altar Pieces: He also connects all sorts of Truss-Roofs and prevents their separating by a new Method, and also all sorts of Domes, Spires, Cupolos, both pile and Hanging Bridges. Note: Ile designs and executes beautiful chimney-pieces as any here yet executed. Said Hardenbrook has now opened school near the New English Church, where he teaches Architecture from six o'clock in the Evening till Eight." (1757.)

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