Friday, January 22, 2016

Charlotte Temple: Trinity Church Cemetery

Tourists file past the grave of Alexander Hamilton at Trinity Church cemetery, but there is a grave on the other side of the churchyard that was once more popular than Hamilton's big monument. Charlotte Temple's grave might not get much attention now, but in the past, her tombstone marked a popular plot in the cemetery to visit.

Grave site of Charlotte Temple, Trinity Cemetery.

Who Was Charlotte Temple?

If you asked "Who was Charlotte Temple?" two centuries ago, just about everyone would know, and people might reply - that poor, unlucky girl - as if Charlotte were a real person. But, she was not. Charlotte was the main character of America's first best-selling novel, Charlotte, A Tale of Truth by Susanna Rowson, published in 1794.

Plenty of people were convinced the story was literally a tale of truth and that Charlotte actually existed. Since there is a real tombstone in a real cemetery, it would be easy to assume they were right. In the story, Charlotte was a teenager who suffered betrayal. She was turned away by her lover, and young Charlotte died soon after giving birth to a daughter. That poor, unlucky girl.

A number of real-life young women have been suggested as the true identity of the character, but Charlotte Temple is a "tale of truth" because her story could belong to any young woman of that era who had been betrayed. The author of the book, Susanna Rowson, was an actress in addition to being a novelist, poet, and songwriter. In other words, she knew how to tell a story and how to pull material from the world around her to use in her work. Whether or not Charlotte was based on a specific person - or was a composite of several people - interests me less than the fact there is a gravestone for a fictional character in Trinity Church graveyard.

I want to know how that happened.

Getting the story straight

After reading some old newspaper articles, I couldn't get a straight story about Charlotte and her grave. There are as many theories about the tombstone as there are about the identity of Charlotte. To keep focused, I made a list of the earliest dates that Charlotte appeared in the papers, and here is what I found:
  • In the early 1800s and prior, the mentions of Charlotte Temple were largely in advertisements for shops that carried the book. 
  • In the 1820s, references to a theatrical play based on the novel started to appear. 
  • In the 1830s (as well as later in the 1860s), there was a horse named Charlotte Temple that shows up in racing reports.
  • In the 1840s, Charlotte Temple is written about in periodicals as a person/character for the first time when stories appeared that her house burned down. (Well, the building that people speculated was her house, based on the novel.)
  • In the 1850s, there is it - the first mention of the grave at Trinity Churchyard, printed in the New York Times. It seems that coverage of Charlotte Temple from this time forward routinely includes the grave.
What to make of that? Why did the grave appear in the 1850s?

Meanwhile, up on Ann Street

I followed a clue I found in The Sun newspaper from 1918 that at first I dismissed as silly. The clue lead me up Broadway to Ann Street and to the American Museum once located there.

In this old image, the American Museum is the large white building in the left foreground. You can see the steeple of Trinity Church in the distance on the right side of the image. The distance from the museum to the Trinity graveyard is about six short blocks, and there was a reason a person would walk from one place directly to the other, as you will see.

Print by J.W. Hill, Jos. Laing & Co. From the collection of Museum of the City of New York.

In 1850, a theatrical version of Charlotte Temple opened as a matinee at the American Museum, six blocks from Trinity. The performances were part of a new trend in entertainment. In previous times, the theater could be a raunchy place with entertainments offered beyond what was on stage, if you know what I mean - the theater was not the sort of place you would bring a family. But times were changing in the Victorian era, and theater promoters were offering wholesome and affordable shows for all ages. One such place of theatrical respectability was the American Museum on Ann Street.

Theater at theAmerican Museum.
From: New York Public Library Digital Collection.

The newspaper piece provided another clue by mentioning the crowds after the matinee on Ann Street trampled on the graves at Trinity. That little detail - that I first dismissed as a silly throw-away comment - sparked an understanding about how the fictional Charlotte Temple got a real grave.

It turns out that the owner of the American Museum, the person who helped make theater respectable with morality tales like Charlotte Temple, was none other than P.T. Barnum, one of America's finest publicity men. 
From New-York Daily Tribune.

It's my guess that P.T. Barnum gave Charlotte Temple a grave. 

Barnum had a knack for creating stories that got into the papers. In fact, he wrote in 1869 in his book Struggles and Triumphs:
"Leaving nothing undone that would bring Barnum and his museum before the public, I often engage some exhibition, knowing that it would directly bring no extra dollars to the treasury, but hoping it would incite a newspaper paragraph which would float through the columns of the American press and be copied, perhaps, abroad, and my hopes in this respect were often gratified."
I think Charlotte Temple's grave was a publicity stunt for the show at Barnum's theater. Compared to some of Barnum's other stunts, a phony grave is rather low-key and perhaps that is why the story of her grave in Trinity cemetery was not questioned much. The tombstone was accepted as something that has been in the cemetery since Charlotte died, even though that defies logic since fictional characters don't have real graves. 

But perhaps the lack of logic is the best part because it leads to speculation and conversations about Charlotte, and that's what Barnum wanted.

The puzzle

It might seem a stretch that Barnum would use a church for his own publicity, but there is evidence he wasn't above doing so. 

Before a July 4th celebration one year, he claims to have asked the leaders of St. Paul's Church, across the street from his American Museum, if he could string American flags from his building over to the tree in St. Paul's churchyard. He was turned down. But, he strung the flags anyway, and when church leaders confronted Barnum in the street, the crowd was on Barnum's side - and they felt quite fulfilled, I'm sure, when they re-told the story of defending the Stars & Stripes on Independence Day. That's how Barnum tells the story anyway, and what's the point of doubting a good story?

From Struggles and Triumphs.

I worried my theory about the 1850s would fall apart when I read Ann Douglas'  introduction to the Penguin 1991 edition of the novel Charlotte. She pointed out that an image "of the tombstone adorned new editions of Charlotte in the 1840s and after." 

Upon further investigation, that 1840s image of the grave was based on an illustrator's imagination and looks nothing like the actual gravestone at Trinity. If the grave existed in 1840s that fans visited, the illustrator would've drawn it accurately. But the illustrator didn't, so we're safe in looking at the 1850s as the first appearance of Charlotte's "real" grave.

According to a story passed around, a man named William Crommelin confessed that he inscribed the stone with the name Charlotte Temple. Crommelin claimed he was working as a stonecutter at Trinity when the church was rebuilt in the 1840s, and after the work was done, he inscribed the stone with Charlotte's name. 

William Crommelin was a real person and he was indeed a stonecutter in New York City. He was born in 1822, which would make him in his early 20s when Trinity Church was rebuilt in the 1840s. However, I find it odd that a young man would inscribe a name of a character from an old romance novel on a tombstone on his own. 

At any rate, the stonecutter confessed to the deed in a letter to the New-York Historical Society librarian, William Kelby. But Mr. Kelby is quoted that the stonecutter made the inscription during church repairs in 1850s, not during the 1840s re-build. Whatever the dates, both the letter and Mr. Kelby's quote happened decades after the fact, and I think it's likely that any supposed correspondence between the two men was all part of the shenanigans anyway. The long-after-the-fact confession kept the story alive and running.

The way I see it, Barnum put Crommelin the stonecutter up to participating in the publicity stunt in the 1850s to entice public interest in Charlotte. The more interest in Charlotte, the more interest in seeing the show at Barnum's theater. The stunt provided wholesome entertainment for the public and indirect advertising for Barnum. Everyone wins.

I can't explain with evidence how the inscription actually happened, and I state my assertions as a hunch rather than a fact. But that's the fun of it. Barnum liked to play with the public, not as a mean-spirited joke, but as part of providing an entertainment package. Even now, well over 160 years after the events, Barnum is puzzling and testing my wits....and I've been enchanted and entertained by his antics.

Seeing is believing

When you make a trip to Trinity Church and stroll the cemetery, you'll find Charlotte Temple's grave exactly where the old references say it is, on the north side of the church behind the fence along Broadway. You can't miss it.
From Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, November 1890.

Sources are found here.

Free Kindle version of the novel Charlotte Temple is here.

Note: Trinity Church lifted the stone in 2008 to see if there was a vault or grave underneath, but all that was found was packed earth. The stone was returned to its place and remains there.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Ewen Park: 231st Street, Bronx

I had coffee the other day with a friend in Ewen Park in the Bronx, and we noticed these stones in the grass:

I figured the stones held a story of the park, and they sure didn't disappoint in telling it. I discovered a story that goes beyond the park borders and one that goes beyond belief. What I'm sharing today is just a bit of the tale. And it's a juicy bit.

To set the scene, Ewen Park in the Bronx is on a steep hillside between the Kingsbridge and Riverdale sections, and it was part of a large estate owned by Brigadier General John Ewen.

Looking at an old map, the stones must have been part of the driveway to the house, marked by a faint line on the map. If you click on the map to enlarge it, you'll see the driveway more clearly. The yellow box on the map is where the Ewen house was situated. A fenced dog run now sits on that spot. (Note: the top of the map is West.)

Map from The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1921
John Ewen's daughter Eliza, the last of his four children to survive, donated the land to the City of New York to use as a park.

The donation seems like a generous thing to do on Eliza's part, and it certainly was. I suspect, however, she was motivated to give the land to the public in order keep it away from her nephew and also to keep it out of the hands of a certain clergyman. The person who prompted that motivation of keep-away was a con-artist who called himself a German Baron, and in a way, it's the Baron who we need to thank for Eliza's donation.

But before we get to the con-man and clergyman, let's back up and talk about the Brigadier General first.
Image from History of Westchester County, published 1886.

Brigadier General John Ewens

During the Civil War, when Confederate forces reached as far north as Pennsylvania, John Ewen led men from the New York State Militia to aid the Union forces. Within ten days of leaving home, the militia were close to Gettysburg and fought in a skirmish at Sportman's Hill. The gunfire from the southern troops was so heavy at one point that his men refused to advance. Brigadier General Ewens threatened them with bayonets if they didn't move. His harsh command made him a hero, as his men, forced to advance under his order, were later able to say they "confirmed the enemy's withdrawal."

Success with armed forces wasn't John Ewen's only achievement. Before the war, he was a highly-regarded Street Commissioner for New York City, and later the Comptroller. He also was successful in business and became the President of the Pennsylvania Coal Company with an office downtown on Broadway near Wall Street.

In the 1840s, Ewens obtained the property where he built a home as a country retreat for himself and his young family. The area wasn't the Bronx yet, but part of Westchester County.

General John Ewens, his son, and his wife all passed away during the 1800s. His three daughters - Caroline, Eliza, and Louise - lived their lives as spinsters until 1909, when Louise's love life changed everything.

Enter the Clergymen and Cons, the Actors and Lecturers
(not mutually exclusive)

Youngest sister Louise was active in the New York society scene. Among her companions were Reverend Walter E. Bentley and Reverend Aubrey Percy Nelson. The Rev. Bentley was a former actor who didn't exactly leave the stage after stepping behind the pulpit, and he enjoyed working with the theater crowd in the city.
Rev. Walter E. Bentley, photo from New York Times, June 27, 1897. 
One of Rev. Bentley's endeavors was hosting travel lectures with his friend and fellow Englishman "Professor" Oliver Bainbridge. 

"Professor" Oliver Bainbridge, photo from Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 21, 1909.

Professor Bainbridge wasn't really a professor, and maybe that's why he found it easy to partner with Baron Boto von Koenitz from Germany because the Baron really wasn't a Baron either.

Baron Boto von Koenitz. He was blond, blue-eyed, and stocky.
Photo from Syracuse New York Herald 1921.

Baron Boto became the President of Bainbridge's Travel Club, which met in the homes of wealthy women and entertained their wealthy friends. At some point in early 1908, spinster Louise Ewen became acquainted with the group, and on Saturday, March 27, 1909, the Travel Club met at her West 86th Street home. The topic of the evening's lecture was "Darkest Papua" and featured images of cannibals and stories of supposed savages of the Pacific islands.

I should mention here an arrangement - a scheme you could call it - between Bainbridge and von Koenitz. The fake Baron offered the fake professor a 10% take on any money he obtained by marrying a rich American heiress. Louise was a rich American heiress.

She also was 62 years old.

The Baron was in his mid 20s, but no matter that! Louise and Boto fell in love. 

Louise's pal, the Rev. Aubrey Nelson, was miffed by the romance. He had been Louise's young male companion, and now the Baron was taking Louise on walks through Central Park instead of him.

Baron Boto didn't keep Louise all to himself. He introduced her to his lovely friend Mary Mackid. Mary was the daughter of a rich banker from Canada, and she was a chorus girl in the show The Dollar Princess that would open at the Knickerbocker Theatre on Broadway later that fall. In a strange case of art imitating life imitating art, the characters of the American version of the musical include a daughter of the president of a coal company (like Louise), someone posing as a countess (like Boto posing as a Baron) and a bride who insists on remaining chaste after the wedding (foreshadowing what Louise would soon do). Crazy coincidences.

Courtship, Marriage, and Deception

Louise's family wasn't pleased with the relationship between Louise and Boto, no surprise, and that was before they knew that Louise gave Boto $15,000. He needed the cash, he said, to restore his family castle in Germany, which now belonged to his uncle. After he got the money, and supposedly bought the castle back from his uncle, he offered proof of ownership by showing Louise a postcard of the castle Koenitz. 

But owning a castle in an ongoing expensive endeavor, as the Baron explained to Louise. Castles require constant upkeep. That's where the term "dollar princess" comes from in the first place. Property-rich but cash-poor aristocrats in Europe married American heiresses for their money, and in exchange, the American "dollar princess" received a title of nobility. To help him keep up his castle, Louise mortgaged her house on West 86th Street and gave her beau Boto $45,000 in cash.

Boto began to feel protective of his income source, and when his partner Professor Bainbridge suggested investment ideas to Louise, Boto advised her against them. Soon Boto would renege on the finder's fee agreement he had with Bainbridge for finding him a bride. Boto apparently didn't know it's not a good idea out-scheme a schemer, but he would soon find out. In the meantime, Baron Boto and the aging heiress Louise ran off to Jersey City, and on November 28, 1909 they were secretly married at St. Mark's Church.

The count and the heiress were married here, at St. Mark's Church in Jersey City. Image from
If it's one thing that New York society families of that era abhorred, it was publicity about their personal lives. And perhaps no one was more aware of that disdain for press than Professor Bainbridge, who made a living mingling with and milking the wealthy. Because Boto closed Louise's wallet to him, I suspect it was Bainbridge who leaked the news about the wedding. Whatever the source, the scandal immediately made headlines.

The bride was so upset with the attention that the couple called off their honeymoon trip to Europe, and her two sisters retreated in shock to the family's country estate. But don't consider those reactions as signs of weakness. The sisters were daughters of a Brigadier General and they soon pulled together to face the fire, but we have a journey to take before we get to that point.

While the sisters were each in seclusion, the groom met with the press. To prove his worth, he pulled $50,000 out of his pocket during an interview, because, apparently, that's what classy aristocrats do. Of course, that cash was largely the money that Louise gave him after mortgaging her house. His meeting with the press flopped further when his photograph was printed in the paper because people from his past recognized him, and none of them called him "Baron."

A warden from Sing-Sing recognized him as a former prisoner. A lawyer recognized him as a client who served time for larceny. A man from the Rockaways recognized the cad as someone who was run out of Washington D.C. for courting the daughter of his wealthy friend. And, there was the society lady from Manhattan who recognized him as a waiter from New Jersey.

Instead of landing herself a titled German Baron, Louise married German restaurant worker, and instead of owning a castle, he had lived at the Paterson YMCA.

Paterson, New Jersey YMCA, one-time home of the Baron Boto von Koenitz.

The short version of his stint in prison goes like this - in 1906 Boto stole $350 from a roommate and fellow employee at the German restaurant in Jersey. He spent $50 of the cash on a trip to Coney Island before he was caught by the cops and sent to jail.

By 1908, when Boto met Louise, he was the son of Baron Paul von Koenitz of Germany. The young Baron claimed he fought in the Boer War in South Africa where a wound caused a permanent limp, traveled to Pernambuco in South America where he had interest in a coffee plantation, and went to Mexico to purchase mining claims in Sonora. With all those world travels, I guess it's understandable he forgot to mention the trips to Coney Island and state prison.

Despite the press, Louise didn't grasp that her husband was a con man yet. Boto kept her isolated, and she didn't get the full gist of what happened for many more weeks. She still thought she had a married a man with a pedigree.

Went South, Fast

Soon after the wedding, the couple left for Florida. Unfortunately, Boto changed from courting Louise to being cruel to her. He kept her from seeing her family and friends and he monitored her correspondence.  He even put a revolver to her head and handcuffs on her wrists as warnings of what would happen if she didn't comply with his demands for her money.

Louise was a clever woman, however, and her family and friends were resourceful and serious about protecting their own. Within a few weeks of marriage, she managed to make secret arrangements to put her assets into trust, with her sisters in control.

A few weeks after the trust was set up, Louise quietly cut her husband out of her will. Still, she stayed with him, and I think it's because she thought she could get an annulment only if he broke his marriage vows to be faithful. She wrote, "As soon as I have proof of his infidelity, I shall leave him for then I shall feel free from all obligation to him." The couple never consummated the marriage and they traveled as mother and son, a fact Louise made sure to share.

It's sad to think she accepted his cruelty as something to endure as a wife, but she was determined to stay with him until evidence proved he was unfaithful as a husband. 

The good news is, it didn't take long for him to prove that.

Boto jumped right into the Florida lifestyle and immediately bought two automobiles and a motorboat. He ordered a yacht to be built, purchased an orange grove, and gave a girl from St. Augustine named Rose a diamond ring. He also might have financed a troupe of chorus girls too, but it's hard to keep track.

After moving from place to place, they ended up at the Tampa Bay Hotel about four months after they married. The hotel would be the last place they stayed together (in separate rooms).

Tampa Bay Hotel, where Boto and Louise last saw each other.

It was that girl named Rose who finally gave Louise the chance to leave. Louise overheard Boto plan a getaway with the girl, and when he left for the tryst, Louise and her maid took a train to New York City. She sent word back to Boto that she left him for good.

Boto took the news by applying for a passport and going to Europe for the summer.

History Repeats Itself

In February 1911, Louise was granted the annulment she wanted, and that's when she left town again. She hightailed it off to Europe with another a young man living off her money, her old pal Rev. Nelson. Louise's lawyer said, "A clergyman is somewhat better than an ex-convict," but nephew John Ewen didn't quite see the difference. John described Nelson as "nothing but a weak, willy, pink-faced parasite."

I haven't lost track of the story of the stones yet. We're getting to the part where the park was donated to the city.

Things get complicated, but the bottomline is the family was skittish about losing control of their assets after the Baron cost them $100,000 during his short time with Louise. With the Baron behind them and the Rev. Nelson in front of them, everyone tightened ship.

But that's not how Louise saw the financial tightening. Rev. Nelson told Louise that her nephew John thought she was too incompetent to handle her own affairs. Caroline heard that John called Louise a foolish old thing.

With that remark, Caroline was offended on behalf of her sister.

So offended was Caroline that her sister was called a foolish old thing that Caroline cut her nephew John off. She left her entire estate to humane societies for cats around the world.

When Caroline died in 1913 and her cat-will was read, nephew John contested it. And then it was Louise's turn to be offended on behalf of her sister.

So offended was Louise that Caroline's decisions about her own money were thwarted, that Louise also cut her nephew off.

Eliza took no chances. To prevent John from contesting her will and to keep Louise from inheriting property that in turn could be given to Rev. Nelson, Eliza gave away her land before she died. In 1916, Eliza wrote a letter to the New York City Parks Commissioner, Borough of the Bronx, offering five acres of her land to the city with the stipulations that the park be called Ewen Park in honor of her father and that she be allowed to live in her house on the land until she died.

Eliza was the last sister left. She lived in the family's country home, no longer in the countryside but surrounded by the city, until her death. The path toward the park donation was laid in the family fights over finances that first started when Baron Boto von Kuenitz arrived on the scene. So, in a way, we have him to thank for the park in the Bronx.

Wherever your path, you're walking with a story underneath you.

Updates on some of the characters

  • The Baron disappeared, but around 1917, Louise sent $150 to Paul von Koenitz in California. I'm unsure if this person is Boto with a new name, or if it's his father who Boto claimed was named Paul.
  • Rev. Nelson lived with Louise for a decade, until she passed away. He spent his time golfing and asking her for money. Louise left him $20,000 in her will, and after Louise died, Nelson married a school teacher named Elsie, returned to the ministry, and moved to Queens.
  • Mary Mackid, daughter of a Canadian banker and chorus girl in The Dollar Princess, married a son of a banker and raised a family in New Jersey.
  • In addition to leaving land to the Parks Department, Eliza left $116,000 to charities. I don't know if her nephew John contested her will and received anything.
  • When Caroline died, Louise took in Caroline's beloved cat named Petie. Louise planned to have Petie euthanized when she died to prevent him from being mistreated when she wasn't around to care for him. Apparently, her plans were carried out and Petie was buried with Louise.

Sources: click here.

For the musical score of The Dollar Princess, go here.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

History Hunt in Fort Washington Park

I followed a clue in an old book that led me on an uptown Manhattan treasure hunt to this place:

Do you see the historical treasures there? Or recognize the location?

The clue I followed to find this hidden treasure was:
In a tangle of brushwood, south of the Rifle Redoubt, the hardy visitor may find the place....
I couldn't resist the call to the hardy visitor, and with some idea where the Rifle Redoubt is in Fort Washington Park, I headed out into the tangle of brushwood. A modern-day clue would be: directly under the George Washington Bridge, but the clue I followed was written before the bridge was built. No matter, I found the place.

You can see the object of the hunt better in this photo:

These metal anchors, secured forever into a boulder overlooking the Hudson River, once held the lines that supported a pole.

What's the big deal about a pole that is no longer there?

Well, the pole held a wire that was hauled in a boat across the Hudson River in 1843 and carried up the cliffs of Fort Lee, New Jersey. There, the wire was strung to more wire that went all the way to Philadelphia. It was along that wire that Samuel Morse transmitted the first telegraph message from Manhattan to Philadelphia and received the first telegraph message sent back to Manhattan.

In Manhattan, the wire ran to the house of Morse's friend, John James Audubon, who lived about a mile south of where Morse set the anchors in stone. In the basement of the house, where the telegraph machine was set up, Audubon and his family witnessed the success of Morse's long-distance communication experiment. It wasn't the first telegraph message ever, but it was the first that connected Manhattan to the mainland, and it was one of the earliest long-distant messages.

Home of John James Audubon where Samuel Morse set up his telegraph machine.
Once I spotted the two anchors, I assumed I had found the entire trove. I wish I had seen this illustration of the telegraph pole before making my adventure because I would've looked around the ground for more supports. I didn't realize how big the set up was on that hilltop:

Telegraph pole in Washington Heights as viewed from the site of Fort Washington, now Bennett Park. (detail)

Note: Try this Morse Code Translator to convert your type-written text into the dashes and dots of the Morse code. You can even hear what your message sounds like in the clicks and taps of a telegraph machine. - .... .- -. -.- / -.-- --- ..- / ..-. --- .-. / ... - --- .--. .--. .. -. --. / -... -.-- .-.-.-

Sources are here.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Arrowhead Inn, Part 2: The Pine Trees

I returned to the Arrowhead Inn site on 177th Street and Haven Avenue in Washington Heights, NYC. The Arrowhead Inn was once a famous destination in the countryside of upper Manhattan for the wealthy set. 

After the Arrowhead Inn closed in the early 1920s, apartment houses were built on the block. Then, the construction of the George Washington Bridge and surrounding highways split the lot down the middle on a diagonal line. When I visited the site last week, I noticed the pine trees growing along that diagonal line.

Seeing the trees inspired the romantic idea in me that the pines were the same trees that grew around the Arrowhead Inn, and that they survived and were protected against the disruptions of the land over the years.

If you look at map showing the apartment buildings in the late 1920s, you can see there is open space in the middle of the block, just where the trees now stand:

Block bounded by 178th and 179th Street, Haven Ave and Northern Ave (now Cabrini Blvd.)
To find out if the trees were old-timers from the Arrowhead Inn days, I needed to know how old they are. And to figure out how old the trees are, I needed some tools: a measuring tape to measure the circumference of the tree and needles from the pine to identify the species.

The trees are Red Pine (also called Norway Pine) which are native to the area, though I don't see them much around the neighborhood. Red Pine needles grow in bundles of two, and they are rounded on one side and flat on the other.

To figure out the age, I used the tape measure to find the circumference of the biggest tree at 54" from the ground and then divided that number by pi to get the diameter of the trunk. 

The next step knowing the growth rate for the tree. Trees grow at different rates depending on species, and the Red Pine's growth rate is 5.5. 

The equation is: circumference ÷ pi × growth rate = age.

Doing the calculations was easy enough, and I was able to figure out that the largest tree in the park is about 82 years old. 

Eighty-two years ago from today (2016) was 1934. The George Washington Bridge opened for traffic in 1931. All the pines in the park are younger than the bridge. 

And that means I have to give up my romantic idea that these pines trees were once standing next to the famous Arrowhead Inn of Washington Heights and saw celebrities, politicians, and the wealthy of the New York City riding uptown to dine. Sigh. 

But, I don't have to give up the romance completely. The seeds of pine trees typically scatter in a fairly close range to the parent tree, and it's likely this little stand of pine trees are descendants from ones who grew here during the hey-day of the Arrowhead Inn.

Sources are here.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Minuit Place at 187th and 189th Street

No one really knows where Peter Minuit “purchased” the island of Manhattan from the people who already lived here in 1626. Some claim it happened near the northern tip of the island and others say the very bottom. You can’t find the spot on the map. 

There’s another Minuit place in Manhattan you can’t find either, unless you know where to look.

I haven’t quite figured out who or why, but sometime between 1916 and 1923, a piece of land 320x50 feet was “ceded to the city without compensation.” It was a street bed in Washington Heights, with one end on 187th Street between Bennett Avenue and Overlook Terrace and the other end at 189th Street and Bennett. It doesn’t show up on the 1916 map:

187th Street between Bennett Avenue and Overlook Terrace, 1916.
From The New York Public Library Digital Collection.

But here it is, named Minuit Place, on the 1923 map:

187th Street between Bennett Avenue and Overlook Terrace, 1923.
From The New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Before the development boom of the 1920s in Washington Heights, the land in the neighborhood belonged to large landholders, and when estates were sold, they were often sold in big lots. The block bounded by 187th, 189th, Bennett, and Overlook was purchased by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the fall of 1926 to build a new hospital on the site.

Minuit Place ran right through the proposed site of the hospital, but it was “released for the nominal sum of $100 plus $12.50 expenses, by the City of New York to the Lutheran Hospital of Manhattan.”

Once the land, including the little parcel of Minuit Place, was acquired, the hospital set out to raise $750,000 to build the facility.

Soon after the hospital bought its block of land, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement bought the lot just north of Minuit Place to build a new church for its congregation.

With all the plans for development, the street was discontinued from the city grid, though you can see faint street marks for Minuit Place included on the 1927 map:

187th Street between Bennett Avenue and Overlook Terrace, 1927.
From The New York Public Library Digital Collection.

The big plans that started with the 1926 land purchases didn’t quite turn out as intended. The Church of the Atonement was able to build the parish hall and parsonage in 1928, but the stock market crash hit hard, and the nave of the church was never built. In its place, where the original sanctuary would have been, is now a garden, at the intersection of 189th and Bennett. The original parish hall continues to serve as the worship space for the church. (The congregation later merged with another and the church is now called Our Saviour’s Atonement.)

The hospital was never built either, and the 1930 map shows the empty lot where the hospital was planned to be by that time. And, you can see a remnant of Minuit Place, the portion at 189th Street:

Part of Minuit Place remains on the map, at 189th and Bennett Avenue, 1930.
From The New York Public Library Collection.

The hospital sold the land in 1940 and apartment buildings soon covered the block. But, you can still see evidence, decades after it was discontinued on a city map, of where Minuit Place once was. In between the buildings, there is an open space of land that corresponds to where Minuit ran:

Where Minuit Place would've been, 187th Street between Bennett Avenue and Overlook Terrace, looking north.
The original Minuit Place made a 90-degree turn to meet 189th Street, and that short stretch remained undeveloped until 1969 when a multi-family triplex was built on the site, just next to the church garden.

Here is Minuit Place looking south toward 187th Street from the church garden. You can see the right-angle turn it makes in the foreground as it continues off to the left of the photo:

Looking toward Bennett Avenue from 189th Street, as in the view below, with the triplex on the left behind the trees (circled in red) next to the church garden to the right, you can see where Minuit Place once was:

Sources found here.