The Viele Map


Manhattan Unlocked Historical and Architectural Walking Tours

Discover hidden-in-plain-sight history and decode the streetscapes of Manhattan on our multi-faceted walking tours where history and architecture meld. Manhattan Unlocked answers the question every New Yorker has asked, "why is this building next to that building, and that building next to this building?" We take that question to its logical conclusion and let the built environment--the city itself--tell its own story!

We realized there's more to the million-and-one things to be seen on the surface of the city today. Manhattan Unlocked takes into account ancient geography and historic transit, in addition to commerce, architecture, immigration and everything else, to explain the city's growth and development. In fact, New York City can only be understood from an all-of-history, holistic point of view.

About Us

Manhattan Unlocked began as a blog over a decade ago to decode and make sense of the streetwalls of the city. What most people consider New York City is an architectural complex and constellation of neighborhoods stretching almost 5 miles from the Battery to Central Park through the island's core. Yet, what looks like a jumble of buildings on any given block (we realized long ago) couldn't be random. There had to be a logic to the blocks; patterns to the neighborhoods. Neighborhoods comprising cast iron buildings or skyscrapers had to be part of some overarching narrative. There had to be a way that Tribeca and Museum Mile were part of the same story.

We soon realized that in the search for "unified theory" behind New York's instantly recognizable, yet enigmatic streetscape, we needed to hit the pavement so to speak. Manhattan Unlocked Historical and Architectural Walking Tours was born (thank you Viator and TripAdvisor, but now bookings can be made directly!). The blog had been put on hiatus, but we hope to begin updating again soon, and with a new look! Join us on a walking tour, and we look forward to uploading new and interesting posts soon.

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  • Midtown Manhattan Art and Architecture Walking Tour
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Friday, January 28, 2011

The Haymarket, Broadway & NoMad—and a Long Forgotten Street!

There’s a strange part of town that’s in the middle of everywhere. In the 1990s it was the counterfeit garment district; and not just clothing, but it’s where they made the knock-off Gucci and Louis Vuitton bags until even that “industry” moved overseas.  Today the area is a bizarre amalgam of third rate retailers, “wholesalers to the public,” and import/export trading companies: jewelry, low-end electronics, garments, accessories, perfumes, wigs, and otherwise “nuisance” businesses mainstream marketers avoid—what retailer would want to be near the hair or perfume markets?

But what’s particularly interesting is that this is Broadway; and Broadway between Madison and Herald Squares—one would think such an area would be high-end residential and/or retail shopping.  Think again; this is the current elephant in the room of Manhattan real estate. 


And indeed, this is the undistinguished heart of Manhattan’s newest acronym neighborhood NoMad (NOrth of MADison Square), a name suggested as far back as 1991! But what’s integral to people using a new name for a neighborhood is that people actually go there, and that’s what’s happening now.

This section of Broadway has a fascinating history as an “other side of the tracks” kind of divide.  In the Gilded Age of the 1880s and 90s, Fifth Avenue and Broadway were lined with fine hotels, theaters and restaurants. And literally across Broadway was the old Haymarket, the most notorious dance hall/brothel in the Tenderloin.

The Tenderloin was a riotous red light district that flourished for some 40 years in between the Civil War and WWI.  The boundaries vary wildly from source to source, and there were viable residential communities within its boundaries.  But here is how The Encyclopedia of New York City, by Kenneth Jackson, defines the Tenderloin…
A nightclub district in Manhattan during the 1880s, bounded to the north by 42nd Street, to the east by 5th Avenue, to the south by 24th Street, and to the west by 7th Avenue.  The name refers to extortion payments made to the police by legitimate and illegitimate businesses in the area during the heyday of Tammany Hall. Known as Satan’s Circus by reformers, the district contained the greatest concentration of saloons, brothels, gambling parlors, dance halls, and “clip joints” in the city. It is now the site of the Empire State Building, the garment district, and Herald Square.
Below are those boundaries in yellow, along with the boundaries of today’s NoMad, in green.  The Haymarket, which we’ll get to in a bit, is the red dot in the uppermost left corner of NoMad.


A central feature of both the Tenderloin and Nomad is Broadway slicing its way from Madison to Herald Squares.  During the Tenderloin days this was the heart of the theater district with upscale hotels and restaurants extending up and down Broadway.  Though none of the theaters exist today (as far as I can determine), many of the old hotels do! Perhaps the most handsomely restored is the Gilsey House, on the northeast corner of 29th and Broadway.

The Gilsey House was one of the first hotels to come to the area. Built between 1869-71, it was a favorite haunt of Oscar Wilde and Diamond “Jim” Brady.  Today it’s a co-op (a rare example of high end residential in the neighborhood).  And yes, this is the exact same spot as the pictures above!

gilsey house
Courtesy of Business Conservation Associates, Inc.

But the recent pioneer to the neighborhood, and what’s giving NoMad traction, is the Ace Hotel.  In 2009 the Ace Hotel took over the old Breslin Hotel, which went up in 1904 on the southeast corner of 29th and Broadway, across the street from the Gilsey House.

Here they are, in the midst of the garment accessory, perfume and hair district. The vantage point is looking west  east towards Broadway on 29th Street.  in the 1880s and 90s this street in particular was known for its brothels; the Haymarket was one block north.


The Breslin Hotel, and indeed the entire district, went through an 80 year rough patch from which it’s only now starting to recover. Though a fine hotel when it opened, the Breslin deteriorated into a welfare hotel and low income apartment rentals before the Ace took over.  The first thing any new acronym neighborhood must do is establish good restaurants, which the Ace has done with the John Dory (now one of the city’s top oyster bars), and the Breslin Bar and Grill.  And new restaurants seem to be opening up in the area every week.  The Eventi Hotel recently opened on 30th Street and 6th Avenue (across from the Haymarket); and over on Fifth Avenue this stretch is once again hopping with new high-end eateries. 

During the Tenderloin days, though, brothels and saloons with names like the Star and Garter, Buckingham Palace, the Bohemia, the Tivoli, and Old Alhambra were clustered down side streets west of Broadway.  According to Luc Sante’s engrossing Low Life,
As time went by the area became stratified: Twenty-ninth was the street of whorehouses, Twenty-eighth stood for high-end gambling, and Twenty-seventh for the low end. There were saloons on every corner, each with a Ladies’ Entrance, and houses of assignation (meaning, in current parlance, hot-sheet hotels) on every block.
And at its center was the Haymarket, the most notorious “dance hall” in the most notorious district. Below is John Sloan’s painting, The Haymarket from 1907, in its waning years. The entrance was on the east side of 6th Avenue, south of 30th Street. The elevated train ran just overhead.

The Haymarket
, John Sloan, 1907

And the Haymarket was, like the Tenderloin, in the middle of everything. The map below breaks down the immediate vicinity.

The short gray line at the bottom shows the southern boundary of the Tenderloin on 23rd Street (below it was Chelsea to the left with the Ladies’ Mile Shopping district directly beneath). The extensive purple lines at the left show Hell’s Kitchen, bordering 8th Avenue (much of it is considered Chelsea today).  There was a viable African American district, indicated by the green lines, that straddled 7th Avenue, half in/half out of the Tenderloin. This was the African American community that staked out Harlem in the 1910s when Penn Station was built and they had to re-locate.  The blue lines show the heaviest concentration of brothels, saloons and gambling halls, all west of Broadway.  The yellow lines show Fifth Avenue and Broadway, which were ritzy streets of theaters, fine hotels and shopping.  The single, slanted red line was the Haymarket—smack in the middle. The Gilsey House and the Breslin (Ace) Hotels are the pink dots, on the east side of Broadway.

During the Tenderloin years Madison Square was the height of society on a global scale. Here’s the opening page of a booklet from 1894, A Historical Sketch of Madison Square, by Morris Benjamin.  It describes the area, which was a mere 7-10 minute walk from the Tenderloin and the Haymarket.  (An important note, between 1890-97 the Haymarket had changed hands and for a while was, of all things, a museum.)


But aside from the 7 year respite, the Haymarket dance hall lasted from 1873 until 1911.  By all accounts the Haymarket was on 6th Avenue, but I found this otherwise dry write-up from the New York Times about the sale of the property.  It provides an intriguing piece of information in the second paragraph—the Haymarket’s property line.

March 4, 1911 New York Times. 

4 MArch 4 1911 nytimes5 The realestate market
So here’s the the Haymarket with a few other landmarks identified, including the Ace Hotel.


What was striking were the dimensions—not a typical “grid” property with 15’ on Broadway and 68’ feet on 6th Avenue! So of course I Googled it, and there it was…

Haymarket ii

The property line of the old Haymarket is very much discernible today!


The property seems to be one large parking lot (see all the cars), but the cars near the yellow line are actually on the roof of a one-story building…

Haymarket iii

Here’s the southeast corner of 6th Avenue and 30th Street (looking at the yellow line in the above picture). In John Sloan’s painting, the entrance to the Haymarket would have been to the far right, past the tree, at the end of the burgundy awning.  The pale patch of wall in the middle of the angled building is the correct height for the Haymarket (three stories), but further research is needed to determine that for sure.  


Looking farther along 30th Street towards Broadway.  The middle of the block is a ground level parking lot, and would have been the heart of the Haymarket.


At the end of West 30th Street (Broadway is to the left) this building was not part of the old Haymarket; it’s an industrial building from the 1920s.

Property Shark Courtesy of Property Shark

On the Broadway corner showing the 15.2’ side of the Haymarket property (the pointy angle of the yellow triangle a few pictures above). Neckties, Scarves and Corbatas.  The tall building on the next block (6th Avenue, facing the entrance of the old Haymarket) is the new Eventi Hotel.

haymarket bway to 6th across 30thi

Panning to the left you can see the Ace Hotel (the old Breslin) and the Gilsey House were just a block away on Broadway.  Broadway was literally the dividing line between these two parts of town!  The Haymarket was full of pickpockets, con artists and gangsters preying on out-of-towners. It was so well known that if you were visiting New York you went there just so you could tell your friends back home.  I suppose the proximity of the two parts of town made sense in the days before subways and yellow cabs.
haymarket bway side12  

Here’s a New York Times piece from February 15, 1920 that sheds more light on the Haymarket and the property’s history.

a1 feb 15 19201 FEb 15 1920FEb 15 1920
Now another fascinating tidbit. You might have noticed that the buildings across the street from the Haymarket are angled at the same orientation!  Usually angled buildings are indicative of old roads, but when they match each other on opposite sides of a street, that’s a pretty good sign of one.


Just to show the angle at street level, here’s West 30th Street across from the Haymarket…

across 30

So now I was on the hunt for an old road, long before the days of NoMad and the Tenderloin. I found this description of a Stewart Street from As You Pass By, by Kenneth Dunshee:
Stewart Street formerly ran from Broadway between 30th and 31st Sts.  southwesterly to a point in the block bounded by 6th Ave. and 7th Ave., 28th and 29th Sts.
And here’s what such a street might look like on the Viele map (in bright green), with the Haymarket in red.

Madison Square FINALi

The yellow boundaries above are neither the Tenderloin nor NoMad but a proposed military training ground.  Back in the early 1800s, when Stewart Street existed, the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 had laid out the area above as a Parade Ground for the military (we were preparing for the War of 1812).   It extended from 3rd to 7th Avenues, 23rd to 34th Streets. It would not, however, come to fruition. 

Just for reference, here’s what the parade ground would look like on today’s grid; a central park before Central Park.

parade ground closeri

If you read the post Why the West Side is Different it explains a lot about the uptown roads leaving from Madison Square.  Here they are on the Viele map (in blue as a schematic).  From left to right the four roads are: the Bloomingdale Road (which became Broadway), Albany Avenue, the Middle Road, and the Boston Post Road (notice how the two roads to the right went around either side of Sunfish Pond. The stream leading from Sunfish Pond still floods the deep basement of the Empire State Building today!). 

Stewart Street appears to have led from Chelsea (and probably the old Fitzroy Road) and connected to the Bloomingdale Road! 

Madison Square FINALii

Stewart Street followed the low ground (see the hash marks just south of it?). And according to the Times article above the old Haymarket started out life in the 1830s as a bath house, which would make sense as it was at the bottom of a hill--you wouldn’t want to lug water up a hill in the days before plumbing!

It’s amazing how an area changes over time.  Later on, the area immediately to the west of that high volume traffic area would become the Tenderloin.  And though the Tenderloin was huge, the heart of it, and the Haymarket, seem to have left a residential and commercial hole right in the middle of the city. It's like the urban environment has a memory all its own. Finally on the verge of an upswing, NoMad is reclaiming that most notorious part of that most notorious district. 
Pretty riveting stuff.

Here's some Google Earth art.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Inspiration for the Statue of Liberty

IMG_12032There's a difference between what inspires a statue to come into creation and what a statue represents, and it's an interesting one when it comes to the Statue of Liberty. The inspiration for the Statue of Liberty is said to have occurred at a specific time and place, and among a particular group of people. But the mainstream meaning of the Statue of Liberty has evolved over time, and generally fits into one of three categories, as most school kids' essays can attest: 1. Universal concepts of freedom and liberty, 2. Liberty as it relates to the monarchs and autocrats of old Europe, and/or 3. Poor and exhausted immigrant masses being welcomed beneath the protective wing of Liberty, mainly due to Emma Lazarus’s great classic epic, The New Colossus.

But with Martin Luther King Day just passed and Black History Month around the corner, it’s a good time to recognize an under-appreciated fact about the origins of the Statue of Liberty. The statue’s history, or what some might call its pre-history, and still others might call its inspiration, is solidly rooted in the end slavery in the US and the restoration of the Union at the end of the Civil War.

The statue, it is generally agreed, was conceived at a dinner party in 1865, 21 years before its unveiling in New York Harbor. Pete Hamill wrote about it in A Story to Remember, from New York magazine, May 12, 1986.
At a dinner party of fellow liberals in the summer of 1865 at Laboulaye's mansion in Glatigny, on the outskirts of Versaille, the talk was ebullient about the surrender of Lee and the end of slavery, the one great blot on the American experiment. But the talk was also darkened by news of the murder of Lincoln. Laboulaye spoke passionately about the joint history of modern France and the United States ("the two sisters") and recalled the great contributions made by the Marquis de Lafayette to the American cause....He said, "there you have the basis of American feeling for the French--an indestructible basis. The feeling honors the Americans as well as us, and if a monument should rise in the United States, as a memorial to their independence, I should think it only natural if it were built by united effort--a common work of both our nations."
The passionate speaker was the abolitionist and great champion of American democracy, Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye, a French politician, historian and president of the French Anti-Slavery Society, as well as author of the 3-volume Political History of the United States.

Auguste Bartholdi, the statue’s sculptor, was also in attendance that night.

The sculptor's intended meaning for the statue is one thing, but the statue's inspiration, that is, why it should exist at all, is more complex.  Following are two passages from the same book that demonstrate the semantic gray area between "meaning" and "inspiration." From The Statue of Liberty, by Cara Sutherland, Museum of the City of New York, p. 18.  
Having an agreed-upon concept, Bartholdi could begin the modeling process.  In recent years there has been much speculation that the statue was intended to be symbolic of an African slave—thereby representing abolitionist sentiments—because of the broken shackle and chain lying at her feet. But in keeping with Laboulaye and Bartholdi’s original source of inspiration for creating the statue, it is more likely that those items represent America’s break from European control and its ability to maintain political independence in the years following the Revolution.  Although dedication speeches in 1886 would praise the Union’s victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the statue itself expresses a more general expression of political independence, in keeping with the intellectual climate of the time. 
Here are the opening lines of the same book, keeping in mind the words "original source of inspiration" from the above passage, p. 9.
An artist never knows when inspiration will strike. For the young French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, it was at a dinner party held in 1865 at Glatigny, the estate of the esteemed historian Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye.  During the gathering, Bartholdi found himself included among a distinguished group of liberal politicians and intellectuals. Laboulaye counted many of France’s leading lights among his friends, and in attendance were Count Agenor de Gasparin and Henri Martin, advisory council members of the newly formed Comite Francais pour l’emancipation des esclaves (the French anti-slavery society of which Laboulaye was president), and politician Count Charles de Remusat.
After dinner, discussion turned to recent events in the United States: the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. How could this young country maintain democracy in the face of adversity while France, founded on many of the same principles during its own revolutionary moment, had stumbled off the path?   
The Statue of Liberty's meaning would be "inspired" by Greek classical ideals of freedom and democracy--she is the goddess Liberty. But the inspiration for a statue in the first place is said to have sprung from the two countries' friendship, the upcoming centenial of the US, and the struggle for survival of the democratic experiment on both continents.  

But consider this, just a year after the dinner party in 1866 Laboulaye and his associates presented Mary Todd Lincoln with a gold medal carrying this inscription:
Lincoln, an honest man, he abolished slavery, restored the union, saved the republic, without veiling the statue of liberty

This was five years before Laboulaye gave Bartholdi the commission to build the Statue of Liberty; Abolished slavery...without veiling the statue of liberty.

Though I don't normally practice historical what ifs, think about it this way--would the president of the French Anti-Slavery Society, whose brainchild the statue was, come up with the idea for a Statue of Liberty, in 1865 or any year, had the Civil War not been fought and won by the Union? If the French-US friendship and the 100th anniversary of the United States were the inspirational factors for the Statue of Liberty, they themselves were inspired--and worth paying tribute to--precisely because of the abolition of slavery in the US and the end of the Civil War. The African American saga and the triumph of human rights over slavery were front and center to the inspired talk on the night the Statue of Liberty was conceived.

But the statue would have a universal meaning. So universal, in fact, that Bartholdi first attempted build her over the Suez Canal in 1867! But his efforts failed to gain traction with Ismail Pasha of Egypt and in 1871 Laboulaye gave him the commission to build the Statue of Liberty in the United States.  

When the statue was unveiled in 1886 it was the Gilded Age in America, and 20 years since the end of the Civil War.  It would be the equivalent of recalling the invasion of Kuwait today.  And it would be nearly another 20 years before Emma Lazarus's epic poem, now tucked away in so many books of poetry since 1883, would be re-discovered and connected to the statue.

At the unveiling, Liberty Enlightening the World (the statue's official name) was meant to send a trans-Atlantic message. For Bartholdi and a great many people the Statue of Liberty represented the triumphal forces of liberty and democracy radiating out, from new continent to old; the new ideals being shown to the monarchies of old Europe. 
 http___wwwii Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World Oil, Edward Moran, 1886. Museum of the City of New York

Indeed, some people had trouble grasping its meaning. As Liberty and Freedom, by David Hackett Fischer describes it (p. 374),
Not everybody liked it. Philadelphians thought it belonged on the Delaware River. New England Yankees complained that the Statue of Liberty was too big, too vulgar, too foreign, too French, and too New York. The conservative Boston poet James Russell Lowell wrote that it was overdone, and he could not see the point of it.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum was a Russian radical, Aleksandra Kollontai, who thought it was “pitiful” and “shrunken”…The Roman Catholic clergy were hostile in yet another way. They raged against a pagan female idol of liberty, which gave them four reasons to dislike it.
But Emma Lazarus would single-handedly "turn our telescopes around" in how we viewed the statue. She wrote The New Colossus for an auction in 1883 to raise funds for the pedestal; it was published and promptly forgotten about.  Lazarus was a poet and great humanitarian, having volunteered to help indigent immigrants on Ward's Island. She passed away at 38, in 1887.  A friend, Georgina Shuyler re-discovered the poem in a secondhand bookshop in 1903 and was instantly struck be the force of its message.  She persuaded others, and a bronze plaque was set on the statue. With the poem, and people's immediate connection to it, the statue changed from one of beaming liberty outward, to one of protection and relief for the new arrivals, almost seeming to bless them.  As well, many halfhearted enthusiasts and outright critics came around, many people now "got it." 

This is how most people relate to the Statue of Liberty today. The sonnet is virtually synonymous with the statue; the Gettysburg Address of immigration: classic, epic.  

And though the Statue of Liberty’s meaning might have changed over time, its inspiration can never change.  And if it was at that dinner held in 1865 where they discussed, to quote the medal, Lincoln’s ability to “abolish slavery, restore the union, and save the republic, without veiling the statue of liberty,” then it's pretty strong evidence that the Civil War, the ultimate fight for Civil Rights, was a large factor in the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty.  That the meaning of the statue is different from her inspiration serves only to give us more levels on which to honor her.

So let's look at her a bit.

The pedestal and the Statue were built on
Fort Wood, one of four forts built in the harbor to prepare for the War of 1812. The pedestal was created by the great architect Richard Morris Hunt, and financed by the American people. 

When seen from different perspectives the statue changes form and movement

From one vantage point she seems stable and still. Her beacon, first considered to be "enlightening the world," was turned inward and became a guiding light, showing the passage to the New World, welcoming and offering opportunity to new arrivals.

She is most active from the vantage point of ships entering the harbor.  Here she steps out of broken chains of bondage. 


From the back, the sense of forward movement is combined with a sense of strength and stability.


Aside the statue she appears stable, with America at her back, transmitting many messages from that time in history.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Morningside Heights: History is in the Lay of the Land

The last post, Why the West Side is Different, talked about Morningside Heights as an impediment to west side traffic, a virtual “island in the air.” This post will explore more of the plateau, its terrain, its major tenants through history, and what can be seen today in the streets and buildings that reveal its past.
Below is Morningside Heights on the Viele map with the “pure grid” superimposed over the terrain—the oldest and (proposed) newest features of the area when the map was drawn up in 1865.  But at the time, only the Bloomingdale Road existed, and the narrow lane branching off at 111th Street.  It’s the nonconformist road to the left.

According to the Encyclopedia of New York City, the Bloomingdale Road “opened in 1703 and ran from what is now 23rd Street to the northern  end of Bloomingdale Village, near what is now 114th Street. In 1795 the road was extended north to 147th Street and linked to the old Kingsbridge Road."

So from 1703 until 1795, the Bloomingdale Road ended at the bend in the road at 115th Street, just before the river.  The narrow road that branches off at 111th Street seems to have been a dry passage up to the plateau.

courtesy of

And the bend in the road is still visible today!

This is 114th Street and Riverside Drive looking north; dog and walker are crossing Broadway at 115th Street (toward the Hudson).  Not only can you see the bend in the road, there’s a slight dip where the river crossed through!   Beyond the third traffic light, at 116th Street, the road follows the “new” orientation of Riverside Drive.

GoogleEarth shows it even better.  We’ll revisit this spot later.

bloomingdale @ 115

Much of the buildable land on Morningside Heights is arranged in a diagonal.  Below, Grant’s Tomb, Riverside Church and a few other tenants occupy the upper left corner.  The middle rectangle is the footprint of Columbia University, and the lower right is the property of St. John the Divine, situated on a slightly lower plateau.  (Imagine the boxes arranged diagonally the other way and all the hash marks that would be in the boundaries.)

Final 111 

The green boxes are Low Library (directly over 117th Street), Butler Library (on the north side of 114th Street), and St. John the Divine (directly over 112th Street). 

If you’re familiar with the area, follow Broadway (Eleventh Avenue) up to 121st Street and you can see where the ground drops away and the 1 train emerges out of the north side of the plateau.

Let’s look at the topography from street level.

This is Amsterdam Avenue (Tenth on the Viele map) at 117th Street looking south, Columbia is on the right.  117th Street is a high ridge across the center plateau.  In the middle distance you can see the lower plateau of St. John the Divine.  The bus crossing way up ahead is on 110th Street, the south boundary of Morningside Heights.


On the other side of campus, Broadway, you can see the same undulation in the road.  The south boundary of Morningside Heights is beyond that last bump.


Back on Amsterdam, 117th Street looking the other way.  You can see why this area was avoided in the days of horse and foot travel. 

Zooming in is even more dramatic…


The hill on Broadway is best seen in this old photo. 117th Street is at the end of the first traffic island (the one with the subway station in the middle of Broadway). The first building on the right is Lewisohn, the Mathematics Building is north of it on Broadway.  In between them is where 117th would run if it crossed campus, the apex.

symp 11

Exactly where 117th Street would be, squarely on the apex of the central plateau, sits Low Library.

And here’s St. John the Divine, on the lower plateau.  This view is looking east along 112th Street, from Broadway to Amsterdam.


For Seinfeld fans…

Toms Restaurant

But these weren’t the first institutions to occupy the choice real estate of Morningside Heights. Before Low Library was built on the high center point, the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum opened its first building in 1821 on the exact same spot.  It would literally be under the rotunda of Low if it were standing today.  You can see the trees in the back appear to descend down the hill.

bloomingdale asylum ii

The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum was joined in 1843 by the Leake and Watts Orphanage, which moved onto the lower plateau of today’s St. John the Divine.  For nearly 50 years the two neighbors enjoyed quiet, woodsy grounds. The therapeutic gardens of the insane asylum were located on the lower half of Columbia University, between 114th – 116th Streets.

Below are the buildings of both institutions, superimposed on the later ones.

Final 11111

A few of the buildings are…
The insane asylum’s first building is directly over Low Library.  Men’s and women’s wings were added within a few years of the first building.
Macy Villa (a “men’s department”) sits directly on 116th Street.
The Superintendent’s House is the building closest to Broadway (Eleventh Avenue).
The conservatory is the cross-shaped building on 117th Street.

The barn and stables sit over the left side of Butler Library, in the therapeutic gardens.

The gymnasium and bowling alley sit on the right side of Butler, also in the gardens.

The orphanage building sits at the south crossing of St. John the Divine.
A single structure from both institutions survive today.

For context, the building to the far right is Macy Villa.

 Today it is Buell Hall on the Columbia campus.


Macy Villa’s original location was on 116th Street.  It was moved back to build Kent Hall, its beautiful porches removed in the process.  It was built as a residence for wealthy male patients and was the last structure built on asylum grounds, in 1885—just 10 years younger than Low!  You can see the conservatory to the right, nestled in the trees where St. Paul’s Chapel will eventually be.  Also, Grant’s Tomb (1897) is visible in the distance. 


The gymnasium and bowling alley are in the lower left.

Buell hall

The insane asylum’s therapeutic gardens (not owned by Columbia yet).  The shrubby boundary in the foreground is 114th Street, the eventual south border of Columbia.  The gymnasium and bowling alley are to the right and Macy Villa is in the back, blending in a bit. 


The photos above were taken sometime around 1900-1910. I’m not sure of the date of the picture below, but it was after the building was moved, since its porches are gone.  What’s remarkable is all the ivy—it grew in just a few decades—1920s?

macy villa

The other survivor from the Bloomingdale Heights days (as it was called in the 1800s) is the Leake and Watts Orphanage Asylum.  Along the south side of the Cathedral you can see the 1843 Greek Revival building to the right of the fountain.


Usually Greek Revival buildings are massive, domineering structures.  Here it looks like a car port next to St. John the Divine.


The orphanage in the 1860s, with hopefully soon-to-be-adopted children out front.  The east wing (right side) of the building was removed during the cathedral’s construction.

Museum of the City of New York

Only the facade seems to be the same, and there’s been a lot of landscaping.  The west wing (left side) of the building is still there though.


Now let’s focus on the roads. Here’s a close up of the narrow lane coming off the Bloomingdale Road. Locally, Columbia students call the old road “Asylum Lane.”  It makes sense, the road ends equidistant between the two asylums.  The reason students are familiar with it is because it left its mark on buildings constructed along its path.

Final 4

There are four circles in the image below (they’re very light), and a line showing the path of Asylum Lane.  Two circles indicate Macy Villa (nearby its original location) and the Leake and Watts orphanage.  The other two circles are on the path of Asylum Lane, showing buildings with walls built at angles as a result of the old street!


Here’s a close-up showing Broadway and 111th-113th Streets.

Asylum Lane palimpsest2

And if you really can’t see them…

Asylum Lane palimpsest2b

The buildings themselves were not necessarily built on Asylum Lane; they may have been built alongside older buildings that were, and so had to follow the walls of the those buildings. It's an artifact, a manifestation of the palimpsest, and it can get passed down through generations of buildings. (Another example of the city-as-palimpsest can be found in first post, Ghost of the Broadway Central, it’s short).

Here’s a street view of those buildings on the west side of Broadway, just north of 111th Street.  Only the middle building has both walls with the Asylum Lane angle.  Asylum Lane would have passed to the right, by the teal awning.

The building to the south (left, above) is the Heights Bar and Grill. It has a great rooftop bar and shares one angled wall with its neighbor to the north.


The door is straight.  But the walls and the tile floor point to the area between the orphanage and insane asylum.


I find it fascinating that in 2011 an interior space can still be determined by an old road from the asylum days of the 1800s.  And in fact, the road is much older than that!


In 1701 Jacob de Key bought nearly the entire Morningside Heights plateau from the city.  In 1735 Thomas Key (an heir apparently) sold the plateau in two chunks: the Hudson (western) side to Adrian Hoaglandt, and the eastern side overlooking the Harlem Plains to Harmon Vandewater.  In the 1700s the plateau was known as Vandewater Heights.  Thus, the chain is: Vandewater Heights (1700s)-Bloomingdale Heights (1800s)-Morningside Heights (1900s).  

With all of its years of rural tranquility, Vandewater Heights did see one brief flash of spectacular violence with the Battle of Harlem Heights, a small but important morale-boosting victory for the Continental Army. The first (and just about only) time the Redcoats were sent in a retreat.  Here’s a plaque affixed to the Mathematics building on Columbia’s campus to honor the battle in 1776—55 years before the insane asylum moved to the plateau, when Hoaglandt and Vandewater were the main tenants.  


The plaque reads: “To Commemorate the Battle of Harlem Heights, Won By Washington’s Troops On This Site, September 16, 1776.  Erected By the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York.”   Because they’re interesting, here’s an enlargement of the medallions in the lower corners:

   IMG_0566 IMG_0565

And here’s a map of the battlefield, drawn by Henry Phelps Johnston, 1897. 

battle of harlem heights
Courtesy of the Columbia University Press

The Vandewater property is in grey and the Hoaglandt property in pink.  In 1776 the Bloomingdale Road still ended at 114th Street (see where the solid road ends and the dotted road begins—at the bend in the road at 115th Street).  Here’s a close-up of the area we’re interested in…

battle of harlem heightsiii

The black square at the end of the old Bloomingdale Road, and across the river, was the Hoaglandt home since 1735.  Vandewater had also been on the plateau since 1735, but at the time his property didn’t border the Bloomingdale Road.  Harmon Vandewater built “Asylum Lane” along his property line to access the Bloomingdale Road.  (Johnston’s map simply marks it as “Lane.”) Also, it extended in the other direction, towards the park, leading to a path down the cliffs!

Here’s the map once again, with the blue indicating the Hoaglandt and Vandewater homes, and the full extent of Vandewater’s road leading to Morningside Park.

Final 3

One more piece of evidence. In 1784, at the end of the Revolution, Nicholas de Peyster bought the Hoaglandt property, and a year later his brother James de Peyster bought the Vandewater side. 

Here’s the area again, now from the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811. It was ten years before the insane asylum came; still farmland, but now owned by the Peyster brothers.  You can clearly make out the old Vandewater road, along with another connection leading downtown.  See it on the bottom right?

comm pla12

Here’s an approximation of the road as it would appear on today’s grid.

asylum lane aii

There are actually three entrances to Morningside Park that could possibly be the old path that led down the cliffs.  If indeed any of today’s entrances are the old path, my best guess would be this one, at 114th Street.


One last piece of cool history, over near the Hoaglandt house.  It seems choice sites were recycled through history.  This passage is from the book New York of Yesterday, by Hopper Striker Mott, 1908…

It was still standing when that was written in 1908, but only for another 4 years.  It was torn down in 1912 to build the Hamilton, an apartment building. 

But this country estate built for the president of Emigrant Savings Bank was contemporary with the asylums. From 1840 – 1912, the Carrigan mansion stood at that bend in the road on 115th Street.  Its Greek Revival architecture was the same style as the orphanage, built just three years later in 1843—the style of the period.  If it were standing today it would be 50 years older than Macy Villa.

1153a Courtesy of New York Public Library

And it sat like a time capsule amongst the middle class apartment buildings of Morningside Heights until 1912.

Courtesy of New York Public Library

Here's the Hamilton today (those are the same buildings on the right as the picture above).


And the Hamilton sits just east of the crook in the old Bloomingdale Road, between 114th and 115th Street, where the river once ran through.