Saturday, December 1, 2018

American Public Spaces - The Battery in New York City

Perhaps the most popular of the early publicly-owned New York City gardens was the Battery, a half moon shaped park at the southern tip of Manhattan. It stretched 1600 feet along the water front and was about 300 feet wide and was known for its remarkable view of the harbor. A double row of elm trees shaded the central avenue. Smaller walks dissected the main avenue and lead strollers to terraces and a bowling green.

Discovered in 1524, by the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, it wasn't until 1625 that Dutch settlers permanently moved into the area of New York City, calling it New Amsterdam. However, in 1664, the British took over New Amsterdam, & renamed the settlement after the English Duke of York & Albany. The city's convenient location near the Atlantic Ocean made it a significant trading port under the British. In the late 1700's, New York City served as an important battle ground during the Revolutionary War, & was America's capital city until 1790.

Located at the southern tip of Manhattan with ready access to the harbor and the Hudson River, Battery Park is where much of the history of New York City began. The area's strategic location was recognized by Native Americans & Dutch settlers, who called it Capske Hook (from Kapsee, an Indian term for rocky ledge). Near this point, the colonists of the Dutch West India Company began the initial settlement of New Amsterdam in 1625.

The Battery, New York City 1793

Both the Dutch & English used the site for military installations to defend the island in New York's early years. The now a 23–acre park was the site of the first European fortification on Manhattan, built by the Dutch who erected a fort on the southern tip of the island and a low stone wall with cannons.  When the British captured the fort in the mid–17th century, they created a more formal battery on the beach to defend their new territory. Over the next century, additional batteries were built around the strategic outpost as rival forces tried to lay claim to Manhattan.

In 1734, the New York Common Council restricted the future development of the Battery when it resolved that, in order to keep the locations of harbor defenses clear, "no manner of Houses or Other Edifices whatever" should be built along the shore from what is present day State Street to Battery Place.

1812 View from Fort Clinton

Toward the end of the Revolutionary War, the British finally evacuated New York on November 25, 1783, Evacuation Day. The occasion was celebrated at the Battery, where Washington reviewed his troops. After American colonialists claimed the site during the Revolutionary War, the fort was demolished and the area was expanded into a public promenade. Battery Park's crisscrossing walkways & its spectacular view of the harbor made it a popular place for visitors in the 18th century. George Washington mentioned frequent walks "round the Battery" in the diaries he kept during his time in New York at the beginning of the new republic.

With its fine promenade & magnificent vista of the harbor, the Battery became a popular place for New Yorkers to visit in the early 18th century. The public gardens & grounds grew in size as the years passed. Fort George (as Fort Amsterdam was then known) was completely razed in 1788, & its remnants were used to fill in the shore & expand the Battery. In the 1790s, Frenchman Joseph Corré built a gate in the fence that surrounded the Battery, so that potential customers could visit his privately owned public pleasure grounds, which he called Columbia Gardens, for refreshments after their stroll on the waterfront. His plan was successful.

1812 Drawing of The Southwest Battery

John Drayton described promenading at Battery Park in New York City in 1793, "Between the guns and the water is a public walk; made by a gentle decline from the platform...Some little distance behind the guns, two rows of elm trees are planted; which in a short time will afford an agreeable shade."

In the late 1790s, Isaac Weld wrote, "When New York was in posession of the English, this Battery consisted of two or more tiers of guns, one above the other; but it is now cut down, and affords a most charming walk, and on a summer's evening, is crowded with people, as it is Open to the breezes from the sea, which render it particularly agreeable at that season. There is a fine view from it of the roads, Long and Staten Islands, and Jersey shore."

1825-28 The Battery & Castle Gardens

Lydia Medford described walking to the Battery in 1800, We went on toward the Battery. This is a large promenade by the shore of the North River: there are rows and clusters of trees in every part, and a large walk along the shore, almost over the water, gives you such a fresh delightful air, that every evening in summer it is crowded with company. Here, too, they have music playing in boats on the water of a moonlight night. (How Our Grandfathers Lived, Albert Bushnell Hart, Annie Bliss Chapman, Macmillan 1916)

After the American Revolution, tensions with the British continued to escalate.  American harbor towns began building forts for protection, & New York City was no exception. Southwest Battery was constructed on the rocks off the tip of Manhattan between 1808 and 1811. The fort was fully armed with 28 cannons. Each cannon could shoot a 32 pound cannonball a distance of 1.5 miles. The United States declared War on Great Britain on June 12, 1812. The central dispute surrounded the impressment of American soldiers by the British. The Southwest Battery never had occasion to fire upon the enemy, & the war ended in 1815. In 1817, the fort was renamed Castle Clinton in honor of Dewitt Clinton, Mayor and later Governor of New York.

1835-50 John Rubens Smith (1775-1849) View of Battery Park at Castle Garden, New York City

Philip Hone, the Mayor of New York in 1825, wrote in his diary about the Battery, "A more delightful scene can nowhere be found." Mrs. Frances Trollope enthused, "no city could boast . . . a public promenade . . . more beautiful." The actress Fanny Kemble observed of the harbor that it "must be the most beautiful in the world," with the sailing ships, "glancing like graceful sea-birds, through their native element."

1835-50 Thomas Chambers (1808-1869) Entrance to New York Harbor

In the 1850 History of New York, Diedrich Knickerbocker recalled how the Dutch "fortified the city, too, with pickets and pallisadoes, extending across the island from river to river; and, above all, cast up mud batteries or redoubts on the point of the island, where it divided the beautiful bosom of the bay.  These latter redoubts, in process of time, came to be pleasantly overrun by a carpet of grass and clover, and overshadowed by wide-spreading elms and sycamores; among the branches of which the birds would build their nests and rejoice the ear with their melodious notes. Under these trees, too, the old burghers would smoke their afternoon pipe ; contemplating the golden sun as he sank in the west, an emblem of the tranquil end toward which they were declining.

1850s The Battery & Castle Gardens

"Here, too, would the young men and maidens of the town take their evening stroll, watching the silver moonbeams as they trembled along the calm bosom of the bay, or lit up the sail of some gliding bark, and peradventure interchanging the soft vows of honest affection; for to evening strolls in this favoured spot were traced most of the marriages in New-Amsterdam. Such was the origin of that renowned promenade, The Battery, which, though ostensibly devoted to the stern purposes of war, has ever been consecrated to the sweet delights of peace. The scene of many a gambol in happy childhood —of many a tender assignation in riper years—of many a soothing walk in declining age—the healthful resort of the feeble invalid—the Sunday refreshment of the dusty tradesman— in line, the ornament and delight of New-York, and the pride of the lovely island of Manna-hata." 

1849 Castle Garden from the Battery by William Wade

Since it was no longer needed for war, Castle Clinton soon was renamed Castle Gardens. In 1824, Castle Gardens opened as a resort, theater, & restaurant at a ticket price of $5, where patrons could promenade around the fort's walls while sipping mint juleps, ginseng, and punch liquor.  It was all included in the price of admission.  The Marquis de Lafayette was welcomed there in 1824.  In 1825, the Castle is lit with gas lights, & a portion of the Castle was converted into a reading room featuring newspapers from major cities in the new nation.  An 1828 balloon ascension by Eugene Robertson nearly ends in tragedy, when the balloon become attached to the Castle Garden's flagpole. 

1848 The Battery & Castle Gardens

In the 1850 History of New York, Knickerbocker describes a thunderstorm at the Battery, "The earth seems agitated at the confusion of the heavens—the late waveless mirror is lashed into furious waves, that roll in hollow murmurs to the shore...the poplar writhes, and twists, and whistles in the blast—torrents of drenching rain and sounding hail deluge the battery walks—the gates are thronged by apprentices, servant-maids, and little Frenchmen, with pocket-handkerchiefs over their hats, scampering from the storm."

1852 Castle Garden

By 1830, public "warm seawater" bathouses were installed at Castle Garden.  A description of these bathouses appeared in The Knickerbocker; Or, New-York Monthly Magazine, Volume 35,  As we saw, passing down Hudson-street the other morning, Dr. Rabineau's Salt Water Floating Bath going down the river to take its old-time position at Castle-Garden and the Battery, we oould n't help thinking how much comfort, health, luxury, its worthy proprietor would bo enabled, during the coming summer, to dispense. Hale, hearty and cheerful, our old friend is himself an excellent example of the benefits of sait-water bathing; but there are thousands upon thousands in our metropolis who, from an experience of twenty or thirty years, can present kindred testimony in favor of his well-kept and popular establishment.

1850 The Battery & Castle Gardens

In During President Andrew Jackson's 1st visit to New York in 1833, the bridge connecting the Castle to the Battery collapses just after he traverses it. Inventor Samuel F.B. Morse demonstrated his “wireless telegraph” there in 1835. By 1841, the first steam fire engine is demonstrated at the Castle; and in 1842, Samuel Colt presents his submirine to the public at the Battery.

1850 The Battery and Castle Garden

A an elegant domed roof was built over the top of the fort in 1845, & for the next 14 years The Castle area was used as a concert hall.  Singer Jenny Lind made her American debut there in 1850.  In 1855, The land of the Battery is extended, joining Castle Garden to the island of Manhattan.  At this time, Castle Garden becomes an immigration center & later a public aquarium.

1850 Currier and Ives Jenny Lind at Castle Gardens

The debut appearence of famed opera diva Jenny Lind took place at New York's Castle Garden on September 11, 1850. Jenny Lind came to the United States in 1850 to do a 2 year tour for promoter  P.T. Barnum, & both enjoyed tremendous success from her standing room only performances. Jenny was known as the “Swedish Nightingale,” & her ability to hit high F sharps drew crowds of people to her 91 American performances. When she arrived in New York City, there were over 40,000 people waiting to see a glimpse of her coming off the ship.  Her last U.S. Concert was also at Castle Garden on May 24, 1852. She sailed back to Europe on May 29, 1852.

Jenny Lind

Operatic performances were not the only music at Battery Park.  Arthur Clark wrote, "After a New York clipper had finished loading, it was the custom for her to drop down the East River & anchor off Battery Park, then a fashionable resort, where she would remain for a few hours to take her crew on board ...The people who gathered at Battery Park to see a clipper ship get underway came partly to hear the sailors sing their sea songs, or chanties ... which originated early in the nineteenth century, with the Negro stevedores at Mobile & New Orleans."

1872 Currier and Ives The Port of New York Birdseye view from the Battery looking South

In the 1850 History of New York, Knickerbocker remembered, "On a fine afternoon in the glowing month of September, I took my customary walk upon the battery, which is at once the pride and bulwarkof this ancient and impregnable city of New-York. The ground on which I trod was hallowed by recollections of the past, and as I slowly wandered through the long alley of poplars, which, like so many birch brooms standing on end, diffused a melancholy and lugubrious shade, my imagination drew a contrast between the surrounding scenery, and what it was in the classic days of our forefathers. Where the government house by name, but the custom house by occupation, proudly reared its brick walls and wooden pillars, there whilom stood the low, but substantial, red-tiled mansion of the renowned Wouter Van Twiller. Around it the mighty bulwarks of Fort Amsterdam frowned defiance to every absent foe; but, like many a whiskered warrior and gallant militia captain, confined their martial deeds to frowns alone. The mud breastworks had long been levelled with the earth, and their site converted into the green lawns and leafy alleys of the battery, where the gay apprentice sported his Sunday coat, and the laborious mechanic, relieved from the dirt and drudgery of the week, poured his weekly tale of love into the half-averted ear of the sentimental chambermaid."

1892 Currier and Ives The Port of New York Birdseye view from the Battery looking South Detail

Castle Clinton was nearly destroyed in the 1940’s as part of a project to build a 2nd Brooklyn bridge. The project was not stopped, but moved underground. Today the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel runs directly under the building.  The Castle was restored to its original design by the National Park Service. The site reopened in 1975 as Castle Clinton National Monument & now serves as the ticket office for the Statue of Liberty.

1939 Battery Park and Castle Gardens