Manhattan Past Books

Building and Unbuilding the Empire State Building

I first ran across Building the Empire State while doing research for Manhattan Street Names, specifically for documentation on the location of Astor Court, a former alley along one side of the former Waldorf Astoria Hotel that once stood on the site of the Empire State Building. The book is a facsimile reproduction of an in-house notebook kept by the contractors who oversaw the construction of the skyscraper in the 1930s, with an introduction and notes by Carol Willis, an adjunct professor of Urban Studies at Columbia University. At the peak of construction 3500 workers erected the Empire State Building at a rate of one story per day. This fascinating original source documents one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th Century.

The construction notebook makes an excellent shelf-mate for another fine book on the Empire State Building, Unbuilding by David Macaulay. Macaulay, well-known for his “How Things Work” series, takes the proven method of learning how something is made by taking it apart and applies it to the world’s most famous skyscraper. Through a series of wonderfully-detailed drawings Macaulay imagines how the building might be dismantled - safely, in the middle of a crowded city.

After reading about the construction and destruction of the Empire State Building, one may feel the need to put theory into practice. Fortunately, LEGO® has included the iconic structure in its Architecture series so you can build your own miniature version. The set also includes a booklet with historic facts about the building and its construction.

— 10 months ago
Unearthing Gotham by Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana diZerega Wall

For years, archaeology in New York City was the province of amateurs and treasure hunters. Not until the 1980s did a systematic and professional approach to urban archaeology gain foothold, with the Stadt Huys Block project in lower Manhattan.

Unearthing Gotham opens with an outline of how that project came to be, in a series of negotiations between the City and developers, inaugurating the modern approach to urban archaeology. This sometimes dry account of the intrigues of city zoning regulations signals the tone for the rest of the book, which is almost as much about the process of archaeology in general as it is about the artifacts uncovered in the city.

This is perhaps to its credit. Similar books aimed at a general readership focus on the “gee-whiz” aspects of archaeology: the valuable artifacts, the mysterious civilizations. Urban archaeology, however, as the authors repeatedly explain, is more likely to uncover far less glamorous links to the past such as trash piles and outhouses.

But middens and privy pits do have something to tell us about the early inhabitants of the city, Native, European and African. The problem is they don’t really tell us much. Inferences might be drawn about a specific household’s habits or the fleeting presence of a Native hunter, but a conservative interpretation will not generalize to the larger population, and the number of uncovered sites in the city is not large enough to make broader claims. This narrow scope of interpretation is professionally responsible, but potentially frustrating to a reader looking for solid conclusions.

Nevertheless, Unearthing Gotham is an excellent introduction to the challenges of urban archaeology in general and many-layered New York City in particular. It is now available in paperback at Used copies of the hardback are available at

— 1 year ago
Greenwich Village by Anna Alice Chapin

“‘Tis an awkward thing to play with souls,” - and, to my mind, Greenwich Village has a very personal soul that requires very personal and very careful handling.

As one might expect from a history that opens with Browning, Anna Chapin’s 1917 Greenwich Village is sometimes breathless and flowery, but there is a thorn among the roses. Chapin’s keen wit and subtle humor enliven her account of the Village’s transformation into the city’s Bohemian heart.

Modern readers may nod knowingly as Chapin describes a neighborhood so far out on the avant-garde that by the time you’ve heard about what’s hip, it’s no longer hip. From her chapter on Village restaurants:

It is not many years since Bohemia ate chiefly in the side streets, at restaurants such as Enrico’s, Baroni’s—there are a dozen such places. They still exist, but the Village is dropping away from them. They are very good and very cheap, and the tourist—that is, the uptowner—thinks he is seeing Bohemia when he eats in them, but not many of them remain at all characteristic.

The book is in the public domain and freely available online. To fully enjoy Allan Gilbert Cram’s illustrations and the fold-out map of the Village, however, one must find an original copy. They can still be had, starting around $35.00, at AbeBooks.


— 1 year ago
This is New York by Miroslav Sasek

A charming portrait of Manhattan in the 1960s, Miroslav Sasek’s This is New York has been “updated” for modern readers. The new version has changed a few outdated facts (the Empire State Building is no longer the tallest building in the world, for example), but some of the other changes are puzzling. A visual joke about the gun on a policeman’s hip has been removed - or rather the text has been removed, leaving the illustration unexplained. Perhaps the editors felt guns had no place in what is nominally a children’s title, but at the same time the illustrations of the large Times Square billboards for cigarettes and beer are left in place.

Copies of the original version are collectible, but can still be found in good condition for moderate prices at abebooks. The new version is still in print and available at More about Miroslav Sasek at

— 1 year ago
Peter Stuyvesant proclaims a day of Thanksgiving at Fort Amsterdam, August 25, 1655

Honorable, Right Beloved :

Considering on the one side the manifold mercies and goodness of God which His bounty, from time to time not only hath exhibited, but also continued to this young budding Province, whereof there have been no few proofs— the sudden and unexpected changing of a dreaded war into an acceptable peace vouchsafed unto us last year, since which time God’s mercies and blessings have not failed us, neither in our outgoings nor our incomings, nor in the departure nor return of divers vessels and persons wherein the good people of this Province were, generally, interested; Whereunto is also to be added God’s blessing, generally, in the advancement, prosperity, and settlement not only of the State, in general, but also of each individual in particular, which ought to move every one to grateful acknowledgment and thankfulness, sensible that this, alone, is the right key to open unto us the further treasures of God’s merciful favor and blessings.

Considering, on the other hand, the resolution and order of the Supreme Magistracy of this Province to be undertaken and executed under God’s guidance for the further benefit and security of this Colony; whereunto then, first of all, God’s especial blessing, aid, and countenance should be, with humble heart and earnest prayer, besought; the Director General and Supreme Council of this Province have, before all things thought necessary to ordain and prescribe a day of general Fasting, Prayer and Thanksgiving which shall be observed every where, throughout this Province, on Wednesday next, being the 25th of this Month of August, in the fore and afternoon of that day, publicly to preach at the usual place, God’s word, after hearing which to laud and praise the Allgood God for His general and particular blessings, favors and benefits exhibited and continued towards this Province and the good people thereof; on the other side, to pray God with humble hearts that he would please not only to continue the same, but also (which is the principal object of this Order) especially to beseech the Good God to bless the projected expedition, solely intended for the greater security and advancement of this Province; to prosper it for the honour of His name and to bring it to the wished for issue, considering that all undertakings, counsels, and projects are idle and vain which have not God’s Holy blessing. Therefore the Servants of God’s word are requested to form Texts, Prayers and Thanksgiving to this purpose, and all subjects professing the Reformed Religion are charged to attend the same, at the appointed time, at the place where God’s word is usually preached in order, with each other, to praise and thank the Allbeneficent God for received gifts and to pray for his blessing as well over the country and good people thereof in general, as especially over the proposed expedition.

Likewise that He would please to take under His Merciful Protection the Director General, Councillors, and other High and Inferior Officers with their Men and Ships, and their undertaking in such wise to bless that all may result to His holy name’s honor; to the establishment of his holy Gospel and to the advantage of this province and the good People thereof. For the better observance and attention thereof, the Director General and Council forbid all common business on that day, such as ploughing, sowing, mowing, fishing, hunting etc., as well as all games of tennis, ballplaying, tapping, and drinking on pain of arbitrary correction.

This done in the Assembly of the Hon’ble Lords Director General and Supreme Council, holden in Fort Amsterdam in New Netherland the 16 August. 1655 P. Stuyvesant

Minutes of the Court of Burgomasters and Schepens, 1653-1655

— 1 year ago

Wally Ballou interviews a visitor from Vermont on the streets of Manhattan, 1959

— 1 year ago
#christmas  #manhattan  #New York City  #Rockefeller Center 
Horse Racing in the Streets of Manhattan

A Memorial was presented from the Inhabitants in the vicinity of Abingdon Road [now roughly West 21st St], complaining as a great and grievous nuisance the practise of racing Horses in said Road, and praying measures may be taken to prevent the same, was read and referred to the Alderman and Assistant of the 9th Ward.

Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, June 12, 1820

— 1 year ago
NYC Orders Seawall Improved After Major Storm - 1821

October 1, 1821

The Committee appointed to Superintend the Improvements at the Battery presented the following:

The Committee appointed to Superintend the Improvements at the Battery having viewed the destruction occasioned by the late Gale.

Report, that in order to prevent further loss, which may be occasioned by leaving many parts of the ground at the Battery exposed (as at present) to the storms of the approaching Winter, It will be highly necessary that a quantity of stone should be procured and so placed as to break the force of the Sea, Your Committee therefore recommend the board to make an appropriation to the amount expressed in the annexed Resolution, In the expenditure of which there will be no loss, as your Committee are of opinion stone will cost very little if any more than Earth, and is much better for the purpose required

Resolved that One Thousand Dollars be placed at the disposal of the Committee to superintend the improvements at the Battery

Respectfully Submitted

Henry J Wyckoff
M Gelston
John P Anthony
Wm H Ireland
B Crane

Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York

— 1 year ago
Brooklyn Neighbors Argue About Chickens - in 1907

New York Times, May 19, 1907

All is not peaceful around Avenue C and Ocean Parkway, Flatbush, though the atmosphere is now clear and the trees are not yet scorched. The neighborhood seems serene — on the surface. But all is not well.

— 1 year ago