In 1783, John Jacob Astor
set out for the United States with $25 and five flutes. Upon his death in 1848, he was the wealthiest person in the US, having amassed a fortune of at least $20,000,000, making him the third wealthiest person in American history (measuring wealth as a fraction of GDP)
Astor became a fur magnate (the Astor Place subway station
is today marked with plaques of beavers) and real estate tycoon. His holdings eventually included the Vauxhall Pleasure Garden
(long gone) and Colonnade Row
(a portion of which still remains).
Upon his death, Astor donated $400,000 to build a public library
(although one had to apply to gain entry and no loans were permitted). Librarian Joseph Green Cogswell was pleased to see the library's daily visitors (numbering about 200) reading "excellent books, except the young fry, who employ all the hours they are out of school in reading the trashy, as Scott, Cooper, Dickens, Punch and The Illustrated News.''
At the time of the library's opening, the area was undergoing civil unrest as a feud between English actor William Charles Macready and American actor Edwin Forrest
fueled growing anti-British sentiments. On May 7th, 1849, Macready took to the stage of the Astor Place Opera House
he had scarcely finished the first sentence, when some potatoes struck the stage at his feet; then rotten eggs, breaking and spattering their sickening contents over his royal robes; while howls that seemed to come from the lower regions arose on every side. It was Pandemonium broke loose, and those in the boxes, thoroughly alarmed, jumped to their feet and stood as if paralyzed, gazing on the strange spectacle below.
The next attempted performance on May 10th gave birth to the Astor Place Riot
. A crowd of at least 10,000 people gathered outside the opera house in protest. The militia was called in to quell the crowd; the crowd pelted the militia with paving stones. The militia opened fire into the crowd, killing at least 22. Macready had, of course, been playing the title character in The Scottish Play.
In 1859, at the other end of Astor Place, philanthropist and inventor
Peter Cooper founded the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
. Saying that education should be "as free as water and air"
tuition-free courses were offered:
He made his school free for the working classes. He took the revolutionary step of opening the school to women as well as men. There was no color bar at Cooper Union. Cooper demanded only a willingness to learn and a commitment to excellence, and in this he manifestly succeeded.
Today, Cooper Union is one of the most selective schools in the United States, with an 8.4% acceptance rate
; to this day Cooper Union has given every student a full tuition scholarship
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech
at Cooper Union's Great Hall (text
) which brought him great acclaim, and helped him secure the Republican nomination for the presidency. Since then, several Presidents (and presidential candidates) have spoken there, most recently current President Barack Obama
In 1897, the Astor Library trustees agreed to combine with the Lenox Library and the Tilden Trust to form the New York Public Library
at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue.
In 1920, the building which had once been the Astor Library was purchased by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
. In 1965, after 44 years spent aiding 250,000 immigrants
, the building was sold to a developer for demolition when the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which had recently been established, stepped in for its first major victory
In 1967, the city leased it to Joseph Papp
, founder of Shakespeare in the Park
, who turned it into the Public Theater.
That same year, the city installed in the center of Astor Place a Tony Rosenthal sculpture called Alamo
("The Astor Place Cube") as part of a six month citywide installation called "Sculpture and the Environment" but "pressure from local residents eventually convinced the city to keep it.
The Public Theater is now undergoing a major renovation
. Cooper Union has built a new building worth seeing
, and is considering charging tuition to students
. Astor Place is down to just one Starbucks of the three that used to be there
This much history and change can be a lot to handle. The CalTech Prank Club last week tried to do their bit to ease all of our hearts, by turning Alamo into Portal's Weighted Companion Cube
. If it could talk, it would tell you to go on without it.