Monday, October 20, 2014

The Lost 1763 Rhinelander Sugar House

An early watercolor shows the builder's initials in wrought iron on the gable -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Henry Cuyler came from a wealthy Dutch family and in 1763 was highly involved in the importation and refining of sugar.  That year he erected a substantial building at the corner of Prince Street (later renamed Rose Street, and finally William Street) and Duane Street.  His stone and brick sugar house was both a refinery and a warehouse for the storage of sugar and molasses.

In this depiction, the Sugar House sat behind the refined homes and was accessed by an alley.  George P. Hall & Sons, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

For Colonial New York, the sugar house was massive and impressive.  At six stories tall, it was among the largest structures in the colony and dominated the buildings around it.  Cuyler was not without competition in the sugar business.  It was a highly lucrative industry and by the time he erected his sugar house, there were several others in lower Manhattan.

Valentine's Manual of 1857 romanticized the structure, placing it steps away from the Rhinelander mansion and guarded by British soldiers.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Unfortunately for the Cuyler family, they chose the wrong side in the coming war of revolution.  Instead of backing the rebellious gang set on upsetting the Government, they remained Loyalists.  That did not work out well for them.  Following the Revolution, the Act of Forfeiture was passed.  Loyalists were banned from the State under penalty of death “without benefit of Clergy” and their property sold at auction. 

William Rhinelander, like Cuyler, came from an old Knickerbocker family, and he made a fortune in the sugar business.  By 1790 he had come into possession of Cuyler’s massive sugar house. 

During the British occupation of New York large buildings such as churches and sugar houses were used as prisons.  One of these was the Livingston Sugar House on Liberty Street.  It was under the supervision of a cruel officer, Sergeant Waddy.  Possibly old-timers, after the war, confused the two buildings; or perhaps stories that the last standing sugar house in lower Manhattan was once a prison made good tourist publicity.  In any event, local lore persisted that the Rhinelander Sugar house was a Revolutionary War prison.  In 1890 historian Wesley Washington Pasko, in writing on the Prisons of the Revolution in his Old New York tip-toed around the veracity of the legend.  “The Rhinelander Sugar House, still standing, is averred by all of our older citizens to have been a prison, and there is no doubt about it, but we have seen no contemporary evidence of the fact.”

Indeed, to this day, no contemporary documentation has come to light supporting the Rhinelander building ever being used as a prison.

Yet the story succeeded in drawing tourists and the warehouse was romanticized in etchings and documented by early photographers.  Somewhat amazingly, while nearly all the Colonial architecture of Lower Manhattan was either burned (the Great Fire of 1845 destroyed 345 buildings downtown) or razed, the utilitarian Sugar House survived. 

By the last quarter of the 19th century, the old stone Sugar House was surrounded by taller commercial structures.  photo by Robert L. Bracklow from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
By the end of the Civil War the venerable building had not served its original purpose of storing sugar for years.  Still in the possession of the Rhinelander family in 1872, it was used as a paper store by James T. Derrickson.  Victorian interest in historic architecture, however, was essentially non-existent.  Despite the dogged legend of the building’s role in American independence, within the next two decades the old Sugar House would suffer neglect and indignation.

In 1892 James Grant Wilson, in his The Memorial History of the City of New-York, wondered at the structure’s survival.  “Its solid, unbroken walls stand as a silent testimonial to the honesty of the dead and gone builder.  The date and the architect’s initials are still to be seen on the side of the building, worked in wrought-iron characters, quaint and old.”

photo by Hugo B. Sass from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

But as “quaint and old” as it was, it was severely abused.  “On the side facing toward the east many windows were walled up during the last fifteen years, but there were still six grated openings left.  Three were in the gable and the others along the south side.  Underneath them was a great vaulted passageway made of heavy masonry like the whole building.  Still another opening was to be seen alongside of it, half-hidden by rubbish, and the barred outline of another cell-window also visible after close examination.”

Wilson’s description served as a sort of obituary for the Sugar House.  That year the Rhinelander family decided to demolish it in order to erect a modern office building on the site.  As was typical of the time, newspapers followed the course of demolition with emotional, nostalgic articles that lamented the loss of another landmark.  But, as was also typical, no one raised a hand to protest.

Demolition of the massive stone structure proved difficult.  Photo by Robert L. Bracklow from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The long-lived urban legend that the Rhinelander Sugar House had been a British prison where American boys suffered misery and torture resulted in two of the windows with their wrought iron grills being preserved.  One was donated to the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York and was installed in the Van Cortlandt House in the Bronx.  The other was incorporated into the new Rhinelander office building, demolished in 1968.

While the Victorian office building was lost, the window was not.  It was moved to a pedestrian zone behind One Police Plaza where it is maintained by the New York City Police Department.  And the legend came along with it.

On May 6, 1968 The New York Times wrote “A small, barred window from a sugar house used as a British prison during the Revolutionary War will be spared during demolition for the new Brooklyn Bridge ramp system.”   When the window was unveiled, it bore a plaque reading in part “This window was originally part of the five story Sugar House built in 1763 at the corner of Duane and Rose Streets and used by the British during the Revolutionary War as a prison for American Patriots.”

An urban legend, most likely untrue, resulted in this small piece of Colonial history to be preserved.
As is often the case, legend trumped history and in this case it resulted in a small chunk of historic preservation. 


  1. Great post. My town of Greenock in Scotland was known as Sugaropolis because sugar refining was one of its main industries. We have one remaining former sugar refinery in the town which is now derelict - there are lessons to be learned from this wonderful blog post.

  2. Below are some photos and link of the Prison Window in Van Cortland Park