As I was considering a topic for last week’s Presidents’ Day post, I came across a great find from our nation’s past that took place right here in present-day NoHo. To my delight, the anniversary of this historic event was right around the corner, today in fact! Yes, on February 27, 1860, relatively unknown presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln gave his celebrated Cooper Union address at the Cooper Union Foundation Building at Cooper Square between Astor Place and East 7th Street. Knowing the South was on the brink of secession, Lincoln focused his speech on the importance of preserving the Union by outlawing slavery in free states but not in the South, an institution he would later abolish in 1863 during the height of the Civil War.
But earlier in the day, before that historic speech set into motion Lincoln’s rise to the presidency, he had called on photographer Mathew Brady to take his portrait at his nearby studio in what is now known as NoHo. This temporary studio was located at 643 Broadway, northwest corner of Bleecker Street, before it was demolished and replaced by a Neo-Grec style tenement building in 1878. This corner is located in the NoHo Historic District; learn more about this area that GVSHP fought hard to protect HERE.
The portrait of Lincoln served a key role in his eventual election as the 16th president of the United States later that year. According to NYU’s Archives and Public History website, “At the time Brady captured Lincoln’s portrait, the future president possessed the reputation of rough, uncouth, backwoods lawyer whose appearance seemed anything but statesmanlike. For the photograph, Brady drew Lincoln’s collar up high around his neck to improve the future president’s rather gangly, awkward appearance, making sure that Lincoln curled his fingers so they would appear shorter.”
In a piece written in The World in 1891, Brady claimed that Lincoln had said that “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me President.” It’s hard to argue with that assertion given the high demand for this portrait following the historic speech; re-productions of the captivating photograph appeared in many papers, including Harper’s Weekly, showcasing Lincoln as a serious contender for the presidency during a particularly tumultuous time in the nation’s history.
After his short time in that studio, Brady moved to his new location at 785 Broadway, corner of West 10th Street, (since demolished) in the fall of 1860. Known by Brady as the “National Portrait Gallery”, he remained here for the rest of his career. Lincoln, as well as other key figures of the era, sat for a number of portraits for Brady during his presidency.
Brady is best known as the photographer of the American Civil War where he and his staff captured for the first time on camera the tragedies of war. A revolutionary way of broadcasting disturbing images to an as-then unaware public, hundreds of photographs of soldiers lying dead in fields became accessible to households across the country. Though Brady often staged scenes and “touched up” photographs to maximize the horror of his subject matter, he was nonetheless an integral figure in the history of photographic documentation and has since become known as “the father of photojournalism”. Though neither of his Broadway studios survive, it’s still an incredible bit of history that one of the foremost American photographers of the 19th century worked here during those pivotal years.