Sunday, March 2, 2008
Side Streets: New York City Firehouse
I had turned off Broadway, a main thoroughfare of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, onto 83rd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues yesterday when a building on the south side of the street stopped me in my tracks.
Amid West 83rd Street’s late 19th-century tenements and down-at-the-heels walk-ups was a five-story, brick firehouse with a broad, red door trimmed with gold. It was decked out with carved, stone trim, stone lintels above the windows and a lovely iron pulley at the top to hoist hay for the horses that pulled the fire trucks in 1888 when it was built.
A plaque named the fire commissioners at that time, and the architect, N. Le Brun & Sons. When I got home, I looked them up. Napoleon Eugene Henry Charles Le Brun was born in Philadelphia, which is where I come from, and was the architect of several beloved Philadelphia landmarks, including the Academy of Music and the vast Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul on Logan Circle.
Le Brun moved to New York City during the Civil War, and by 1888, was in business with his sons, Pierre and Michel. They designed many New York City firehouses as well as the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, one of the city’s first skyscrapers.
The other names on the firehouse plaque were equally interesting. All were Tammany Hall politicians — Tammany Hall being the organization that ran New York City politics for almost a hundred years, dispensing graft and patronage in exchange for votes.
Richard Croker, for instance, whose name appears on the firehouse, was two years old when he came to the United States from Ireland. Eventually he became the leader of Tammany Hall, where he became enormously wealthy off the bribe money he took from the owners of brothels, bars and gambling dens. He spent the last years of his life in Ireland, where he died in his castle.
When you travel, I recommend leaving yourself enough time to turn down the side streets. Often they are as interesting as the attractions touted by the guidebooks!