In 1804, New York City had already celebrated 190 years since its founding. Comparatively, the United States was only 28 years young. In order to honor the already rich history of the city, John Pintard, then the secretary of the American Academy of Fine Arts, drew up plans for an institution that would include a library, a lecture hall, and a museum of artifacts. On November 20, 1894, the New-York Historical Society was founded. And while it’s been located on Central Park West for over a century, its roots and origins can be found in our neighborhoods.
Within its first few years, the Society housed a collection of thousands of books, maps, engravings, almanacs, oil paintings, and historical documents. Due to the enormous collection, the Society roamed New York, hopping from building to building as the items increased, even borrowing rooms from New York University in the process. Soon, constraints became untenable and it was time to find a place to call their own.
Locations that had been considered, but were ultimately turned down, included a triangular plot at Broadway and Fifth Avenue where the Flatiron Building would later rise, and the southwest corner of Broadway and 20th Street, where Lord & Taylor’s grand emporium would later be built. On December 7, 1853, members agreed on a plot of land at the corner of 2nd Avenue and 11th Street, at the time considered a fashionable residential area of the city. Across the street was St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery (their rectory would later house Village Preservation’s current offices), and the mansions of the city’s leading families like Stuyvesant, Rutherford, Fish, Livingston and Chanler surrounded it. These wealthy neighbors donated $5,000, just under half of the price, towards the purchase of the lot, provided it be used for the erection of the Society building.
On October 17, 1855 the cornerstone was laid. The press reported that “the stone was so large that fears were entertained that it would break down the platform, but by the aid of a derrick it was placed in position.”
Architects Mettam & Burke, who had won the commission to design the new building, had been greatly influenced by the Great Fire which had destroyed an enormous swath of downtown New York in 1835, and thus they carefully fire-proofed the structure. Cast iron staircases, hollow walls, and iron beams were used. Time dragged on, however, and the completion of the structure would not take place for another two years, finally arriving on November 3, 1857. The final cost, which had been completely paid off by the time its doors opened, came in at $85,000 ($2.5 million in 2020).
The first floor housed a 50-foot by 65-foot lecture room capable of seating 600. Upstairs was the Library and Art Gallery under a 47-foot high glass dome that flooded the space with light. The refined exterior easily slipped into the residential nature of the neighborhood by not appearing “commercial.”
At the dedication ceremony (which was also the 53rd anniversary of the Society’s founding) Benjamin R. Winthrop, an ancestor of John Winthrop, the former Governor of the Massachusetts Colony and member of the Society, presented a gift of the “Washington chair,” made from wood used in the house at Pearl and Cherry Streets which was the first home of George Washington after his inauguration.
As patrons donated their art collections, the museum section of the Society became more and more eclectic. In 1844, Jonathan Sturges, noted philanthropist and arts patron, who owned and built 59 Fifth Avenue (on land owned by James Lennox, whose collection of books would later become one of the founding enterprises of the New York Public Library) founded the New York Gallery of the Fine Arts, the city’s first public art museum.
When the Gallery dissolved, the collection went to the New-York Historical Society. In fact, the many philanthropic residents of 59 Fifth Avenue over the years (all related to Sturges), would play a significant role in lm many leading New York cultural institutions, including the Museum of Natural History and the New York Zoological Society. Read more about the Sturges family’s impact and other philanthropic endeavors in the area South of Union Square by exploring our new Virtual Village Map.
Finally, after years of donations and a mountain of priceless artifacts, the members of the Society decided to hone the collections to only those items that were specific to New York City history. Many of the museum’s collection of paintings and art became the foundation in the 1860s for the Metropolitan Museum of Art (another great New York institution now located uptown but with roots in our neighborhood), of which one of the founding members, William H. Osborn, was married to Sturges’ daughter.
The late 19th century saw significant change to the once-fashionable area around the Historical Society building. Mansions were razed for commercial loft buildings, institutions meant to serve the poor and working class immigrants which were flooding into New York, and tenements to house them. The Society was no longer located in the genteel upper-class neighborhood it had originally sought.
In 1908 York & Sawyer designed a Beaux-Arts building on the west side of Central Park and, after nearly 60 years, the New-York Historical Society moved out of their first official home.
The old building on Second Avenue sat empty until being sold in 1912 to be converted into a newsboys’ club. The main hall was turned into a gymnasium. Within a few decades, the stone Italian structure was completely gone, replaced now by a neo-classical style apartment building constructed in 1929.
The neighborhood might have changed, but the New-York Historical Society continues to carry on its mission, preserving over 400 years of history that has shaped the city we know today. Among its collection? A gorgeous drawing of its former home in the East Village.
For more information about the New-York Historical Society, revisit our spotlight in our Beyond the Village and Back series.