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You are here: 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in 1857


I am at the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. According to plate 78 of my map atlas—Williams Perris’s 1857 “Maps of the City of New York”—the massive (2) block long stone structure at the southwest corner of this Manhattan intersection is not the grand Beaux Arts NYPL Schwarzman Building but the Distributing Reservoir of the Croton Aqueduct Department.
 Map bounded by West 42nd Street, East 42nd Street, Fourth Avenue, East 37th Street, West 37th Street, Sixth Avenue, Digital ID 1268366, New York Public LibraryPerris' 1857 map of 42nd St. and Fifth Ave.The large stone Egyptian Revival structure is approximately 50 feet tall and was designed to contain 20 million gallons of water that has been channeled through dozens of tunnels, pipes and stone canals from the Croton River in Westchester County over 40 miles to the north. Completed in 1842, the aqueduct helped New York City (which at that time just included the island of Manhattan) provide clean drinking water to over half a million people.
As I look at Perris’ 1857 map atlas, it is hard to recognize the city I thought I knew so well. Not only is the library not there (and won't be completed until 1911, 54 years later) a few other familiar landmarks are also missing. Adjacent to the Distributing Reservoir and taking up the remainder of the block going toward Sixth Ave. is “Reservoir Square,” which I have learned was the original name of the midtown green oasis beloved by thousands of office workers and tourist alike— Bryant Park. I return to the map atlas and look eastward, across Fifth Ave. at 42nd St and I see the building footprint of a structure that is labeled Rutgers Institute. The Rutgers Institute is believed to be New York’s first institute of higher learning dedicated to the education of women. The building depicted on the map atlas is actually the college’s second of three locations. The institute first opened on Madison Street in the Lower East Side and would move to West 55th St in 1883 before being absorbed by Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Not only has the institute moved on, so have most of the institutions, businesses, and land uses depicted in Perris’ map atlas. I was surprised to see “cattle yards” and “cattle sheds” described as the uses on most of the blocks between 44th and 46thSt. east of Fifth Ave. I also noticed that within a 10 block radius of the corner of 42nd and Fifth Ave. there were at least 8 different horse stables, including the Third Avenue Stage Line stables on 44thSt. near Fifth Ave, the Manhattan Avenue Stage Line stables on Fourth Ave. between 41st and 40th St., and the Fifth Avenue Stage Line stables. I was even more amazed to discover that the Fifth Avenue Stage Line stables on 43rd St. shares the block with a slaughter house, the Sixth Ave Railroad Depot and the Colored Orphan Asylum. Talk about “mixed-use”! 
You can take your own walk along the streets of 1857 Manhattan by exploring Perris’ "Maps of the City of New York" online at NYPL’s Digital Gallery or visit the Map Division in room 117 of the Schwarzman Building at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue to see the map atlases in their original form. 


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Some related links

The Reservoir Rutgers Female College Reservoir Square And don't forget... The Crystal Palace and Latting Observatory

Excellent analysis

Thank you, Mr. Wright, for providing a snapshot of New York City, 1857, where in the area where the Schwarzman Building now stands. I like thinking about how businesses and buildings form and shape a city, changing it socially, politically and economically throughout the years. What you touch upon is both fascinating and intriguing. What did Bryant Park look like then? Stables? Who owned them? Who worked there? Can you imagine the smell? The Schomburg Center houses the Riverdale Children's Association Records (formerly the Colored Orphan Asylum), several books about that orphanage, and the Howard Orphan Asylum, formerly known as the Brooklyn Howard Colored Orphan Asylum. Again, thank you for a slice of our Apple this fine morning.

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