Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Lost 1857 New York Historical Society Building

The New York Historical Society in 1895 -- King's Photographic Views of New York, author's collection

In 1804 the United States was only 28 years old.  New York City, on the other hand, was 190 years old. Accordingly John Pintard, the secretary of the American Academy of Fine Arts, conceived of an institution dedicated to the history of the city that included a library, lecture hall and museum of artifacts.

The most prominent citizens of the city joined in the effort and within a few years the New York Historical Society boasted a collection of thousands of books, along with oil portraits, engravings, maps, almanacs and historical documents.

The Society bounced around different venues for nearly half a century, finally using rooms provided by New York University until its collections grew so large it required a building of its own.  On December 7, 1853, members agreed on a plot of land at the corner of 2nd Avenue and 11th Street, in one of the most fashionable residential areas of the city.  Wealthy neighbors had donated $5000, just under half of the price, towards the purchase of the lot provided it be used for the erection of the Society building.  An advertisement for the submission of architectural plans had already been placed and designs were being received.

Other locations that had been considered but which were turned down were the triangular plot at Broadway and Fifth Avenue where the Flatiron Building would later rise and the southwest corner of Broadway and 20th Street upon which Lord & Taylor’s grand emporium would be built.

The 2nd Avenue site, however, in 1853 was choice.  Across the street was St. Mark’s Church and the mansions of the city’s leading families like Stuyvesant, Rutherford, Fish, Livingston and Chanler surrounded it.

On October 17, 1855, the cornerstone was laid.  The press reported that “the stone was so large that fears were entertained that it would break down the platform, but by the aid of a derrick it was placed in position.”

Architects Mettam & Burke had won the commission for their two-story Italianate stone building.  With the memories of the Great Fire that had destroyed most of downtown New York only two decades earlier, the building was intended to be fire-proof. Cast iron staircases, hollow walls and iron beams were used.  “Then the boldness of the Society in venturing upon the construction of a fire-proof building, and carrying it so rapidly to a point from which completion will be an easy job, certainly belongs to this and no past age,” said The New York Times a year later on October 9, 1856.

In the same article, The New York Times poked fun at the Society in general saying “Whether or not the Historical Society is a fogy-ish association has been a good deal agitated for three years past.  Those who never attend its meetings are quite satisfied that it is; those who do attend are divided…when half the members sleep through half the discourse, and only wake to applaud the conclusion, one would certainly get the impression that the Society was slightly fossilized.”

The “easy job” of completing the structure seemed less so as the years dragged by.  The new building was not finished for nearly three years; but it was worth the wait.  Dedicated on November 3, 1857, the $85,000 building was completely paid for when the doors opened.

“The building is solid and substantial,” said The New York Times, “but has a light and graceful look, as best becomes an institution where sound historical learning and the amenities of art are fostered together.”  The newspaper asserted it was “built of a dark drab-colored stone, brought from Portsmouth, New-Brunswick, the first of the kind ever introduced into this City.”

The Society Building as it appeared in 1868 -- Valentine's Handbook of New York, from the NYPL Collection

A tall porch with Doric columns sheltered the entranceway and formed a handsome balcony above.  A stone balustrade fence enclosed the grassy yard and cast iron gas lamps illuminated either side of the approaching walkway.

The first floor housed a 50-foot by 65-foot lecture room capable of seating 600 persons.  Upstairs was the Library and Art Gallery under a great 47-foot high glass dome that flooded the space with light.  “The proportions are good; the alcoves and shelves are durable and elegant; the decorations in white and gold are chaste and pretty,” said The New York Times.

The refined exterior easily slipped into the residential nature of the neighborhood by not appearing “commercial.”  At the dedication ceremony (which was also the 53rd anniversary of the Society’s founding) Benjamin R. Winthrop presented the “Washington chair,” made from wood used in the house at Pearl and Cherry Streets which was the first home of George Washington after his inauguration.

As donors gave their art collections, the museum area of the Society became more and more eclectic.  Finally the members decide to hone the collections to only those items that were specific to New York City history.  Many of the museum’s collection of paintings and art became the basis of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1860s.

With the 20th century came change to the once fashionable area around the Historical Society building.  As mansions were razed for commercial loft buildings, the Society building was surrounded by a congested manufacturing district.  A move uptown was deemed necessary.

In 1908, York & Sawyer designed a solemn Beaux-Arts building on the west side of Central Park and the New York Historical Society moved out of the dignified building that had housed its lectures and exhibitions for nearly 60 years.  The building sat empty until being sold in 1912 to be converted into a newsboys’ club.  The main hall was turned into a gymnasium.

Within a few decades the stone Italianate structure was gone, replaced by a non-descript brick apartment house.

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