1829, Part 3
New York City / State Timeline
from Eagles Byte by David Minor
Year-by-year tracing the growth of the early days of the Republic
As August 1829 turned to September, James Stuart prepared himself for another trip up the Hudson as far as Albany. But, in spite of all his summer travels outside of Manhattan he had spent the odd day here and there in that major metropolis. Mostly pushed up to a dining table, apparently. He mentions very little else this summer.
"The mere eating-houses at New York are numerous. Dinners are got at a very reasonable rate; and mercantile men, whose dwelling-houses are distant from their places of business, very generally dine at those houses." Most of the hired help of course continued to live at the lower end of the island. Stuart's favorite dining place was the Franklin House on Cherry Street. The establishment was run by two Englishmen, Brown and Clark, and forty years earlier had served as quarters for President Washington for the first ten months of his administration. An abutment of the Manhattan Bridge rises above the spot today.
"Dinner is ready from twelve till five o'clock;" Stuart tells us, "a list is exhibited on the wall of the articles ready each day; and there is abundance of those articles always ready at a moment's notice, whatever may be the number of guests, who are every moment, as it were, popping in and out." He describes one of his meals, then concludes, "Turtle is very plentiful at New York, but not so well dressed as in England, . . .Venison is very generally to be had, but almost always dry--only fit for soup. And soup is not so much esteemed, nor so frequently met with, in the United States, as in Britain. Roast beef, beef-steaks, poultry, and pork are the favourite articles of food here."
He also mentions a small tavern just down Nassau Street from Gould and Banks, law booksellers, under a portrait sign of Robert Burns, run by a Scotswoman. The big delicacy there? H-A-G-G-I-S ! Perhaps he stopped for a sweet afterwards, at the new confectionery opened this year by James Thompson on Liberty Street, now the site of the One Liberty Plaza building.
Apart from a brief mention of a severe thunderstorm back in June, Stuart mentions little else about Manhattan this year. So we'll leave him grinning over his haggis while we have look at other events in the city. Other diners, in other establishments, at various time in the year might be on their way to some of the new amusements New York has to offer. The social season had opened in January, with a very swank, private fancy dress ball given by several residents living on Bowling Green, who had cleared an opening between their houses for the event, the first of its kind in New York. The Park Theatre played host to several other masked balls, that quickly spawned further imitators. One theater, the Lafayette, had gone up in flames on April 11th, never to be rebuilt. Poor receipts did in another playhouse, the former Chatham Garden Theatre, leased by James H. Hackett and renamed the American Opera House. The enterprise opened in late May and failed on the first of September. With little competition left, the Park Theatre continued to thrive. Rising young Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest, closing out the season, gave a benefit performance on December 15th of the drama "Metamora", written by his friend and fellow actor John Augustus Stone. But, while the Park Theatre dominated the 1829 season, a serious rival was entering from the wings.
Manhattan's Park Theatre was well-positioned in the autumn of 1829. One rival had been burnt out in April, another had closed recently due to poor box office receipts. But there was a young theatrical impresario in town, an Irish import, whose showplace would rival and, finally outshine and outlast the Park.
Very little seems to be known of William Niblo's background. His 1878 obituary in the New York Times just adds to the confusion: The subhead lists his age as 80; the text as 89. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle agrees with the later figure, so it seems Niblo was born in the late 1780s, probably arriving in New York sometime in the mid-to-late 90s. He apprenticed himself to David King, the keeper of a coffee house at 43 Pine Street (today's Trump Building) and settled in to learn the dinning trade. When King died Niblo, who had become his son-in-law by then, took over the business, changing the name to the Bank Coffee House, a name designed to appeal to the denizens of the surrounding financial district, including the two-year-old Merchants Exchange just down the street. The first Delmonico's would have come along at the same time, but there was enough feedbag trade to go around and Niblo prospered.
Billy, as he has been referred to, enjoyed being the genial host. His obit described him as jovial and kind-hearted with native shrewdness and wit. Whenever he came up with an extra-special culinary treat he would hold a private reception just for his regulars, which added to the cachet of the establishment and draw in new clientele. Not content to rest on his laurels (or bay leaves, or what-have-you) he looked for opportunities to expand. A few years previous to 1829, he leased some land further up Broadway at Prince Street, the area that would someday become SoHo, and set out to convert the building on the site into a combination restaurant and public concert garden. In the years following the American Revolution it had been an indoor arena for circus-style entertainment called The Stadium. Later it was used for drilling militia officers during the War of 1812 and, most recently, was the pleasure grounds known as Columbian Garden. Niblo had built a stage into one end of the main room and replaced the corridor walls with glass doors. Eventually the site would also sport a theater - the Sans Souci - that could seat 3,000, a saloon and, eventually a hotel. Open spaces between buildings were covered with canvas tents, creating a circus atmosphere along Broadway, as gaily-colored flags at the peaks flapped in the breezes.
This year, 1829, Niblo unveiled his once-again renamed Niblo's Garden to the public on May 18th for a preview look. A month-and-a-half later, on a rainy Independence Day, the official opening, Niblo pulled out all the stops, topping himself with an unprecedented display of gaslight, the first such inside a theater. One attendee reported, "a patriotic display of gas lights which flaunted the name of "Niblo" far and wide and immortalized it in stage as well as gas history. An admiring public gasped from a respectful distance, watching the red, white and blue shadows cast by the rows of gas jets spelling the proprietor's name." William Niblo would be a theatrical force to be reckoned with for many years to come. And who knows - perhaps he was an inspiration for a young man who was running a fruit and confectionery store for his grandfather Phineas Taylor in Bethel, Connecticut.
Those New Yorkers who couldn't afford Manhattan's theaters and dining establishments in 1829 could still find free entertainment around town. On January 15th the ship Columbia arrived in port from Newcastle-on-Tyne, England. Aboard the vessel were a variety of large pieces of formed iron, which were unloaded onto wagons and carted off to the corner of Frankfort Street and Water Street - the northern stretch of the later today renamed Pearl Street, beneath the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. There the iron sections were unloaded at the iron foundry belonging to Garrett Abeel and Edward Dunscomb. When assembled at the plant the local citizens could gawk at one of the first two locomotives in the United States, the Pride of Newcastle.
The other locomotive, the Stourbridge Lion, arrived just about the same time - under separate cover - aboard the packet boat John Jay from Liverpool at the West Point Foundry, across the Hudson from the military academy. When assembled they were both to be shipped off to Carbondale, Pennsylvania, and used to ship coal eastward up over the Moosic Mountains to Honesdale, then shipped out to the Hudson by the new Delaware & Hudson Canal. Philip Hone - who we've met before - a recent mayor of New York, had been a major backer of that canal. He was a also diarist; on May 27th he wrote: " . . . I went to Abell (sic) & Dunscomb's foundry to meet a large party of gentlemen who were assembled by invitation to see one of the new locomotive engines in operation, which was recently imported from England . . .". Ties magazine - as in railroad - would later write, " The two locomotives at their separate locations were mounted on blocks with wheels clear of the ground and run under full steam for observation by groups of prominent men and scientists, plus curious passers - by attracted by the show."
The problem was, when the machines arrived at Carbondale they proved to be too puny to do the job and a different kind of railroad, using gravity rather than steam power, had to be employed. The two British imports were put out to pasture and met various fates. Today the Lion is on display at the Smithsonian, where its remains were brought and reassembled in 1888. A replica can be seen at the Wayne County Historical Society's Museum in Honesdale. The Pride has been lost, perhaps the victim of an explosion.
If you were the sort that considered such contrivances as railroads to be devil's devices, or if your mind was just on more divine matters, you could find other diversions around town in 1829. On January 11th the Episcopal Church at Washington and Prospect streets in Brooklyn opened a large schoolroom adjacent to the church. When a new Manhattan Dutch Reformed Church was dedicated at the end of July; their cousins over in Brooklyn dedicated their new church two months later. About this time the Brooklyn Sunday School Union was formed and members of three or four classes began annual parades around the village. In years to come the emphasis would turn to secular schools and the holiday called Brooklyn Day was born. But no matter what your religious affiliation, you could always participate in some political action this year, petitioning Congress to halt Sunday delivery of the mails. Congress jumped right on it and passed the legislation in 1912.
Every incoming New York City mayor takes the reins of a different beast than that of his predecessor. As state legislator and canal supporter Walter Bowne prepared to take over from William Paulding at the end of 1829 the city was in its usual state of flux. Street names were changing, usually piecemeal - part of Herring Street became Bleecker, part of Arden became Morton, part of Reason Street (named for Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason) became Barrow.
Structures were springing up on streets old and new. On the north side of the new Washington Square construction began on architect Martin Thompson's row of Greek Revival townhouses. Thompson, by the way, along with Ithiel Town and Andrew J. Davis, all with offices in the Merchants Exchange building, constituted the entire architectural profession in the city. Over on Macdougal Street, between West 3rd and 4th streets, a row of townhouses in the older Federal style was being built for a real estate investor, a man in his early seventies who'd had few other careers before this - vice-president of the United States for one - man named Aaron Burr. It was a healthy market. Buildings on the better, older streets brought good prices. A two story house and lot at 17 Broadway, sold for $19,000. The Bowling Green Post Office sits on the site in our own time. But, begin looking over on nearby Hanover Square today and you could find a 625 square foot two-room apartment for a mere $299,000. Plus a $900 per month maintenance fee. Adaptive reuse is not a new concept in our own time. Over near City Hall, the New Gaol building, built in 1755, was converted in 1829 into a hall of records.
All the changes were not architectural and geographical. Among the new institutions springing up were two banks - the National Bank in the City of New York, and the Seamen's Bank for Savings in the City of New York (they didn't believe in short, punchy names back then). The New York City Temperance Society was founded as was the Workingmen's Party of New York. The latter would only last two years, replaced two years later by the General Trades Union, a confederation of the city's smaller labor organizations, which by 1836 would conduct nearly 40 work stoppages. Fire was always a major concern in this city with only a primitive water system. Since 1816 firefighters had been exempted from military and jury duty after serving in their departments for ten years. 1829 saw the required term lowered to seven years; in 1847 it would be reduced to five.
Two newspapers were founded to help New Yorkers keep track of all these changes. Mordecai M Noah, who we met in 1827 founding the Niagara frontier Jewish state of Ararat, was here now, and founded the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer, which would later merge with the New York World. He signed on editor James Gordon Bennett. Senior, that is. Junior would make an even bigger name for himself here, in the business later on. The Morning Herald and the Evening Journal also joined the city's media mix. (Make that medium mix).
Many foreign sections of the city's papers probably carried the recent news of a fellow countryman of James Stuart's by the name of William Hare and his friend William Burke. We'll check out their connection with 1829 New York next time.
© 2008, David Minor