Edgar Allan Poe Street

Poe House

West 84th Street between Riverside Drive and Broadway has been given the honorific name of Edgar Allan Poe Street after the well-known American author who briefly lived in a farmhouse in the area when he is said to have composed “The Raven.” Just exactly where the house stood, however, is a disputed point.

There is no disagreement about the basic facts: In the summer of 1844, Poe moved with his wife and mother-in-law from Manhattan to a modest farmhouse near the village of Bloomingdale. Virginia Poe suffered from tuberculosis and the country air was believed to have curative properties. Their hosts were Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Brennan, the owners of the brick and frame house.

The story gets murky once one tries to pinpoint the location of the house in relation to the modern map of Manhattan.  The watercolor above is taken from the frontispiece of a 1903 collection of Poe’s works and is captioned “The House at 84th Street and Bloomingdale Road.” (Much of the Bloomingdale Road was later incorporated into Broadway.) A reference work from 2007 says the house was “a few hundred feet from the northeast corner of the present 84th Street and Broadway.” These contradictory claims are not resolved by a visit to the area, as there are also competing plaques placed at two different locations.

Plaque at 84th and Broadway. Photo from the Raymond Biswanger Slide Collection, U. of Pennsylvania Libraries

The plaque pictured above can be found on the south wall of the building at the northwest corner of 84th and Broadway. It was placed by the New York Shakespeare Society in 1922 to honor our “American Shakespeare.” In a flourish that is perhaps expected from a group of Shakespearean actors and scholars, the house is entitled the “Brennen Mansion” despite it being by most accounts more rightfully called a cottage.

The Shakespearean plaque seems to have been placed based on the accounts of the house being at the intersection of 84th and Bloomingdale Road. Just half a block east, however, is another plaque:

Plaque located at 215 W. 84th. Photo from readtheplaque.com

Like the plaque at Broadway, the one at 215 W. 84th St. claims the Brennan farmhouse stood at that location. So which claim, if either, is correct?

One thing that should perhaps be cleared up is the notion that the farmhouse was “on” 84th Street. In 1844, the Upper West Side was still countryside. While the grid of numbered streets and avenues had been adopted some three decades previous to Poe’s stay at the Brennan house, the streets were only opened as the city expanded from the south. It was another four decades after Poe left the area until the city fully caught up with 84th St, and when it did, in the 1880s, the house was demolished to make way for new development. In an account of that demolition we find some informative clues as to the house’s exact location.

In the July 18, 1888 edition of the New York Times, the Brennan house is described:

It was a two-storied building, with a wide piazza at its western face. At the northern end stood a small extension one story high. This extension, or part of it, is all that remains to-day.

The one-story extension can be seen in the painting above. Note that it is described as extending on the north side of the house. The description continues:

The foundations were of stone, and the cellar walls of the old building – said to be 150 years old – are still in good condition. The remains are reached by a wooden stairway that leads from Eighty-fourth-street.

The stairway leading to the house is another important clue. As the city expanded and the street grid was filled in, the once hilly and rocky island of Manhattan was flattened. Streets were cut straight through the hills and outcroppings of rock upon which the oldest houses were built, sometimes stranding them high above street level. An 1879 photograph of the Brennan house clearly shows the staircase leading down to 84th St.

The Brennan house in 1879

If this 1888 account is accurate, and the author appears to have been describing the scene first-hand, then there is already enough information to discredit both current claims about the location of the house. If the one-story extension is on the north side of the house, and the stairway leads down to 84th Street, then it is clear from the photo above that the house stood on the south side of 84th, not the north side where both current plaques are located.

The 1888 account provides more support for the location being on the south side of 84th:

The cottage occupied the exact centre of the block between Tenth-avenue [now Amsterdam] and the Boulevard [Broadway], the northern side of the extension being almost on a line with the line of the present sidewalk.

As can be seen, the northern side of the extension is very close to the edge of the cliff of rock created when 84th street was cut through.

There is another tantalizing clue in the 1888 account: the claim that the house, or at least its foundations, are quite old. If the farmhouse had been standing at that spot for more than a century, might there not be other documents indicating its location?

On questions of where early houses were located in relation to the street grid we can go back to the source itself: John Randel, the surveyor who laid out and mapped the Manhattan street grid that was adopted in 1811. Randel created a series of maps that became the blueprint for the city. Recently digitized, this rare collection of maps can now be examined closely. Below is a detail of the Randel map of the area in question:

poehouse3

Randel not only accurately projected the lines of the future streets, he carefully indicated property lines and the locations of major buildings as well as a sketch of the topography. Here, along the line of 84th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway, can be seen Randel’s indication of a house. A closer look reveals more detail:

poehouse4

Randel’s sketch shows a building with two parts, a larger structure on the south with a smaller extension to the north. It appears to match the descriptions and images of the Brennan house. Also, it is shown located almost exactly on the line of the projected path of 84th Street, just as it is depicted in the 1879 photograph above. It would appear that Randel’s map shows the actual location of the Brennan house, on the south side of West 84th Street, about 180 feet west of the centerline of Amsterdam Avenue. That places the site of Poe’s house at about present-day 204 or 206 West 84th Street.

City records indicate that the buildings currently standing at this site were constructed c.1900. It is possible that these were the very buildings constructed on the newly-leveled lot created during the demolition of the Brennan house. It is also possible that Edgar Allan Poe Street ends a block too soon, as it does not extend east of Broadway.

In the 1888 New York Times account, the author concludes:

Within three months the spot has been a sort of rendezvous for the professional as well as the amateur photographer, so that even after its destruction evidence will remain sufficient to show those who care to know how looked the cottage in which Poe wrote “The Raven.”

How it looked? Maybe so. Where it was located? That evidence was perhaps overlooked.

Posted in Upper West Side | Leave a comment

New York: Stockade City

Part of the reconstruction of the World Trade Center area in lower Manhattan includes reopening several of the streets that were closed for the initial construction. On the map, these reopenings appear to reconnect the flow of some of the oldest streets in the city. Greenwich Street, for example, which was laid out in 1739 along the high-water line of the Hudson River, and which was cut in two in 1965, will be restored. A portion of Cortlandt Street, laid out in 1733 by Philip and Frederick Van Cortlandt and also closed in 1965, will be resurrected as Cortlandt Way, a pedestrian mall.

The restoration of the haphazard net of old streets is not as much a reopening as the map would suggest, however. Fired by fears of terrorist attacks, the NYPD maintains a high presence in the area around the World Trade Center with security checkpoints and barriers intended to discourage another attack. Michael Powell has written about the effect the increased security has already had on the residents and workers in the area, and expressed on Twitter his belief that letting security concerns dictate design will result in an urban fortress.

Powell’s remark on Twitter reminded me that New York began its life as a “stockade city,” literally, with a stockade of wood and earth running just a few blocks south of the World Trade Center along Wall Street. Fearful of attack from New England, Director General Petrus Stuyvesant had ordered the wall built to protect the land side of the city, which was fortified on the waterside by Fort Amsterdam and a battery along the Hudson.

Then, as now, the city’s security measures created controversy among its residents. Stuyvesant’s wall crossed property lines, cutting off lots and generating disputes in court. Stuyvesant also recommended that no building be allowed within a cannon shot of the wall. The burgomasters and schepens concurred and issued a decree in October, 1657. (Coincidentally, part of the current WTC site is probably within that no-build zone.)

The city’s decree appears to have carried little weight with the residents of the island, who typically ignored such things when they found them inconvenient. In the end, New England did supplant New Netherland, but the takeover was negotiated and Stuyvesant’s fortress was never fully tested. Nevertheless, modern lower Manhattan was shaped by the security concerns of its founders.

Security threats from other sources also shaped the city. Aside from the potential threat of war, attacks by fire and disease were more common and immediate dangers to the city. Water Street is so much wider than the other old streets in lower Manhattan because it was laid out at a width of 40 feet to protect ships at the wharves and docks from the spread of fire from the city. Improvements in firefighting eventually allowed the city to expand outward into the surrounding rivers.

Many of the old slips that now lie buried under the streets of Manhattan were filled in to improve sanitation. The tidal waters of the harbor deposited all manner of trash and refuse in the stagnant slips, which became fetid. The prevailing medical opinion of the day was that foul air itself caused the regular outbreaks of yellow fever, and an effort was made beginning in the early 19th Century to drain and fill the reeking swamps and slips along the East River. (The strategy had some success inasmuch as it reduced the amount of stagnant water where yellow-fever-carrying mosquitoes bred, but the actual source of the disease was not identified until 1900.) At the same time, Greenwich Village experienced a small population boom with each outbreak as city dwellers fled for the countryside and healthier air. Wealthier New Yorkers built or purchased their homes around open spaces like Gramercy Park to protect themselves from disease by improved air flow.

New York has been designing for security for 300 years, sometimes actively and sometimes incidentally. The city has adapted as each threat has passed and been replaced by a new one, but the designs have left enduring marks still visible today.

Posted in Lower Manhattan | Leave a comment

Manhattan’s Memorial Street Names

Manhattan is not unique in having several streets named for famous war figures and local veterans. Where it differs from other American places, however, is that the veterans honored with Manhattan street names are mostly confined to three conflicts: the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and World War I.

That New York City would honor so many figures from the Revolution is not surprising, perhaps, given its central position in several key battles. General George Washington was a national hero, of course, but was closely linked to New York City, where he was inaugurated. Washington’s name has been used widely in Manhattan (and is presently the most common personal street name in the country). Of the other streets named for Revolutionary War veterans, most were named around 1799, at a time when the war was still fresh in the city’s history.

It is not as obvious why the veterans of the War of 1812 are so frequently honored with Manhattan street names, but in historical context it becomes clear. The war was the young nation’s first major international conflict after independence and rekindled animosity toward the British. As had happened after the Revolution, the city sought to remove from the map some of the references to its former subservience to England. Replacing Charlotte Street, named for the bride of King George III, with Pike Street, after  General Zebulon Pike who was killed at the Battle of York in 1813, was considered an act of patriotism.

The war also coincided with the adoption in 1811 of the plan that created Manhattan’s numbered street grid. The street commissioners’ plan proposed the elimination of the practice of naming streets for landowners or notable figures, and assigned numbers (and a few letters) instead. At the time, the city already had some numbered north-south streets east of the Bowery. Realizing the confusion that would be caused by duplicate street numbers, the Common Council renamed the old numbered streets in one fell swoop in 1817. They chose new names from among the fallen veterans of the recent war. This would be the last major adoption of war memorial street names for a hundred years.

Over the course of the rest of the 19th Century, Manhattan grew along its ordered grid, which was initially laid out as far north as 155th Street. By the late 19th Century the properties above 155th were beginning to be purchased by developers. Streets were laid out and named, but many existed only on paper into the 20th Century. Freed from the constraints of the grid, streets could once again be named for people and were laid out to conform to the landscape and to earlier settlement. As was the case before 1811, local property owners were a common source for street names. A few streets were named for famous American authors. The numbered street naming system was partially extended and some streets were given placeholder letter names. As areas like Inwood were coalescing in the early 20th Century the nation once again entered into war, and in 1920 several Inwood streets were renamed after young men who had died in battle. The area’s connection to the Revolution was preserved in the names of Fort Washington Avenue and Fort George Hill. The city’s only Civil War general honored with a street name was recognized with Wadsworth Avenue and Wadsworth Terrace. (Generals Sherman and Sheridan are honored with squares.)

In the years between the World Wars, not only had Manhattan become fully developed, but the city grew increasingly reluctant to rename streets. No World War II figures have been recognized with a Manhattan street name.

Below is a list of veterans after whom Manhattan street names were chosen in honor of their service.

Revolutionary War

  • Peter Gansevoort – Fort Gansevoort stood on the Hudson River near present Gansevoort Street, which is named for the fort.
  • General Nathanael Greene – Greene Street
  • General Horatio Gates – Horatio Street
  • The Marquis de Lafayette – Lafayette Street is named for the French general who fought on the side of the Americans.
  • General Alexander McDougal – Macdougal Street
  • Colonel Robert Magaw – Magaw Place
  • General Francis Marion – Marion Street (now Cleveland Place)
  • General Hugh Mercer – Mercer Street
  • Colonel Alexander Scammel – Scammel Street (now closed)
  • General William Thompson – Thompson Street
  • General David Wooster – Wooster Street

War of 1812

  • William Henry Allen – Allen Street
  • General Joseph Bloomfield – Bloomfield Street
  • Lt. Col. Joseph Bogart – Bogart Street (now closed)
  • Lt. Col. John Chrystie – Chrystie Street
  • Stephen Decatur – Decatur Place (now obsolete)
  • Lt. Joseph Eldridge – Eldridge Street
  • Lt. Col Benjamin Forsyth – Forsyth Street
  • Lt. Augustus C. Ludlow – Ludlow Street
  • General Zebulon Pike – Pike Street, Pike Slip

Civil War

  • General Philip Sheridan – Sheridan Square
  • General William Tecumseh Sherman – Sherman Square
  • General James S. Wadsworth – Wadsworth Avenue

Mexican-American War

  • General William J. Worth – Worth Street. Worth was also an officer in the War of 1812.

World War I

  • ____ Daniels – Daniels Street (now closed). First name unknown.
  • Philip S. Finn – Finn Square
  • ____ Henshaw – Henshaw Street. First name unknown.
  • William Moylan – Moylan Place (now closed, but the sign still exists).
  • General John Pershing – Pershing Square
  • ____ Staff  - Staff Street. First name unknown.
  • Sgt. Alvin C. York – York Avenue

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment