Historical Fifth Avenue in New York City

Fifth avenue, commencing at Washington Square, or Seventh street, and extending to the Harlem River, is said by the residents of New York to be the finest street in the world. It is about six miles in length, and is built up continuously from Washington Square to the Central Park, a distance of nearly three miles. From Fifty-ninth street to the upper end of the Central Park, One-hundred-and-tenth street, it is laid with the Nicholson or wooden pavement. It is being rapidly built up along its eastern side, the Park bounding the opposite side of the street, and this portion bids fair to be one of the most delightful and desirable neighborhoods in the city. In the vicinity of One-hundred-and-eighteenth street, the line of the avenue is broken by Mount Morris, an abrupt rocky height, which has been laid off as a pleasure ground. Around this the street sweeps in a half circle, and from here to the Harlem River, One-hundred-and-thirty-fifth street, it is lined with pretty villas, and paved with asphaltum.

From Madison Square to its lower end, the avenue is rapidly giving way to business, and its palatial residences are being converted into equally fine stores. Hotels and fashionable boarding-houses are thick in this quarter. Above Madison Square the street is devoted to private residences, and this part is par excellence “The Avenue.”

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The principal buildings, apart from the residences, are the Brevoort House, at the corner of Clinton Place, an ultra fashionable hostelrie.  On the opposite side of the street, at the northwest corner of Tenth street, is the handsome brown stone Episcopal Church of the Ascension, and on the southwest corner of Eleventh street is the equally handsome First Presbyterian Church, constructed of the same material.  At the northeast corner of Fourteenth street is Delmonico’s famous restaurant, fronting on both streets; and diagonally opposite, on the southwest corner of Fifteenth street, the magnificent house of the Manhattan Club.  Not far from Delmonico’s, and on the same side, is a brick mansion, adorned with a sign bearing a coat of arms, and the announcement that the ground floor is occupied by the eighth wonder of the world, “A Happy Tailor.”  At the southeast corner of Nineteenth street is the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, in charge of the eloquent Dr. John Hall.  Two blocks above, on the southwest corner of Twenty-first street, is the South Dutch Reformed Church, a handsome brown stone edifice, and diagonally opposite is the Glenham House.  At the southwest corner of Twenty-second street, is the famous art gallery of Gonpil & Co., and immediately opposite the St. Germains Hotel.  At Twenty-third street, Broadway crosses the avenue obliquely from northwest to southeast.  On the left hand, going north, is the Fifth Avenue Hotel, and on the left Madison Square.  The open space is very broad here, and is always thronged with a busy, lively crowd.  At the northeast corner of Twenty-sixth street is the Hotel Brunswick, and on the southwest corner of Twenty-seventh street the Stevens House, both monster buildings rented in flats to families of wealth.  At the northwest corner of Twenty-ninth street, is a handsome church of white granite, belonging to the Dutch Reformed faith, and familiarly known as the “Church of the Holy Rooster,” from the large gilt cock on the spire.  At the northwest corner of Thirty-fourth street is the new marble residence of Mr. A. T. Stewart, the most magnificent dwelling house in the land.  Immediately opposite is a fine brown stone mansion, occupied at present by Mr. Stewart.  On the southeast corner of Thirty-fifth street, is Christ Church (Episcopal), and on the northwest corner of Thirty-seventh street the Brick Church (Presbyterian), of which Dr. Gardiner Spring is the pastor.  At Fortieth street, and extending to Forty-second, the west side of the avenue is taken up with the old distributing reservoir, a massive structure of stone, and immediately opposite is the Rutgers Female College.  At the southeast corner of Forty-third street is the city residence of the notorious Boss Tweed, and at the northeast corner of the same street, the splendid Jewish synagogue known as the Temple E-manu-el.  At the southwest corner of Forty-fifth street is the Church of the Divine Paternity (Universalist), of which Dr. Chapin is the pastor, and on the opposite side of the street in the block above, the Church of the Heavenly Rest (Episcopal).  At the northwest corner of Forty-eighth street is the massive but unfinished structure of the Collegiate Dutch Reformed Church.  On the east side of the avenue, and occupying the block between Fiftieth and Fifty-first streets, is the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral, unfinished, but destined to be the most elaborate church edifice in America.  The block above the Cathedral is occupied by the Male Orphan Asylum of the same church, next door to which is the mansion of Madame Restelle, one of the most noted abortionists of New York.  On the northwest corner of Fifty-third street is the new St. Thomas’ Church (Episcopal), a fine edifice, and owned by one of the wealthiest congregations in the city.  Between Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth streets, and on the same side of the street, is St. Luke’s Hospital, with its pretty grounds.  On the east side, between Fifty-eighth and Fifty-ninth streets, and now in course of erection, will be located the Central Park Hotel, which is to be one of the most imposing structures in New York; and just opposite is the main entrance to the Central Park.

From Seventh to Fifty-ninth streets, the avenue presents a continuous line of magnificent mansions.  There are a few marble, yellow stone, and brick buildings, but the prevailing material is brown stone.  The general appearance of the street is magnificent, but sombre, owing to the dark color of the stone.  Nearly all the houses are built on the same design, which gives to it an air of sameness and tameness that is not pleasing.  But it is a magnificent street, nevertheless, and has not its equal in the great and unbroken extent of its splendor in the world.  It is a street of palaces.  Madison and Park avenues, and portions of Lexington avenue, are nearly as handsome, as are the cross streets connecting them with the Fifth avenue, and many of the streets leading to the Sixth avenue are similarly built.  The great defect of the avenue is the poverty of resource in the designs of the buildings, but this is the only species of poverty present here.

If the houses are palatial without, they are even more so within.  Some of them are models of elegance and taste; others are miracles of flashy and reckless adornment.  The walls and ceilings are covered with exquisite frescoes.  The floors are rich in the finest and thickest of carpets, on whose luxurious pile no footfall ever sounds.  The light of the sun comes struggling in through the richest of curtains, and at night the brilliancy of the gas is softened by the warmest tinted porcelain shades, or heightened by the dazzling reflection of crystal chandeliers.  The drawing rooms are filled with the costliest and the richest furniture which is the perfection of comfort, and with works of art worth a fortune in themselves.  Back of these, or across the hall, through the half opened doors, you see the sumptuously furnished library, with its long rows of daintily bound books in their rosewood shelves.  The library is a “feature” in most houses of the very wealthy, and in the majority of instances is more for ornament than for use.  In the rear of all is the conservatory with its wealth of flowers and rare plants, which send their odors through the rooms beyond.  The upper and lower stories are furnished on a corresponding scale of magnificence.  Everything that money can procure for the comfort or luxury of the inmates is at hand.  Nor are such residences few in number.  They may be counted by the hundred, each with its contents worth a large fortune.  The style of living is in keeping with the house, and, as a matter of course, only the very wealthy can afford such homes.

As for the occupants, they represent all classes—the good and the bad, the cultivated and the illiterate, the refined and the vulgar, the well-born and those who have risen from the gutters.  If shoddy finds a home here, genuine merit is his neighbor.  Those who have large and assured incomes can afford such a style of life; but they do not comprise all the dwellers on the Avenue.  Many are here who have strained every nerve to “get into the Avenue,” and who would sell body and soul to stay there, yet who feel that the crash is coming before which they must give way.  Others there are who would give half their possessions to move in the society in which their neighbors live.  They reside on the Avenue, but they are ignored by one class of its occupants, because of their lack of refinement and cultivation, and by another because of their inferiority in wealth.  Great wealth covers a multitude of defects in the Avenue.

Perhaps the most restless, care-worn faces in the city are to be seen on this street.  Women clad in the richest attire pass you with unquiet face and wistful eyes, and men who are envied by their fellows for their “good luck,” startle you by the stern, hard set look their features wear.  The first find little real happiness in the riches they have sold themselves for, and the latter find that the costly pleasures they courted have been gained at too dear a price.

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Families are small in the Avenue, and Madame Restelle boasts, that her wealth has been earned in a large degree by keeping them so.  Fashion has its requirements, and before them maternity must give way.  Your fashionable lady has no time to give to children, but pets lap-dogs and parrots.

Well, the Avenue mansions have their skeletons, as well as the east side tenement houses.  The sin of the fashionable lady is covered up, however, and the poor girl must face the world.  That is the difference.  Madame married her husband for his money, and her love is given to one who has no right to claim it; and what between her loathing for her liege lord and her dread of detection, she leads a life not to be envied in spite of the luxury which surrounds her.  The liege lord in his turn, never suspecting his wife, but disheartened by her coldness to him, seeks his “affinity” elsewhere; and, by and by, the divorce court tells some unpleasant truths about the Avenue.

Contemplating these things, I have thought that the most wretched quarter of the city hardly holds more unhappy hearts than dwell along the three miles of this grand street; and I have thanked God that the Avenue does not fairly represent the better and higher phases of social and domestic life in the great city.

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