Construction History: Convoluted

The Murray family, in the eighteenth century, owned an “estate” – which appears to have basically a farm – on a hill adjacent to the East River, several miles north of New York City as it was then. It was named Bellevue – or maybe Belle Vue – presumably for the views of the river from the site. The size and location of the estate, and contemporary views on the healthfulness of high elevations and breezes, meant that it was a logical place for the hospital of the city almshouse to first move temporarily during yellow fever outbreaks and later move permanently, after the city bought the estate in 1798. The 1811 street grid trimmed the borders of the estate as shown above. The big building near the river was the first permanent hospital, which lasted nearly a century; the smaller building to its west (inland) was a penitentiary. As Edwin Burroughs and Mike Wallace describe it in Gotham, “by the mid-[eighteen]twenties Bellevue comprised – in addition to the pesthouse opened during the yellow fever epidemic of 1794 – the city’s new almshouse, Bellevue Hospital, and a penitentiary, plus a school, a morgue, a bakehouse, a washhouse, a soap factory, a greenhouse, an icehouse, and a shop for carpenters and blacksmiths.” There was a certain terrifying efficiency in having all of these institutions adjacent to one another. The penitentiary was one of the places that executions were performed in New York in the first half of the 1800s, with the “Gibbs the Pirate” and Manuel Fernandez AKA Richard Jackson among the more famous men hanged there.

Eventually, all of the functions other than the hospital were moved elsewhere, largely to Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island. A new hospital campus on the old site was constructed in the 1910s, and now has some serious issues with its terra cotta facade ornament. The campus has been expanded multiple times with newer buildings, but one constant has been that the hospital has the city’s main public psychiatric facility. The name “Bellevue,” among New Yorkers, has long had an overtone of involuntary commitment.

So, in the space of roughly 120 years: farm, hospital, prison, execution yard, asylum. Then, a modernized hospital, and one of the busiest around. It’s not necessarily the most complicated history for a small piece of land in the city, but it’s up at the top of the list.

Finally, the 1830s map that I took that small piece from is fascinating. Gramercy Park, a private development by Samuel Ruggles is named as “New Park,” and the street added to the grid that would become Irving Place south of the park and Lexington Avenue north of it is listed as Ruggles Street. The elevated trains hadn’t been built yet, but the Harlem Railroad still continued south of 42nd Street since the first Grand Central Depot had not yet been constructed. The map itself is quite beautiful, and uses colors for the different wards and shading to distinguish between the grid as drawn and the built-up parts of the city:

The “Proposed Square” on the east side is Tompkins Square, and the city of Brooklyn, at the bottom of the page, had not yet had its growth spurt.

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