EVER NOTICE HOW PRECIOUS FEW buildings in lower Manhattan date from the 18th century? There’s Fraunces Tavern and Trinity Church, but not much else. I always assumed it was because of the relentless march of commerce.  Today, at the New York Historical Society‘s “Drawn by New York: Six Centuries of Watercolors and Drawings” exhibition, I learned it was because of the Great Fire of 1835.

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I knew London had a Great Fire, in 1666; I never knew New York had one. It wiped out nearly all the wooden Colonial-era buildings in the area it devastated (20 square blocks bounded by Wall and Broad Streets, Coenties Slip, and the East River). There’s a vivid gouache painting of lower New York ablaze (The Great Fire of 1835: View of New York City Taken from Brooklyn Heights on the Same Evening of the Fire, above) by Nicolino Calyo, who was born in in Naples, Italy (which may explain why his fire looks a lot like a volcanic eruption).  A companion piece by the same artist, View of the Ruins After the Great Fire of New York, 16 and 17 December 1835, as Seen from Exchange Place, shows the sad, smoldering remains of downtown.

Another revelation, for me worth the price of admission, was a twenty-foot-long, painstakingly drafted and precisely detailed ink-and-graphite panorama of New York City, drawn between 1842 and 1845 by Edward Burckhardt from a single point in lower Manhattan. The streets were then an almost solid mass of four-story row houses, many of them commercial establishments, stretching toward the clearly identifiable Brooklyn and New Jersey shorelines.

The show closes next Wednesday, January 7, so get there fast.  I came away with a strong sense of what the city was like 170 or so years ago, when the houses I love so much, in the neighborhoods I know so well, were new.

View up Wall Street with City Hall [Federal Hall] and Trinity Church, New York City, ca. 1798 by Archibald Robertson

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