Now that every inch of Manhattan is covered with buildings or fabricated parks, it’s hard to imagine the city was once just another patch of earth. To celebrate Earth Day, here are photographs that reveal some dirt on New York City’s past.
The first one shows the land currently occupied by the New-York Historical Society. It was taken in 1887 from the top of the recently-built Dakota Building (finished in 1884), located at 72nd Street and Central Park West. The building in the center is the original Victorian Gothic structure of the Museum of Natural History, which was under construction at the time. Although still standing, this building is now surrounded by a complex of additional AMNH buildings that were added at various times and currently spread over four city blocks. Back in 1887, though, it was surrounded only by empty or undeveloped lots, including one across the street on the southeast corner of 77th and Central Park West, where N-YHS now stands. Even with the photo in front of me, it’s hard to imagine that our building (constructed 1902-1908) was once the site of a modest farm and open fields.
Another view of the upper west side was taken a couple of years later (in 1897) from the roof of the original Barnard College building, at the southwest corner of 120th Street and Broadway. Grant’s Tomb, which had just been dedicated, is visible to the west, but the view looking north is still quite bucolic. Little did Julia Grant know, when she selected this site as the final resting place for her husband (and herself), that by the 1960s, the area would be not only developed but blighted. The former president’s tomb was covered with graffiti, littered with crack vials and empty bottles, and used as a bathroom facility and shelter for homeless people. Happily, the monument was restored in 1997, for its 100th anniversary, and the surrounding Morningside Heights neighborhood, though hardly rural, is no longer unsafe.
Walking by 5th Avenue and 92nd Street today, you would never think “cow pasture” but in 1888 these cattle, shown on the southeast corner of the block, were its only residents. By 1924, however, this bovine field had been transformed into New York City’s most luxurious penthouse apartment. It was built for cereal heiress Marjorie Merriwether Post Hutton, who agreed to allow the George Fuller Construction Company to tear down the mansion she owned on the site and construct one of the grandest apartment buildings in New York City. Her reward was a 54-room (!) triplex penthouse apartment. The huge apartment, described by architectural historian Andrew Alpern as “certainly the largest and very possibly the most luxurious apartment ever created anywhere” was subsequently broken up into smaller units, but the building is still there and its 26 apartments remain among the most exclusive addresses in the city.
This photograph of 5th Avenue and 59th Street, taken in 1866, is a particularly interesting illustration of the complex transition from rural to urban. As is described in this fascinating post on CurbedNY, this area was still remote and undeveloped, dotted with ponds and streams, when Central Park opened in 1857. The Park’s skating pond (now the Lake), which opened to the public in the winter of 1858-59, kicked off a craze for skating with New Yorkers. Downtown ponds like the Collect Pond had long since been built over, so residents were lured uptown to skate, both in Central Park and on private ponds along Fifth Avenue. Two of the most popular were located across the street from one another at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, where the Plaza Hotel and Apple Store now stand. But as shown by this photo, the ponds soon fell victim to their own success: by the mid-1860s, their wealthy patrons began to build houses in the area, and as development inexorably pushed uptown, the ponds were paved over.
So what does all this have to do with Earth Day? The clock of course can’t be turned back, but as these pictures illustrate, the built environment is constantly evolving. It can be made sustainable, but we need to act now.