I like to think sometimes about what Manhattan was like in middle of the nineteenth century. Especially the upper East side, upper Fifth Avenue, the venue for my book Savage Girl. It fascinates me because it is so different than our image of New York. The environs were almost completely undeveloped.
In 1842, James Renwick designed the gargantuan Croton Reservoir (also referred to as the Murray Hilll Distributing Reservoir) at 42nd Street. It was far from the center of town. He ran a promenade along the top rim of its forty-one- and-a-half foot high slanted walls. The walkway became a hit society destination. You could get an ice cream afterward across the street at Croton Cottage.
North of the reservoir stretched the undeveloped city. If you look at a picture made in 1863, facing south from the site of what would become Central Park, you can see the still-pastoral nature of uptown.
Fifth Avenue, to the left, heads determinedly north, flanked by buildings in its lower reaches but by nothing but fields and cattle farther up. A few homes dot the landscape, but more dominant are the ungainly freestanding charitable institutions that would not be accommodated farther downtown. You can see the massive shapes of St. Luke’s Hospital, between 54th and 55th Streets, and the unfortunately named Deaf and Dumb Asylum. Behind St. Luke’s stands the Colored Orphan Asylum, which was attacked in the horrific week-long Draft Riots of 1863 (five years after this image was made). Saint Patrick’s, the landmark we associate with midtown Fifth Avenue, was not begun until 1858.
To give an idea what the surroundings were like, consider Madison Avenue, a block over from Fifth, as it made its way north from 55th Street around this time.
A thirty-acre farm owned by the prosperous Lenox family dominated the neighborhood, with a stolid white tenant farmhouse located between 71 and 72 near Fifth Avenue. Cows grazed nearby and market crops grew in rows. Lying on the outskirts of town this far north were slaughterhouses, stockyards and tanneries, enterprises fashionable downtown folks did not want near their homes. The Lenox Library, a handsome block-long structure designed by star-architect Richard Morris Hunt, went up in 1875 at Fifth Avenue and 71st Street, an outpost of civilization.
As of 1865, the city was moving uptown, but slowly.
New Yorkers took the air on Fifth Avenue, promenading as always with vigor. The Easter Parade was only one opportunity to admire and be admired.
But while the uppertens (upper ten percent) of New York built their urban villas and stolid brownstones to the south, wide open stretches of the boulevard north of 60th Street still seemed off limits for luxury development. At the time of Savage Girl, more than 340 private residences had been constructed up to 59th Street but none above.
The lack of elegant homes didn’t mean people didn’t live there. Those precincts had long been settled by African Americans and German and Irish squatters who occupied shanty towns where the principle businesses were bone boiling, glue, soap and candlemaking. Eventually they were eliminated from the area both by the development of Central Park and rising real estate prices.
Central Park, built in the 1860s and opened officially in 1873, made inroads in “civilizing” the neighborhood; but it still seemed too much like a savage wilderness for the upper crust to build there.
There were a few exceptions, wealthy home builders that for their own reasons decided to go above 42nd Street. But mansions towered over shacks.
Mary Mason Jones, a distant relation of Edith Wharton’s – personified in The Age of Innocence by Mrs. Manson Mingott — built a row of mansions on Fifth Avenue bet. 58th and 57th Streets, completing them in 1870. A remarkably independent, wealthy, well-travelled woman, she had the first bathtub in NY installed in her home on Chambers Street, and her choice of venue for her new residence was equally offbeat. Five homes were constructed of gleaming white marble, with a two-story mansard roof that had green copper trim.
By the time the fictional Delegates, the family at the center of Savage Girl, settle into their house in the early 1870s at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 63rd Street, all was still quiet, devoid of built structures, undiscovered by Knickerbocker Society. The Delegates are pioneers. I decided to situate them there because the choice makes them outliers, risk takers, iconoclasts in a society they see as conformist. I wanted to show them as the first to build a grand residence, one that would outshine all the others in the city.
I couldn’t resist borrowing from some of the later residential masterworks to design the Delegate house, even though they would not be erected for a few more years. The various Vanderbilt homes offered the kind of opulence I felt the Delegates’ place would embody. I was especially impressed by the mansion Cornelius Vanderbilt II put up at 58th Street and 5th Avenue in 1883, the largest private residence ever built in New York City. A full block long, designed by George B. Post, it stood sentry until 1927, as one mansion after another followed it up the avenue.
Actually, I’m being slightly inaccurate. For the record, in the early 1870s one house did stand on Fifth Avenue at 63rd Street, above the 59th Street divide, just across the street from the still forbidding Park. A narrow townhouse circa 1871, it was built speculatively by one Runyon Martin, hardly a mogul. It didn’t last long.
The Delegates knocked it down to put up their turretted, mulberry-colored, block-long twin palaces.