September 4, 2008

Charles Hemstreet's Nooks and Corners of Old New York: Lessons in Mortality

Charles Hemstreet's book, Nooks and Corners of Old New York, illustrated by E. C. Peixotto, makes for a curious walking guide to Manhattan, largely because it was published fairly long ago, namely 1899. A few things have obviously changed with the passing of 109 years, so following along with the author's descriptions of buildings, streets and places of Old New York, as I attempted today, became at turns depressing and exciting. After reading one of two colorful anecdotes about a particular place, I would walk to the designated corner only to find it gone, irretrievably lost. As I'm well aware that there have been a few developments in architecture since 1899 and cognizant of the economics of real estate in Manhattan, especially in its lower regions, I began my journey with low expectations that I would find much of anything the author describes. Even the author spends much time waxing poetic about buildings torn down before his lifetime. On the other hand, when I came across a building he mentioned, I felt a sense of excitement and rediscovery, but mostly I felt relieved that I wasn't reading a work of fiction.

As Hemstreet apparently enjoys the topic of mortality - cemeteries, graveyards, churches, murders, and hangings, etc, much of what remains of Old New York in the present day is exactly that - the remains. The famously deceased of the author's city of 1899 still remain on view, especially in the churchyard of Trinity Church. While I was disappointed I couldn't locate a particular grave he mentioned, one with a mysterious cryptograph above the inscription, the other ones were there just as he described.

At the time Hemstreet wrote Nooks and Corners of Old New York, the city was in the midst of an ambitious civic building boom, and so I was curious to read his book for any insight into how he felt about the fading of old New York. Most of the time he is straightforward in description, but at other times, he displays distress. Here is his lead sentence for Richmond Hill: "Although the leveling vandalism of a great city has removed every trace of Richmond Hill , the block encircled by Macdougal, Charlton, Varick and Vandam Streets, is crowded thick with memories of men and events of a past generation."

Hints of what lies ahead for Mr. Hemstreet: "Bryant Park has been selected as the site for the future home of the consolidated Tilden, Astor and Lenox Libraries." (Yes, that worked out nicely: The New York Public Library, built 1911 by Carrere and Hastings in the Beaux Arts style. One of the other great Beaux Arts buildings of this era, the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House at 1 Bowling Green and designed by Cass Gilbert, was built 1902-1907, with construction beginning three years after the publication of Hemstreet's book.)

Hemstreet also wrote other books about the city including The Story of Manhattan (1901) and Literary New York: Its Landmarks and Associations (1903).

Images: Top, the oldest grave in Trinity Churchyard is in the middle foreground. The inscription reads " W.C. HEAR . LYES. THE . BODY . OF. RICHARD . CHURCHER . SON . OF . WILLIAM M. CHURCHER . WHO . DIED . THE 5 OF . APRIL 1681 . OF . AGE 5 YEARS AND . 5 . MONTHS. Middle, Cover of Nooks and Corners of Old New York by Charles Hemstreet (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1899.) Below, pages from the book.

Read the follow-up post, More Curiosities from Nooks and Corners of Old New York.

See New York 1900: Edith Wharton and The House of Mirth, A Walk and a Map for the several related posts.

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