Lost and Found: Tribeca's Forgotten Park on Duane Street

Engine House No. 1 on "lower Duane Park." In the upper right hand corner is a sketch of the whole square. From the 1887 book, "Our Firemen. A History of the New York Fire Departments," by A.E. Costello


Nov. 08, 2018

Andrew Luisi, a long-time resident of Tribeca, came across a fascinating artifact of local history on eBay a few months ago—an 1831 bill for the construction of a picket fence around Duane Park.

Or so it seemed.

What appeared to be a tangible link to the early days of New York City’s second oldest public park was actually something even more intriguing—a clue that set us on a search for another Duane Park, a forgotten public square that once occupied a block-long site less than two blocks west of today's Duane Park.

After buying the the 187-year-old bill for $20, Luisi promptly gave it to Karie Parker Davidson, a board member of Friends of Duane Park. Excited by the find, Parker Davidson emailed a photo of it to the Trib.

Indeed, it was easy to assume that the $274.52 bill was for a fence built around Duane Park at Hudson and Duane Streets. Who had ever heard of another Duane Park?

But the bill clearly stated that the fence was for "lower Duane Park on Washington, Caroline, Reed and Duane Streets."  The man who signed it, George B. Smith, was the city's associate street commissioner and would not have been a man careless about street names. Prior to his appointment in 1827, he had been a map maker and surveyor for the city.

After combing through several weighty volumes of old maps at the Municipal Archives on Chambers Street, I came across one from 1838 titled "Public Squares, Parks and Places." Sure enough, there it was, a block-long rectangular site, surveyed and marked as 10,372 square feet. Today, Borough of Manhattan Community College is located there.

The square's history, I knew, would have to have overlapped with that of Trinity Church, once the principal landowner in Downtown Manhattan. After the Revolutionary War, the church, heavy in debt, had begun selling off or granting parcels of land to the city. It was the church that had granted land in 1797 for the creation of Duane Park. Had such a grant been made for a "lower Duane Park"? The Archives of Trinity Church seemed like the best place to find out.

The Trinity Wall Street archives at 120 Broadway is run by Joseph Lapinski, who for my visit had carefully laid out on a large table a stack of volumes of church records that detailed the centuries-old history of every piece of land ever owned by the church. Meticulously recorded in flowery penmanship were dates of sales, ownerships, transfers, rent due. Together, we pored over the books and could narrow down the search to the years between 1794 and 1805. To our disappointment (and Lapinski's amazement), those pages had been torn out of the book!

Fortunately, Marsha Kirk, who works in the Municipal Archives, informed me that all the history I needed could be found in the Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York (forerunner of the City Council), which are available online. Here the city's history from 1784 was recorded in minute detail, a compendium of every decision by civic leaders from laying out new streets to extending sewers to regulating the building of new wells. And there I found the birth record of our square.

On July 14, 1794, Trinity Church granted the city a parcel of land "which lies adjoining to the River west of Washington Street and between Reade & Duane Streets [and] a spacious Square will be formed between Washington Street and the new Street [West Street] intended in the front on Hudson River…"

This was a great find, but had the "spacious Square" ever become a real park?

Certainly not right away. Ceding to a request by local residents for a market, the Common Council built four food stalls at the eastern end, and a building for Engine House No.1 was erected on the Duane Street side. (The market did not flourish and eventually city officials ordered a cellar to be built underneath and leased it for $100 a year to a hay salesman who stored bundles there.)

But by the close of the 1820s, the residential neighborhoods of the city were spreading westward. The city had ordered the western end of Duane Street to be paved and was selling housing lots along the street. Soon local residents and business owners would petition for the removal of the manure boats at the foot of Duane and replace them with “a better class of boats,” arguing that they reduced property values. (The boats were relocated a few block uptown to Hubert Street.)

Perhaps the residents, admiring other neighborhood green spaces, decided that their end of Duane Street could use some sprucing up. We don't know for sure if trees or gardens had already been planted in the square. But in August 1830, Moses Coddington, a merchant at 253 Duane St., and others, presumably his neighbors, requested that the city remove the  "old and decrepit" engine house and that the square be enclosed with a picket or "pale” fence.

That brings us back to our newly found $274.52 bill from Elisha Hallar, whose carpentry shop was at 219 Spring St., for the construction of the fence for this Duane park.

If residents and business owners around the square hoped to bring a true refuge of green to their neighborhood, their expectations were soon dashed. The square fell victim to the city’s burgeoning maritime commerce and its proximity to the Erie Railroad’s busy pier at the end of Duane. The railroad leased the square from the city for a depot that it built there in 1851, connecting to tracks laid along Reade Street.

Knowing that a square had existed only three blocks west of Hudson Street raises a gnawing question about a painting in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Baked Pears in Duane Park, by a tinsmith and amateur painter named William P. Chappell. The Trib has published it several times to illustrate the early years of Duane Park—the painting purports to be an 1810 view of the park.

Painted from memory in 1870, Chappell put a picket fence around his park. But records show that Duane Park had an iron railing and, as we know, the park is a triangle, not a rectangle, as appears in the painting. Could Chappell have conflated the two parks and the year he remembered seeing them? Could that picket fence have been the one that Elisha Hallar built for the long gone "lower Duane Park"?

We will never know.