Wondering where the oldest standing farmhouse is? Or what was on the patch of land now occupied by the main branch of the New York Public Library? Or even what building used to be right where that newly built condominium exists now? Urban Archive, the just-launched website version of a popular app created in 2017, has some fascinating answers. Working with about 60 New York institutions, Urban Archive, a nonprofit startup, has to date mapped 91,351 images across 34,977 locations throughout the city’s five boroughs. Just visit the website, urbanarchive.org, and you instantly have at your fingertips a miniature New York historical museum.
Indeed, the New-York Historical Society is one of Urban Archive’s many partners, as is the Museum of the City of New York, the Brooklyn Public Library, the New York Transit Museum, the Museum of Chinese in America, the Seamen’s Church Institute, the Skyscraper Museum, and the Prospect Park Alliance. The list includes a host of others, from obvious to obscure, who have shared their extensive image libraries, along with relevant historical tidbits, with Urban Archive, which then painstakingly “geomaps” this ever-expanding treasure trove and adds additional trivia.
The listing for the oldest standing farmhouse turns up the quaint wood-frame Wyckoff House Museum, located in Milton Fidler Park in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Dating back to 1652, it’s also the city’s oldest surviving structure. Oyster shells found by archaeologists on its site indicate that Pieter Claesen Wykhof and his wife, Grietje, both born in 1625, may have built their one-room dwelling on Native American ground. The Dutch couple’s descendants lived in the later-expanded farmhouse until 1901.
Manhattan also boasts a several-hundred-year-old standing farmhouse, way up on 204th Street. The Dyckman Farmhouse, built in 1785 in the Dutch Colonial style, once stood on 250 acres of farmland. After being sold in the 1860s, and later rented out for decades, it was purchased by two sisters who were Dyckman descendants. They carefully restored it, complete with original Dyckman family furniture, and donated it to the city as the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum.
As for famous old buildings that eventually gave way to swank condominiums, the former Hamilton Fish Mansion at 17th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan was bought by John Pierpont Morgan in 1894 to become a lying-in hospital for expectant mothers. When the maternity hospital outgrew the original mansion, it was demolished, and the eight-story building there today opened its doors in 1902. In the 1930s, it became the Manhattan General Hospital, and later, in the ’60s, a drug treatment center. In the mid-’80s, two real estate developers bought the building for $8 million and turned it into condominiums. The Classical Revival style structure, designed by Robert H. Robertson, has a carved stone façade that features babies wrapped in buntings, revealing a residual trace of its earlier mission.
While these entries are relatively straightforward, one of the pleasures of exploring Urban Archive’s website is the interesting, completely unexpected esoterica one is likely to turn up. Who knew, for example, that the imposing, lion-ensconced main branch of the New York Public Library, built in 1911 and becoming the country’s largest marble edifice, was once the site of the Croton Distributing Reservoir? Its 50-foot-high and 25-foot-thick granite walls held up to 20,000,000 gallons and provided late-18th-century New Yorkers with running water.
Or that in 1884, two years before the Statue of Liberty was completed, one of the first landmarks immigrants approaching Brooklyn might have glimpsed was a short-lived tourist attraction: the Elephant Hotel. Also known as the “Elephantine Colossus,” the 31-room Coney Island lodging was built in the shape of an enormous 200-foot-tall pachyderm, with telescopes for eyes, whose immense belly held both a concert hall and an auditorium—one of many historical nuggets that Urban Archive labels as a “fun fact.”
Says Sheryl V. Levy, vice president of marketing at the Museum of the City of New York, Urban Archive’s partner with the largest image database, “We don’t have the bandwidth to map our entire collection like Urban Archive can. They bring our collection to life, and together we can reach a wide audience and create a curated historical experience.”
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest