Books

The Lost Cultural Hubs of New York’s Gilded Age

Esther Crain’s book The Gilded Age in New York, 1870–1910 chronicles the rise of the NYC metropolis and the roots of its role as an international cultural center.

“Edison’s Greatest Marvel: The Vitascope” (1896) (via Library of Congress)

In many ways, the frenetic New York of today was rooted in its Gilded Age, when from 1870 to 1910 the city’s growth accelerated in its population, skyscraper-punctuated architecture, and cultural institutions. Everything from the formation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park, to the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and opening of Ellis Island, happened over the course of these four decades. In The Gilded Age in New York, 1870–1910, recently released by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Esther Crain chronicles some of these moments with text and illustrations based on contemporary accounts and archival materials.

Crain, who is behind the history site Ephemeral New York, explains in an introduction why this era was so metamorphic:

The most common observation about New York is that it never stops evolving. Yet it’s hard to imagine an era in Gotham’s history more transformative than the Gilded Age, roughly between the end of the Civil War and 1910. While much of the fractured nation was regrouping, New York was already on the rise, fueled by fortunes made from wartime financing and manufacturing. For the next three decades, the confident city with its “pull-down-and-build-over-again spirit,” as Walt Whitman called it, marched northward, extended skyward, and then increased its size sixfold by annexing the cities and villages that shared its harbor.

Cover of The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 (courtesy Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers)

Along with the appearance of electric lights and underground public transportation in the growing city, was after-hours entertainment amid its illuminated streets for both the thriving newly rich and the lower classes, often living in overcrowded tenements. In fact, one of the spectacles at Coney Island’s Dreamland was a real tenement fire you could witness, complete with live firefighters. The beach-front “Sodom by the Sea,” an easy jaunt on the train, had live animals, thrill rides, and “freak shows” accessible to the masses. For the wealthy, the important entertainment was in Manhattan, with a theater district that continued to migrate uptown.

On a couple of pages of The Gilded Age in New York, Crain describes the “Opera House War” of the 1890s. The old guard used the Academy of Music on 14th Street, just east of Union Square, as their gathering ground, showing up near the end of the first act to gossip in their box seats. Crain notes that “seeing the opera wasn’t the point — being seen was.” Yet members of the new upper class, including Alva Vanderbilt, were unable to acquire one of these box seats, so they funded their own opera house. The 1883 Metropolitan Opera House at 39th Street and Broadway soon overtook the Academy in popularity, closing in 1886 as “a symbolic nail in the coffin for the Knickerbocker establishment.” The 39th Street opera house, like so many of these Gilded Age venues, burned down once and then was eventually demolished, but it established the Metropolitan Opera Company of today.

Pages from The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Pages from The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

The Gilded Age in New York is strewn with these anecdotes, such as the low brow oddities of P. T. Barnum’s American Museum and the wax dioramas of the Musée Eden, as well as the founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a focus on European art. There were German immigrant singing societies (led by their club president William Steinway), diving horses at the colossal 1905 Hippodrome, and more salacious entertainments in the Tenderloin district, where at John Koster and Albert Bial’s concert hall on 23rd Street, gentlemen could meet the chorus girls in the private “Cork Room.”

While some of the places from this period still exist, like the American Museum of Natural History and even Alice Vanderbilt’s 1883 “Electric Light” dress that thrilled society ladies, now at the Museum of the City of New York, many are now gone. Dreamland at Coney Island had a gutting fire in 1911, the 1882 Casino Theatre that was the first to be lit by electricity was demolished in 1930, the Hippodrome was shuttered in 1939 and torn down in the 1950s, and the Bowery music halls are only memories among the condos that now line the once-tawdry “Skid Row.” Nevertheless, as Crain assures in her book, “Underneath the facade of the modern city, the ghosts of the Gilded Age dwell.”

Surf Avenue and Luna Park, Coney Island (1912) (photo by Irving Underhill, via Library of Congress)
John Bachmann, “Birds Eye View of New York and Environs” (1865) (via Wikimedia)
Casino Theater at Broadway and 39th Street (1900) (via Detroit Publishing Company/Wikimedia)
The old Metropolitan Opera House at Broadway and 39th Street (1905) (via Library of Congress)
P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, pictured in Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper (September 30, 1865). (via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
The New York Hippodrome (1905) (via Shorpy/Wikimedia)

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 by Esther Crain is out now from Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.

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