Monday, November 19, 2018

The Lost Latting Observatory - 42nd Street and Bryant Park

A sliver of the Crystal Palace can be seen at far right, across 42nd Street.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

London's 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park was a sensation.  In response New York City launched its own international exposition two years later, housed in an engineering marvel--the Crystal Palace.   The exhibition took up the western half of what would become Bryant Park, behind the massive Croton Reservoir which faced Fifth Avenue.

There would be another amazing feat of engineering at the fair, the Latting Observatory across 42nd Street from the Crystal Palace.  Waring Latting envisioned a soaring tower--the highest structure in the city--from which fair visitors would get magnificent views of Staten Island, New Jersey and Long Island.  Designed by architect William Naugle, it would rise 315 feet, with landings at three levels.  The 75-foot square base tapered to about 8 feet at the pinnacle.  A contemporary pamphlet claimed that 2,000 people could "be accommodated at one time on its various landings."

As the tower rose in the spring 1853 a committee (or "jury") of citizens was sent to decide on its safety.  The men reported to the Board of Aldermen on April 24.  "A number of the Jury being practical builders, the matter was submitted more particularly to their judgment, and the opinion of all of them was that the structure in question is being erected upon correct principles, and will be perfectly safe for the purposes for which it was designed," reported The New York Times.

The reason the towering wooden structure was sturdy enough for the jury's approval was Naugle's ample use of iron bracing.  The diamond-pattern of the girders created strength and stability.  In June 1853 The Plough, The Loom, and the Anvil remarked on the engineering breakthrough and published a detailed explanation of the intricate design logistics.  The article added:

This structure deserves careful consideration in various respects.  It is a capital exhibition of architectural skill, and as such commends itself to the study of all practical artisans in that department.  Again, it is worthy of attention as the highest structure, we believe, on the continent; and thirdly as an observatory which commands an entire view of New-York and its environs.

The structure cost $150,000 to construct--nearly $5 million today.   Visitors climbed a winding staircase; however The Plough, The Loom, and The Anvil assured it was "so constructed as to tire, by the ascent, much less than one would anticipate.  The frequent landings furnish convenient opportunities for rest, and present sufficient inducements to detain the visitor, even though he may not need to rest."

Among those who agreed was the reporter from The New York Times who climbed the tower on opening day, June 30.  "The ascent is a little fatiguing, but it improves digestion."  

If fatigue was at all an issue for the reporter, it was quickly forgotten when he reached the summit.  "We must confess, that on ascending this tower yesterday, we were not prepared for the wonderful panorama which was presented to our view.  We were told that our eyes could sweep from forty to sixty miles through space, and we scarcely doubt the assertion."

The view from the top.  In what is now Bryant Park, the Crystal Palace is seen at right, the Croton Reservoir at left.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The writer mentioned the towns he could see from the top--Morrisania, Flushing, and Newark--as well as the Verrazano Narrows and Sandy Hook.  "Are these human beings that are walking beneath us?  The are.  They are very small, are they not?  But when Jersey City, and Hoboken, and Weehawken are almost footstools for your tower, of what account are human beings?"

The journalist rather dramatically concluded "And let only the sun crown with its rays the landscape and seascape that you behold and you may no longer desire to ascend the Alps or Andes."

Two days after the Latting Observatory opened both it and the Crystal Palace were threatened by violent weather.  The following day The New York Times reported that "a violent storm in the afternoon, accompanied by sharp lightning, a fierce hurricane through a section of the City, and the heaviest hailstorm known in this vicinity for many years, prostrated several buildings in the neighborhood of the Crystal Palace, and crushed a large number of persons beneath the ruins."

A team of reporters from the newspaper rushed to the fair site to see if the glass exhibition hall was shattered by the hailstones and if the Latting Observatory still stood.   A giant merry-go-round had been demolished, a tall brick wall next to the Observatory was blown down, and an entire block of wooden buildings on 44th Street being constructed "for saloons, refreshment rooms, &c." were destroyed.  But both the Latting Observatory and the Crystal Palace emerged nearly unscathed.

"The Latting Observatory withstood the blast nobly," reported The Times.  There had been a large number of workmen around 200 feet up when the hurricane hit.  "They were quite surprised to reach the ground in safety," said the article.  "In the saloon under the tower the plaster upon the ceiling is slightly cracked, and in one or two places has fallen off; but, with this exception the tall structure shows no sign of injury, and still stands, 'like Atlas, unremoved.'"

The journalist declared "So severe a test so well sustained, will tend greatly to increase public confidence in the solidity of this unequalled tower."

A few weeks after the tower's opening, its directors announced additional attractions.  A powerful "Drummond Light" was to be affixed to the top, which would be visible from sea and for miles around.  On the topmost landing a "monster telescope" was being installed which would afford visitors close-up views of sites 60 miles away.  Numerous other telescopes were positioned on the other landings along with exhibitions liked "dissolving views, cosmoramas, scientific and optical instruments, works of art, and many other objects of interest, useful and attractive," as reported by The Times on July 27.  The directors intended "not only to make this Observatory the highest structure upon this Continent, but to make it an object of special interest to all."

In September 1853 a brilliant comet, visible to the naked eye, could be seen in the night skies.  One astronomer in particular, Professor Jewett, foresaw doom.  He warned residents of the New York area that the comet would come crashing to earth, causing annihilation.

from the collection of the New York Public Library.

To ensure that citizens were forewarned, The New York Times put reporters atop the Latting Observatory and the spire of Trinity Church to watch for the incoming missile.  On September 12 the newspaper cautioned "Recollect it's got all day to come in, and at the rate of 30,000 miles a minute it can get over a good deal of ground in twenty-four hours."  The reporter suggested that his readers take the opportunity to end their lives on a charitable note.

"If, after reading the prophecy of Professor Jewett, and while laboring under a disagreeable uncertainty as to your personal safety, you committed a good deed--gave a poor woman a loaf of bread or an orphan some of your old clothes--don't take them back again until after 12 o'clock to-night, because there's no knowing what may happen."

The article naively advised "If you should hear any strange noise during the day, don't stop to look up, but put on your hat, and run as fast as you can, and if you can make better time than the Comet, you may escape."

At 2:30 that morning, just before the paper went to press, a panting reporter rushed into the news room from the Latting Observatory.  "He says that after levelling his opera-glass for several hours, and following the Comet all over Creation, he noticed a pause."  The Times concluded that the comet would not obliterate New York City.

When the city decided to erect a monument to George Washington, Waring Latting offered to erect another observatory on the Battery.  This one would be double the height of the original--topping off at an astonishing 600 feet.  Not everyone was quick to agree with the proposal.  Alderman Voorhis said he "was a lover of Washington, as were all good citizens, but he did not want to mix up the name of Washington with that of Latting--a mere speculator."

Those opposed to the idea may have been considering the fate of the existing Latting Observatory.  Shortly after the Exhibition closed in 1854, the structure was taken over by the Hydeville Marble Works, which chopped 75 feet off the top.   Once touted as a world class attraction, on October 20, 1855 The New York Times wrote "The Latting Observatory is converted into a shot tower."

Shot towers created shotgun ammunition by dropping molten lead through enormous sieve-like bowls.  As the drops of metal fell, they formed perfect spheres and upon hitting a large vat of water at the bottom, solidified to round shot balls.  The Observatory's somewhat humiliating new function would not last long.

Late on the night of August 30, 1856 fire broke out in the cooper shop of M. & E. Connolly on West 43rd Street.  It spread "with rapidity on every side," according to a newspaper.  The conflagration engulfed many buildings and destroyed more than $150,000 in property.  On September 1 The New York Times reported "The 'Latting Observatory' was completely destroyed, and the Crystal Palace was saved with much difficulty."

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
But, interestingly enough, the legacy of Waring Latting's ground-breaking structure was yet to come.  Among the visitors to the tower in 1853 was French architect Gustave Eiffel.  William Naugle's structural ironwork stayed with him.  And when the French Government announced a contest on May 2, 1886 for an entrance tower for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889, Eiffel hearkened back to the Latting Observatory.  

In an article entitled "The New York 'Eiffel' Tower of 1853" Engineering News compared the two structures.  "The Latting Observatory was simply a well-braced 'observation mast,' rising fro an extremely ugly base, built without regard to beauty of form and for a purely commercial purpose.  The Eiffel Tower, on the other hand, while also primarily designed for the collection of fees from visitors, was in itself a thing of surpassing grace."

The article noted "It is only due to M. Eiffel to say that while he acknowledges that the original idea of a 1,000-ft. tower was borrowed from America, he has so improved upon this idea that his structure is as far beyond the proposed iron tower of 1878 as that structure exceeded the wooden tower of 1853."

And so, while the Latting Observatory stood for only three years, its design planted the seed for one of the most recognized structures in the world.

Another tower, the Grace Building, sits on the site today.  photo by WestportWiki

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