Beyond the Village and Back: Hamilton Fish Park
In our blog series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to our neighborhoods. Explore our Beyond the Village and Back maps too.
Sometimes we only have to go a few feet outside our neighborhoods to take a journey ‘Beyond the Village and Back.’ But that trip can cover three centuries of American history, and include a landmark that’s served hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, specially those most in need on a hot summer day.
A beloved public resource and gathering space, Hamilton Fish Park on Pitt Street on the Lower East Side, just south of Houston Street, bears important connections to not only some of most important and influential people in American history (including “Founding Fathers”), but one of the most celebrated architectural firms in New York City history, responsible for some of our city’s grandest landmarks. The park has also served generations of mostly poor and often immigrant or migrant New Yorkers with its ample recreation center and playfields, library, and perhaps most recognizably, its pool. Located just outside the East Village, it’s been an essential resource to residents of our neighborhoods as well as the remainder of the Lower East Side.
But the local connections extend beyond mere geographic proximity. The park is named after former U.S. Secretary of State and New York Governor and Senator Hamilton Fish, known for his judicious reform efforts and diplomatic acumen during the Post-Civil War Era.
Born on August 8th, 1808, Hamilton Fish resided at 21 Stuyvesant Street, now more commonly known as the Stuyvesant-Fish House, in what we today call the East Village. Fish was named for his parents’ good friend Alexander Hamilton, and was a direct descendant of last Dutch colonial Governor of New York Peter Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant Street where the house is located was previously a private thoroughfare on Peter Stuyvesant’s 17th century “bowery” (Dutch for “farm”), connecting the land to Stuyvesant Manor House. Following the destruction by fire of the Manor House in October 1778, ownership of the land also began to change hands. The chapel and adjacent cemetery were donated to the Episcopal Church, where St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery was constructed and still stands, while Stuyvesant Street remained a private lane for the family. The Fish House is one of five residences built and owned by the family on the lane, and it was constructed around 1804 by Petrus Stuyvesant as a wedding gift to his daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband Nicholas Fish, a decorated Revolutionary War General and hero. The home retains historical significance because it is Hamilton’s only surviving residence and remained within his descendants’ ownership until the turn of the 20th century. It changed hands multiple times during the first half of the century, mostly serving as a boarding house. In the 1960s, the home was restored, and it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975. Today it is owned and cared for by the Cooper Union and used as a residence for the university’s president.
Hamilton Fish is known as one of New York State’s youngest and most progressive governors (unlike his tyrannical, slave-owning, bigoted ancestor, the Dutch governor) . During his tenure from 1849-1850, he established New York’s first free public education system, and he founded educational asylums for those with intellectual disabilities. He gained national popularity for his staunch opposition to slavery and calls to abolish the abhorrent institution during the Civil War. Following the war, Fish acted as America’s 26th Secretary of State under Ulysses S.Grant, and he is primarily known for brokering international peace with the United States’ foreign allies, particularly for arbitrating the 1871 Treaty of Washington and establishing peaceful communication and trade relations with the United Kingdom that form the foundation of our two countries’ continued friendship. His actions as Secretary of State re-established our country as a stable government following the Civil War. Fish retired from public office in 1877, returning to his family’s townhome on Stuyvesant Street. He resided between the Village and Glen Clyffe, the Fish family estate in the Hudson River Valley, until his death in 1884.
Following his death, city officials in New York City started to plan ways to memorialize Fish’s life and legacy within the Lower East Side. In 1897, the city acquired a plot previously nicknamed “Bone Alley” on Houston Street, intending to erect a park and recreation center in Fish’s honor. The conditions on Bone Alley were indicative of life on the Lower East Side during the turn of the 20th century. From the 1880s to the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of new immigrants moved into crowded tenements within New York’s 10th and 11th Wards, comprising today’s East Village, Chinatown and Lower East Side. According to an 1897 report, the portion of these wards bordering Houston Street were some of the most overcrowded in the world at the time, with almost 156,890 people packed into the area’s 322 acres — almost 2,000 people per block. Overcrowding in these tenements caused squalid and unhealthy conditions, as many residents did not have access to fresh air or clean water. Bone Alley itself, the portion of the Lower East Side bounded by Houston, Willett, Stanton, and Pitt streets, had an annual death rate of 48%. To combat overcrowding and provide resources to the community, NYC’s Parks Department leveled Bone Alley in 1898 to build a park, library, recreation center, and public bathhouse.
The resulting park was named after Fish for his dedication to public service and his residence within the surrounding neighborhood. Designed by architects Carrère and Hastings (a Beaux-Arts architecture firm famous for designing the main branch of the New York Public Library, as well as the local Hudson Park Branch of the NYPL and former Macmillan Publishing Headquarters/Forbes Building at 60 Fifth Avenue), the park opened in 1900 and was so heavily utilized that it closed within a year for repair and renovation. Over the decades, the park has been renovated and expanded several times. In 1927, a wading pool/ice skating rink was constructed. In 1936, a large swimming pool was installed under the direction of then Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and the Works Progress Administration. In the 1950s and ’60s the park expanded again, absorbing Willett and Sheriff Streets into the park. After the park fell into disrepair following the 1975 fiscal crisis, a group of local activists from the East Village and Lower East Side named “the Committee to Save Hamilton Fish Park” advocated for its renovation and restoration. In 1982, LPC designated the park as a landmark, and, a decade later, the restoration was finally completed in June of 1992. Throughout all of the park’s expansions and renovations, Carrère and Hastings’ Recreation Center from 1900 is the only remaining portion of that park’s original plan.
A century and a quarter after its construction, the park remains an essential resource for the community it serves. Many locals refer to it solely as “the pool,” and the adjacent library has provided an ever-expanding array of academic and cultural tools since its opening in 1909. If you’d like to learn more about great landmarks like this located outside our neighborhoods with histories connected to Greenwich Village, the East Village, or NoHo, then we strongly encourage you to check out our Beyond the Village and Back Maps! We have one covering great landmarks below 72nd Street as well as one that covers Upper Manhattan and the Outer Boroughs.