Drawn from the Original on file in the Street Commissioner's Office in the City of New York, together with lines of Streets and Avenues, laid out by John Randel, jr., 1819-1820, by Otto Sackersdorff. City Surveyor
Entered according to Act of Congress in the year 1868, by Otto Sackersdorff, in the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York; Republished by E. Robinson, 82 and 84 Nassau St., New York, 1887
I am not one for going in much on self-recrimination, but I could have kicked myself after I let a copy of the "Manhattan Blue Book" go for a middling sum several years ago. A friend had given it to me, after he had found it on the street in New York in the trash many year's previously, and a small price tag on it indicates that he had failed to find a buyer for it at $25 in a yard sale.
When an intermediary learned of my possession, she brought by a mannish woman who played competitive croquet, along with her decorator, whose name is completely unknown to the general public, but who is held in high reverence by the supremely rich. I still remember her controlled sense of excitement as I blithely conducted business with her, while glad to be meeting him. I was left with a three-figure sum and what developed into one of the worst cases of sellers' remorse imaginable.
But I recently discovered that I had taken photographs of at least a few of the plates, so my loss is mitigated somewhat. I recall this series as being relatively complete, but I didn't bother to take images of the pages showing the middle stretch of Manhattan, probably because they were still bound together and I feared damaging them.
The laying out in the early 19th century of the street grid north of 14th Street upon a patchwork of old family farm holdings is a fascinating municipal story, and turned out to be one of the factors, along with the Croton water supply and the bedrock schist of Manhattan that made the foundations for tall buildings possible, which allowed New York City to develop far and away from any competition. Newburgh, 60 miles north of the city on the Hudson, was nearly as convenient a harbor as New York, and it was there that Gen. George Washington slept for 18 months of the Revolutionary War. But like many another municipality with the potential for growth and dreams of grandeur, they all soon found themselves out of the running as the great city grew.
The first image, marks the beginning of the map, starting a few blocks below 14th Street at the East River, and shows the magnificent land holding of Peter Stuyvesant, which at "116 acres now in possession," will require us to travel up to the far reaches of present-day Inwood to find a grander seignior in Jacobus Duyckman's estates. At the very bottom of the map is the only structure that I've located which is still extant today--St Mark's in the Bowery Church--as well as an explanation for the gracious angle at which the church sits at the corner of 10th Street and 2nd Avenue: a pre-existing, unnamed street, which cut at a diagonal to the grid, to which the church was originally oriented. A small remnant of the cemetery that's indicated also exists today, cut off and walled up by the small-scale domestic architecture that now intervenes.
The marshland indicated on the map between the church and Stuyvesant's river-facing country manse is the sort of feature noted throughout the series, that reminds us of how much the original topography of the island was changed, and of how much the island grew as its hills were leveled and dumped into the river for added real estate. The originating commission by the New York State Legislature gave the "jurisdiction of the commission [...] all of Manhattan north of Houston Street, and into the Hudson and East Rivers 600 feet beyond the low water mark.
North of "Stuy Town" is evidence of a prescient nature in one William Roger, whose apparent country house, "Bellevue," is already missing from the map, but it's place name has been given to the hospital. His land has already been subdivided and sold off in a neat congruity with the north-south avenues, if not the mandated cross streets. Just north of him, however, are tell-tale signs of a grandiosity in a neighbor, Thomas Storm, who has also subdivided his land--which includes as a lot a long enfilade of grounds protecting his view of the river, which he has oddly sold to someone named Campbell. Typical of some developers today, he appears to have named the streets of a cheesy paper subdivision after his children, Eliza, Luise, Maria and Cornelius, all of it for naught, since none of his plans, nor his mansion site, could remain.
Thomas Storm may have married into the Kip family, of the Kip's Bay Kips, as they surround and interpenetrate his holdings with divided and undivided land. A half-dozen Kips are named here as heirs or legatees, but none of them correspond to the Christian street names
The next map abuts the ones above to the west, showing that the many subdivided properties that preexisted the grid radiated off of the curved line of the Bowery, which in its northern blocks is present day Fourth Avenue, and at its northern terminus with Bloomingdale Road (here "Bloomingall") or present day Broadway, is a "stingy piece of pie" reminiscent of the Flatiron Building site where Bloomingdale next crosses the grid to the north. Unfortunately, if there was an index page of the meaning of the color coding of certain lots I didn't capture it. The planning disaster above 14th Street (and amid it, too,) was subsumed into the broad expanse of Union Square park, but just to the west a battle of the wills appears to be taking place between a certain John and Mary Mann, more likely to be quarreling siblings than a divorced couple given the era. In contrast, the heirs of Henry Speingler got with the grid program nicely, and had about 150 house lots to their credit.
At top, is every boy's dream--five or six acres of prime Fifth Avenue real estate with maybe a country house that doesn't wind up smack in the middle of an avenue between 15th and 16th Streets.
Here is a fascinating story from the Times in 1902 about an heir of Henry Speingler who was a widow living on in an archaic family mansion/cum/farmstead--complete with chickens and a cow amid the bustle at the center of the city's dry goods trade. Their first family homestead, dating from before the Revolution, had been taken by the city in condemnation proceedings for the creation of Union Square. This second house, in front of which stood "a large handsome tree planted in 1838," covered three city lots, and stood on grounds covering 12. We can place it with great exactitude because of the article and map at number 21 East 14th Street. City historians were saying in 1902 that "the old Van Beuren mansion [w]as the sole remaining vestige of old New York," left, while the Times called it "the most conspicuous house in New York," which is saying quite a lot.
The Speingler subdivision shown on the map that consists of ten deep lots lying astride the laying out of 14th Street and fronting on Bloomingdale Road, which stand at cross purposes with their other subdivisions adhering to the grid, must represent some earlier Speingler effort at selling city lots, and the yellow rectangle sharing the other half of the road frontage, must be, or have been, the original Speingler manse--whose conspicuousness goes as yet undiscovered. Fourth Avenue/The Bowery ends at approximately present day Union Square East, with today's Broadway hitting almost dead center at a Union Square subway kiosk. This means present day Union Square West has been relocated far to the west, which certainly dooms number 21, if nothing else.
Interestingly, the Times said the original Speingler farm was bounded by 14th and 15th Streets, and Sixth Avenue and Broadway, but we can see by the coloration of the lot lines that this old grouping of farm properties that come up from the south actually extended over from the Bowery to the east, with the Bloomingdale road being given all the indication of having been a cow path with trespass rights when the lots were first laid out. We see in the "Kips Bay Farm" map above, from the Museum of the City of New York, that the Bowery ends here, where it joins up with the "Eastern Post Road." This gives the Bowery equal, or even superior rights as being the historical "Kings" highway of the mail delivery service. So it is at this somewhat remarkable locus, where the Bowery and Broadway join up, and the Eastern and Western Post Roads diverge off, which gives the spot a sort of status as being the center of New York City---or in other words, the center of the earth.
February 9, 1902, New York Times, The Old Van Beuren Mansion to Remain; "Colonnade Row",
Betwixt and Between Broadway and the Bowery
The author of this wonderful painting is quoted as saying it was created from memory, to which, I'd add, how could anyone possibly ever forget? Such a land use in the early 19th-century would be the pastoral equivalent of parking a camper in the middle of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway today and lighting up your wienie roast. Think of the dust! Think of the wet seasons with all the mud! Think of the entreaties from needy passersby wanting the facilities! How far would the occupants of the domiciles have to navigate in order to get their own horses saddled and harnessed---assuming they weren't struck down by a surrey or a dram the moment they stepped outside their door? These two neighbors, Thomas Burling and Henry Speingler, must have been vying to capture the commercial prospects of travelers---with each having both hands out, one in each direction. If this represents toll collecting than just say so---like a restaurant paying the mafia for clean tablecloths and harm reduction. But if these were gatekeepers of another order, we should know all about that too.
The New York Public Library has digitized a first-edition copy of Maps of Farms, Commonly Called the Blue Book; 1815, published in 1868, and not to be indelicate about it, but I nearly shit a conspiratorial brick when I saw page three with its fig leaf:
Let's recap: this volume was not called Maps of Farms and Their Coverups, and there was no prospectus for a "Union Park," or "Union Oval," or "Union Square," until well after the period the volume claims to memorialize. It's first publication in 1868 was done purely as a vanity affair, meant to celebrate New York's recent economic victory over the forces of disunionism, and as an homage to the source whence much local lucre had stemmed. Some of the squares--like the one indicated on Peter Stuyvesant's holdings--were never built (he was satisfied with naming rights to the weird open space dissected down the middle by Second Avenue,) while other squares were built upon, like Bloomingdale's. The Commissioner's were so happy with their limited efforts at open space planning they counted up every last scrape for this 1852 "recapitulation."
The fact these indicated greenswards were not included in the 1887 republication of the land-use plans is evidence they were inappropriate in the first place
Just south of this area was Randall Manor, the country estate bounded by Fifth Avenue, Broadway, 10th Street, and 8th Street above what is now Washington Square, which was owned by a Revolutionary War soldier and ship master, Captain Robert Richard Randall, who bequeathed his property "to build an institution to care for "aged, decrepit and worn-out" seamen," which became Snug Harbor. I'll let Wikipedia tell his story:
Randall's disappointed heirs contested the will extensively, delaying the opening of the sailors' home for decades. By the time the will challenge was settled, the once-rural land around the Manhattan estate had become well-developed. Snug Harbor's trustees (appointed by Randall's will, they included the mayor of New York City, the president and vice president of the Marine Society, senior ministers of the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, and the chancellor of the State) decided to maximize the profits on the Manhattan property. They changed the proposed site of the institution to another piece of land bequeathed by Randall: a 130-acre plot on Staten Island overlooking the Kill Van Kull.
Sailors' Snug Harbor finally opened in 1833, the country's first home for retired merchant seamen. It began with a single building, now the centerpiece in the row of five Greek Revival temple-like buildings on the New Brighton waterfront. From 1867 to 1884, Captain Thomas Melville, a retired sea captain and brother of Moby-Dick author Herman Melville, was governor of Snug Harbor. In 1890, Captain Gustavus Trask, the governor of Snug Harbor, built a Renaissance Revival church, the Randall Memorial Chapel and, next to it, a music hall, both designed by Robert W. Gibson. At its peak in the late 19th century, about 1,000 retired sailors lived at Snug Harbor, then one of the wealthiest charities in New York. Its Washington Square area properties yielded a surplus exceeding the retirement home's costs by $100,000 a year.
Doesn't this look like a little bit of Greco-Roman heaven for salty sods, even if they have to do their own dishes?
Do notice the quadrilateral of J.J. Astor just missing the mark on Sixth Avenue. His name pops up all over these maps without any rhythm or reason, except as he invests his profits from the beaver coats and seal skin hats business.
The next image is of the map continuing to the west, but unfortunately I only captured a portion of it. That is John J. Astor's 2.16-acre parcel encompassing the east corners of Sixth Avenue and 17th Street as above, but his neighbor, Thomas Burling, has enlarged his holding to both the north and south. This indicates
the maps as published bare evidence of the years of process (and protest) it took to achieve the goal. The Wikipedia article calls this the Commissioners' Plan of 1811, saying, "In March 1807, the state legislature appointed a three-member commission made up of Gouverneur Morris, the lawyer John Rutherfurd, and the state surveyor Simeon De Witt, to establish a comprehensive street plan for Manhattan.
Morris, Rutherford and DeWitt were good capitalists: a politician, a lawyer and a state surveyor for 50 years who was "given credit for giving [...] Greek and Roman names to the twenty-eight central New York Military Tract townships that his office mapped after the war (to be given to veterans in payment for their military service), who were all given an enormous gift of power in their commission.
Morris, who said "there never was, nor ever will be a civilized Society without an Aristocracy," was an honorary member of the New York Society of the Cincinnati, who "died on November 6, 1816 after causing himself internal injuries while using a piece of whale bone to attempt clearing a blockage in his urinary tract,"  according to the sympathetic Wikipedia treatment he's given.
As the Commission's Wikipedia article states:
Earlier street layouts for Manhattan had been drawn up prior to the Commissioners' Plan. In 1797, for example, the city asked Joseph Mangin and Casimir Goerck to survey Manhattan's streets; the two eventually produced a map which included a web of future streets, most of which appeared to correspond with future developers' speculative plans for street grids on their properties north of the city. Nevertheless, the scheme was pointedly rejected by the City Council. (Link safe, but enlarged photos give warning of malware.)The end result was in no way negative, in my opinion, for it made a very workable city, level for walking, and easy for a newcomer or visitor to navigate. Nor is the grid a boring or sterile framework--in fact, its very orderliness would seem to be a boon to urban creativity and architectural expression. But the hazard, which may have been part of the original ethic that gave rise to the grid, is a desire for maximum economic return, and where the building out to the furthermost limits of zoning or bribery have ruined many Manhattan viewscapes.
So there's a charm when that outcome is avoided, as can be seen on Rutherford Place, named after our lawyer friend, and 2nd Avenue. Remembering the fight over tearing down St. Bartholomew's church rectory, I trust protections are in place here.
A fairly routine leveling job left at the development site for the builders.
Fifth Avenue and 118th Street.
Looking due north toward the watch tower in Mount Morris Park, visible in the background.
The Museum of the City of New York, 91.69.105
Having culled out the duplicates, I see there is only the stretch of upper, upper, nosebleed Manhattan left to present here, running from 177th Street to 228th Street. Ending with plate 26, I see I only preserved nine---make that eight-and-a-half plates out of the 26. Nonetheless, I feel much better having found this much to offer. And I promise never again to unappreciated a friend's good deed or gift.