The section of midtown Manhattan that today is known as the Bryant Park area (on Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street behind the main branch of the New York Public Library) once was a spacious field with some small hills and flowing streams.
During 1776, an American force was dispatched from Harlem to this area to prevent the British from destroying patriot soldiers who were wavering and fleeing the king’s regulars. The disorder of green militia before the world’s greatest army nearly turned into a rout. The British trumpeters even took up a fox-hunting call and followed this with a taunt from the line of “Hoicks, Hoicks!” that was the traditional encouragement to the fox hounds.
General George Washington rushed to the scene, and a quick thinking aide seized the bridal of the general’s horse and drew him from the field to avoid capture. Troops that saw him rush into the fray quickly rallied and stood firm to save the others.
Fire Destroys Classic Structures
The rural area far outside the city limits, within several decades after the war, became a potter’s field for the poor and destitute. Later, it became the home of the Crystal Palace, a glass and iron structure that opened on July 14, 1853 for the “Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations.”
Soon after, on October 5, 1858, the palace was destroyed within 30 minutes by fire that started in the lumber room. With the structure, a collection of art and manufactured products from around the world perished in the fire. Losses included armor from the Tower Of London, Sevres china, Gobelin tapestries and sculptor Carlo Marochetti’s statue of Washington.
Firefighters rushed into the building to save the fire apparatus on exhibit, but their efforts were futile. More than 2,000 people were inside the building at the time, but no one died. One man was rescued seconds before the decorative dome collapsed.
The Latting Observatory, which stood more than 350 feet tall, once was located nearby. It, too, was consumed by fire (August 30, 1856). Together with the Crystal Palace, the design of these buildings resembled the symbol used for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
The area later became home to the Croton Reservoir and then to the library. Sharing the site was the Hippodrome, one of the largest places for amusement at the time.
The Hippodrome opened during 1905 and it had one of the world’s largest stages. The auditorium was decorated in ivory, gold and silver. The lobbies were marble and stone, and 40,000 lights illuminated the theater. Its life was short. It was destroyed by the wrecker’s ball during 1939.
From open land for revolutionary fighting and a potter’s field to the location of classic structures and a reservoir, and then the home of the city’s main library with a popular park, this area of New York City, during such a short period of time, continues to be the scene of diverse and changing history.