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Ghost Pier

Pier 54, August 2012

In a landscape so dominated by verticals and horizontals, the arched steel entryway to Pier 54 (at the foot of 13th Street) stands out along the Hudson River and makes a handsome contrast. Perhaps no other pier in America has so much history attached to it. Completed in 1910, it was designed by Warren & Wetmore, the architectural firm that co-designed Grand Central Terminal; two years later the Cunard ship Carpathia docked here to discharge survivors of the RMS Titanic, which had been heading for Pier 59, today the golfing range of the Chelsea Piers fitness club. In January 2012 I was thrilled to witness the Queen Elizabeth of the Cunard line sailing by the remnants of this once grand pier.

January 2012, the Queen Elizabeth passes the old Cunard pier


In May 1915 the Lusitania departed from Pier 54 and only days later was torpedoed by the Germans,
an event that mobilized public opinion in support of the United States’s entry into World War I. The pier was again pressed into service during World War II, when it was used for troopships. In the 21st century it became a venue for rock concerts and a major party site during New York’s annual Gay Pride celebration. After it was closed to crowds, Pier 54 assumed a new — and my favorite — role for city residents of all ages: a safe place for parents to teach kids how to ride a bicycle.

Pier 54 with cyclists

Today, Pier 54 has been reconfigured as part of Barry Diller’s “Little Island,” which I wrote about here. This new park offers a wonderful view of the old archway, now from its backside.

The Archway of Pier 54 from Diller Island

Diller Island also offers a wonderful perch for studying up-close the “pile fields” of neighboring piers. These are the remnants of piers that recall the early 19th century, when this was the busiest port in America. It supported a massive trading empire that stretched across the oceans to include South America, Spain, Portugal, England, and China. The piers may be long gone but the piles remain because they provide habitat for various fish species, including striped bass, flounder, Atlantic herring, American eel, white perch, and bay anchovy. They’re also used by barnacles, clams, sea grapes, and shipworms, a form of mollusk that bores holes in the wood and eats the sawdust. We humans are never alone along the Hudson River.

Pile field looking north, toward Pier 57

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Little Island on the Wrong Side of Town

The thing that most surprised me on my first visit to “Little Island,” Manhattan’s newest flashy park, was how much I wished I were somewhere else.

It’s not that I wasn’t brimming with anticipation about the opening of this place. I had been watching and photographing the development of this riverine park for years; studied designs that were published online; followed the legal controversy as it unfolded, like a metropolitan opera, in the pages of newspapers and websites. Little Island is a strikingly unusual outdoor space, one that rises improbably “atop a bouquet of tulip-shaped columns,” as Michael Kimmelman so perfectly described it in the Times. Its undulating pathways open up views no New Yorker has ever seen before, and along the way they treat us to a quite stunning mix of materials, colors, and shapes. It’s the experience of juxtaposed elements — hard & soft, high & low, bright & monochrome, historical & contemporary, intimate & expansive, industrial & high-tech — that you expect to encounter in a great art museum.

But as I walked, climbed and gazed around me, both at the people and the landscape, the same thought that has been dogging me since I first heard about Barry Diller’s fantasy island came back to haunt me. Stunning, original, improbable, innovative as it is — and Diller Island is all those things — how extraordinary it would be — how breathtaking and awesome and inspiring — if it were in the South Bronx, or some other part of New York City that’s underserved by world-class parks. And how stunning it would have been if such a park had opened in this of all years, after the ravages of a pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement made it impossible to un-see the many inequities that are stitched through the landscape of our city.

We’ve known for centuries how important beautiful outdoor spaces are to human health and happiness. In an 1850 magazine article Andrew Jackson Downing asked: “Is New York really not rich enough, or is there absolutely not enough land in America, to give our citizens public parks of more than ten acres?” A contemporary, James Gordon Bennett, declared in the New York Herald that a public park is a pair of lungs. And Tony Hiss, in his book The Experience of Place, observes that Frederick Law Olmstead, co-creator of Central Park, “seems to have remarkably anticipated Christopher Alexander’s recent finding that people will not make regular use of a city park if it is more than about 750 feet, or three minutes’ walk, from their doors.” We have known forever that parks are essential. We have known forever that proximity to parks is essential. And yet….

Here on the Far West Side of Manhattan, in the neighborhoods of Hell’s Kitchen, West Chelsea and the Village, we have an embarrassment of riches: world-class parks that stretch for miles and miles. The High Line, Hudson River Park, Pier 84 with its kayak rentals, Pier 64 with its historic ships, Chelsea Waterside with its special amenities for kids, Pier 62 with its giant tent that’s invariably swelled by the music of saxophone or harmonica.

We didn’t need another new, world-class park here. What we need is new, world-class parks in places where they don’t exist. This is what has been bugging me since Mr. Diller’s project was first announced in 2014, by which point the High Line had become so crowded with tourists it became necessary, for me at least, to visit at the break or dawn or during thunderstorms. Parks in New York City are for New Yorkers. It’s wonderful that tourists love them too, but tourists are traveling people, and they will go where the great places are.

So while Diller Island — I feel compelled to call it by its original name, after the very rich man who built this park outside his office window — is a stunning, original, innovative, improbable, place that brings together horticulture, entertainment, glorious views of the Hudson River, industrial history (the pier that once sat here, Pier 54, was used by the Carpathia to discharge survivors of the Titanic, whose original destination was Pier 59), to me it is a lost opportunity. And as a lifelong New Yorker, it just breaks my heart that we couldn’t give this gift of place to our neighbors who really need it.

Click here to read more about the fascinating backstory of Pier 54.

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Field of Green

For those of you wondering what the High Line looks like these days during the extended Coronavirus lockdown, well, it looks like all the rest of us: disheveled, unruly, a bit wild, and gorgeous as ever.

The High Line grows a beard

Long ago and far away, I posted a photo of the High Line’s first haircut: it was May 2, 2011, and felt like a truly monumental event. I opened that post with a quotation from Michael Pollan’s wonderful book Second Nature: “If lawn mowing feels like copying the same sentence over and over, gardening is like writing out new ones, an infinitely variable process of invention and discovery.” At the time I was a bit disparaging about the High Line’s lawn and its commonplace, orderly, presence in this otherwise miraculous garden of diversity and even, occasionally, wildness.

Well, here we are, nine years later, with a field of green in the middle of Manhattan, wild grass blowing in the wind, telling a new story blade by blade, sentence by sentence, of the strange time during the spring of 2020, when the High Line was abandoned once again.

It’s just another chapter in the long, improbable, inspiring story of this unusual place.

 

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A Great Day in a Great Park

Clement Clarke Moore Park, named in honor of the West Chelsea pioneer whose massive estate once stood on this ground, re-opened yesterday afternoon after a thoughtful and much-needed $1.5 million renovation. It’s not common these days to love politicians, but hearts were beating on 22nd Street when our much-loved Council Member and Speaker, Corey Johnson, joined the NYC Parks Commissioner, Mitchell Silver, NY State Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, and a team of hard-working staffers and community members to cut a green ribbon and officially declare the park re-opened.

the ribbon-cutting

[continue reading…]

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At Last, The Thirtieth Street Depot

After years of searching, finally I’ve located a photograph of the Hudson River Railroad’s Thirtieth Street Depot. This is the station that once occupied part of the area where the Morgan General Mail Facility now stands on Tenth Avenue. It’s the train station that received, as its very first passenger, President-elect Abraham Lincoln, who passed through on February 19, 1861 en route to Washington, DC for his inauguration. I post here a photograph taken in April 1902, looking West down 30th Street:

The NY Central & Hudson River Railroad 30th Street Station, April 6, 1902, looking West. The New-York Historical Society, used with permission.

It’s a bit less grand than the illustration I’ve been relying on to tell the story of this spot, made by an artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper after Lincoln’s visit:

Abraham Lincoln’s Special Inaugural Train at the Hudson River Railroad Depot, 1861. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, courtesy the Library of Congress

It was also here that, four years later, President Lincoln’s body was transferred to a funeral train headed north on the Hudson River Railroad, after the cortège had reached New York on another railroad line. The Hudson River Railroad was designed to link New York with Albany, and from there connect with other roads heading west across the country. At 144 miles in length, the line opened in October of 1851, and while it took a good five hours to travel from Manhattan to Albany, the new railroad beat the fastest steamships by at least two hours.

Those interested in a detailed account of the obsequies and “Sombre Grandeur of the Funeral Pageant” will find a long, moving series of articles in the New York Times issue dated April 26, 1865, beginning with the “dense masses of immovable people” who turned out at City Hall to file by the President’s corpse and pay their respects. His body had reached New York at noon on Monday, April 24th, and lay in state at City Hall until Wednesday the 26th. At 12:30 on that day the funeral car arrived at the Hall, drawn by sixteen “magnificent gray horses, led each by a colored groom.” After what the Times reporter called “a vexatious delay,” a bugle sounded and the funeral procession — with countless regiments from every part of the military, an Invalid Corps and a battalion of police officers — finally made its way up Broadway toward the railroad depot at Thirtieth Street. Joining the procession was Bruno, who came to be known as “the dog mourner.” He was a large Saint Bernard who bolted from his owner, Edward H. Mostly, just as the funeral car passed the corner of Broadway and Chambers Streets, and followed along underneath the coffin for many blocks. “By what instinct was this?” the reporter asked, and then provided the answer: “Bruno was a friend and acquaintance of Mr. Lincoln’s, and had passed some time with him only a few days before his death.”

At 2:30 an aide “came galloping down Ninth Avenue” to report that the cortège was approaching. Shortly thereafter, and to “the thrilling roll of drums, the clash and swell of music, and the quick, sharp sound of the ‘present arms,'” the procession reached the station. Inside the depot was “a knot of wounded soldiers…[who] sat, poor fellows, fighting their battles over again. ” Lincoln’s catafalque was transferred to the Union, a “splendid locomotive” that had conveyed the President-elect three years earlier on his triumphal progress from Springfield to Washington for his inauguration. It was now draped in funerary cloth, its lamp decorated “with a magnificent wreath of living flowers.” Inside the funeral car Lincoln’s body was accompanied by that of his young son, Willie, who had died in February of 1862.

A bell rang, the conductor called out “All aboard!” and at 4:15 pm the Union pulled out of the Thirtieth Street Depot. Mourners were lined all along Tenth Avenue; they removed their hats as the funeral train emerged from the gate, and then disappeared around a curve.

Today, standing sentry over this hallowed ground, is “Brick House,” a 16′ high bronze sculpture by Simone Leigh that, according to Friends of the High Line, “encompasses several architectural and cultural references in tribute to the strength of Black female beauty.”

Simone Leigh, “Brick House” on the Tenth Avenue Spur

Read more about the Morgan General Mail Facility

Read more about President Lincoln’s Dangerous Day in Manhattan, 1861

SOURCES

The Rise of New York Port: 1815-1860, by Robert Greenhalgh Albion

The New York Times, April 26, 1865, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1865/04/26/88155015.html?zoom=15.36

Christopher Gray, “Where Lincoln Tossed and Turned,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/realestate/27scapesready.html

 

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President Lincoln on a Dangerous Day in Manhattan

I’ve written about Abraham Lincoln many times on this blog, always identifying as sacred ground the spot where the Morgan General Mail Facility now stands. This is because Lincoln passed through the area twice in the 1860s when it was the site of a train station, owned and operated by the Hudson River Railroad. The first time was on February 19, 1861, when the President-elect was en route to Washington, DC for his inauguration. Three years later, Lincoln’s funeral train passed through the depot on its long journey west to Springfield, Ill.

The first occasion was memorialized in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The illustration shows the depot with three large American flags in the background; in front of the station Lincoln is being escorted to his carriage by superintendent Kennedy of the Metropolitan Police. [click the image to enlarge it and see Lincoln in his signature top hat and beard.]

Abraham Lincoln’s Special Inaugural Train at the Hudson River Railroad Depot, 1861. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, courtesy the Library of Congress

Last week at the terrific Walt Whitman show that’s currently on view at the Morgan Library I learned some intriguing new details about Lincoln’s visit to New York. Earlier that same day, February 19, 1861, Lincoln addressed a large crowd from the Greek revival portico of the Astor House, at the time considered New York’s finest hotel. Harper’s Weekly, the “Journal of Civilization,” put the story on its front cover in the issue dated March 2, 1861:

Harper’s Weekly, March 2, 1861. New-York Historical Society

The Morgan’s exhibit explains that Lincoln’s appearance came at “a time of immense danger to the country and to him personally.” Later, according to the curator, it was revealed that a spy named Kate Warne had traveled to New York to warn Lincoln of an assassination plot. She may even be visible in one of the windows in the background of the Harper’s drawing.  Warne, who was the first female detective in America, worked for the Pinkerton Agency and had gone undercover in Baltimore to investigate the threat. She disguised herself as “a flirting Southern Belle,” gained confirmation of the plot, and reported it to authorities in New York. Also present that day but not in the Harper’s Weekly illustration: Walt Whitman, who in true New York style was stuck in traffic on an omnibus nearby.

Later that day Lincoln continued his journey, in the presence of a strong police force and via the Hudson River Railroad’s brand new station. He was the very first passenger to use what was clearly an enormous and grand structure. The illustration in Frank Leslie’s newspaper is the only image I’ve been able to locate of this long-lost beauty. Many years later it was torn down and replaced with a massive sorting facility. In the freight rail era of the High Line, which began in 1934, boxcars filled with letters and packages from across the United States made the final leg of their journey over the spur that crosses Tenth Avenue, passing through the (now bricked-up) openings in the northwest corner. The photo below was taken just before construction was completed:

The Morgan Postal Facility, photo by George Fuller. Kalmbach Publishing.

Standing sentry on the just-opened Tenth Avenue Spur of the park that succeeded the railroad is “Brick House,” a 16′ high bronze sculpture by Simone Leigh that, according to Friends of the High Line, “encompasses several architectural and cultural references in tribute to the strength of Black female beauty.” The architects, as per tradition on the modern High Line, have left the original train tracks in place, so today they bracket this imposing, and inspiring, work of art.

Sacred ground indeed.

Simone Leigh, “Brick House” on the High Line’s newly opened Tenth Avenue Spur

Here’s an earlier, aerial shot that shows the wider landscape:

The Morgan General Mail Facility, on ground once occupied by the Hudson River Railroad © Annik LaFarge

 

SOURCES:

Christopher Gray, “Where Lincoln Tossed and Turned,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/realestate/27scapesready.html

The Morgan Library, “Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy,” June 7 – September 15, 2019 https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/walt-whitman

Wikipedia, Kate Warne, and Barbara Maikell-Thomas, “Kate Warne: First Female Private-Eye,” by Barbara Maikell-Thomas, http://www.pimall.com/nais/pivintage/katewarne.html

 

 

 

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Let’s all raise a glass…

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