Bucolic Manhattan: The Future Site of The New York Public Library

The Augustus Fay depiction of the massive Croton Distributing Reservoir, built from 1839 to 1842, is probably reproduced more often than any other view of the 42nd Street aqueduct in bucolic times. This charming gouache reminds us that "upper" Manhattan in the mid-19th century wore a country air. In the outdoors of this neighborhood, men chopped wood and children frolicked happily with butterfly nets on what would become one of the world's busiest corners: Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Until the turn of the 20th century, when the reservoir was demolished to make way for The New York Public Library, a favorite Sunday pastime of New Yorkers was to stroll on top of the massive mastaba-like structure, where one could have a superb view of the city to the south. That view changed frequently and drastically as the city developed, but on the site of the aqueduct itself there has occurred only one change in nearly 175 years. That itself is a rather remarkable fact in New York City's architectural history.

It was in 1837 that the open ground between Fifth and Sixth avenues from 40th to 42nd streets was first appropriated by the city for a distributing reservoir, and in 1846 that the ground adjoining the reservoir to the west was set aside for use as a public park. The city council ordered that the area "be graded "¦ and sloped and sodded on the sides bordering upon the avenue and streets, and that the same be enclosed by a neat ornamental wooden fence" (this would become Bryant Park, spectacularly restored in the 1990s). In 1853 the now-legendary Crystal Palace, which had a brief and disastrous history, occupied the site adjoining the reservoir.

Augustus Fay. View of the Croton Water Reservoir, New York City. Gouache, ca. 1850.
The New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Print Collection, I.N. Phelps Stokes Collection.

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