The Merchant’s House Museum

New York City is full of hidden treasures. The lovely Merchant’s House Museum, located at 29 East 4th Street in historic NoHo, is one of our best. The Merchant’s House is easy to get to from most points in the city – just take the 6 to Astor Place or the N/R to 8th Street – and once you’re there, you’re in a really fun area of the city. The Merchant’s House Museum has been preserved intact and, walking into it today, it feels like you have stepped back in time.

Doorway: Tredwell House
Bernice Abbott, Doorway: Tredwell House, 1936.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

When Seabury Tredwell and his wife Eliza moved into the Merchant’s House in 1835, the “Bond Street neighborhood” was the most desirable place to live in New York. Wealthy New York families like the Astors and the Delanos lived just around the corner on Lafayette Place, and theatres and shops catering to an affluent crowd lined the Bowery and Broadway. It is no surprise that the Tredwell family chose to live in this house at that time. However, it is unusual that the Tredwells chose to stay after the neighborhood had become unfashionable and their neighbors moved further uptown. Because of the choice to remain forever in their house on East 4th Street, and because the Tredwells were an unusually long-lived family (many lived until almost 100 years old), the Merchant’s House was unwittingly preserved and has now become one of the true gems of New York City. The Merchant’s House is the most intact pre-Civil War house in New York City, boasting a relatively unaltered interior and exterior and most of its original furniture. Although the material items of the house are wonderful, the most special part is that it offers a rare glimpse into the real life of a wealthy New York City family in mid-19th century New York.

Seabury Tredwell was a successful merchant – a product of the beginning of New York’s 19th century commercial explosion. Tredwell made his fortune as an importer of marine hardware, and retired to the Merchant’s House in 1835 when he was 55 years old. The Tredwells were wealthy enough by the mid 19th century boom of industry to enjoy the new consumer market of luxury products.

The Old Merchant's House
Samuel H. Gottscho, The Old Merchant’s House, 1943.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The Tredwell’s parlor is home to a suite of 12 chairs attributed to Duncan Phyfe. Phyfe is the quintessential example of a known master who entered the new age of manufacturing with a name already respected within the industry. The Tredwells regarded their Phyfe collection as one of their most prized possessions, and would have made it a point to place the chairs conspicuously at every party they hosted. The Tredwells were also proud of their “prefab” couches, which were made partially by machine. Although handmade goods are generally more elite and expensive, it is telling that, in this period of new industrialization, the Tredwells would have been smitten with the idea of owning the “latest and greatest” of the era.

There were more benefits of having wealth in 19th century New York than access to fashionable furniture. One crucial advantage that the Tredwells had was that they were able to largely avoid the unsanitary, disease-filled conditions that plagued those who lived in close proximity to each other and did not have access to clean water.

While many New Yorkers were pumping their water from the public “Tea Water” pump or from an unsanitary pump in the backyard of a tenement house, the Tredwells had a water pump connected to a private cistern that provided them with clean drinking and bathing water. The inadequate and dirty water supply was one of the biggest factors plaguing New York until (and even after) the Croton Aqueduct System dramatically improved New York’s water supply in the 1840’s. Contaminated water lead to issues with personal hygiene, dehydration, and the transmission of water-borne diseases such as cholera and yellow fever. The Tredwells had their water shipped in from the clean springs of the Hudson Valley and were thus sheltered from many of the hardships those with city water were facing. Not only did they have clean drinking water, they were able to take other hygienic measures like bathing properly, doing laundry, and cleaning their dishes in between each meal.

The servants’ quarters at the Merchant’s House. Image courtesy of Softer City.

The Merchant’s House is full of hints that the Tredwell’s servants were crucial to the daily running of the house. Call bells hang in the kitchen, signaling that the servants were at the Tredwell’s beck and call at all times. Even when the servants retired to their quarters, their work was never done. The servants’ quarters on the top floor of the Merchant’s House (not always, but occasionally, open to the public) are arranged so that the bedrooms encircle a central “work room” with a large table in which the servants would perform the additional tasks of the day, such as mending clothes and filling the oil lamps. The Tredwells are a typical example of a wealthy New York family who capitalized on the influx of Irish immigrants in the 19th century by hiring Irish women as maidservants. By 1850, 168,701 Irish immigrant women were working as domestic servants in London, and one can assume that the numbers were similar in New York at that time. The Tredwells had about four Irish female servants at any given time. These servants would be responsible for household chores including the Herculean tasks of laundry and cooking, the majority of child care, and attending to the constant stream of visitors who would come to call on Mrs. Tredwell. The tensions between the Tredwells and their servants frequently reflected the larger tensions of the city. The Tredwells were a staunchly Protestant family (Seabury was closely related to the first bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in North America), and, like many Protestants in New York, were highly suspicious of the Catholic Irish. Mrs. Tredwell was constantly paranoid that her servants were going to “convert” her children by planting Catholic ideas into their head, and she was unwilling to let her servants have time off on Saturday to make their confessions at Church.

The Tredwells were undoubtedly an important and wealthy family in New York City in the 19th century, but they were not the most important or most wealthy. Although the Tredwell’s lifestyle certainly does not reflect what it was like for the majority of the population at the time, their story is not unique and other well-to-do New York families of the era shared many of their experiences. The insight that the Merchant’s House offers on the day-to-day life of the Tredwells and of their maidservants is both fascinating and haunting.

After a tour of the Merchant’s House, soak up the spirit of the surrounding NoHo neighborhood, which borders Greenwich Village, the East Village, and SoHo. For a true New York favorite, walk 10 minutes south to Lombardi’s on Spring Street. I eat a lot of pizza, and Lombardi’s is one of my favorite places. It calls itself “America’s first pizzeria” (as a historian, I cannot confirm this) – it dates back to 1905, and their pizza is still made in the coal oven from this era. As long as you’re in the mood for Italian, end your pizza with a cannoli from Ferrara – by far the best cannoli in Little Italy, and probably the best in the city. There is a TON more to do in this neighborhood, and I hope to cover it all on this blog in time, but in the meantime a trip to the Merchant’s House and pizza at Lombardi’s sounds like a great little outing to me!

More soon,

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History at Home: Presidential Portraits

When you love history as much as I do, you find yourself wanting to be surrounded by it all the time. From my desk at work to the walls of my Brooklyn brownstone, I have vintage and history-themed treasures everywhere! I can’t pass a Theodore Roosevelt tea towel or a Thaddeus Stevens bobblehead (really) without snatching it up for my little collection! This week, I’m launching a new series History at Home, which will help you find quirky vintage and handmade history-themed treasures to bring into your home, office, and life. And what better place to start than with a roundup of some fabulous items featuring our American presidents?

1. Marx Presidents of the United States vintage collection from Chocolate Palomino. $36


In the 1950s, the Marx toy company released a Presidents of the United States toy series. Today, these presidential figures are adorable vintage collectibles that can sit atop your desk, hide in spaces on your bookshelf, or become a seriously amazing addition to your car dashboard. Although this collection of 11 figures is a little random (it is basically presidents 7-19 with a few gaps in between, and then a random LBJ), it does include our most badass president Andrew Jackson, an assassinated president (Hayes), and the president to have served the shortest term (Wm. Henry Harrison).

2. Hail to the Chief Letterpress Print from 1canoe2. $44


When it comes to paper goods, I’m a sucker for letterpress. I love the way it looks and I especially love the way a quality letterpress print feels in your hands. This 11 x 17 letterpress print combines my love of letterpress with adorable hand drawn portraits of our 44 American presidents. I have this print hanging at my desk for easy reference on days when I can’t  quite remember the words to Jonathan Coulton’s Presidents Song.

3. Teddy Roosevelt dish towel from Fishs Eddy. $12.95


A true New Yorker and the ultimate adventurer, Theodore Roosevelt is one of my favorite presidents – and Fishs Eddy’s line of Roosevelt-inspired kitchen items has only made me love Theodore more. The legend is that, while hunting in 1902, Teddy Roosevelt (by the way, he hated the name “Teddy”) saw a black bear but couldn’t bring himself to shoot him. A political cartoon – and soon, a stuffed teddy bear – came out of this incident, and forever more poor Teddy has been associated with bears.

4. Vice Presidents with Octopuses on Their Heads from Veeptopus. $20 each, $800 for all 47


The American vice president is such a thankless role – usually, only the veeps that go on to be presidents end up being remembered in history. However, despite their “second place” position, (almost) all of our 47 vice presidents have played important roles in American history. These prints of our beloved veeps with octopuses on their head are a little like the role of the vice president itself – a little weird, but strangely appealing. According to Jonathan Crow of Veeptopus, “It takes a rare person to pull off an air of dignity with an cephalopod on his head.” My favorites are Charles W. Fairbanks (a truly terrible veep), Chester A. Arthur, and old Elbridge Gerry, but they are all fantastic!

5. Presidential magnetic finger puppets from The Unemployed Philosophers Guild. $6/puppet


No apologies, I love playing with history-themed toys. I have a couple presidential finger puppets from the Unemployed Philosophers Guild at my desk, and my Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt puppets have become BFFs. These little puppets are magnetic, so they’re great on the fridge or to spice up a magnetic file cabinet in your office. And they’re perfect inexpensive gifts for the history-lover in your life!

6. Abe is a Babe mini-card from Constellation & Co. $3


Let’s face it, Abe wasn’t much of a babe in real life. Lincoln himself publicly referred to his own “poor lean, lank face,” which was wrinkled and weathered even when he was young. Ohio lawyer Donn Piatt, who saw Lincoln IRL, said, “He was the homliest man I ever saw.” And yet…there is something about Lincoln that is irresistible, then and now. This mini-card is perfect for those moments when you need to remind yourself that beauty is not just skin-deep, or when you want to send a (tiny) note to a Lincoln-loving friend.

7. Monroe Monroe Monroe Your Boat print from Puns Intended. $5


These days, James Monroe isn’t remembered for much. He was kind of a jerk, but he was the last president to wear a powdered wig – which has to count for something. I’m not sure if James Monroe had a boat, but if he did he definitely would have sang that song while rowing it. I love puns – and printed paper goods – so this Monroe Monroe Monroe Your Boat print is a must-have.

8. Vintage American Presidents coffee mug from lildebi53.


Historical figures on a vintage mug is like meta-history. That many layers of history early in the morning is just crazy! If you want to add a dose of American history to your morning, consider this awesome vintage mug with the portraits of the presidents (Washington through Clinton because, you know, it’s vintage).

9. Abraham Lincoln Fan Club pin from Your Fan Club. $6


When I was younger, fan clubs used to be a “thing.” These days, they either don’t exist – or I’m just out of the Teen Beat loop. Seeing as we’re all fans of Lincoln, let’s bring the fan club back with an Abraham Lincoln Fan Club! Wear this pin around the street to show your friends that you’re a member of the coolest fan club around.

10. Vintage Topps Presidential Trading Cards from Weathered Goods. $48


These vintage presidential trading cards are so good there’s no way you’re going to want to trade them! I have a couple of sets of vintage presidential flashcards/trading cards – they’re easy to find on Etsy or at vintage shops and they are great as history-themed wall art when grouped together. This particular set is probably from the mid-1950s (Eisenhower is the last president in the set) and the colors and design of these cards is fantastically vintage! Use these cards as wall art or channel your inner Martha Stewart and use them to collage the front of a notebook, as placecards or gift tags…the possibilities are endless!

I hope you enjoy these “pieces of the past” as much as I do!! Do you have any favorite history-themed trinkets or paper goods? I would love to hear more about them in the comments section. I’m always in the market for handmade and vintage history treasures…particularly when they involve a pun.

Your history-themed personal shopper,

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Places: Pearl Street; The Mermaid Inn

These days, New York is known for it’s pizza, bagels (my favorite!), and street-cart soft pretzels. But before all these modern foods were even part of our vocabulary, New Yorkers were eating oysters.

The estuary of the lower Hudson River is the perfect place for oysters – who thrive in just that kind of climate and water level. The Lenape Indians, the original inhabitants of Manahatta, were definitely eating oysters – archaeologists are always finding evidence of oyster shells during excavations, and it is clear from this evidence that oysters and other shellfish were a major part of the Lenape diet.

When Henry Hudson arrived in New York in 1609, the New York Harbor had over 350 square miles of oyster beds (likely more than half the oysters in the world!). The Dutch who settled here readily embraced the abundant supply of oysters. Oysters were sustenance not for an elite class of aristocrats but for ordinary people. The Dutch even named Pearl Street in downtown Manhattan because of the way the oyster shells paving the street glistened in the sun, resembling pearls.

Mark Kurlansky wrote a fantastic book on the history of oysters in New York, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. In this book, Kurlansky writes, “Before the 20th century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters.”

Oyster Houses
Berenice Abbott, Oyster Houses, 1937.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (and even into the beginning of the 20th century), New York was full of oyster houses. Restaurants such as Delmonico’s and Downing’s Oyster House were hot spots for New York’s elite. However, oysters remained accessible to ordinary people. Although they were on the menu of almost every fancy New York restaurant, oysters could also be bought at street carts and cheap eateries throughout the city. Poor New Yorkers of the 19th century truly survived on bread and oysters.

Naples Clam Bar.
George Herlick, Naples Clam Bar, 1937.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

However, by 1927, over-harvesting among other things (sewage and landfills – ew!) had wreaked havoc on the oyster supply in New York. Ultimately, oysters from the New York Harbor were determined to be too toxic to eat. Although oyster-eating remained fairly popular in New York throughout the early 20th century (the iconic Grand Central Oyster Bar opened in 1913), New Yorkers were no longer eating local oysters – they had to bring them in from less-polluted supplies.

Oysters have made a bit of a “comeback” in the New York food scene over the past decade or so. According to the Village Voice, “Oysters are now offered at almost all restaurants of a certain echelon that are worth their salt.” The most “local” oysters you can find in New York are from Long Island – the New York Harbor is sadly still too polluted to eat oysters out of (though cleanup efforts are underway!).

Photo courtesy of The Mermaid Inn.

I’m embarrassed to say that, until last Friday, I had never eaten an oyster (I don’t know how it happened – but it did!). However my oyster-loving friend Emy decided to change that by taking me to the Mermaid Inn, a classic oyster restaurant in the East Village. We tried a few different oysters – one from the Chesapeake Bay, another from the West Coast – but we made sure to try some Long Island oysters. (Naturally, they were the best!)

If you want to get a real taste of New York City, my recommendation is to skip the (usually stale) street cart soft pretzels and head straight to one of our many great oyster spots!

On the half shell,

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Central Park: New York’s Backyard

Places: Central Park

Frederick Law Olmstead observed that the park he designed had a “harmonizing and refining influence upon the most unfortunate and most lawless classes of the city.” Although Olmsted was never truly interested in democratization of the landscape, there is something to be said for Central Park as a place where all of New York comes together in a weird sort of harmony.

From Summerstage to Shakespeare in the Park to ice skating in Wollman Rink, Central Park is a place with free (or low cost), high-quality events that bring people from all over the city (and beyond) together. On any given Sunday, the park’s Sheep Meadow (home to a flock of pure bred sheep from 1864 until 1934) is full of people from all over sunbathing, reading, picnicking, and enjoying the city’s “backyard.”

Plan of the Central Park, City of New York, 1860.D.T. Valentine and George Hayward, Plan of the Central Park, City of New York, 1860.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The history of Central Park is a history of city planning, and of conflicts between democratic ideas of serving the many over elitist notions of catering to the city’s wealthy. The Park and the People: A History of Central Park by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar covers the social history of the park thoroughly and is highly recommended for those really interested in the history of Central Park (which is seriously a fascinating study of mid-19th century social classicism).

In the mid-19th century, New York’s population nearly quadrupled, thanks to increased immigration and the opening of the Erie Canal (1825), among other things. The idea of building a public greenspace in New York came about during this time as a way of improving public health (especially for those “unfortunate” classes that Olmstead so liked to reference) and creating a place where New York’s wealthy (feeling a little “squeezed” by the immigrants and working classes) could spend a picturesque and peaceful afternoon.

A design competition was held in 1857 to find a “landscape architect” (though this term was just coming into use in America) to design a central park between 59th and 106th Streets (in 1863, the park was extended to 110th Street). Frederick Law Olmstead (who was, by the way, already Central Park’s superintendent) and Calvert Vaux’s Greensward Plan won the competition, and Olmstead was appointed Chief Architect of Central Park.

The Greensward Plan was, above all, aesthetically-minded – artistic beauty was important to Olmstead and Vaux, who saw themselves more as landscape artists than as landscape architects. Convenience and practicality was not high on Olmstead’s priority list. Although not about Central Park, Erik Larson’s wonderful novel Devil in the White City, about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (for which Olmstead also served as landscape architect), offers fascinating insight into Olmstead’s character.

Central Park, the Lake.Currier & Ives, Central Park, the Lake, 1862.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Central Park as it is today did not simply appear in nature. In fact, construction of the park was a huge ordeal. To achieve Olmstead’s vision, surfaces needed to be raised and lowered (over 500,000 cubic feet of soil was removed), drainage added, waterways dug, foliage planted (to the tune of 270,000 trees), and architectural elements built (including 36 bridges and arches).

By 1859, the park was open. By 1865, more than 7 million people per year were coming to enjoy Central Park, though in those early days many of them were the city’s wealthiest residents (rules such as a ban on group picnics discouraged many working-class immigrants). By the end of the 19th century, working-class New Yorkers were visiting Central Park more – thanks to new and more democratic attractions such as the Carousel and the Zoo.

[Girl feeding camel at zoo in Central Park.]William Davis Hassler, Girl feeding camel at zoo in Central Park, 1917.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Many of today’s quintessential Central Park attractions were built in the 1930s by New York’s infamous urban planner (known for his use of eminent domain and other classist/racist policies) Robert Moses. Under Mayor LaGuardia’s direction, Moses responded to the increased presence of immigrants in the neighborhoods surrounding the park and the city-wide call to build more places for active recreation for working classes. Moses built 20 playgrounds, athletic fields, permanent baseball fields, etc. and he even renovated the Zoo. A few decades later, other architects followed suit and added Wollman Rink, the boathouses, the Chess and Checkers house, and a few other recreational areas.

A visit to Central Park today is best when you pack a picnic to enjoy on the Great Lawn or another one of the park’s many great picnic spots. You can get your picnic supplies in Columbus Circle (the Whole Foods in the Time Warner Center is an easy place) before you head into the park by the southwest corner – just note that many of Central Park’s lawns (like the Sheep’s Meadow) don’t allow picnic blankets. After a picnic, wander around the park. Bethesda Fountain at the 72nd Street traverse is definitely worth a visit. If you’re feeling nautical, rent a boat at the Loeb Boathouse just west of Bethesda Terrace. (I haven’t done the boat thing yet but I can’t wait to!) If you’re not tired out by now, a visit to the Zoo is fun (the Delacorte Music Clock, near the Children’s Zoo, was a childhood favorite of mine – it plays every half hour from 8am-5pm), you could go catch-and-release fishing at Harlem Meer, or go bird-watching and enjoy a quiet moment at The Pool on the west side of the park. One of the best things to do in Central Park is just to wander aimlessly – allowing yourself to stumble upon the carefully-placed natural elements in the way that Olmstead and Vaux would have wanted you to.

From the park,

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The Iconic Brooklyn Bridge

Places: DUMBO; Brooklyn Bridge; City Hall Park

As a Brooklynite, I love reminding out-of-towners that New York City doesn’t begin and end in Manhattan. All five boroughs of this city are rich in history and culture – and they are all worth a visit! – but I have a special place in my heart for Brooklyn.

Until 1898, Brooklyn was an independent city, separate from Manhattan. (In many ways, we are still separate and distinct.) The thing that officially connected us remains one of the most iconic elements of the New York skyline – the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge was an engineering feat. It’s a suspension bridge – which just became a “thing” (at least in America) in the early 19th century. Moreover, the Brooklyn Bridge was the first steel-wire suspension bridge…ever. The period of construction of the Brooklyn Bridge is almost a comedy of errors. In the more than a decade that the bridge took to build, it took the life of its original designer and permanently injured his replacement.

John Roebling started designing a grand East River bridge to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn in 1857. Although Roebling didn’t invent the suspension bridge, he was the world’s foremost civil engineer of suspension bridges. When he embarked on the Brooklyn Bridge project, he had already built a suspension bridge over Niagara Falls and another across the Ohio River (this one – the Cincinnati Bridge – is still standing today!). Planning for the bridge was put on hold during the Civil War, but was resumed in 1867. Roebling was appointed as chief engineer of the bridge but, sadly, he lost his life in a freak accident shortly thereafter. In 1869, Roebling’s foot was pinned to a piling by a docking ferry while he was surveying the site of the bridge. He contracted tetanus and developed lockjaw as a result of his injuries and died in July 1869.

Luckily, John Roebling had an engineer son, Washington Roebling. Washington was able to take charge of the Brooklyn Bridge project after his father’s fatal injury. However, shortly after construction of the bridge began, Washington also experienced a paralyzing injury. He developed decompression sickness (usually called “the bends”) from the caissons – big, dangerous underwater boxes with compressed air in them that allowed men to build the bridge’s two towers. After the accident, Washington was essentially an invalid. He remained bedridden in his Brooklyn Heights apartment for the rest of his life.

The “conventional” story is that Washington stayed in bed – which had a view of the East River and the bridge construction – and supervised construction remotely, using his wife Emily Roebling as his eyes and ears on the ground. Emily was called the “first woman field engineer” and, under her husband’s guidance, had learned math and engineering herself. It seems far more likely that Emily Roebling – an engineer herself – was the real supervisor of the bridge construction after Washington’s accident.

The Great East River Suspension Bridge.Currier & Ives, The Great East River Suspension Bridge, 1881.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

May 24, 1883 was Opening Day for the Brooklyn Bridge and it marks the day when Manhattan and Brooklyn were truly connected for the first time. The New York Times described Opening Day as “the greatest gala day in the history of that moral suburb.” It truly was a party. President Chester A. Arthur was there, along with future president Grover Cleveland (then New York governor) and other important dignitaries. They all marched onto the bridge, followed by a military band and an attachment of troops. There was cannon-fire. There were fireworks. There were speeches. On the day the bridge opened to the public (May 25), 150,000 people walked across the Brooklyn Bridge (all paid a penny, the fee to cross by foot).

Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is a classic New York experience (and there isn’t a penny fee – or any fee – to cross by foot anymore!). I recommend starting in Brooklyn so that you can enjoy the iconic view of Manhattan the whole way. The Brooklyn Bridge Pedestrian Walkway can be accessed two ways, but if you get to it from the underpass on Washington Street you have an excuse to walk around DUMBO for a little bit first!

DUMBO (translation, “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”) is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Brooklyn. With its cobblestone streets, old brick factory buildings, and historic waterfront, it is one of the most picturesque places in all of New York. Before you start your bridge walk, enjoy a pizza on Front Street. There is a rivalry between the famous Grimaldi’s Pizza and the newer Juliana’s Pizza, which is actually located in the original Grimaldi’s location. I like Juliana’s pizza better, plus Grimaldi’s always has a long line, but you can’t go wrong with either. If you still have room after pizza, Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory on the Fulton Ferry Pier is both delicious and historic. Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory is in a landmark fireboat house that is the oldest in the city (from 1922).

Once you make it across the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn, you will land near City Hall Park on the Manhattan side. There, you can stop at Blue Spoon Coffee Co. for a celebratory latte before heading home. Depending on the time of day, you might want to reverse your direction and start in Manhattan so that you end up in DUMBO (just make sure you look behind you to the views of the Manhattan skyline as you are walking!). A walk along the Brooklyn Bridge is a quintessential New York experience which brings you through two of New York’s iconic boroughs.


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Revolutionary! Downtown New York

Places: City Hall Park; Bowling Green; Fraunces Tavern

Although its Revolutionary past is not acknowledged or preserved to the extent of other cities in the Eastern seaboard (Boston! Philadelphia!), New York was a major part of the American Revolution. Last weekend, I wanted to immerse myself in a small piece of New York’s Revolutionary past, so I decided to spend a few hours in downtown Manhattan, between City Hall Park and Bowling Green, with my history-loving friend Emy.

I recommend starting the day at City Hall Park and working your way downtown to Bowling Green (especially if you want to stop at Fraunces Tavern for lunch or dinner after the walk!). Getting to City Hall Park is easy – there are several subways that will take you right there, including the 4/5/6 to Brooklyn Bridge – City Hall and the 2/3 to Park Place.

City Hall Park used to be known as the New York Commons and played an interesting role in Revolutionary New York. In 1765, the Commons was home to a debtor’s prison and a soldiers’ barracks (where the Tweed Courthouse is now). In ’65, colonial New Yorkers protested the Stamp Act at the site. A year later, they built the first Liberty Pole there. (There is a replica of this Liberty Pole near its original location, between City Hall and Broadway!)

This Liberty Pole became the reason for the first bloodshed in the fight for American liberty. British soldiers were (understandably) not happy with the Pole, and they ultimately cut it down. On August 11, 1766, around 2,000 (some say as many as 3,000!) colonial New Yorkers rallied in “the Commons” to protest the destruction of the Liberty Pole. The resulting skirmish ended with several wounded – and thus the first drop of blood of the American Revolution was shed.

This wasn’t the only blood shed at City Hall Park during the Revolutionary War. During the war, the British used the debtor’s prison on the site as a holding place for American prisoners of war. An estimated 250 prisoners of war were executed at this site, on gallows which were located behind the soldiers’ barracks.

It’s an easy 15-minute walk down Broadway from City Hall Park to Bowling Green (and a very historic walk – this route has been around since it was a Native American trail!).

Bowling Green has the distinction of being New York City’s oldest park, built in 1733, but its important history began long before it became a park. The site was a council ground for Native American tribes and has always been a site of political agreements as well as a trading ground. In fact, it was Bowling Green where, in 1626, Peter Minuit “purchased” Manhattan from the Native Americans. After 1626, the area became a cattle market (from 1638–1647), a meeting place, a parade ground, and the site of a more general market beginning in 1675.  In 1733, when Bowling Green was officially designated as a park, it was available for rent at the cost of one peppercorn per year!

The Revolutionary history of Bowling Green begins in 1770. It was in this year that the British Parliament repealed the heavily-protested Townshend taxes. Not coincidentally, the British erected a massive equestrian statue of King George III, symbolically clad in Roman attire, in Bowling Green during this same year. Scholars speculate that George III’s position atop a horse was meant to associate him with Marcus Aurelius, the subject of a similar equestrian statue from 161–180 AD. From when it was erected, the equestrian statue of George III was a magnet for anti-British protests in New York. A large cast iron fence was built around the park in an attempt to protect the statue from vandalism.


“Pulling Down the Statue Of King George III, New York City,” Johannes Adam Simon Oertel.
Courtesy of New-York Historical Society.

On July 9, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read aloud at the site of the current City Hall. After the reading, the local Sons of Liberty ran down Broadway to Bowling Green (the same route we just walked!), where they pulled down the statue of George III. When the colonists brought down the statue, they also sawed the finials off the cast iron protective fence, because the finials were in the shape of the crown. The fence itself is still there, but the most fun part of visiting Bowling Green today is that you can run your hand across the former site of the finials and feel the roughness from where they were hacked off – a very cool experience!


The rough finials at Bowling Green, sawed off in 1776 because they were in the shape of the crown.

After Bowling Green, Emy and I headed over to Fraunces Tavern, located just two minutes away from Bowling Green at 54 Pearl Street. The current Fraunces Tavern building has been around since 1719 and has been a hub of patriot activity in New York since then. Before the Revolution, the tavern was a meeting-place of the Sons of Liberty and was even the “base camp” for New York’s Tea Party (it wasn’t just Boston!), when patriots dressed as Indians dumped tea into the New York Harbor. Most famously, Fraunces was the site of George Washington’s farewell to his officers on December 4, 1783.


Fraunces Tavern has a museum, but there is still a tavern too! It is split into a semi-formal restaurant space and the Porterhouse Tavern, a slightly more casual room. Emy & I ate at the Porterhouse Tavern side, but I’ve been to the “restaurant” side in the past which is also lovely. Recommended at Porterhouse Tavern: a flight of beer, some oysters, and their excellent burger. If you have room, extend the lunch (and the atmosphere!) with a cappuccino at the end.

Very truly yours,

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Thanks for checking out On the Ground History, a brand new blog dedicated to exploring history in and around New York City. I’m Stephanie Krom – a graduate student in public history at NYU and a life-long history lover. My life has revolved around history – I grew up in the historic Hudson Valley, playing in the backyard of George Washington’s Newburgh, NY headquarters and hearing stories about my Dutch ancestors who settled in New York City in the early 17th century. I moved to New York City in 2009 and am constantly fascinated by the history that surrounds me here.

This blog is designed to offer a peek into some of that awesome history. Every week, I will pick a space in or around New York City (a building, a neighborhood, a street) and offer a little historical context for that place (though it will only scratch the surface!). I will also try to add a few tips about how to spend your time there – local cafes, boutiques, restaurants, the best walking route, etc. Each blog entry will constitute a “mini-trip” (half a day or less) that you can do by yourself or with others.

Over time, I hope this blog will turn into a reference place that makes local New York City history accessible to a variety of people – from first-time visitors to New York locals. I hope people will turn here if they have a free afternoon to explore, or if there’s an area of the city that they’re particularly curious about. The goal is to provide bite-size pieces of history presented in a way that everyone can understand and enjoy – and to suggest a place to get a good cappuccino while you’re learning!



Although I have a history degree and have worked in the public history field for a few years, I’m definitely new to this blogging thing. If, as you begin reading the blog, you have suggestions for how I can improve – or ideas for places in New York that you’d like to learn more about – please let me know! You can always get in touch with me at [email protected], send me a Tweet at @StephanieKrom, or join the On the Ground History Facebook page. I’d love to hear your feedback!

Thanks for stopping by!

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