Monday, April 12, 2021

The Lost Croton Cottage - Fifth Avenue at 40th Street


from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

At the beginning of the 19th century the Levinus Clarkson farmhouse sat within what would become the block of 39th to 40th Street, from Fifth to Madison Avenue.  To the south was the farm of Nicholas Clarkson, which was slightly smaller.  When the Commissioners' Plan laid out the grid of streets and avenues in 1811, 39th Street essentially bisected the two farms.

At some point in the early decades of the 19th century Levinus Clarkson's farmhouse was converted to a roadhouse.   It was a stopping place where travelers could rest and purchase light refreshments.  But completion of the massive Croton Reservoir two blocks to the north in 1842 changed the inn's fate.

The Reservoir was a favorite weekend destination for fashionable New Yorkers, who took carriage rides to view the monumental Egyptian Revival structure.  A promenade atop its rim provided breathtaking views.  The Clarkson farmhouse was remodeled as the Croton Cottage to accommodate the stylish crowds.

Decades later, in 1915, it was described in the promotional book The Fifth Avenue Bank of New York: "it was built of wood, painted yellow, and surrounded by trees and shrubbery, and here ice-cream and refreshments were served to those who came to view the City from the top of the reservoir walls."

The opening of the Exhibition of the Industry of All Trades within the magnificent Crystal Palace behind the reservoir in 1853 swelled the number of patrons to the Croton Cottage.  Proprietors Mitchell & Co. opened an outside pleasure garden, featuring the Maze Garden.  An advertisement in 1853 touted:

Maze Garden, situated on the Fifth avenue, opposite the entrance to the Croton Reservoir, and in the vicinity of the Crystal Palace.  The Garden occupies two acres of ground, covered with a large growth of deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs; adorned with arbors, fountains and vases; intercepted by serpentine walks, and surrounded by grassy slopes--effectively combining the beauties of nature and art.  In the main building upon the premises, are two fine Refreshment Saloons, commodious Piazzas, and a Ladies' Toilet Room, with constant attendants.

A special attraction was the Maze or Labyrinth.  "This is constructed after the plan of the celebrated one in Hampton Court, London, formed in the early part of King William's reign and is the only one in this country.  Its intricacies will be a source of great amusement and enjoyment," promised the ad.

The Croton Cottage catered to refined patrons, saying, "No spirituous liquors or intoxicating beverages will be served."

Watercolor by Abraham Hosier, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

A reporter from the New York Herald described his visit to the Maze Garden on July 11, 1853:

This garden covers a whole square, with a dwelling near the middle, which used to be the country residence of some "old Knickerbocker" family.  This garden has been fitted up by Mitchell & Co., at an expense of $5,000.  They have constructed a maze on the premises, after the plan of a similar but larger structure at Hampton Court, in England.  They supply every kind of refreshment, including creams, jellies, &c., except intoxicating liquors and segars.  They desire to make it a suitable place for the genteel entertainment of ladies and gentlemen.

On July 11, 1863 the nation’s first attempt at a military draft played out in New York with a lottery.  When the 1,200 chosen names were published, it was obvious that only the city’s poor and immigrant population was included—the wealthy had bought exemptions or used their political power to circumvent the draft.  The result was the Draft Riots—a three-day reign of terror and carnage unlike anything seen in the country before.  Innocent people were murdered; and draft offices, newspaper buildings, and the homes and neighborhoods of the city’s black population were burned.  The mob turned on police officers, as well.

David M. Barnes, in his 1863 book The Draft Riots in New York, described the plight of officer Terence Kiernan.  He was knocked in the back of the head with a rock, then received "a blow on the back of the neck with a hay-bale rung, and a blow on each knee about the same moment."  As he lay nearly unconscious on the pavement, a woman, Mrs. Egan, threw herself on his body and pleaded, "For God's sake, men, do not kill him."  They moved on and Mrs. Egan took the bloodied policeman to a house.

Barnes wrote, "He was subsequently disguised and smuggled out.  In coming down, he called at the Croton Cottage, was recognized, but, by a clever dodge, escaped.  Not so with the cottage; in less than an hour afterward it was in flames."

It appears that the burned building was salvaged, but not for long.  The Fifth Avenue neighborhood was quickly being developed as Manhattan's most exclusive residential district.  On July 11, 1866 the New York Telegraph reported:

Along the upper part of Fifth avenue, princely mansions, with marble and brown stone fronts, are constantly going up, and we have to notice the fact that about the last relic of New York in its early days left on the Avenue, will probably, ere long disappear from view.  The old wooden building on the southeast corner of Fifth avenue and Fortieth street, better known as the Croton Cottage, has been sold.

The property had been purchased by Cornelius Vanderbilt I as a gift for his son, William Henry.  The New York Telegraph noted, "we understand that he will erect a magnificent mansion upon the site, that will be an ornament to the Fifth Avenue."

Indeed it was.  The free-standing Italianate style mansion was surrounded by walled gardens.  A matching two-story carriage house occupied the rear of the property.

Collins' 'Both Sides of Fifth Avenue' 1911 (copyright expired)

The mansion stood until 1915, replaced by the Arnold Constable department store, designed by T. Joseph Barley.  That building survives as an annex to the New York Public Library.

photograph by the author

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