Pearl Street Revival supports new development along Pearl Street in lower Manhattan that is mindful of the areas historical context. The Greek revival building at 213 Pearl Street (1831-32) and the facade and interior walls of 211 Pearl St. are all that will remain from the heart of the city's first mercantile district.

 

            

A Brief History of Pearl Street, New York

Pearl Street formed the original border of New Amsterdam, where pearl shells washed in from the sea and were used to pave the road.

 

The three neo-Classical business buildings at 211-215 Pearl St. are the last remnant of the Pearl Street dry goods district of the early 19th century, and are a valuable relic of New York and the nations early commercial history.  

Erie Canal Era

With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, New York City would 'become like a funnel through which the wealth of the Western World would now have to pass.' 1 The surge of commerce created a remarkable surge in growth '...as the narrow lanes of the old city were transformed into the first district in the world devoted exclusively to commerce.' 2 Fifty years after the American Revolution, Greek Revival styled warehouses began to rise block after block along Pearl St., and by 1835, 70% of the nations trade passed through New York City. 3

'The Greek Mania'

 The 'New Counting-House' architecture in the Greek revival style was inspired by a number of converging factors; America's fifty-year Jubilee celebration, a renewed appreciation of democracy's origins in Greek antiquity, support for Greek independence from Ottoman rule in the 1820's, as well as the popular trend for ancient Greece in England.

only 213 Pearl Street will now surevive in tact. Its Greek revival elements, including the columns at the storefront, the brick cornice lines and the regularity and proportions of the window openings are all still there and immediately apparent. The buildings steeply sloping roofs, a vestige of earlier federal style buildings, clearly date these as early Greek revival structures. Although the old structures are now dwarfed in lower Manhattan, one observer reports that these new commercial buildings, 'were not surpassed for beauty, spaciousness and convenience by those of any other city.' 4

Pearl Street - 'The Famous Old District'

A guidebook of 1833 notes that 'Pearl Street...is the principal seat of the dry goods and hardware business' 5 . Tax records reveal its commercial vitality as the fifty highest valued warehouse properties (among thirty thousand buildings assessed in 1834) are located on Pearl Street between Hanover Sq. and John Street. 5 The one hundred highest priced 0properties in Manhattan are located on Wall Street (37 buildings), Broadway (18 buildings) and Pearl St. (45 buildings).

Fig. 2 Property values on Pearl Street, 1834 (Tax Assessment Records, New York Municipal Archives)

The American historian Paul E. Johnson provides the following Squib History of the Pearl Street mercantile district.

The Pearl Street merchants were not ship owners and importers (Those merchants were on Front Street). Pearl Street bough specialized goods (hardware, wine, finished cloth, and lots of other things) from the saltwater merchants and wholesaled them to storekeepers all over the country. They got their start after the War of 1812, when the British "dumped" cheap imported goods at New York. But they got their biggest boost when the Erie Canal connected them with towns and commercial farms in the huge region drained by the Great Lakes. The canal and the New York market commercialized agriculture in a large part of the northern United States. Wheat and other farm products came over the canal, into New York, and out to national and international markets. The boats going the other way were filled with consumer goods: not just necessities but carpets, wallpaper, upholstered furniture, mirrors, finished cloth for curtains, tablecloths, soap, and napkins, sets of dishes and flatware, and on and on. The farmers and villagers in that region created a unique rural middle-class culture - largely out of tastes and goods that they procured from Pearl Street. Storekeepers from that region made yearly trips to Pearl Street (it became known as an outpost of Ohio) to buy the stuff that was "civilizing" western New York and the Old Northwest - with the result that a huge portion of the profits from northern commercial agriculture stayed in New York City. Thus establishments like that at 211 Pearl Street conducted the trade that linked the commerce of the seaport with the commerce of the American interior. New York didn't just move goods on the ocean. The city sold a very large portion of what commercializing Americans bought. The combination of overseas commerce and burgeoning domestic trade established New York as the commercial capitol (not just the biggest seaport) of the United States after 1815, and Pearl Street was the center of that trade.  

211-215 Pearl Street is a also tribute to merchants and manufacturers like William Colgate "who's entrepreneurial daring would set New York on course for becoming the world-class city that it is today".

 

Early Greek Revival New York

Of the forty Greek Revival commercial buildings in Manhattan, now primarily located in the Stone Street and South Street Seaport Historic Districts, a remnant of just three other five- story buildings pre-date 'The Great Fire of 1835'. These include 36 Water St., 38 Water St. and 60 Pearl St. 7 Based on the relevant comparisons of retained detail, tax value ($33,000 v. $12,000) , location, and size 211-213 Pearl St. rate significantly higher.

Pearl Street, New York Through the Centruries

In colonial times, the American patriot tailor Hercules Mulligan lived at 218 Pearl Street. Mulligan specialized in uniforms for high ranking Brittish officers and was a member of the Sons of Liberty during the Brittish occupation. He was said to have saved the life of General Washington on two occassions. A very young Alexander Hamilton also boarded with the Mulligan Family while attending Kings College.

In the late 19 th century, the center of New York wholesale moved to more spacious commercial lofts on the west side. IN 1878, Thomas Edison would set up the world's first electricity generating facility one block north on Pearl Street, which he called 'the most dilapidated street in the world'. By 1920, The New York Times was calling the area 'The Swamp', while still acknowledging its former glory as 'The Famous Old District'.

More recently, New York School artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns occupied loft space at 278 Pearl Street (1951-55).

 

Notes:

1 New York , Documentary by Ric Burns, Transcription, 'The Town and The City' Part 2

2 Ibid

3 Gotham, Edwin G Burrows and Mike Wallace, Oxford University Press, 1999.

4 New-York As It Is , in 1833 and Citizens Advertising Directory , Call# NYSH NY Historical Society F128.15 1833.

5 Landmark Preservation Commission Designation Reports - Stone St., Francis Tavern, South Street Seaport and South Street Seaport Extension.

6 Landmark Preservation Commission Designation Reports - Stone St., Francis Tavern, South Street Seaport and South Street Seaport Extension.