On November 11, 1935, a blue peacock decided to make his escape from who knows where and lead numerous grown men on a four-hour chase through the streets of New York.

Peacock New York City

In August 2011, a peacock flew the coop from the Central Park Zoo and spent the night on a fifth-floor ledge at 858 Fifth Ave. The peacock in this story made the reverse trip.

It’s a plane! It’s a bird! It’s a peacock!

Imagine walking down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on a Monday morning and seeing a peacock flying overhead. Nowadays, you might just shrug it off and continue walking to keep up with the crowd. Or maybe you’d stop briefly to take a selfie with your smart phone and share it on Twitter. A few of you might capture the incident on video, like they did in 2012 when a peacock escaped from the John Browne High School in Queens.

Unfortunately, there were no personal cameras and video recorders when this event actually took place almost 80 years ago, but news reports from The New York Times and Cortland Standard tell a colorful story.

At 9:10 a.m. on that Monday morning, a woman on West 58th Street called the West 47th Street police station to report a large buzzard on her windowsill. Patrolmen William Burke, John Duffy, and John Leonhardt were dispatched to the building with orders to make the buzzard go away…

47th Street Police Station

The old 47th Street Police Station in 1939.

The three leading policemen in this story were assigned to what was then the 18th Precinct on West 47th Street in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. This station house was built in 1860, and over the course of a century, was known as the 26th, 9th, 18th, and 16th precincts as well as Traffic Station D.

Due to its proximity to the theater district, the station house was quite busy making arrests and headlines. According to national news reports, Mae West was a frequent customer – she was reportedly arrested in 1926 for appearing in her play “Sex,” and in 1928, she and four cast members of the play “Pleasure Man” were arrested when detectives and uniformed policemen from the station raided the show on opening night. A large crowd followed the police as they drove Miss West and her cast to the station for questioning. They were reportedly each released on $500 bail and were to be arraigned on charges of performing in an indecent play.

After the police station was demolished in 1962, the city transferred the property to the Fire Department as a potential site for a firehouse, but nothing ever materialized. In the 1970s, Ramon Aponte, a native of Puerto Rico who had lived nearby since 1950, organized a group of concerned citizens that helped transform the lot into a playground. Today it is called the Ramon Aponte Park.

40 West 58th Street

40 West 58th Street, 1916

“The Buzzard”

By the time the patrolmen got to 58th Street, the buzzard had miraculously turned into a peacock and flown away. They looked up and saw that it was perched on the roof of the Plaza Funeral Home at 40 West 58th Street. The men made their way to the roof and tried to approach the bird, but the peacock kept its distance…

The five-story building at 40 West 58th Street was known as the Plaza Funeral Home from about 1930 to 1968. Prior to that, the building served as a showroom for the New York and Brooklyn Casket Company, and earlier, as a luxury clubhouse for New York’s Coterie Club. The building had elevator service to all floors.

Coterie Club ballroom

The ballroom of the Coterie Club.

The Coterie Club was organized in 1916 by several prominent Daughters of the American Revolution. Its mission was to provide superior accommodations and service for single, well-to-do women who were visiting the city and needed assistance procuring hotel rooms, theater tickets, taxi services, and more. The club provided a ballroom, dining room and lounging rooms for afternoon or evening entertainment, and services such as social secretaries, chaperones, and personal shoppers. This club was very active from 1916-1918.

Starting in 1965, builder Sheldon H. Solow began to secretly purchase 14 buildings on 57th and 58th Street, including the Plaza Funeral Home (he recorded the buyers under different names in order to fly below the real estate development radar). These buildings were demolished in the fall of 1968 to make room for the luxury 50-story Solow Building at 9 West 57th Street.

Solow Building

The Solow Building at 9 W. 37th St.

From the roof of the Plaza Funeral Home, the peacock flew to the roof of the Wyndham Hotel at 42 West 58th Street. The three policemen headed to that roof also, but again the peacock flew the coop.

By this time, the policemen were just hoping the large bird would fly over to the Savoy Hotel on the east side Fifth Avenue so that they could turn the job over to the East 51st Street police station.

After departing the Wyndham roof, the peacock flew around the nine-story Bergdorf-Goodman building on Fifth Avenue. Down on the street, a large crowd of people stood gaping and cheering on the feathered fugitive as it circled a few times around the gilded rooster weather vane on top of the Heckscher Building.

Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion

Before Edwin Goodman and Herman Bergdorf moved their department store to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in 1928, the site was occupied by the huge Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion, designed in 1893 by George B. Post and his teacher, Richard Morris Hunt. The Gilded Age Era website has some great interior photos and information about the mansion.

The Heckscher Building

Augustus Heckscher Sr. came to the United States from Germany in 1867 and began making a fortune in various mining operations. In 1913, he bought the old Frederick Stevens and William Whitney mansion at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street and constructed a three-story building of offices and shops.

Stevens and Whitney mansion

In 1875 Frederick W. Stevens commissioned architect George Harney to design a mansion for him and his family at 2 West 57th Street. After Frederick died, his widow sold the property to Oliver Payne who in turn gave it to his sister Flora and her husband, William C. Whitney.

A few years later he announced plans for a tall office building in the form of a simple slab on a plain base, but with some French Renaissance detailing. By the time construction began in 1920, the design had changed to conform to a new zoning law requiring setbacks with skyscrapers.

In the 1930’s Heckscher lost the building through foreclosure. Then in 1942, the weather vane was removed, apparently as scrap for the war effort. Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos secretly bought the building in 1981, and in 1983, management renamed it the Crown Building.

Back to our illustrious peacock…

Apparently realizing that the rooster was not going to pay him any attention, the peacock soared over to Chickering Hall at 29 West 57th Street, where he perched for a brief time on a window sill on the 13th floor.

Alas, there were no chicks to be found at Chickering Hall, so it was time for the peacock to move on again.

Crown Building Heckscher Building

The 25-story Crown Building rises in a series of setbacks culminating in a fancy copper pyramidal roof.

By now, the streets were thronged with spectators. There were also 12 photographers, 10 reporters, three agents from the ASPCA, and two keepers from the Central Park Zoo on hand to witness the flying spectacle. The peacock did not disappoint. Spotting a nice cornice on the 15th floor of the Plaza Hotel, he took flight again.

The peacock obviously enjoyed the view from the Plaza Hotel, because he stayed up there for about an hour. The officers tried to reach him by entering Room 1571 (the peacock hunters interrupted the occupant, who was eating a late breakfast) and opening the window. They slowly made their way along the narrow edge (I find this hard to believe, but it was reported in the news) and tossed pellets at the bird to scare it off, but that also failed.

Chickering Hall

Chickering Hall was built in 1924, just four years after a fire destroyed two houses on the site and killed five people, including the famous animal trainer, Dr. Martin Potter. In its early years, the building was home to the American Piano Company. By the time the high-flying peacock paid a visit, the building was, quite appropriately, being leased by The Curtiss Flying Service.

Finally around noon, there came a raucous cry from the new bird sanctuary in the southeast corner of Central Park (the Hallett Nature Sanctuary). The peacock spread his magnificent wings and swooped down across the pond toward four peahens in waiting.

Captain Ronald Cheyne-Stout, director of menageries for the New York City Park Department, said he was delighted that the peacock had landed there. Ironically, the only other peacock at the sanctuary had died two weeks before, so the new male would fit in very well. As long as his wings were clipped twice a year, he wouldn’t be able to fly away.

Plaza Hotel, New York

The 18-story Plaza Hotel at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South opened its doors on October 1, 1907. Although numerous birds, including owls, falcons, and pelicans, once lived at the Plaza with a princess, this was the first time a peacock visited the grand hotel.

The director said they would certainly return the bird if anyone could prove ownership, and added, “The ASPCA can’t take him because there is nothing cruel about where he is now.”

Peacock

  1. […] 1935: The Peacock That Caused a Standoff at the Plaza Hotel […]

  2. Unique and fascinating info, many thanks.