Astor Place. Two blocks. Lots of history.
December 20, 2011 10:25 AM   Subscribe

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, but
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.
posted by davidjmcgee (26 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
"more inside" is a bit of an understatement here. Well done!
posted by etc. at 10:33 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

and five flutes

hmmm...are you sure they weren't warp whistles?
posted by Hoopo at 10:35 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wow, this is interesting. Everytime I go to New York for work I stay in the Cooper Square hotel and never knew what that big building across the street with all the young people was for. Sad to hear they're thinking of charging tuition, since it seems like this model should be ideal that ivy league type places aspire to. Anyone a billionaire who want to keep the dream of free education alive?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:42 AM on December 20, 2011

Can anyone else see this post? Cause I think it was made Just For Me.
posted by The Whelk at 10:45 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

(to the point where I was in the audience for Obama's Cooper Union speech, sitting next to Milton Glass)
posted by The Whelk at 10:46 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

(er Glaser rather, sigh)
posted by The Whelk at 10:49 AM on December 20, 2011

I want more of this type of posting on MetaFilter.
posted by phaedon at 10:50 AM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

Great stuff. Some more background on the man here:
A beaver skin could be bought from the trappers in western New York for one dollar and sold in London for six dollars and a quarter. By investing this amount in English manufactures, the six dollars and a quarter received for the skin could be made to produce ten dollars paid for the English goods in New York.
Also, I like this story:
So plain was his style of living that, before he became generally known as a wealthy man, a bank clerk once superciliously informed him that his indorsement of a note would not be sufficient, as it was not likely he would be able to pay it in case the bank should be forced to call upon him.
"Indeed," said Mr. Astor, "how much do you suppose I am worth?"
The clerk named a moderate amount, at which the merchant smiled quietly.
"Would the indorsement of Mr. ——, or Mr. ——, be sufficient?" asked Mr. Astor, naming several well-known merchants who lived in great style.
"Entirely sufficient," was the reply. "Each one of them is known to be wealthy."
"How much do you think each is worth?"
The clerk named large sums in connection with each of the gentlemen.
"Well, my friend," said the merchant, "I am worth more than any of them. I will not tell you how much I am worth, but it is more than any sum you have named."
The clerk looked at him in surprise, and then said, bluntly, "Then you are a greater fool than I took you for, to work as hard as you do."
Mr. Astor was very fond of telling this story, which he regarded as one of the best jokes of the day.
posted by exogenous at 10:52 AM on December 20, 2011

What happened to the flutes?
posted by Floydd at 10:53 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also towards the cube: it can pivot on the point that's touching the ground. And it is a very common drunken stunt among NYU students to sneak down there at night with a team of friends and "spin the cube". (You need a couple of people to help start it going.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:55 AM on December 20, 2011

Let's not forget this wonderfully juvenile Onion article
posted by kersplunk at 10:59 AM on December 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

from post: “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...”

... and every beaver in the United States was dead.

Great post, though. Thanks!
posted by koeselitz at 11:00 AM on December 20, 2011

Also, the big freaking Starbucks on the western edge of Astor Place painted over a bit of the local mosaic street art like 13 years ago and I'm still pissed off.
posted by The Whelk at 11:03 AM on December 20, 2011

His name is my name, too.
posted by crunchland at 11:19 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

His name is my name, too.

John Jacob "Crunchland" Astor
posted by fairmettle at 11:47 AM on December 20, 2011

In case you're wondering why beaver fur was so valuable: it was used extensively to make hats.
posted by monospace at 12:11 PM on December 20, 2011

And in the process of treating the pelts, they had to be soaked in mercury, which will cause you to go insane if you ingest it in quantity. Leading to the phrase "mad as a hatter."
posted by crunchland at 12:22 PM on December 20, 2011

If my calculation is correct, $25 in 1780 was roughly $500 in current dollars.
posted by maxwelton at 1:42 PM on December 20, 2011

This can't be- we 99% know that no poor person ever got rich in the United States.
posted by TSOL at 2:38 PM on December 20, 2011

crunchland: His name is my name, too.
fairmettle: John Jacob "Crunchland" Astor
Pretty sure he was making a "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt" joke. Is that song just a regional thing? Everyone knew it where I grew up, in New England.
posted by hincandenza at 4:02 PM on December 20, 2011

Congrats on winning the December Awesome Post Contest.
posted by beagle at 5:50 PM on December 20, 2011

Astor lives through the perverse pettiness of his offspring in the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel (sic =). William Astor, motivated in part by a dispute with his aunt, Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, built the original Waldorf Hotel next door to her house.

Christ, what a bunch of Astors.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:18 AM on December 21, 2011

I was so impressed with myself the first time I was ever in the Astor Place subway station and I was able to explain to my friends why there were beavers everywhere.
posted by double bubble at 5:50 AM on December 21, 2011

Not included in the post (I couldn't find a good picture of it. SO I TOOK ONE.): the HIAS of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is still visible on the side of the Public Theater.

it is a very common drunken stunt among NYU students

It's pretty fun sober, too!
posted by davidjmcgee at 6:11 AM on December 21, 2011

This can't be- we 99% know that no poor person ever got rich in the United States.

And there it is. With one lame, transparently politically-motivated comment, the whole post retroactively gets transformed into a steaming pile of crap from a certain POV. Bravo... On second thought, let's just pretend that didn't happen.

Great post. Could have used more beaver puns though.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:09 AM on December 21, 2011

Pretty sure that goes without saying.
posted by davidjmcgee at 8:32 AM on December 21, 2011

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