The Beavers of Astor Place

New York’s subway stations are adorned with many an odd historical curio, image, mural, or hidden wonder. One of the first ones I ever noticed and thought to wonder about was the beavers diligently gnawing away at branches throughout the Astor Place 6 train station. These furry little devils probably represent the point at which I decided not just to live, work, and play in New York, but also to poke around in its history — the stranger and more obscure, the better — and eventually become one of those weird old guys who wanders around with a pair of binoculars, offering tourism tips and trivia to random passersby who probably just want to get their picture taken with one of those ratty-looking Times Square Elmos. Anyway, despite being a relatively small (and these days, frequently shut down for weekend construction) station, Astor Place packs a lot of people in every day thanks to its East Village location. It also manages to pack a substantial amount of oddball history onto its modest platform, history that includes the richest man in America, an abandoned passage, a deadly riot, and yes — beavers.

John Jacob Astor of the Astor Place Astors

The Astor clan was one of the founding prominent families of New York City. Patriarch John Jacob Astor moved from Germany to the United States shortly after the Revolutionary War in 1784, when he joined his brother in New York. John Jacob worked at his brother’s butcher shop and started his own fur trading company, buying from local Indians and eventually opening his own fur goods shop. Around the same time, he married a young woman by the name of Sarah Todd who quickly impressed John Jacob with her sharp business sense. Soon, she was involved in many of his business decisions. Moving quickly and keenly, the Astors soon turned the fur goods store into something of an empire, securing lucrative contracts to trade with England, much of Europe, and even far away China. In 1811, he established Fort Astoria on the Pacific Coast, greatly expanding his trading empire and opening up a number of overland routes across the United States’ western territories.

After the War of 1812 disrupted his fur trade, Astor got into the opium smuggling business, running Turkish drugs into Canton —  an unsavory undertaking by today’s standards, but remember that the opium trade was more or less respectable at the time (the Opium Wars were even fought between China and Great Britain over the right of British merchants to sell opium in China). After the end of the War of 1812, Astor’s American Fur Company once again became a powerhouse, controlling most of the fur trade along the Great Lakes and headquartered in The Astor House on Mackinac Island, which now is best known for having a quaint downtown and a really tall bridge.

John Jacob Astor
John Jacob Astor

With ships in every port in the world and a massive fortune to his name, Astor decided his next move would be into New York real estate. He bought a large parcel of land from eternally cash-strapped and frequently disgraced Vice President Aaron Burr, divided the land up for tenants, and became a landlord. Predicting the increasing importance of New York City and its resulting need to move further and further north along Manhattan Island, Astor would often buy land outside the city limits for a trifle then watch the value skyrocket once the city crept ever northward. He became America’s first millionaire and at the time of his death in 1848 was estimated to be worth some $20 million. In his later years, as many rich men did at the time, he became a patron of the arts supporting such talents as naturalist John James Audubon and writer Edgar Allan Poe. His will also left substantial endowments for organizations in both his German hometown of Walldorf and his adopted hometown of New York City, including the Astor Opera House and the founding of a library that would eventually become the New York Public Library. Like many of the richest and most influential people in New York (and indeed, American) history, he is buried in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery. If “modern” (that is, post-colonial) New York can be said to have a founding father, John Jacob Astor would arguably be it. His name is all over the city, from the Queens neighborhood of Astoria to, yes, Astor Place in the East Village of Manhattan.

A Riot at the Opera

When it was opened in 1847, the Astor Opera House was meant to be –and indeed was — the preeminent place for the rich and powerful  families —  the “uppertens” — of New York to see and be seen.  New York’s opera houses and theaters had long been a battleground for established and emerging rich, as well as the rich and the poor. One of the most famous clashes came when a group of upstart “new money” millionaires with last names like Morgan, Roosevelt, and Vanderbilt were rejected from buying box seats at the prestigious Academy of Music, they decided to start their own opera house, which they called the Metropolitan Opera House. By the time this little struggle among the uppertens and upstarts was boiling over, though, The Astor Opera House was long gone thanks in large part to a horrifying scandal that resulted in a massive riot and over two dozen deaths.

On May 10, 1849, English actor William Charles Macready was set to perform Macbeth at the Astor Opera House (currently operating under the name Astor Place Theater, since it turned out staging operas for aging blue bloods wasn’t quite as profitable as everyone had hoped). Nearby, American actor Edwin Forrest was taking the stage at the Broadway Theater in a production of…Macbeth. There was no love lost between the two competing thespians. The feud between Macready — considered the greatest British actor of his generation — and Forrest — considered the first great American stage star — was stoked by newspapers debating who was the greater star. The ongoing argument quickly became part of a larger conflict between America and England. This was during a period of substantial immigration to New York, and anti-British sentiments were running high amongst the new population, most of which hailed from Ireland. The English actor Macready was seen as a symbol of disconnected, Anglophile upper class society while Forrest became the symbol of the growing American working class. Forrest cut his teeth at the Bowery Theater down near Five Points — a  rough part of town (which was about to get much rougher) and a theater that attracted a rowdy crowd. In fact, the “elite of the elites only” policy at the Astor Opera House had in part been a way for the theater to avoid the rough and tumble crowds that flocked to many of the downtown theaters. This only alienated people more, as many regarded theater as the great equalizer where rich and poor could come to be entertained. Thanks to working on The Bowery, Forrest had himself rather a brawny following of working class immigrants.

Astor Place and the Astor Opera House as it was during its glory days
Astor Place and the Astor Opera House as it was during its glory days

The dispute quickly became a thing of near Shakespearean absurdity, with one actor finding out the touring schedule of the other then booking himself in the same play in the same town at the same time. Macready slung just about the most vile insult a refined British actor was capable of when he declared Forrest to be “without taste.” Supporters of Forrest responded by flinging a dead sheep (!) on stage during one of Macready’s performances. And you thought someone texting in a movie theater was bad! What started out as Shakespearean absurdity quickly became equally Shakespearean tragedy. On May 7, 1849, Forrest’s supporters bought (or were given) hundreds of tickets to Macready’s performance at the Astor Opera House and raised unholy hell. They tossed rotten eggs, produce, shoes, “bottles of stinking liquid,” and even seats at Macready, who in true professional form soldiered on despite the onslaught of missiles and cries of “Down with the codfish aristocracy!” At the same time, Forrest’s own performance at the Broadway was met with thunderous applause, especially when he uttered the line, “What rhubarb, senna or what purgative drug will scour these English hence?”

Macready had had just about enough of this nonsense and decided to return to England. However, after being petitioned by a group of wealthy theater patrons — including Herman Melville and Washington Irving — Macready agreed to one more performance. So it was that he took to the stage as Macbeth once more on May 10th. Anticipating trouble beyond two Shakespearean actors trying to out-bombast one another, the governor called out the police in force — 150 inside the theater, another hundred outside. Fearing even this would not be enough, the police were augmented with 350 members of the New York militia, including cavalry and  light artillery. Whatever white-vested, kid-gloved elegance and exclusivity the Astor Opera House and its patrons hoped to enjoy must have been somewhat sullied by over half a thousand armed troops and cops hanging around the place.

A Riot at the Opera

On the opposite side and looking to curry favor with a massive new block of voters while discrediting the current administration, NewYork’s infamous Tammany Hall under the leadership of  a guy named Isaiah Rynders printed incendiary anti-Macready posters. Tammany also bought huge blocks of tickets to Macready’s final performance and gave them away for free to the working class supporters of Forrest. By curtain time, the streets around Astor Place were teeming with some 10,000 enraged immigrants, cops, political agitators, and theater lovers. Violence broke out almost immediately, and the rioters quickly gained the upper hand over the cops. Determining that they had lost the city to the rioters, the police called in the waiting militia, and they in turn responded to the out-of-control situation by opening fire on the crowd. Pandemonium — or rather, even more pandemonium — ensued, leaving between twenty to thirty people dead and countless more wounded. The next day, flames were fanned even further as the fatalities were tallied and the city’s old money elites praised the use of deadly force against the unruly commoners. A second riot broke out that night with pitched battles between police and rioters up and down Broadway, but this one was much smaller and quickly suppressed.

Bad blood continued to simmer between the upper and lower classes (and would explode again, in frighteningly more violent and vicious rioting, in 1869 — though this time it was over the Civil War and not warring theatrical productions). New York’s performing arts community fractured as well, with some players chasing “the legitimate” theater while others played to the bawdier working class theaters that birthed the American vaudeville and burlesque movements. The Astor Opera House was itself among the casualties of May 10th. Marked now as a place of horror, ridiculed as the “Massacre Opera House” while Astor Place was redubbed “DisAster Place,” and already somewhat financially feeble before the riot, the theater could not survive another season. Production shut down, and the building was sold in 1853. The old money types moved uptown a bit and staked their claim on 14th Street’s Academy of Music as their new parlor. And as I mentioned, that would eventually become embroiled in another type of class warfare, that time between the old money city royalty and the nouveau rich industrialists. Within three years of the opening of the competing Metropolitan Opera, the Academy of Music was out of business. As perhaps a final victory of the working class over the Astor Place uppertens, the Academy of Music replaced opera with vaudeville and, in the early 1900s, became the headquarters for New York’s burgeoning union labor movement. New York politics was another victim of the Astor Place Riot. The ruling Whig administration, unable to curry favor with the working poor and immigrants, soon lost control of the city to the Tammany Hall backed mayoral candidate Fernando Wood, kicking off an era of machine politics and corruption the likes of which the city had never seen. Tammany Hall would rule New York for eighty years, until Roosevelt-backed Republican mayoral Fiorello La Guardia pried the city from Tammany’s grip in 1934.

263- 872b, digital composite of 4 images

Leave it to Beavers

The Astor Place train station was one of the original twenty-eight subway stations in the New York City underground transit system. The beaver plaques that adorn the walls of the station pay homage to the bucktoothed rodent whose pelt provided the foundation of JJ Astor’s vast fortune. At the time the train station was opened, Astor Place was still one of the premiere areas of the city, home to a multitude of the city’s wealthiest families, Cooper Union, and famous Colonnade Row, built under the direction of John Jacob Astor. The Row is now home to offices, a restaurant, and the Blue Man Group, and the colonnades themselves are grimy, ruined-looking remnants of what they must have once been when they played host to the likes of Washington Irving, Cornelius Vanderbilt (the father of Grand Central Terminal), and John Jacob Astor III. Next to Colonnade Row (most of which was torn down at the beginning of the 1900s) there is also the impressive Schermerhorn Building, but it and its gargoyles are a topic for another time.

The beaver plaques were made by the Grueby Facience Company, and the station itself was designed by the architectural firm Heins & LaFarge, who drew inspiration from the design of underground stations in Budapest (that city’s underground is the second oldest in the world, after London). The kiosk that serves as the entrance to the uptown Astor Place platform is a 1986 replica of an original IRT Budapest-style kiosk. From what I can tell of the beavers, there are a few slight differences between some of the plaques, which I would guess has something to do with their age but have no actual facts to back that up. Anyway, they are easy to spot, as they line the walls at regular intervals on both the uptown and downtown platforms. The uptown platform also has the remnants of the station’s old restroom — the men’s room is now an MTA storage closet, and the women’s room houses a magazine and candy stand. The downtown platform’s old restroom has been demolished entirely, making a larger space most commonly occupied by drunk, passed out or vomiting NYU students.

Subway kiosks in Budapest
Subway kiosks in Budapest
Original Astor Place kiosk design plans
Original Astor Place kiosk design plans

Clinton & K-Mart

The downtown platform also has the station’s other most notable historical curiosity. As you are descending the stairs, if you look to your left near the subway maps and service notices, you’ll see a tiled sign that says Clinton Hall above what looks to be — and in fact is — a bricked up doorway. When the Astor Place station was finished in 1904, it was partially beneath the location of the old Astor Opera House, known now as Clinton Hall and home to the Mercantile Library Of New York. The original Opera House was torn down in 1890 and Clinton Hall erected in its place. The Clinton Hall sign in the subway station marks the spot where there used to be an entrance/exit that led directly into the building. The Library moved out in 1932, and as best anyone can guess, the Clinton Hall stairway was sealed off at some point in the 1940s. These days, Clinton Hall is home to luxury condos and a Starbucks. I have no idea what became of the other end of the entrance, but I assume it must be in that building somewhere.

Although I noticed the Astor Place beavers right away, it wasn’t until this year — and then after someone pointed it out to me — that I noticed the old Clinton Hall lintel and tiled-up doorway. There is still another subterranean entrance/exit from the downtown station into a building, though. In 1868, that building was a store called A. T. Stewart. It later became Wanamaker’s (they helped demolish some of old Colonnade Row), and that’s what was there when the subway station opened. Wanamaker’s is long gone, but the space is still a department store — K-Mart — and you can still enter and leave the downtown train platform through the building. The thick, square columns on the platform are part of what holds up the building (many buildings over subway stations sit on such columns, rather than on the ground itself, which is why The Waldorf-Astoria was able to operate its own subway stop for a while, which eventually became known as President Roosevelt’s secret train station).

Last Stop

Astor Place has undergone a number of renovations over the years (there used to be a tunnel that connected the uptown and downtown platforms; not anymore, much to the confusion of out-of-towners), but much of the historic station also still remains, including the beavers, Clinton Hall, and even the wrought-iron along the downtown entrance stairwell — the bars topped with round knobs are still the original iron bars from the station’s early days as part of the IRT (back when New York had privately run and competing train services). You might also notice some odd-looking geometrical porcelain enamel art pieces. These were created and installed by artist Milton Glaser, best known as the designer of the “I Love NY” logo. The station itself was placed on the List of Registered Historic Places in New York. The opening of the Astor Place subway station also opened the East Village, transforming it from an enclave for the rich and powerful into the glorious mish-mash of a neighborhood it is today and various ethnicities and economic levels moved in and out now that there was a subway station. So next time you find yourself at Astor Place, have a look around.

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