|The roof of the immense Temple Emanu-El looms above the mid-19th century structures around 1880 -- photo NYPL Collection
In 1846 Tyson’s father died and, according to The New York Times years later, he was “when a schoolboy of twelve, thrown on his own resources.” The boy and his brother, George I. Tyson, started a newspaper route. But unlike the great majority of Victorian newsboys, the Tyson brothers did not end up as petty criminals; they prospered.
Around 1858 Henry opened a butcher stand in the Jefferson Market. But by now handsome residences were inching up Fifth Avenue towards the reservoir and Tyson saw opportunity. He leased the lot at the southeast corner of the avenue and 44th Street from hotel tycoon Paran Stevens and erected a one-story meat market. The brick-and-stucco building at No. 529 Fifth Avenue sat next door to Ye Olde Willow Cottage (called by the New-York Tribune “a liquor place”)—a converted frame house named after the venerable old tree out front.
Tyson’s small but impressive one-story building featured a gaping arched front of multiple doors. Incised, brick pilasters upheld an ambitious arched parapet that announced HENRY H. TYSON’S FIFTH AVENUE MARKET. A deep canvas awning wrapped around the building, sheltering customers and, more importantly, fresh meats from the sun’s heat.
|Valentine's Manual published a watercolor of the market--with a cow walking down 44th Street--in 1880 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Least pleased of all was, no doubt, Mrs. Paran Stevens. Although the land directly behind the saloon and the meat market was still vacant, owned by New-York Central Railroad Company; the homes of Manhattan’s wealthiest citizens now crowded around the shop. In 1861 The Art Journal noted that “Up to this point the Fifth Avenue—the street of magnificent palatial residences—is completed, scarcely a vacant lot remaining upon its borders.”
Mrs. Stevens, the former Marietta Reed, held sway in New York society on a level shared only by socialites with names like Astor, Fish and Vanderbilt. Henry Tyson’s shop, sitting on land owned by her husband, was an embarrassment. She referred to him as “that horrid butcher.”
Paran Stevens died on April 26, 1872 in his mansion at No. 244 Fifth Avenue 16 blocks south of the Fifth Avenue Market. His strong-minded widow would spent much of her time in the next few years arguing points of the will; but her focus would soon enough turn to Henry H. Tyson.
In February 9, 1881 Tyson was distracted with other matters, as well. He appeared in court to testify in his own defense. Robert B. Roosevelt, President of the Society for the Protection of Game sued the butcher for “possession of game out of season” after members found “nine quail exposed for sale on Feb. 2, 1880.”
Three experts from the Society testified that the birds were quail. Henry Tyson soberly swore that the birds were squabs. Like the dead quails, Tyson’s story did not fly and the jury issued a verdict for $25 against him.
Later that year the butcher would face a more intimidating presence than a judge or jury. The carriage of Mrs. Paran Stevens pulled up in front of the shop and the formidable woman marched in and “peremptorily ordered Mr. Tyson to ‘get out,’” said the New-York Tribune.
Henry Tyson retained his composure and “Inasmuch as he had an unexpired lease of the property, he respectfully declined to vacate the premises ‘instanter,'” reported the newspaper. “This refusal, of course, aroused the wrath of Mrs. Stevens…So she departed in a rage, and within forty-eight hours the sign ‘This Property for Sale’ appeared nailed to the big willow tree which stands as the sign of ‘The Old Willow Tree.’”
The Olde Willow Tree, too, sat on Stevens land; but the millionaire had apparently recognized what the New-York Tribune called “Mrs. Paran Steven’s intense nature,” and restricted her control of his real estate even in death.
The Tribune reported that “the butcher hied him to one of the executors of the Paran Stevens estate, and learned from Mr. Melcher that Mr. Stevens, an exceedingly prudent man, had tied up his real estate possessions in so clever a way that his wife could have no word to say about that piece of property, and that he had left her, when she should become a widow to find out.
“Mrs. Stevens, to her great disgust, soon did ‘find out’ that all this property was in the control of two executors, and even her objections did not move Mr. Tyson. The meat-market still remains, a one-story structure. And so does ‘The Old Willow Tree.”
As society moved further up Fifth Avenue, so did Marietta Stevens. She moved into an imposing mansion on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. Here, on the third floor, her funeral was held in April 1895. She died never having gotten rid of “that horrid butcher.”
A year later, on September 20, 1896, the New-York Tribune commented on the changes around Henry Tyson’s Fifth Avenue Market. “The erection of the Delmonico building at the northwest corner of the avenue and Forth-fourth st., and of Sherry’s new place at the southwest corner, with the coming opening of the big Manhattan Hotel near by, the new and enlarged Hotel Renaissance at Fifth-ave. and Forty-third-st., the development of Forty-third and Forty-fourth sts. As the habitation of clubs with fine new homes near by the old meat market—all make this Paran Stevens property extremely valuable.”
In the meantime, Henry Tyson’s fortunes grew. By 1900 the former newsboy owned a summer estate in Riverside, Connecticut, was a Director of the Chelsea Exchange Bank, and member of the Riverside Yacht Club. (Henry’s brother-partner in the former newspaper route, George, was Commodore of the Yacht Club.)
The extent of Tyson’s wealth was evident on November 3 of that year when a fire in the barn and carriage house at the Riverside estate caused a $5,000 loss—about $125,000 today. The fire started in the coachman’s apartment around 9:00 in the evening and quickly spread. The New York Times reported that “his daughter Ida braved the flames to save her pet pony. In so doing she was knocked down and trampled upon by the colt, but escaped serious injuries. The colt was saved.”
In the carriage house, along with the coachman’s belongings, were “several horses and carriages” and “although the buildings were on the water’s edge, they burned to the ground.”
The land on which Tyson’s butcher shop stood had become dizzyingly valuable at the turn of the century. On April 28, 1901 the New-York Tribune reported that “H. H. Tyson, the proprietor of the meat market at the southeast corner of Forty-fourth-st. and Fifth-ave., said yesterday that the plot on which his market stands had not been sold.” The article then added, “According to another person interested in the property, however, the contract for the purchase of the plot has been signed.”
If the contract was not signed on April 28, it would be soon. Almost a year to the day later, The Evening Post Record reported that Tyson had bought Eleanor Van R. Fairfax’s four-story brownstone house at the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 49th Street for $75,000. On April 29, 1902 The New York Times added “Mr. Tyson says that he intends to remodel the dwelling on the Madison Avenue and Forty-ninth Street corner, and transfer his business to that point.”
|A charming watercolor captured the meat market on a rainy day at the turn of the century -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The 44th Street corner, including The Old Willow Tree Inn, was sold for $2 million. Tyson’s Fifth Avenue Market was razed after having stood—much to the disgruntlement of at least one haughty socialite—for nearly half a century. In place of the butcher shop and saloon a 12-story office building was completed in 1905.
|The 1905 office building did not last. Today a contemporary structure sits on the site of Henry Tyson's meat market. photo by Alice Lum