Manhattan History NYC
Historical Sites Midtown Manhattan
The following provides both a history and links into some of the current day things to do in the Midtown neighborhood of Manhattan including museums, historical sites & tourist attractions, restaurants and shops.
Farmlands & Woods
At the time of the birth of the nation in 1789, New York City was comprised primarily of what today would be called Lower Manhattan, meaning the area south of Canal Street. At the time there were about 100,000 people living in the city.
The city began laying out a grid plan in 1807, which was finalized in 1811. In 1822 the land that now represents the neighborhoods of Midtown Manhattan came under the jurisdiction of New York City. The land became what is called a potters field which is a graveyard for the unknown. In 1840 the land was decommissioned as a potters field and the area that is now the main branch of the New York Public Library was designated to become the water reservoir of New York City. At the same time the adjacent land was to become a park [now Bryant Park].
Click here to continue reading our history of Manhattan Midtown including historical sites in NYC. And click here for a listing of things to do in Midtown NYC in Manhattan.
Manhattan History NYC
Historical Sites Midtown Manhattan
A Look At The History Of The Midtown Neighborhoods In NYC
By the time of the Civil War in 1860 New York City was home to nearly a million people [800,000], having expanded north beyond Madison Square Park at 23rd Street, spurred in some good measure by the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Many historians claim the Erie Canal made New York City the nation’s trading hub, by enabling it to export America’s bounty which was inexpensively shipped by water from as far as Chicago and other Great Lakes cities, to the rest of the world.
And by the turn of the 20th century, the population of New York City had swelled to 3.5 million, fueled in part by huge immigration from European countries torn by wars and famines. In the second half of the 19th century New York City significantly expanded its boundaries, incorporating the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Richmond Island [Staten Island] into its charter. There was a growing urban density from the Battery [Park] up to Harlem and also along the East River on both sides.
Midtown Manhattan Neighborhoods - Union Square – 1800's
According to Wikipedia, in 1815 the city declared a section of the former potters fields, of what was then the northern end of the city, Union Place. Union Place was where the union of Broadway and Bowery Street met and hence the name ‘union’ even though subsequently it became associated with large labor union rallies and also rallies for Union soldiers. In 1832 the boundaries were enlarged and the name changed to Union Square at the urging of Samuel Ruggles, one of the organizers behind Gramercy Park.
In 1882 Union Square became the site of the first Labor Day gathering and in 1992 was made an historic site because of that event. Bronze statues of both George Washington [shown returning to New York atop a horse after the British conceded the war] and one of Abraham Lincoln standing are featured in the park.
One of New York City’s first greenmarkets was opened in Union Square in 1976.
Stuyvesant Square – NYC Park -
Peter Stuyvesant was the last governor general of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam which ended in 1664. New Amsterdam was renamed New York in 1664 when King Charles II of England awarded the captured colony of New Amsterdam, to his cousin the Duke of York. Peter Stuyvesant was allowed to keep most of his extensive land holdings in the colony.
According to the NYC Parks Department, Peter Gerard Stuyvesant [1778 – 1847] was the great grandson of the former governor general and was believed to be one of the wealthiest men in America at the time. Peter Gerard Stuyvesant appears to have been a very generous man based upon the gifts made by him to the people of New York. He gave the land that is now Tompkins Square to the City of New York in 1829, as well as Stuyvesant Square in 1836 which he turned over to New York City for $5 – both under the condition that the land would be reserved as public space.
Peter Gerard Stuyvesant was the founder of the New York Historical Society. In 1847 the city began to develop the park. In the 1930’s the park underwent a renovation via the public works in vogue at the time, in part which preserved some of the original installations of stone and iron.
Gramercy Park was the invention of one of New York City’s early real estate developers, Samuel Ruggles. In the 1820’s and 1830’s Ruggles advocated for the northward expansion of New York City beyond Houston Street and Washington Square. Ruggles bought Gramercy Farm from one of Peter Stuyvesant’s heirs and partitioned the land into lots, with the two acre park in the middle. The adjacent property owners were given a key to Gramercy Park, and according to Wikipedia, it became the second privately owned park in New York City after Hudson Square also known as St John’s Park near Trinity Church.
Over the past century and a half several attempts were made and thwarted, to connect Lexington Avenue with Irving Place, by putting the street right through the park. In 1966 some of the neighborhood was designated an historic district.
The Players Club
Edwin Booth, the brother of Lincoln-assassin John Wilkes Booth, started the Players Club as a social club where business and professional people could mingle with actors, writers and artists. In 1888 he purchased an 1847 mansion [#16] along Gramercy Park, and the club has been operating ever since. Edwin is reported to have severed ties with brother John, prior to the assassination, because of John’s strident anti-Lincoln, pro-slavery, Confederate support.
National Arts Club
The National Arts Club was founded in 1898. In 1906 the club acquired a mansion once owned and lived in by Samuel Tilden, a presidential candidate who won the popular vote of 1876, but lost the election to Rutherford B. Hayes because of the vote tally of the electoral college. In the 1880’s the Tilden mansion was combined with the building next to it, becoming the building that stands today. J.P. Morgan and Henry Clay Frick were once members of the club.
Gramercy Park Hotel
The Gramercy Park Hotel was built in the 1920’s in two stages and in two wings. The large luxury hotel was home to the Joseph P. Kennedy family for a couple of months before the Kennedys moved to London where Joseph Kennedy was ambassador just prior to America's entry into WWII. According to Wikipedia, Humphrey Bogart married his first wife, a Mencken, there and Babe Ruth was a regular patron. In recent years the hotel underwent a significant renovation.
The Portman Hotel was built in 1829. In 1864 drinking establishments were made legal. In 1899 the building was purchased by the Healy brothers who were mentioned in one of author O’Henry’s short stories. It’s rumored that O’Henry wrote Gift of the Magi in one of the front booths.
Madison Square Park
In 1832 a train station at 26th Street and Madison Avenue was built for Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York and Harlem Railroad and later also used by the New York and New Haven Railroad.
In 1847 Madison Square [park] opened. With easy access to the train station, roadways like Broadway and Fifth Avenue and a beautiful park, the area became a destination for travelers and a place to build homes for the wealthy. The northward development of New York City continued and the locale around Madison Square became popular among the city elite, including Winston Churchill’s mother [Jennie Jerome], author Edith Wharton and President Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1871 Vanderbilt opened the Grand Central Terminal and moved his train operations north. The old terminal at Madison Square was replaced in 1879 and renamed Madison Square Garden by one of Vanderbilt’s grandsons. It had become a performance space for concerts, sporting events and Barnum Bailey’s Circus Hippodrome during the interim.
A small group of wealthy investors [lead by J.P. Morgan & Andrew Carnegie] razed the building and built the second Madison Square Garden which remained on that corner until 1926, at which time it was replaced by the New York Life Building which stands there today.
Madison Square Park is claimed by some to be the birthplace of baseball. In 1876 the Statue of Liberty torch and arm were displayed in the park to help raise funds for the statue base foundation. Madison Square was one of the first locations for a public light in New York City in the last half of the 1800’s. It was also home to several temporary victory arches.
NYC Water Reservoir, Crystal Palace & Bryant Park – 1839 – 1842
According to the Bryant Park Conservatory, New York City built a large 4 acre reservoir where the New York Public Library stands today. It held water that was transported via gravity from Westchester. Atop the 50 feet tall and 25 feet wide granite walls was a public promenade allowing New Yorkers to take in expansive panoramas of the city and beyond. In 1846 Reservoir Park, which was to be located immediately west of the reservoir was authorized, but it was not until after the Civil War in 1870 / 1871 that work began to develop the park. Reservoir Park was renamed Bryant Park after the New York Post social activist and Publisher, William Cullen Bryant.
During the 1850’s New York erected the Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace was modeled after a structure that had been built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. In 1852 the Crystal Palace was erected and in 1853 opened, hosting about one million visitors from around the world. The palace stayed open until it burned down in 1858.
The New York Public Library
The reservoir was torn down in 1900 and replaced by the New York Public Library with funding from Andrew Carnegie.
St Patrick’s Cathedral
According to Wikipedia, the land for St Patrick’s Cathedral was acquired by the NYC Catholic diocese in the early 1800’s. At the time is was in the countryside north of New York City. In 1858 the cornerstone for St Patrick’s Cathedral was laid, as the diocese wanted to replace the Old St Patrick’s Cathedral further south. Construction on the church went on hiatus during the Civil War and resumed following it. The cathedral was completed in 1878. Some additions and renovations have been done since, including one that was completed in 2014.
Saks Fifth Avenue / Macy’s Herald Square
Andrew Saks was a Manhattan clothier of the latter half of the 19th century. Andrew incorporated his clothing business as Saks & Company in 1902 and the company merged with Gimbels in 1923. In 1924 the combined entity opened a block long department store along Fifth Avenue just to the south of St Patrick's Cathedral, which they called Saks Fifth Avenue. The company was acquired by the Hudson Bay Company in 2013.
Steinway Hall / Carnegie Hall
In 1864 William Steinway opened a piano store on 14th Street off Fifth Avenue. In 1866 he opened the first Steinway Hall, one of the first large public concert halls in New York City. In a sense, one could say he built Steinway Hall to demonstrate the product.
In 1891 Carnegie Hall opened featuring conductor Walter Damrosch and composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky. It was home to the New York Symphony and the Oratorio Society for decades. Andrew Carnegie funded its creation and his widow sold it in 1925. In 1960, with the New York Philharmonic moving to Lincoln Center, the City bought Carnegie Hall and it was to be run by a cultural non-profit.
The second Steinway Hall was built as a piano storage and retail space in 1925 on 57th Street off Fifth Avenue across from Carnegie Hall. For nearly a century, pianos had been transported across the street from Steinway Hall to Carnegie Hall for performances. In 2014 / 2015 Steinway Hall moved into a new location in Midtown, vacating the 1925 building.
The Erection Of Grand Central Terminal In NYC – 1870’s
In 1871 Cornelius Vanderbilt completed building Grand Central Terminal and it was opened for business. At the time of the opening it was located at the northern end of the city in what is now the Midtown neighborhood of Manhattan. The rail terminal brought together the terminating stations of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, the New York and Harlem Railroad, and the New York and New Haven Railroads. It immediately became a hub of activity. The railways cut north along Park Avenue through what is now the Upper East Side neighborhood.
The Morgan Library & Museum
In 1880 John Pierrepont Morgan built a mansion in what is now the Midtown neighborhood of Manhattan at around 36th Street and Madison Avenue. In 1903 he also built what is now the Morgan Museum and Library a stone’s throw from where he lived. The second mansion was used to house his extensive library and rare books collection. The museum underwent a significant renovation and expansion in the early 21st century.
Bergdorf Goodman - Manhattan Department Stores
The Cornelius Vanderbilt II Mansion on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue was erected in 1883. In 1926 the Vanderbilt mansion was demolished and replaced by Bergdorf Goodman, a high-end clothing store, which remains to this day. This home was just south of the Upper East Side neighborhood, and is located in Midtown.
Penn Station / Pennsylvania Train Station / Madison Square Garden
Penn Station was completed in 1910 and demolished in 1963. The Beaux Arts buildings demolition galvanized preservationists in New York City, including gaining the support of the former First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy.
Planning for the station began around the turn of the 20th century and it was modeled after the Gare d’Orsay, a famous beaux artes train station, which is now a museum, in Paris. The station was to serve as the eastern terminal for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, which was the largest railroad company in the nation. While railways grew steadily in the 19th century, they declined steadily in the 20th. Hence by mid century the railroad decided to sell the station’s air rights and terminal for cash, which resulted in the demolition of the terminal.
Between 1963 and 1969 the station was replaced by a new Madison Square Garden which is a performance space / sports arena.
The Flatiron Building
The Flatiron Building was erected in 1901. It’s easily one of the most beautiful buildings in New York City. It’s a slim triangular shape, made of white stone, beautifully decorated and overlooking Madison Square Park.
Theodore Roosevelt House
The Theodore Roosevelt House is the birthplace of President Theodore Roosevelt and where he lived until he was a teen [1858 – 1872]. It is currently undergoing renovations [started May 2015] and is expected to reopen in March of 2016.
The Queens Borough Bridge
The Queensboro Bridge was completed in 1909 connecting Midtown Manhattan at 59th Street and Second Avenue to Long Island City. Needless to say this changed that section of what is now the Midtown neighborhood forever. In the beginning the bridge was traversed by trolleys, carriages and autos. Today it is traversed primarily by autos, with a growing cyclist population.
The Algonquin Hotel was erected in 1902. In the 1920’s the Algonquin Hotel became a famous watering hole for writers, most notably from the New Yorker magazine. The Algonquin Round Table lasted about a decade in the 1920’s and began informally when a couple of journalists met at the Algonquin Hotel to welcome back a WWI reporter. The social circle of their daily / weekly meetings included a number of notable authors and editors of the day, including Dorothy Parker and Harold Ross.
The Chrysler Building
The Chrysler Building started going up in 1928 and was completed in 1930. It was built with a steel frame and, according to Wikipedia, is the tallest brick building in the world. For 11 months it was also the tallest building in the world, before the Empire State Building surpassed it in 1931. It is still considered by many architects to be one of New York City’s finest buildings. It was built in the Art Deco style.
The Empire State Building
The Empire State Building was completed in 1931 and for the next 39 years was the tallest building in the world until the North Tower of the World Trade Center replaced it. It has 102 floors and stands 1454 feet [includes 203 feet of the pinnacle]. When the World Trade Center twin towers fell, it was again the tallest building in NYC until 2012 when One World Trade Center surpassed it. Why do people care about which building is the tallest?
The predecessor to the current Waldorf Astoria Hotel once occupied the site where the Empire State Building now stands. It moved uptown to Park Avenue near 50th Street. Five workers died while working on the Empire State Building, which ran from January 1930 to May 1931. The Empire State Building was the first building in the world to surpass 100 floors and it's worth mentioning that the first television test broadcasts were made there in 1931. There’s an observation deck on the 86th floor as well as a much smaller one above it. The building is made of concrete and steel in contrast to the Chrysler Building.
Rockefeller Center / Radio City Music Hall
The Midtown Tunnel
The Midtown Tunnel was built during the 1930’s and opened in 1940. The tunnel connects the Murray Hill section of the Midtown neighborhood to Long Island City and is the termination point for the Long Island Expressway. The Midtown Tunnel changed the Murray Hill section of the Midtown neighborhood forever.
Stuyvesant Town / Peter Cooper Village - Manhattan Real Estate Developments
In 1947 a real estate development, called Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, opened. The real estate development neighbors the East Village neighborhood and is comprised of about 8,750 apartments in 89 buildings in Stuyvesant Town and another 11,250 apartments in 110 buildings at Peter Cooper Village. I believe it replace tenements and ashpiles from the wood burning days.
MoMA is the Museum of Modern Art
According to Wikipedia the Museum of Modern Art was conceived in 1929 by the Abby Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr. – along with two of her friends, Lillie Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan. In the beginning its emphasis was on European modernism.
In 1939 Nelson Rockefeller, Abby’s son [and future NYS Governor], became president in 1939 and he moved the museum from its dispersed locations into the site on 53rd Street which is where it may be found today. The museum is one of the leading [primarily western] modern art museums in the world.
They recently completed a renovation.
Times Square / Theater District
The Jacob Javits Center is a convention center in Midtown West that began in 1980 and was completed in 1986. The Jacob Javits Center was named after a New York Senator by the same name, who died the year the building was completed.
The United Nations was founded in late 1945 following WWII. From about 1946 to 1950 / 1952 [unsure of terminating date] the United Nations operated at what is now the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. In 1952 the United Nations Headquarters opened on about 18 acres of land along First Avenue between 42nd and 48th Streets and is bounded by the East River.
The United Nations is an extra-territorial entity, which has its own laws, but has agreed in a charter to generally abide by those of the host nation – the United States. In addition to meeting rooms and the General Assembly area, the United Nations Headquarters has an art collection, library and open space.
Fashion District / Garment District
According to the High Line Park Conservatory, the High Line is a park that was developed atop a vacated railway line which began in 1934 between 34th Street and St. John’s Park Terminal at Spring Street. The rail line cut through blocks, rather than running along the Avenues with other traffic. The last train trip was in 1980. Owner CSX donates the old track to the city in 2005 and by 2015 all three sections of the park have been completed stretching from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street.
Some tourists have told me that it’s the most overrated tourist attraction they've encountered.
The Midtown Manhattan neighborhood is home to a wide variety of restaurants befitting a wide range of budgets. Click here to visit our Midtown Restaurants section which will continue to evolve.
The Midtown Manhattan neighborhood is home to a wide variety of shops and shopping venues providing an opportunity to purchase a wide variety of things. Click here to visit our Shopping Midtown Manhattan Shops section which will also continue to evolve.
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