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 more rightfully called a cottage by most accounts.

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:

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.

“Piazza” probably refers to a veranda or covered porch. There is not one visible in the watercolor above, but it appears to show the main entrance. There is an extension visible in the painting, but it appears to be of two stories, not one. 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 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.

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