Monday, November 28, 2011

The Lost Egyptian Revival Croton Reservoir -- 5th Avenue and 42nd Street

Strolling figures atop the Reservoir can be seen high above Fifth Avenue -- print NYPL Collection
At the end of the 18th century Manhattan’s water supply came mainly from wells like the popular “tea pump” at the corner of Chatham and Roosevelt Streets. As the population grew the supply was not only inadequate but unhealthful as well. Wells had become brackish and the water impure.

Between 1822 and 1823 a yellow fever epidemic washed across lower Manhattan. Panicked residents fled north to rural communities like Greenwich Village. Businesses and homes stood deserted as deaths climbed to 140 a day. The area below City Hall was deemed “an infected district” and was quarantined by a high wooden fence.

18th century New Yorkers drink from Knapp's Tea Water Pump on Greenwich Street -- Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, June 1882 (copyright expired)
William L. Stone wrote to his wife, “You cannot conceive the distressing condition of the whole town. The fever is worse every hour. I saw the hearse pass the office an hour ago with seven sick in it. Thus the dead are carried to the grave and the sick out of town to die on the same melancholy carriage.”

A decade later, in 1832, cholera broke out. Between July 24 and October 1 about 3,500 residents died. Aggravating the problem of an insufficient hygienic water supply was the inadequate supply of water to fight fires. The continuing pattern of devastating epidemics and out-of-control fires prompted civic action.

In 1831 Dewitt Clinton, who had been a driving force in the construction of the Erie Canal, began investigating the possibility of bringing drinking water from the Croton River upstate. Two years later his recommendations led to a State Commission that conducted surveys and reported in favor of the project in 1834.

Work on the system of reservoirs and aqueduct, with a budget of $2.5 million, began in 1837. By the time the system was completed the cost would rise to $12 million.

The terminus of the complicated engineering feat was a massive distributing reservoir at Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets on Murray Hill – the highest point in Manhattan. The area was named after Robert Murray, a wealthy Quaker whose 18th century country estate had stood here. While the grid plan of streets and avenues had already been laid out, the area was still mostly rolling hills of pastures and woodlands.

One of the engineers, James Renwick, Jr., was given the task of designing the mammoth structure. While Renwick had no formal training in design, he would later create architectural masterworks such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Grace Episcopal Church. Even now his innate design instincts kicked in and he resisted using the lofty hill with its panoramas for a utilitarian structure.

Decades later the current Chief Engineer of the Croton Aqueduct, George Birdsall, would remember that Renwick “always thought it a mistake to put it there. He used to say that he hoped he would live to see the City Hall placed on that site.”

Despite his objections over the site, the reservoir was built. Renwick chose the highly-popular Egyptian Revival style for his structure. Covering four acres of land and holding over 20 million gallons of water, it rose 44 feet from the street. Constructed of massive gray granite blocks it was at once foreboding and striking. The great walls were hollow to facilitate inspection and the localization of leaks.

When Currier & Ives produced their colored print of the Reservoir, the area was still sparcely developed -- print Library of Congress
The reservoir – called both the Murray Hill Distributing Reservoir and the Croton Reservoir—was finished in June 1842 and the great mains were opened and water began filling it on July 4th. Three months later, on October 14, water began flowing to the homes of the city. An immense military parade accompanied the event.

Households and other users who signed up for the Croton water were charged an annual fee of $8.00.

The commissioners anticipated that some 2,000 homes would eventually pay an additional $4 per year for the luxury of private baths. The Family Magazine, in 1841, noted that “It may be estimated that 700,000 people will ultimately derive their supply from the distributing reservoir on Murray’s Hill.”

Renwick had designed the reservoir with a wide, spacious promenade along the top rim, accessed by great flights of stone steps. It became a popular Sunday afternoon buggy-ride destination for couples seeking relief from the congested city.  The unobstructed view of the rivers, the city below, and the New Jersey palisades were breathtaking.

By 1861 when The Art Journal described the structure, fine residences had already begun appearing along Fifth Avenue. The reservoir, the publication said, “challenges our attention and admiration.”

"Up to this point the Fifth Avenue—the street of magnificent palatial residences—is completed, scarcely a vacant lot remaining upon its borders. The reservoir stands in solemn and marked contrast to these ornamental structures and rich and gay accompaniments. Its walls, in Egyptian style, are of dark gray granite.”

photo NYPL Collection
The “dark gray granite” and the “solemn contrast” to the fine homes of New York’s wealthy would eventually be the reservoir’s undoing.

The western half of Reservoir Square was “left to waste” as a New York Times article would describe it. Then in 1853 the Crystal Palace was erected behind the reservoir – New York’s answer to London’s World’s Exposition attractive of the same name. Thousands flocked to the Crystal Palace and the Croton Reservoir promenade every day for five years until the glass-and-cast-iron palace burned to the ground in the space of 30 minutes in 1858.

Looking back at the disaster in 1898 a Times reporter said “The reservoir was alone again, but human habitations began to gather about it and the vacant spaces grew narrower. The year the shining palace disappeared the work of laying out Central Park was begun and the cornerstone of the cathedral was laid.”

The wide promenade atop the Reservoir provided scenic views.  By now, Fifth Avenue was lined with mansions and brownstone rowhouses -- photo NYPL Collection

The Croton Reservoir, which had been referred to by developer George Higgins in 1856 as “Oriental magnificence,” was now surrounded by brownstone mansions. To soften the brooding mass, ivy was planted. “Since fashion began to surround its stately site, however, it has striven for most of the year to wreathe that grim front with smiling vines of ivy, and it has grown attractive in its old age to passers-by and to the casual visitor,” remarked The Times.

In 1879 a second distributing reservoir was being constructed in Central Park which would, theoretically eliminate the need for the hulking Egyptian Revival relic on Fifth Avenue. That year a bill was introduced to the State Legislature “for the compulsory removal of the Murray Hill Reservoir…and for converting the land—comprising over seventy city lots, valued at about two millions of dollars—into a park.”

The New York Tribune reported that the Hotel Association quickly met, voting on January 9, 1880 against the removal of the reservoir. But Mother Nature rather than legislation stepped in. That summer the city suffered under a severe drought that lasted through 1881. The situation forced attention on the questionable advisability of removing one of the city’s sources of water.

The drought ended, though, and the Fifth Avenue residents renewed their efforts to remove the structure, despite the needs it might fulfill to tenements and houses further downtown. Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly noted in June 1882 “Since the introduction of the high service system the people around the reservoir no longer need its services, and hence, regardless of the other portions of the city, have clamored for its removal as an eyesore on Fifth Avenue.”

In an effort to beautify the out-of-style structure, ivy and shrubbery were planted -- photo NYPL Collection

The argument went on for a decade.  On Murray Hill resident wrote the The New York Times on March 27, 1891, “It has outlived its usefulness, as it could not supply the city for a single day with water, leaks badly, and is a source of disease.”

Then in 1896 talk began of using the site for a new public library.  The New York Times jumped on the prospect, calling the reservoir “the ancient eyesore which disfigures Murray Hill and spoils Bryant Park, even if the site were not wanted for a purpose that would embellish the city and contribute to its enlightenment.”  The editor noted that the site “had better be graced with the beauty of such a structure and its park surroundings than covered with a useless and hideous mass of stone.”

The Chief Engineer of the Croton Aqueduct, George H. Birdsall, estimated the cost of removing the structure to be about $100,000.  “It is so solidly built of stone and concrete,” he said, “that it will give more trouble in removing than it if were solid rock.”

Plans for the new library moved ahead and two years later, in 1898, the process of removing the reservoir began—fully two decades after the first grumblings over the massive Egyptian-style pile.  On February 27 of that year The Times, one of the Croton Reservoir’s most outspoken detractors in recent years, reminisced, “For nearly sixty years the gray old reservoir has been the crown of Murray Hill, with its grim front on the fashionable thoroughfare of the rapidly growing city…Most citizens will feel a pang of regret at the demolition of this impressive pile, albeit its place is to be taken by a fine specimen of modern architecture to serve a less prosaic purpose.”

The Egyptian Revival style of architecture had never caught on in New York like it did in cities such as Baltimore.  But its two rare examples, the monumental Tombs Prison downtown and the Croton Reservoir, were done on a massive scale.  Both were obliterated within a year of one another.

Below the white marble walls of the New York Public Library can be seen the granite remnants of the Croton Reservoir -- photo
In 1902 the cornerstone was laid for Carrere & Hastings’ masterful white marble New York Public Library and by the end of the century, few New Yorkers would be aware there ever was a colossal Egyptian structure on the site. But deep in the underbelly of the marble library, the granite remains of the great Renwick reservoir can see be seen.

Many thanks to Paul Anater for requesting this post


  1. How on earth did you get that photo of the reservoir's granite remains under the library? Terrific post and one of these days, I'm getting in the library's basement. Mark my words!

    1. you can walk right into the lobby and ask where to find the granite remains if there's someone at the information desk. it's perfectly accessible to the public. hope you've done it by now as it's the end of 2016 as i type this

  2. To Mr. Anater, You don't have to get into the basement at NYPL in order to see the Croton foundations. Just visit the Library and look ask the guard where South Court is. You'll see what I mean when you get there. I should know, I work at the Library. Hope you find it.

    1. Thank you! I'll check it out when I'm in Midtown next week.

    2. The question remains-- What happened to the stone that made up the walls of the 50' high reservoir. It is not unanimously agreed that the stones seen at the South Court of the library are at the place where they were as part of the reservoir. They may have been found stone from the reservoir, moved to the site, but a mere fraction of the stones that made up the immense reservoir.

  3. Some of the stone was used to build the towers of St. Paul the Apostle. See:

  4. Much of the stones like this simply wind up as landfill or in the dump in recent decades, all the resources labor and energy that went into quarrying, cutting and squaring up and transporting all those stones simply thrown away, same story for stone faced buildings demolished