With so much going on, so much frenetic energy, life in New York City takes the utmost focus. The senses are overwhelmed with stimuli—people, dogs in sweaters, neon advertisements, new construction, bleating traffic—and amidst all that, there is work, board meetings, family; personal lives and the responsibilities of day-to-day life. In some ways, like carriage horses in Central Park, we all have to put our blinders on sometimes, and in a bustling city like this, it is no wonder that as the present moves forward, some relics of the past—buildings, landmarks, even whole neighborhoods, are largely forgotten.
Buildings – The Vanderbilt Houses
Although the Vanderbilts are not likely to be forgotten any time soon, the Fifth Avenue of today, has changed greatly from the area formerly populated by immense and opulent mansions. Today, the mansions of tycoons have given way to luxury apartment buildings and world-renowned shopping, and upper crust folks have predominantly moved further uptown to apartments bordering Central Park, and even Hamilton Heights. But in 1898, the Fifth Avenue area between 46th and 72nd Streets was “an almost uninterrupted mile and a half of palazzi, chateaux and fortresses…a staggering parade of wealth,” according to Nathan Silver’s book, Lost New York. Of all these homeowners, “the Vanderbilt fortune was the greatest ever amassed in America” and unsurprisingly, two of the most impressive houses of late 1800s Fifth Avenue were the Vanderbilt Houses, built for William H. Vanderbilt in 1879-82.
W.H. Vanderbilt purchased the block between 51st and 52nd Streets in 1879, and the brownstones he built there were divided by an atrium that separated his residence from that of his two sons-in-law, Elliot F. Shepard and William D. Sloane. The twin houses came to be known as the “Vanderbilt Twins” or the “Triple Palace,” because the northern house was a double unit. W.H. Vanderbilt’s residence, (which he hoped would outshine Alexander T. Stewart’s extravagant, white marble palazzo on 34th Street,) showcased his art collection, which he opened to public viewing on Thursdays via invitation.
William Kissam Vanderbilt, W.H.’s son, bought the next building site up Fifth Avenue at the northwest corner of 52nd Street, where he built his house designed by Richard Morris Hunt between the years of 1879-1883. William K. Vanderbilt’s home was considered an exquisite architectural work, and at the time, was considered behind only the U.S. Capitol and Boston’s Trinity Church, as one of the best buildings in the country. On nearby 57th Street, stood the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, (also W.H.’s son,) which began in 1880 and was later enlarged in 1894 after designs by George B. Post. In addition, at 680 and 684 Fifth Avenue, were the homes of W.H. Vanderbilt’s other two married daughters, Mrs. William Seward Webb and Mrs. Hamilton McKown Twombly.
According to Silver, “it was said that $15 million was expended on the building, decorations and furnishing of the Vanderbilt houses.” However, nothing lasts forever and everything is subject to change, and by 1947, all of the Vanderbilt houses had been torn down, resigning “Vanderbilt Row” to memories and books.
It’s a sad fact that a lot of New York City’s great architecture, like the Vanderbilt houses, has been torn down, and perhaps this is an inevitability of growing population in a growing city. No demolition, however, seems to have generated the level of public outcry as that of the former Penn Station.
The Old Penn Station
Pennsylvania Station was built between 1904 and 1910, with an exterior that was said to be a replica of the Caracalla Baths of Rome. The exterior of the station was balanced with an equally noteworthy interior, characterized by steel-ribbed spaces, glass domes, arches and vaults. According to Silver, “The design was also a conscious enough attempt on the part of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company to establish the importance of railroads by building a pre-eminent building, a civic masterpiece… considered to have exceeded the greatest public efforts of history”
The station was torn down beginning in 1963 (a process that took a few years to complete) because Penn Central was short of money and wanted to redevelop the site. The silver lining to the demise of the old Penn Station, however, was that its demolition was one of the major reasons the public pushed for laws protecting landmarks.
According to Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, “the loss of Penn Station made the public realize the importance of the city’s great architecture, its influence on our quality of life, and our sense of our self as a great city… Penn Station was so gorgeous, that it shocked so many people, it really made people realize how important it is to protect what we have.”
Landmarks – The Yellow Submarine
Not all landmarks that have slipped into the curtain folds of our memories, are entirely gone. Some landmarks (depending on your definition) are not physical landmarks, but still exist, however physically decayed, almost as ideological landmarks, reminders of the pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit that helped to build this city and this country. Off the Brooklyn coastline lies one such landmark.
Not far from its attempted launching point in Coney Island Creek, rests a 45-foot long, rusted out vessel known as the Quester I—the yellow submarine. Jerry Bianco, a Brooklyn Navy Yard ship fitter, conceived the idea of building a vessel in order to go after the sunken treasure of the Italian ocean liner, the SS Andrea Doria. The liner, a symbol of much pride for Italy, was considered—like the Titanic before it—the safest passenger vessel of its time, equipped with radar, a double hull, and eleven watertight compartments. The massive liner had a capacity that could carry 1,200 passengers and 500 crewmembers, and among other amenities, featured three swimming pools.
On July 25, 1956, the Andrea Doria left Genoa headed for New York City. In a dense fog off the coast of Nantucket, the ship collided with a Swedish ship of comparable size, and sank—taking down to the ocean floor with it, industrial diamonds, paintings in sealed compartments, the ship’s bronze propellers valued at $30,000 apiece, and many other items of value.
In 1966, three years after Bianco came up with the idea to salvage the wreck, he formed a company and began selling shares for a dollar each, which he invested in the building of the submarine (which he built from scrap metal.) Bianco believed he could build a vessel strong enough to descend the 240 feet to where the ship lay, and raise it up using inflatable dunnage bags.
After four years of work and a steep price increase in his company’s stock, which bought a piece of the vessel and whatever was salvaged, the yellow submarine waited on the shores of Coney Island Creek to be launched. It was October 19, 1970, and the sub had easily passed the Coast Guard’s inspection and the Navy rated it capable of handling pressure at depths of 600 feet. A large crowd gathered to watch the submarine take to the sea.
However, according to an article entitled, “In Coney Island Creek, Hulk of Yellow Submarine Sticks Out,” by Colin Moynihan for The New York Times, when the sub was launched “there was not enough ballast in the craft to keep it on an even keel. Instead, it tipped sideways and became trapped in the muck.” As a result of the disastrous public launch, investors lost confidence in the mission and Bianco was never able to raise enough money for a recovery project.
Although the yellow submarine lost its investors due to the unfortunate mishap of its launch, according to Moynihan’s article, it was later piloted through nearby waters. Eventually, a storm tore it from its moorings in Coney Island Creek and carried it out to its current resting place, where it remains today, a landmark at sea.
The Pneumatic Subway
Like Jerry Bianco, Alfred Ely Beach, was a person willing to take a shot at a goal that was seemingly impossible. Beach was an inventor and a co-publisher of the magazine, Scientific American, who sought to solve the traffic problems of New York City’s crowded streets, a situation that was not being ameliorated by politicians with financial interests vested in keeping things the way they were.
Beach believed that pneumatic power was strong enough and clean enough to work underground, and in 1867, he demonstrated his model of the pneumatic subway at the American Institute Fair. His model was a wooden tube with a six-foot diameter, through which a ten-seat car was propelled by a steam-powered Helix fan that was ten feet in diameter and could be reversed when the car reached the end of the short tunnel.
Realizing that, just as other plans for underground transportation had been defeated by corrupt politicians, his would too, Beach proposed building pneumatic tubes under the city for the delivery of letters and packages. He was approved for this project and began building his tunnel in secret. He believed that if he could successfully complete his design without interference, he could generate public enthusiasm by demonstrating the verifiable success of a completed subway, according to the book, New York 1880: Architecture and Urbanism in the Gilded Age, by Robert A.M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman.
Investing his own money in the project, Beach rented the basement of Devlin’s clothing store on Broadway. He began working at night, using another invention of his called the hydraulic shield, which allowed him to tunnel quickly and protected against potential cave-ins. His tunnel was nine feet in diameter, 312 feet long and ran beneath Broadway, between Warren and Murray Streets. Dirt from the tunnel was removed by horse-drawn wagons with wheels padded to keep the construction as quiet and secretive as possible.
In addition to the hydraulic shield, Beach designed a 22-seat car, and luxuriously decorated his underground station with frescoes, a fountain, and a grand piano. The tunnel opened on February 26, 1870, and 400,000 visitors ultimately toured the operation.
Despite the success of Beach’s project, by 1873, he was unable to raise additional funds to complete his dream and the governor withdrew the charter for Beach Pneumatic Transit Company.
Despite Beach’s inability to achieve his goal of pneumatic subways throughout the city, he laid the groundwork for our current subway system, proving that it was both possible and practical to build transportation beneath the city.
One of the reasons the need for a mass transit system was necessary in New York to begin with, was to spread out the populations of tenements, which had become hot beds for disease and city health hazards. Of neighborhoods populated by tenements, there was none quite so notorious as the Five Points neighborhood.
Neighborhoods – The Five Points
The Five Points, the setting of Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York, was a notorious slum that took form around 1820, over the former Collect Pond. The Collect Pond had been drained due to pollution and filled in poorly, and the neighborhood sprang up on this landfill and the adjacent swampland. According to New York 1880: Architecture and Urbanism in the Gilded Age, the neighborhood was located “at the intersection of Worth, Park, and Baxter Streets, just a few blocks north of City Hall…a block bounded by Bayard, Baxter, Park, and Mulberry Streets…[where] hundreds of people…were jammed together in old houses converted to tenement use”.
The area began to increase in population with the influx of poor immigrants in the 1820s, and it reached a peak of population density in the 1840s due to the arrival of Irish immigrants, as a result of the Irish potato famine. The Five Points were dominated by rival gangs and sustained the highest murder rate of any slum in the world, in addition to being characterized by disease, unemployment, and exceedingly high rates of child and infant mortality.
The neighborhood was considered the first large-scale racial integration in American history. According to the article, “The Five Points,” by Gregory Christiano on urbanography.com, the dancehalls of the Five Points “brought together the Irish and African-Americans... [and] a combination of the Irish jig or reel and the African-American shuffle” resulted in the creation of tap dancing.
Between 1885 and 1895, the slums of the Five Points were razed and the land re-purposed, resulting in the mass exodus of the poor to the surrounding areas, in particularly the Lower East Side. Essentially, like the old Penn Station and the Vanderbilt, the whole neighborhood was demolished and rebuilt (although in this case, maybe for the better.)
Walking around City Hall, or along Fifth Avenue, or up Broadway where Devlin’s used to be, it is amazing to think about how much this city has changed. Some change has been for the worse, for example the demolition of our great architecture, but for the most part, the changes made to the city have been for the sake of progress, improvement and streamlining. Today, fortunately, there are preservation groups like the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and if one had a mind to go see the yellow submarine at its final resting place in Coney Island, you could take the subway and be in any part of town a short time later. However, as we travel through this city, with iPods in tow and Bluetooths sticking out of our ears, oblivious to the scaffolding of new construction and the demolition of old buildings, perhaps something can be gained from stepping out of ourselves for a second to consider some of the things we may have forgotten.
Brendan J. Flaherty is an associate editor with The Cooperator.