William Tecumseh Sherman Statue, New York City (2)

The statue William Tecumseh Sherman, in Grand Army Plaza at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street in New York, in September 1942. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection.

The statue in 2019:

As discussed in an earlier post, this statue was designed by prominent sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and dedicated in 1903, in honor of General William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the most successful Union generals of the Civil War. The statue features Sherman seated on his horse, Ontario, while being led by the goddess Victory. She wears a laurel crown and is holding a palm frond in her left hand, both of which are classical symbols of victory. The statue stands atop a pink granite base, which was designed by architect Charles Follen McKim.

The first photo in the earlier post was taken only a few years after the statue was dedicated, but the first photo here was taken much later, in September 1942. In the interim, the statue had been moved 15 feet to the west in 1913, and then later in the 1910s it was temporarily removed from the site entirely, in order to make room for subway excavations. It was subsequently returned here by the early 1920s, and it has remained here ever since.

By the time the first photo was taken, America had been involved in World War II for less than a year. The photographer was Marjory Collins, a noted photojournalist and New York native who documented life on the home front as part of the United States Office of War Information. The only obvious clue about the war is the sailor seated on the base of the statue, but Collins likely included the photo as a way of connecting the war to past conflicts in the nation’s history.

In the nearly 80 years since the first photo was taken, the statue has undergone several restorations, including re-gilding the surface, and today it looks essentially the same as it did back then. Much of the background has also remained unchanged during this time. There are newer high-rises on the left side, but the two buildings on the right side of the first photo are still standing. On the far right side is the Metropolitan Club, built in 1893, and just to the left of it is The Pierre, a 41-story luxury hotel that opened in 1930.

Lenox Library, New York City

The Lenox Library, seen from the corner of Fifth Avenue and 70th Street in New York City, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene on December 20, 1913. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The modern concept of a public library in the United States began in the second half of the 19th century, and many such libraries had their origins in private libraries that were run by organizations or by wealthy benefactors. Here in New York City, these included the Astor Library and Lenox Library. Both were open to the public—with restrictions, particularly here at the Lenox Library—but they were intended primarily for researchers, and the books did not circulate. However, these two libraries formed the basis for the New York Public Library, which was established upon their merger in 1895.

The Lenox Library was the younger of the two institutions, having been established in 1870, although its founder, James Lenox, had begun collecting rare books several decades earlier. The son of wealthy merchant Robert Lenox, James inherited over a million dollars after his father’s death in 1839, along with a significant amount of undeveloped farmland in what is now the Upper East Side. He had studied law at Columbia, although he never actually practiced, instead spending much of his time collecting books and art.

For many years Lenox kept his collection in his house, which became increasingly overcrowded and disorganized. As a result, he created the Lenox Library in 1870, and that year he hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a suitable building, which would be located on Lenox-owned land here on Fifth Avenue, opposite Central Park between 70th and 71st Streets. It was one of the first major commissions for Hunt, who would go on to become one of the leading American architects of the late 19th century.

The building, shown here in the first photo, was completed in 1877. It was a combination library and art museum, featuring four reading rooms plus a painting gallery and a sculpture gallery. Admission was free of charge, but for the first ten years patrons were required to obtain tickets in advance by writing to the library, which would then send the tickets by mail. In any case, the collections here at the library would not have been of much interest to the casual reader. Because of Lenox’s focus on rare books, the library was, in many ways, more of a museum of old books than a conventional library. In addition, its holdings were far less comprehensive than most libraries, with a narrow focus on the subjects that Lenox was personally interested in.

Despite these limitations, though, the library was valuable for researchers searching for hard-to-find volumes. Perhaps the single most important book in its collection was a Gutenberg Bible, which Lenox had acquired in 1847. It was the first Gutenberg Bible to come to the United States, and it is now owned by the New York Public Library, where it is on display in the McGraw Rotunda. Other rare works included Shakespeare’s First Folio and the Bay Psalm Book, which was the first book published in the American colonies. Aside from books, the library also had important documents, including the original manuscript of George Washington’s farewell address, and its art collection featured famous paintings such as Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole, and a George Washington portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

Overall, James Lenox contributed about 30,000 books to the library, which continued to grow after his death in 1880. By the 1890s, it had over 80,000 books, thanks to a number of significant donations and purchases. These additions helped to broaden the scope of the collection, making it more useful to the general public. However, the library struggled financially during the late 19th century, as did the Astor Library, and in 1895 they merged with the newly-created Tilden Trust to form the New York Public Library.

The new library subsequently moved into its present-day location at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in 1911, and the former Lenox Library was sold to industrialist Henry Clay Frick, who demolished it to build his mansion on the site. A longtime business associate of Andrew Carnegie, Frick was the chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, and by the 1910s he was among the richest men in the country. In 1918, for example, the first Forbes Rich List ranked him second only to John D. Rockefeller, with a net worth of around $225 million.

Frick had purchased the library property in 1906 for $2.47 million, but he had to wait until the library had moved its collections to the new building before he could take possession of the land. He ultimately acquired it in 1912, and demolished the old library that same year. His new home was then built here over the next two years, with a Beaux-Arts exterior that was designed by Thomas Hastings, a noted architect whose firm, Carrère and Hastings, had also designed the New York Public Library. The second photo shows the house in December 1913, in the midst of the construction. The exterior was largely finished by this point, but it would take nearly a year before Frick moved into the house with his wife Adelaide and their daughter Helen.

Like James Lenox, Frick was a collector, using his vast fortune to amass a variety of artwork and furniture. Upon his death in 1919, he stipulated that his house and its contents would become a museum, although Adelaide would be allowed to live here for the rest of her life. She died in 1931, and over the next four years the house was converted into a museum, opening to the public in 1935 as the Frick Collection.

Today, despite its changes in use, the exterior of the building from this view is not significantly different than it was when the first photo was taken more than a century ago. It still houses the Frick Collection, with the museum receiving around 300,000 visitors per year. Although not as large as many of the other major art museums in New York, it features a high-quality collection of paintings and furniture, including a good variety of works by the European Old Masters. The building itself is also an important work of art in its own right, and in 2008 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark in recognition of its architectural significance.

Hotel New Netherland, New York City

The Hotel New Netherland at the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 59th Street in New York, across the street from the southeast corner of Central Park, as seen around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company.

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The view in 2016:

The tall building in the center of the first photo is the Hotel New Netherland. This luxurious hotel was built in 1893 for William Waldorf Astor, who, the same year, also built the Waldorf Hotel further south on Fifth Avenue. The Hotel New Netherland was one of the first steel-framed skyscrapers in the city, but while its structure was innovative, its Romanesque architecture soon fell out of fashion. It was open for just 23 years before its demolition in 1926, and it was replaced by the 38-story Sherry-Netherland Hotel, which stands on the site today.

The other buildings to the left and right of the hotel are also gone, and today the only building remaining from the first photo is on the far left, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 60th Street. It was built in 1894 for the Metropolitan Club, which was a private social club founded by J.P. Morgan a few years earlier. Its early members included many other prominent New Yorkers, and today it remains an active club in the same building. The only other feature left from the first photo is the golden equestrian statue of General William T. Sherman, which was designed by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and installed here in Grand Army Plaza in 1903.

Plaza Hotel, New York City (2)

Another view of the Plaza Hotel and Grand Army Plaza, taken from the corner of Fifth Avenue and 58th Street, around 1907-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The hotel in 2016:

This view of the Plaza Hotel shows the building from the Fifth Avenue side, a block away from where the photos in the previous post were taken. As mentioned in that post, the hotel was built in 1907, on the site of an earlier, much smaller Plaza Hotel. It was built right next to Grand Army Plaza, which is seen in the foreground, and also next to the Cornelius Vanderbilt II House, whose wrought-iron fence and gates are visible on the far left.

At first glance, the hotel appears to look the same in both photos, but the left side of the building is actually significantly longer. This was the result of a 300-room expansion along West 58th Street in 1920, which replaced many of the earlier low-rise buildings that appear in the first photo. A few years later, in 1926, the nearby Vanderbilt House was demolished, and today the Plaza Hotel is the only surviving building from the first photo. Aside from the addition, the hotel retains its original exterior appearance, and today it is one of two New York City hotels, along with the Waldorf-Astoria, to be listed as a National Historic Landmark.

Plaza Hotel, New York City

The Plaza Hotel at the corner of Fifth Avenue and West 59th Street, around 1907-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The hotel in 2016:

New York’s Plaza Hotel is named for the Grand Army Plaza, which is located here at the southeast corner of Central Park. It has since become a prominent historic landmark, but when the first photo was taken it was virtually brand new. It replaced an earlier Plaza Hotel that had been completed in 1890. This eight-story building was damaged by a fire in 1902, and although it remained structurally sound, it was sold and demolished a few years later.

The new owner hired architect Henry J. Hardenbergh, whose previous commissions included the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. His design for the new Plaza Hotel was no less grand, and the 17-story hotel was completed in 1907 after two years of construction, at a cost of $12.5 million. Over the years, the hotel has seen plenty of wealthy, prominent guests, as well as some notable owners. Conrad Hilton, the founder of Hilton Hotels, purchased it in 1943 for $7.4 million and, after changing hands several more times, it was sold to Donald Trump in 1988 for $407.5 million.

Since then, it has gone through several more ownership changes, and from 2005-2008 the century-old hotel was significantly remodeled. Many of the hotel rooms were converted into condominium units, selling for upwards of $10 million per unit. Today, instead of over 800 hotel rooms, it now has just 282 in addition to the 181 condominiums. However, on the exterior the hotel looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken, and it is listed as a National Historic Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fifth Avenue from 57th Street, New York City

Looking north on Fifth Avenue from 57th Street in New York City, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Fifth Avenue in 2016:

These photos were taken just a block further up Fifth Avenue from the ones in the previous post, and they show Grand Avenue Plaza and the southeast corner of Central Park in the distance. On the far left side of the first photo is part of the Cornelius Vanderbilt II House, which was demolished in 1926 to build the present-day Bergdorf Goodman building. The ornate wrought-iron gates, though, were preserved, and Vanderbilt’s daughter Gertrude later donated them to Central Park, where they now stand at the Conservatory Garden. None of the other buildings in the foreground are still standing, and the only object that has remained the same is the golden equestrian statue of General Sherman, barely visible from here in the center of the Plaza.