Wolf City

In the 1600s, the island of Manhattan comprised New Amsterdam and Harlem. These settlements were separated by wilderness inhabited by Native Americans and wild animals, including wolves. According to James W. Beekman, president of the New York Historical Society in 1869, as late as 1685 there was a proclamation granting the permission to hunt and kill the wolves found on the island.

But by 1891, no one expected to see a wolf roaming Manhattan, especially in the crowded Lower East Side.

Dime Museum The Bowery

The dime museum was a strange and short-lived phenomenon on the Bowery in late nineteenth-century New York. These establishments offered patrons a chance to see the wonders of the world and come face-to-face with human and animal “freaks of nature” – all for a dime.

The Wolves of the Bowery

Sometime around 1889, three young wolves were captured in the woods of Idaho and brought to New York to be tamed and trained for the dime museums. In October 1890, the wolves started their “career” on the stage at Huber’s Palace Museum at 106-108 East 14th Street. The performance was billed as “Little Red Riding Hood and her pack of tamed wolves.”

A year later, the three little wolves made their debut at the Globe Dime Museum at 298 Bowery Street.

According to a report in The New York Times on August 26, 1981, by the time the wolves had arrived at the Globe, they had gotten much larger and stronger, and had begun to handle Little Red Riding Hood “rather roughly.” A big doll was substituted for a live girl during some of the scenes, but “the wolves found no pleasure in worrying a dummy, and the Bowery audiences also saw no fun in looking at wolves tearing up a bundle of rags.” (Would they have preferred the wolves tear up a live little girl on stage? Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.)

Realizing that live wolves were no longer practical, Thomas Meehan and James Wilson, the proprietors of the Globe Dime Museum at this time, offered the two-year-old wolves to Superintendent William A. Conklin of the menagerie at Central Park. On Monday afternoon, August 25, 1891, a delivery driver from the park came to pick up the wolves and bring them uptown to their new home.

The three wolves were placed in a large crate made of wooden slats and loaded onto the truck. The driver had gone only about four blocks from East Houston Street when he noticed that several wooden slats were missing from the crate. One wolf was also missing.

Ratzer 1766 map

In the Bernard Ratzer map of 1766, Bowery Lane, the main road running north-south at the center, leads to all the farms outside the city limits, including the Delancey and Bayard farms. From the collection of the author.

The driver secured the crate with cords to prevent the other two prisoners from escaping and began to search for the wolf on the lam.

The History Behind 298 Bowery

Long before there was a Globe Dime Museum at 298 Bowery, and way before three wolves began terrorizing Little Red Riding Hood there, 298 Bowery was a farmhouse, a livery stable, and later, a saloon called The Cottage and The Gotham. The history of the building is quite interesting.

The Bowery was originally a Native American footpath that extended the length of the island through dense woodlands. Around 1642 or 1643, Director General William Kieft granted parcels of land (about 8 to 20 acres each) along this path to several superannuated slaves who had served the government from the earliest period of the Dutch settlement. Other parcels were granted to “free negroes” in the 1660s by Governor Richard Nicholls and Peter Stuyvesant.

John Dyckman farmhouse, Bowery

The Dyckman farmhouse was just west of Bowery Lane, about 150 feet north of East Houston Street (marked by the red square near the middle of this Stokes Landmark Map of Original Grants and Farms). No. 298 Bowery would have been just south of the Dyckman’s home.

Over the next 100 years, these lands passed through various hands and were combined to create much larger farms or bouweries owned by prominent settlers such as John Dyckman, James Delancey, and Nicholas Bayard (a bouwerie was a complete self-sustained farm, with crops, orchards, and livestock). These settlers widened the trail for use as a major roadway that connected the heart of the city in New Amsterdam with their bouweries. The Bouwerie Lane was anglicized to Bowery Lane and later, Bowery Street or the Bowery.

The Cottage and The Gotham

The original farmhouse at 298 Bowery was built about 1778 on land once occupied by the John Dyckman farm and homestead (the land had actually been taken over by a British Tory during the Revolutionary War, but he reportedly fled to Halifax after the war ended). Being in close proximity to the Boston Post Road and just two miles outside the city limits, the house served as a roadside inn called “The Cottage” from about 1800 to 1820. Under the management of Samuel Verplanck of Sleepy Hollow, NY, The Cottage was very popular with farmers from Westchester County and drovers doing business at the Bull’s Head Cattle Market.

Over the years it was refurbished, and in April 1831, a private sale in the New York Evening Post described 298 Bowery as follows:

“That elegant 3 story house and lot…23 x 100 foot deep, built by days work, finished with sliding doors, marble mantels and grates in the principal rooms, balconies in the rear to the first and second stories, a grape vine covering the same; the garden stocked with choice plants; an alley leading from the lot to the street above. The property will be sold a bargain.”

The Cottage, 298 Bowery

Over the years, The Cottage, aka, The Gotham, was the headquarters for volunteer firemen, baseball players, sporting men, and Bowery B’Hoys. The original homestead also served as a lodging house for farmers and drovers. NYPL Collections

I’m not sure if the house was ever sold, but in 1831, Harry B. Venn, a noted volunteer fireman with Columbian Hook and Ladder Company No. 14, was leasing the property and operating a saloon called the Gotham Saloon. S.W. Bryham took over the saloon in 1836 and renamed it the Bowery Steam Confectionery and Saloon.

Around 1841, under the management of Edwin Parmele, who owned a bowling saloon at 340 Pearl Street, 298 Bowery was known as the Bowery Cottage. During this time, the saloon was the headquarters for volunteer firemen, sporting men, and Bowery B’Hoys.

The Cottage, 298 Bowery

The Cottage at 298 Bowery in the 1800s. During the 1870s, the property was owned by Georgina B. English, the daughter of Anne Norsworthy and Teunis Berg.

Harry Venn resumed proprietorship sometime before 1845, and attempted to turn the saloon into a miniature Vauxhall Gardens with a concert saloon for musical performances. When that didn’t pan out, he replaced the concert area with three 10-pin alleys for bowling.

During this era, the saloon, now called The Gotham, was headquarters for the Gotham Base Ball Club (aka, Washington BBC and New York BBC). Gilded trophy balls from victorious matches were on display in a case behind the front bar, and the back bar featured a big gilt number 6 taken from the Americus Fire Company No. 6, aka, the Big Six (Boss William Tweed was foreman of this company and was a frequent patron of The Gotham).

The Gotham Base Ball Club

The Gotham Base Ball Club in 1855. The team’s headquarters was located at 298 Bowery.

On December 27, 1854, the Exempt Engine Company was organized at The Gotham under the leadership of Harry Venn. The Exempt was composed of firemen who had served their time and had been honorably discharged. They were called out only in extraordinary emergencies, such as during the Draft Riots in 1863 and when Barnum’s American Museum burned down in 1865.

In 1858, the establishment was turned over to Edward Bonnell, a popular volunteer fireman and foreman of Tompkins Hose Company No. 16. Edward made numerous improvements to the building, and enlarged the public accommodations to render the apartments as “convenient, cozy and desirable as the best-furnished parlors of a Broadway hotel.” Under Bonnell’s management, The Gotham was recognized as the fraternal headquarters for volunteer firemen all across the United States.

Old Hay-wagon Engine 42

The Exempt Engine Company’s first engine was the old “Hay-Wagon” hand engine from Empire Engine No. 42. The Exempt were headquartered at 202 Centre Street and later at City Hall Park.

During the Civil War era, The Gotham featured a drill room in the back of the tavern for the voluntary infantry regiments, and Richard Burnton operated a book and stationery shop in the front. Many organizations like the Boss Bakers’s Association of New York (formed 1862) also held meetings there. (I wonder if they shared their baked goods with the infantrymen?)

The End of The Gotham

During the saloon’s final decade, things got a little dicey. Under the management of John Matthews, a man was murdered there in April 1871, and the police closed the establishment on several occasions on complaints of persons who had lost money there while gambling.

Second Regiment of New York Fire Zouaves

The Second Regiment of New York Fire Zouaves (aka the 73rd Infantry Regiment) organized at The Gotham on May 4, 1861. NYPL Collections

On April 29, 1878, the New York Tribune reported that the Gotham Cottage was being torn down. Architect Charles Mettam designed a four-story, four-bay brick museum/music hall and lodging house in the Neo-Grec style to replace the old saloon and lodging house. Mettam also designed two identical buildings at 300 and 302 Bowery, which housed Spencer’s Palace Music Hall.

As the new building was going up, George B. Bunnell, a protégé of P.T. Barnum, secured a lease from owner Georgiana English. He opened his Great American Museum on January 27, 1879. Just four months later, on June 1, 1879, all of the contents of the dime museum, including “an educated pig,” were destroyed by a fire that completely gutted the building’s interior.

Dime Museum

George Bunnell opened his Great American Museum at 298 Bowery on January 27, 1879.

Circus man George Middleton came in and made repairs, and opened the Globe Dime Museum just a few months later. On May 25, 1880, fire struck again and most of the contents were destroyed. Middleton made repairs again, and the museum was fairly successful during the next 10 years.

Incidentally, on July 20, 1880, architect Charles Mettam received a patent for fireproofing iron columns used in building construction. In his filing dated April 14, 1800, Mettam described his idea:

The object of my invention is to fireproof the ordinary hollow iron columns of a building by filling them with water, so that in case of fire the columns will remain comparatively cool, and therefore perfectly safe from the usual disastrous effects of heat, and at the same time they shall be free from the danger of exploding from the steam arising from the water within when the columns are heated, and also free from the danger of bursting by the water therein becoming frozen.


Which brings us back in time to the wolf.

While the Central Park driver was looking for the escaped wolf, a woman and two young boys headed over to the Globe Dime Museum to report that they had seen a delivery man pick up the wolf and drive off with him around 5 p.m.

It turns out that Thomas Whalen of 207 West 41st Street, a driver of an evening paper delivery wagon, was making deliveries when he saw a crowd gathered near Fourth Street. “It’s a wolf! It’s a wolf!” the little boys were screaming. Whalen jumped off his seat and approached the wolf, who appeared to be confused by all the noise.

Central Park menagerie

The wolves were brought to the menagerie at Central Park, which was the early predecessor of the Central Park Zoo.

Although he assumed the wolf must have come from one of the Bowery dime museums, Thomas brought the wolf home and called Mr. Conklin the next day. Eventually, all three wolves made it to Central Park, where they joined one other lone wolf in custody at the menagerie.

During the 1880s and 1890s, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children – and particularly Elbridge T. Gerry – went on a crusade to shut down the Globe Dime Museum and other establishments like it for exploiting children and attracting children to a “morally unfit environment” that encouraged prostitution and homelessness.

298 Bowery

No. 298 Bowery (white building, missing cornice) was built in 1878 by M. Edlitz and Grissler and Fausel for $12,000. The building was once identical to its neighbors at Nos. 300 and 302, but time and use has taken a toll on the old building.

Over the years, 298 Bowery has seen many businesses come in go, including the Wood Mantel and Pier Mirror Company and Levy Bros. in the early 1900s and the Trenton Hotel China Company in the 1940s. From the late 1960s to the 1980s, the building was occupied by J & D Brauner (aka The Butcher Block).

Today the 137-year-old building is occupied by Chef’s Restaurant Supply, which is listed at 294-298 Bowery. Sounds like a good place for the old Boss Bakers’ Association to hold a reunion.

A note to my new readers: I recently participated in a global A to Z Blogging Challenge. I had made it up to the letter “P” when I had to slow down my daily postings due to work obligations. In the past few weeks I have picked up where I left off, so I’m now up to the letter V.

FDNY Chief Croker and Driver John Rush

Chief Edward Croker (white hat) and his driver John Rush sometime in the 1910s – I believe the horse is Bullet. By this time chiefs in the FDNY were using automobiles to respond to fires, but a few horse-drawn buggies were kept in reserve because motorized vehicles were not always reliable. New York City Fire Museum

“Whirling over icy streets, skidding on wet pavements, many times wheels were smashed and the chief and his driver missed death or injury by inches.”–The New York Sun, April 26, 1912

As the personal chauffeur for New York Fire Department Chief Edward Croker in the early 1900s, John Rush’s nickname was Dare-Devil Rush. Fellow firemen often made bets that Chief Croker’s wild horse, Bullet, would determine the fate of John Rush. In later years, only a few believed that he would survive while driving Croker’s high-power automobile 50 miles an hour through the city’s congested streets.

632 Hudson Street New York

In the 1870s, John Rush and his parents lived in an apartment at 632 Hudson Street. This now-famous building was erected as a townhouse in 1847 by the heirs of sash maker Richard Towning. In recent years the building was used for the filming of the Real World TV series. You should check out these photos of the loft (from when it was listed for $22 million in 2013) and on the building’s own website.

No one ever dreamed that Battalion Chief Rush would be killed while driving leisurely home for lunch on a buggy harnessed to Victor, the horse of Engine Company No. 30.

The Rapid Rise of Fire Patrolman Rush

John Rush was born in New York City on February 21, 1871. The oldest of four children, he spent his early childhood years on Hudson Street, where he lived at #632 with his father, H. William (also a fireman) and mother. Sometime around 1881, the family moved to West 105th Street.

In 1889, 18-year-old John got into trouble with the law when he was arrested for stealing some cash and promissory notes. He served three years of a four-year sentence at Sing Sing, and was pardoned by new Governor Roswell Pettibone Flower in 1892 (the only reason I added this tidbit was because the governor’s name makes me laugh).

632 Hudson Street Hugh King Grocer

In 1881, the Rush family was forced to find a new home when produce merchant Hugh King took over 632 Hudson Street and its twin at 630 Hudson, built by Stephen Kane in 1847. The Esteve family purchased the buildings in the 1930s and for 40 years they housed their sausage factory.

A year later, he joined the New York Fire Patrol No. 2. The fact that he lied on his civil service exam about prior felony convictions would come to haunt him briefly a few years later, but it never hurt his career.

It was during his service with the Fire Patrol that John Rush was discovered by members of the Fire Department for his many daring rescues.

Fire Patrol FDNY 1908

Members of the Fire Insurance Patrol, also referred to as the Fire Patrol or the Salvage Patrol, stood out from the regular fireman by their bright red helmets. Their well-equipped vehicles carried a 16-foot extension ladder, chemical extinguishers, hooks, axes, door-openers, brooms, shovels, buckets, ropes, and various other tools. Museum of the City of New York

The New York Fire Patrol – officially the Fire Insurance Patrol — was organized in 1839 and funded by the New York Board of Fire Underwriters (NYBFU) to patrol lower Manhattan. The job of the patrolman or “Patrolio” was to discover fires and to prevent losses to insured properties. The men worked alongside the volunteer firefighters, and, later, the paid firemen, and were in fact firefighters trained in the art of salvage and overhaul.

31 Great Jones Street

When John Rush joined Fire Patrol 2 in 1893, the company was stationed at 31 Great Jones Street in Greenwich Village. Formerly the Samuel W. Parmly stables, the NYBFU purchased the building in 1872 and converted it into a firehouse. Patrol 2 occupied this location until 1907. Today it is home to Vic’s Italian restaurant and apartments.

In 1867 a state charter was granted to the Fire Patrol to legally extinguish fires and conduct salvage operations throughout New York City. The New York Fire Patrol was the oldest paid fire service in the United States, and was the last insurance-funded fire salvage corps in the country when it was disbanded in 2006.

A year after he joined the Fire patrol, John Rush married Helen Patterson. Their daughter Sarah was born a year later – the same year that Patrolman Rush made his biggest fire rescue.

The daring feat took place on November 5, 1895, during a five-alarm fire that destroyed the Manhattan Savings Institution building and numerous other structures on Broadway and Bleecker Street. Rush and Patrolman Burnett were inside 648 Broadway when they heard two firemen shouting for help. The men had become trapped on the fifth floor of an adjacent building when the three upper floors fell in.

Fire Patrol 2 84 West 3rd Street

In 1906 architect Franklin Baylis began work on a new home for Fire Patrol 2 on the site of an old boarding house at 84 W. 3rd Street. The four-story brick structure served as their headquarters for the next 100 years. In 2010, Anderson Cooper purchased the building for $4.3 million. With assistance from architect Cary Tamarkin, Cooper converted the building to a private residence, leaving the exterior entirely intact and historically restored.

Rush and Burnett climbed out a window and balanced on a four-inch ledge and a small sign. From there, the rescuers were still several feet below the trapped firemen, so Rush climbed onto Burnett’s shoulders and made a human ladder that just reached the firemen above him.

The trapped men held onto Rush and were able to make their way into the window just above Rush and Burnett. As The New York Times reported, “It was a perilous undertaking, and it looked as though all would fall to the street.”

646 and 648 Broadway

The daring rescue took place between 648 and 646 Broadway, pictured here (middle and far-right buildings.) The fire patrolmen created a human ladder between the two buildings, allowing the trapped firemen to escape #646 and climb into a window in #648.

Seven months later, on June 8, 1896, John was appointed to the New York Fire Department as a fireman for Engine Company No. 30. He quickly advanced to the position of engineer (August 22, 1898), lieutenant (August 1, 1900), captain (April 15, 1904), and Battalion Chief, assigned to the Fifth Battalion (July 1, 1911).

While John was quickly rising among the ranks, tragedy struck time and time again on the home front. Sometime around 1907, John’s father was hurled from his fire engine on the way to a fire and killed instantly. Soon after his father died, his wife took ill and was confined to a bed for three years. She died one month after he was promoted to battalion chief, in August 1911.

Chief Croker and John Rush

When Chief Edward Croker (front) asked for the best fireman to be his driver, Captain John Bush (back) came highly recommended. Whether driving the horse-drawn buggy or the motorized car, John had a reputation for driving fast. Museum of the City of New York

On January 9, 1912, John’s brother Charles E. Rush, a 35-year-old fireman with Engine Company No. 20, caught pneumonia while fighting the historic Equitable Life Building fire. He succumbed to his illness, leaving a wife and family. With both his father and brother gone, John now had to help support his mother and sister-in-law as well as take care of his own teenage daughter.

Dies While Trying to Save Children

“It seems a strange irony of fate that a minor accident should have killed Chief Rush. I had almost come to think he bore a charmed life. One gets such ideas of men who pass through seemingly impassable dangers unscathed.”–Doctor Archer, St. Vincent’s Hospital, April 26, 1912

On April 25, 1912, John was being driven home in a horse-drawn buggy pulled by Victor. Victor was a large horse – more than 16 hands high – and had a reputation for being skittish. But John’s driver, John Harvey, was used to handling him.

281 Wst 11th Street

John Rush was living with his daughter at 281 West 11th Street. It was here that his funeral services took place on April 28, 1912.

The men had just passed Christopher Street when they got behind a truck, which caused Victor to get jumpy. The collar snapped under the strain and Victor plunged half out of his harness and raced toward a group of children who were crossing Hudson Street. John Rush seized the reigns from his driver and pulled the horse back on his haunches to prevent a collision with the children.

The car reared and plunged, and the wheel of the buggy got caught in a car rail, causing the buggy to overturn. John and his driver were tossed from the vehicle. John Harvey landed on his feet. John Rush plunged head first into the curb and fractured his skull.

Battalion Chief John Rush

John Rush had served only 9 months as a battalion chief before his accidental death in 1912.

According to news reports, John Rush had only time to ask Harvey to send for ex-Chief Croker when he went unconscious. Father McGrath of the Seamen’s Mission, who happened to be passing, issued last rites of the Church. Victor took off running, but he halted in front of Hook and Ladder Company 5 at 96 Charles Street, where Chief Rush often stopped during inspection tours.

Seeing the driver-less buggy, the men went running toward a crowd that was gathering on Hudson Street. Recognizing the seriousness of the case, the firemen insisted that Dr. Archer of the Fire Department and Dr. F. D. Smith be called. The two physicians hurried to St. Vincent’s, arriving there as soon as the ambulance pulled up.

After determining that Chief Rush’s skull had been fractured, Dr. Archer sent for Dr. Joseph Bissell and Dr. George Stewart. The four doctors were preparing the operating table at 3:20 o’clock when Chief Rush died. Ex-Chief Croker and John’s 17-year-old daughter, Sarah, were at his side. John Rush was buried at the New York Bay Cemetery in Jersey City.

Chief John Rush funeral procession

Thousands of people lined the streets for the funeral procession. Here, members of Hook and Ladder No. 8 (including their canine mascot) line up in front of their station on North Moore Street for the funeral procession.

According to John’s sister, Florence Hannon, at the time of his death John’s estate was worth only $200. Although he made $3,300 a year as battalion chief, much of that money was given to his elderly mother and his widowed sister-in-law. John also couldn’t get life insurance, because he was considered too great a risk by the underwriters. A special fund was set up to help his mother and daughter — the author Jacob Riis, a friend of John’s, was one of the many people who contributed to the fund.

Victor Bolts on Varick Street

On August 1, 1912, Battalion Chief John Spencer was bringing pay envelopes to the men of Engine No. 30 when Victor got spooked by a vehicle on Varick Street and broke into a gallop. John Spencer’s driver, John Foote (I think everyone was named John back then) lost control, and the chief began ringing the gong as a warning to get people out of the way.

Engine Company No. 30

Victor was attached to Engine Company No. 30, which was stationed in this 1904 firehouse at 278 Spring Street. On the day of the funeral for John Rush, Victor stood outside the station with the firemen while the procession passed by. Today the old firehouse is the home of the New York City Fire Museum.

As the horse passed Grand Street, a Good Samaritan named Dennis Dermody tried to jump and catch the bridle, but he was thrown to the street and severely bruised. Victor eventually ran into a pushcart and fell, breaking his harness and scattering the pay envelopes all over the street.

Noting that this was the fifth time Victor had bolted, John Spencer recommended the horse “be disposed of.” I doubt there was any funeral procession for the former FDNY fire horse.

Uno cross-dressing dog

I couldn’t find an actual photo of Uno, but don’t you just love this funny, dressed-up pooch?

During vaudeville’s heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s, animal performances were a dime a dozen on New York stages and rooftop gardens. Performing dogs like Dan the Drunken Dog and Don the Talking Dog were favorites with the crowds at places like Hammerstein’s Roof Garden and Tony Pastor’s Fourteenth Street Theatre.

One of the most famous performing pooches was Uno, a nondescript male terrier that was billed as “The Mind-Reading Dog,” “The Educated Dog,” and “The Dog with a Human Brain.” Uno was the prodigy of J.C. Pope, a vaudeville performer and agent aligned with John R. Price’s Popular Players touring theater troupe.

After spending several years performing in California and the Midwest, Uno and Pope made their New York debut in 1909 at Keith & Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theatre, which was located just off Broadway at 31 West 28th Street. According to a review of the 13-minute show in Variety, Uno was a big hit with the audience, not so much for what he did, but for how he did it (in other words, I think he was a bit of a drama queen).

Don the Talking Dog

Don the Talking Dog was one of the headliners at Hammerstein’s Roof Garden and other theaters in the early 1900s.

The performance began with Uno walking on stage all dressed in female attire, from cloak and dress to corset and other feminine undergarments. One by one, J.C. Pope would remove each item of clothing in a manner that mimicked burlesque – which got a lot of laughs – and then he’d ask Uno to pick them up as he called for each item.

Uno also picked up coins of various denominations as well articles from the audience, such as a watch or pipe. The act would always conclude with Uno and Pope playing a musical selection on the bells (J.C. played all but one bell and Uno was trained to chime in with his bell at the appropriate time).

According to most reviews, Uno was a male dog. But in one theater review, the critic reported that Uno was a female dog:

Uno is a success and her stay in vaudeville may only he determined by the years she remains upon Mother Earth. The fourteen minutes of her act were none too many.—The New York Dramatic Mirror, April 30, 1910

Fifth Avenue Theatre

Uno and J.C. Pope performed for audiences on this stage at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in 1909-1910.

Uno also apparently had an understudy in case she (or he) was unable to perform for whatever reason. As for actual mind reading, my research did not reveal any demonstrations of this talent.

The Fifth Avenue Theatre

The Fifth Avenue Theatre on West 28th Street – and the ground on which it was built – has some very interesting history going back to the 1600s. I’ve also discovered some old photos from an architectural review of the new theater (Scientific American Building Monthly, January 1893) that I think many readers will enjoy.

The land goes back in American history to about 1670, when Sir Edmond Andros granted a land patent to Solomon Peters, the son of Pieter Santomee, a free African American who had once worked for the Dutch West India Company. In his will dated November 30, 1694, Solomon bequeathed his land, including 30 acres bounded by Abington Road (21st Street), the Bloomingdale Road (Broadway), Seventh Avenue, and 28th Street, to his wife, Maria Antonis Portugues.

Randel Farm Map 1818

A portion of the old Solomon Peters tract — later the Isaac Varian farm — is shown on the 1818 Randel Farm Map. Notice the structures to the right at the foot of 26th Street, between Sixth Avenue and Broadway — this is the old Varian homestead.

In 1716, Maria’s heirs (which may have included grandson William Smith of Orange County, NY), conveyed the land to John Horn, a wheelwright, and Cornelius Webber, Horn’s brother-in-law. In 1751, Jacob Horn conveyed about 17 northerly acres of the Horn farm to John De Witt, a Dutch farmer.

Along comes Isaac Varian, a butcher and farmer, who purchased the land from De Witt’s executors for 1,280 pounds in 1787. Isaac established his homestead on the Bloomingdale Road (Broadway) just north of 26th Street (see map above), where he lived until his death. (And Varian lived quite the life: He was married three times, had 16 children, and was 79 years old when he died in 1820.)

Isaac Varian Homestead

At least two generations lived at the old Varian homestead until it was demolished in 1850 to make way for new townhouses. At that time, a grandson, Richard Varian, was living in the house with his wife and their children, all of whom were born there. With the old homestead gone, Richard had a new home built at 27 West 26th Street, where he lived until his death in 1864.

Over the years, starting around 1830, the many heirs to the Varian estate began selling off their allotted lots to individual buyers and speculators. But one great-granddaughter, Lucy Varian, held fast to her land.

The Varian Homestead Tree

One of the last reminders of the Varian homestead was this tree in front of 1151 Broadway, near 26th Street. The tree had once marked the gateway to the old Varian farm and homestead, and it stood until just before 1880.

Even after Lucy married Henry Gilsey, the son of real estate mogul and city alderman Peter Gilsey, she refused to sell to her own father-in-law. He had to lease the land on which he built his house and performance hall on West 28th Street.

Gilsey’s Apollo Hall

The Fifth Avenue Hotel began as Apollo Hall, which was erected by Peter Gilsey on the north side of 28th Street, a few doors west of Broadway, in 1868. Gilsey also built a rowhouse next door at 33 West 28th, where he and his family lived.

Apollo Hall was only two stories, with the upper floor used for lectures, readings, balls, and political meetings; the lower floor for public amusements. It opened October 16, 1868, with a concert by Jerome Charles Hopkins, founder of the Orphean Free Schools for musical instruction, the proceeds of which went to the school’s fund.

1863 Draft Riots New York

Many buildings on West 28th and 29th streets were burned down during the 1863 Draft Riots, including the offices of Provost-Marshal Benjamin F. Manierre, shown here, at 1190 Broadway (southeast corner of Broadway and 29th). The small wooden structure in the foreground may be the old Casper Samler cottage, which stood at the northeast corner of Broadway and 29th until 1869, when Peter Gilsey built the iconic Gilsey House on the site (still extant).

Soon thereafter, the hall underwent a complete overhauling and was reopened April 17, 1871, as Newcomb’s Hall (W. W. Newcomb, manager). Six months later, John E. McDonough and H. A. Eamshaw took over management and reopened the hall on October 23, 1871, as The St. James Hall and then the St. James Theatre.

Peter Gilsey house and Apollo Hall

The old Fifth Avenue Theatre at #31 West 28th Street (center) and Peter Gilsey’s home at #33 (left) as they appeared before 1891. Peter died in the home on April 8, 1873, and was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Family members continued to live at the home.

In June 1873, the Gilsey estate began transforming the building into a true theater with seating for 1,900 people. The work was completed in December 1873, whereupon theater manager and playwright John Augustin Daly obtained a lease for the new venue. Daly was in need of a new theater, having lost his Fifth Avenue Theatre on 24th Street (adjacent to the Fifth Avenue Hotel) in a fire on January 1, 1873.

Daly opened the new theater on December 3, 1873, and renamed it the New Fifth Avenue Theatre. He continued as proprietor until 1877, which was the same year a ventilation system was installed that blew air over blocks of ice, making the venue the world’s first air-conditioned theater (there’s a good trivia question for you).

Daly was followed by John T. Ford, who removed “New” from the name, and then Eugene Tompkins, “the Napoleon of theater managers,” took over the lease on the building.

Here’s where the plot thickens a bit.

Fifth Avenue Theatre 24th Street

In 1865, the Christy Minstrels converted an illegal stock exchange next to the Fifth Avenue Hotel into a theater. Augustin Daly managed the theater from 1869 to 1873, when it burned down. The theater was rebuilt in 1879 and demolished in 1908 to make way for an office building.

In 1889, Andrew and Henry Gilsey, two of Peter’s seven children, decided to demolish the house and the old theater and build a new theater facing Broadway. To help finance this plan, they told Tompkins they would only renew his lease in 1891 if he agreed to make repairs to the old theater and also build a new theater at a cost from $100,000 to $150.000 in 1891.

Tompkins refused the terms of the deal. Turns out he had discovered that while the ground covered by the auditorium belonged to Peter’s sons, the ground covered by the stage still belonged to Lucy Varian Gilsey (remember her?), who, surprise, surprise, refused to renew the lease under any terms (so much for building a new theater).

Tompkins turned the lease over to H.C. Miner for the 1890-91 season. Those in the theater industry who read the terms of the lease felt that Miner was getting a bad deal, since it would probably cost more than $150,000 to build a new theater.

A Timely Conflagration

Augustin Daly

Augustin Daly was only 35 when he took over the New Fifth Avenue Theatre on 28th Street.

“They did all in their power, but the place was like a tinder box, and its four high walls were like a chimney. The fire whirled and swirled in it pits, and as it rolled upward and spread out in the wind it made one of the most imposing spectacles that New York has seen in years.”—New York Times, January 2, 1891

Well, wouldn’t you know that a curious thing happened on January 2, 1891, about a half hour after all the performers in that Friday evening’s production of “Cleopatra” had left the building. At about 11:45, night watchman Daniel Finn reported flames coming from the cellar of the theater. There was barely enough time to grab a few stage props and run.

By the time firemen arrived on that windy night, the fast-moving fire was not only burning down the theater but also threatening to destroy several other nearby buildings, including 1185-1193 (I.&I. Slater), 1195 Broadway (Herrmann’s Theater), 1182-1196 Broadway (Sturtevant House), and 33 West 28th Street (Mrs. Peter Gilsey’s residence).

Gilsey family

Mary C. Gilsey, seen here with their two daughters in this 1854 portrait by Louis Lang, was still living at #33 next to the theater when it burned down in 1891. She died on September 13, 1891.

According to a report in The New York Times the next day, the Gilsey brothers, and Harry Miner, in particular, didn’t seem too upset as they watched the flames destroy their property:
“Harry Miner, the proprietor of the Fifth Avenue Theatre, was one of the coolest of the spectators. He looked on the flames that were consuming his property and was not once heard to bemoan his misfortune.”

Andrew Gilsey estimated the total loss at $156,000, including damage to the home and complete destruction of the theater. He told the press he had $80,000 in insurance coverage (a nice amount to put toward a new building). Harry Miner’s loss was about $30,000, but he had $20,000 of insurance coverage.

Iron framework, new Fifth Avenue Theatre

The new theater was built to be completely fireproof, with an iron framework, seen here, a cement and asphalt scene pit, and fireproof arching erected by the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company.

An investigation into the origin of the fire was made by the Fire Marshal, and it was his opinion that the flames were started by a lighted cigarette (and maybe an accelerant of some sorts?).

A New Fifth Avenue Theatre

With insurance money and a good excuse to build a new theater (and by this time Lucy had finally given in and began selling off her lots), the Gilsey estate promptly hired architect Francis Hatch Kimball to rebuild a new, fireproof Fifth Avenue Theatre.

Fifth Avenue Theatre foyer

“The W. 28th Street lobby was a sumptuous sight to behold, with various shades of marble on the walls, gilded columns, plasterwork and intricate stained glass windows. The halls were lined with mirrors, adding a feel of depth to the narrow space, and lined with marble Ionic columns and pilasters. Persian carpets, imported draperies and artwork added to the luxurious atmosphere.”–Scientific American

The Neo-Classical structure featured heavy terra-cotta decoration, gilt plasterwork, and a richly decorated entrance on West 28th Street (the main entrance was later moved to 1187 Broadway). The auditorium was parallel with 28th Street, while the stage occupied the site of the old Gilsey home.

The new Fifth Avenue Theatre opened on Saturday night, May 28, 1892, with Maurice Barrymore’s and Charles Poemer’s comic opera, “The Robber of the Rhine.”

Henry Miner continued to manage the theater until Frederick Freeman Proctor took control in 1900. Proctor teamed up with Benjamin Franklin Keith, and in 1906 the vaudeville chain redecorated the theater for vaudeville presentations — like Uno the mind-reading dog. When their partnership dissolved in 1911, the theater was renamed Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theatre.

Fifth Avenue Theatre

The theater could accommodate 1,400 patrons, but unlike its predecessor, and many of its contemporaries, it featured rows of seats, both on the orchestra floor and in the balconies, rather than benches.

By 1915, Proctor was showing motion pictures in addition to vaudeville acts. Sometime after 1929, Proctor bowed out and movies were replaced by burlesque shows. On April 8, 1936, Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank acquired the property in a foreclosure. The old theater was demolished in 1939.

Fifth Avenue Theatre

In 1939, the Fifth Avenue Theatre was demolished forever. In order to reduce taxes for the company, Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank decided to turn the site into a parking lot. Today it is a multilevel parking garage and one-story structure with retail shops.

1151 Broadway

The old Varian tree, the gateway to the Varian farm and homestead, once stood in front of 1151 Broadway, pictured today (Rico Wholesale). If you ever happen to walk by here, close your eyes and picture an old frame house and farmland.