I’ll turn today to one of the objects that, in more than one way, led to the creation of Forgotten New York — the presence of a rare lamppost on a stump of a street that was left over after everything else in the area was razed. It doesn’t take much to get me to write about lampposts, since I’ve been a lamppost aficionado since the cradle — and I cannot even explain why. I’m glad I am, because it’s among the nichiest of niche subjects; not many people write about them, and I’ll never get rich writing about them. What can I tell you — sometimes life has to be about the resolute resistance of boredom. In 1996 — a good 13 years ago now — I stumbled on the Streetlite Nuts website of one Jeff Saltzman. His site addressed things I’d noticed for years, such as the 1960s competition between Westinghouse and GE for mercury luminare domination in the NYC market (GE came out on top by sheer numbers, but barely) …
Jeff has since moved to North Carolina and ceded the king of NYC lamppost enthusiast’s throne to Bob Mulero of Tribeca, who has perhaps a thousand photos of vintage NYC posts from 1978 and later — some of which have appeared on FNY’s streetlamp pages. To the matter at hand…
We’ll take the Time Machine™ back to 1978, in a time and place I call Pre-Beca, the years following the completion of the now-destroyed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The blocks just north of the WTC, especially the ones between Greenwich and West Streets and Vesey and Hubert Streets, were once home to light industry, lofts, and what remained of New York’s Washington Market, the country’s largest wholesale food market, first organized downtown in 1812. The market was rife with corruption and was condemned by 1859, but it revived as a retail and wholesale market by 1885 and existed in the region until most comestibles began arriving in the city via Hunts Point in the Bronx in the late 1960s.
As recounted in Danny Lyon’s The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, after the Market moved out, the area became preternaturally quiet, with block after block of 19th Century loft buildings emptying out, including what was believed to be James Bogardus’ first cast iron building in NYC at Washington and Murray Streets. Then, the Washington Street Urban Renewal Project set to work demolishing most of the buildings in the area — and empty lots remained until 1980 or so. The streets that ran through the area still carried wrought-iron lampposts from decades past. It was surreal.
“I came to see the buildings as fossils of a time past. These buildings were used during the Civil War. The men were all dead, but the buildings were still here, left behind as the city grew around them….The passing of the buildings was for me a great event. It didn’t matter so much whether they were of architectural importance. What mattered to me was that they were about to be destroyed. Whole blocks would disappear. An entire neighborhood. Its few last loft-occupying tenants were being evicted, and no place like it would ever be built again. The streets involved were among the oldest in New York and when sections of some were closed by the barriers of the demolition men, it meant they would never be opened again.” Danny Lyon
Beginning in 1975 the large housing project, Independence Plaza, and Manhattan Community College were constructed on the northern portion of the condemned region. PS 234 (see FNY’s Tribeca page) was constructed fronting Greenwich between Warren and Chambers in 1988. All of them were constructed on the old roadbed of Washington Street, so that by 1990 very little remained of the street’s former route from Liberty Street north to Hubert. One piece, off Harrison Street, is home to several Federal style townhouses that were moved to their present location in the early 1970s (they could not be torn down because they had Landmarks Preservation Commission protection.
The other piece, the one that became such a touchstone for me in the early days of FNY and even before that, was a small chunk of Washington Street that proceeded south from Warren just west of Greenwich. I must have stumbled on it in the late 1980s. When I worked briefly on Greenwich Street in the summer of 1992 I would occasionally go to a Mexican joint, Lizard’s, on Warren and Greenwich, and I would see this odd sight: Bishop Crook lamp, complete with fire alarm light, illuminating this ghost corner. On one side of the little piece of Washington Street was a parking lot; on the other, an empty lot.
Shown above are two views of Warren and Washington acquired by Bob Mulero in 1978. PS 234 was still quite a ways in the future and its plot, too, is full of parked cars. A 1940s-era Bell luminaire, which still worked despite being knocked off its center a bit, is still there. A fire alarm is attached to the base of the pole, a common practice in the early 20th Century.
LEFT: By 1999 the Bell lume had been replaced by a high intensity bucket light.
2nd, 3rd, 4th from left: A closer look at the alarm in 1978, and a look at the post as I found it in 1999 or so, long after the alarm had been removed but part of the red paint job on the post still remains.
LEFT: Washington Street stub, 1999. PS 234 behind the school bus, and Independence Plaza in the rear. RIGHT: 1978 view of Washington Street at about Murray. The city has replaced one streetlamp with an octagonal pole, but a wrought iron Corvington still guards the SW corner. This section of Washington Street was turned into a parking lot in the 1980s.
By 2008, construction began on two buildings that would fill the south side of Warren Street: 270 Greenwich and 101 Warren. This left the post at Warren and Washington in jeopardy. It hung tough for a time (above, right) but finally disappeared –it was unclear if it would make it. Bob Mulero wrote a note to the Department of Transportation, which assured him the post was in storage and would reappear when the buildings were finished.
LEFT: 270 Greenwich Street, SW corner of Warren; center, right: 101 Warren Street, seen from both sides of West Street
Before seeing how the post was restored, let’s try and assess what we’ve got. In my 1936 master list of NYC lamppost types, there’s a model with a narrow base called the Type 6 BC (left), and, while there are a couple of true Type 6 BC’s left (or at least remnants or hybrids) at West 4th and Charles street (center) and the Sheriff Bishop on the old corner of Sheriff and Broome on the Lower East Side, our post at Washington and warren isn’t a 6BC — while it has a narrow base, the etching and design are quite a bit different. It doesn’t seem to be represented in the manual. Bob Mulero has classified these as Type K’s (see FNY’s Lampposts By the Letter page for others in the series). The base quite resembles an elongated Type E base.
By the summer of 2008 it was apparent that the DOT had made good on its word. The restored Warren-Washington post now appears mid-block on Warren between Greenwich and West. The photo right shows the exact spot where it had stood, on the corner of the two streets. Washington Street has now been obliterated and its place taken by 270 Greenwich Street.
The DOT went so far as to restore the post’s old fire alarm bracket, which used to hold first globular and then cylindrical fire alarm light diffusers in red glass, then orange plastic. The bracket has been fitted with a white globe about twice the size of the old diffusers. So far I haven’t been able to check if the bulb has been turned on.
The base, too, has been carefully restored, though chipped paint indicated that some joker had already backed into the post.
A new Bell has been attached in place of the bucket lume. As you can see, some of the chipped-off parts have remained as is, but a new paint job makes the post seem like new, even though it likely dates to the 1910s. The restored Crook is now the pride of this stretch of Warren Street and a final reminder of a neighborhood that has utterly disappeared.
Now — to get the Sheriff Bishop (linked above) similar treatment!
Bottom right: The Washington Street sign (left) has since been removed.