When Astor Place was a Riot

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(Continued from: Astor Place in the East Village)

The Astor Place Opera House opened in 1847, a year before John Astor's death. By the time he passed away, the immigrant who arrived with the proverbial lack of a penny had made a fortune in New York real estate. He enjoyed the distinction of being the richest man in America, leaving his family at least 20 million dollars, which translates to about a gazillion dollars today.

 

Located at the juncture of Broadway and Bowery, the opera house was intended as a destination for the wealthy parvenue. A previous attempt to bring Italian opera to the city at Palmo's Opera House down on Chambers Street had failed. Some believed this was because of the democratic nature of the theater. At Palmo's, all tickets were a dollar, there was no dress code, and everyone in the audience sat on wooden benches.

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Astor Place Opera House, 1850. (Though by that year it had been renamed the Astor Place Theatre)

At the Astor Place Opera House, patrons could enjoy individual seats upholstered in velvet. The gilded interior featured a cut-glass chandelier lit by a hundred gas jets.

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Inside the Astor Place Opera House at the Fireman's Ball.

In the January, 1848 issue of HOLDEN’S DOLLAR MAGAZINE, the editor made it clear that this was a place to see and be seen.

"The seats and boxes are so arranged that the audience are as much exposed to observation as though they were sitting in the centre of a drawing room; this renders a nice attention to dress particularly necessary, so the ladies go in ball-room costume, and the gentlemen have to appear in white vests and white kid gloves."

I'm not someone to encourage pomposity, but maybe the world would be a better place today if men wore white kid gloves for a night on the town.

Astor Place is the pyramidal strip of land where Broadway and the Bowery converge. In the mid 1800s, it was also transforming into an area where the rich and poor converged. The wealthy who'd followed John Astor's lead uptown less than a decade earlier were already noticing tenements, boarding houses and saloons springing up near their mansions.

Astor's married daughter, Dorothea Langdon, lived right across the street from the opera house. As HOLDEN'S DOLLAR MAGAZINE observed, “Her brass latticed aviary and beautiful conservatory overlook the loges or dressing room of the filles de l’opera."

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Looking south down Bowery from Cooper Square

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A Broadway Brummell and a Bowery Brummell, 1851

Rich members of New York society still venerated British culture and its aristocratic ways. The underclasses were fed up with all that and wanted America to shed the old class systems. Anti-British feelings were running particularly high among the Irish because it was the height of the potato famine.

The area was ripe for conflict, and the opera house ended up being the setting for a real dramatic tragedy. The rivalry between two actors – one American, one British – ostensibly set it off. Both actors were performing Macbeth in the city at the same time. A wave of protest rose up against the British actor who was performing at the Astor Opera House. Of course, deeper tensions involving issues of class and wealth were driving the anger.

The following warning was posted throughout the city:

Workingmen, shall American or English rule in this city? The crew of the British steamer have threatened all Americans who shall dare to express their opinion this night at the ENGLISH AUTOCRATIC Opera House! We advocate no violence, but a free expression of opinion to all public men. WASHINGTON Forever! Stand by your Lawful Rights!

AMERICAN COMMITTEE

That evening an angry mob gathered on Astor Place. Though accounts differ, one report estimated that there were about 500 actual rioters -- with over half being young men and boys -- and 25,000 spectators. Some reports say people broke windows and tried to set the building on fire. Others don't mention those details. But they all agree on what came next. The militia was called in. Troops of cavalry on horseback rode up Broadway and turned onto Astor Place. Next came a battalion of the National Guard. Rioters began to pelt the militia with paving stones that had been left from a sewer excavation. The militia began shooting bullets into the crowd.

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A depiction of the riots published in 1887

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Great Riot of the Astor Place Opera House

Mrs. Langdon and her family would've had a first-rate view of the violence right outside their mansion. One report said that 70 policemen had been stationed inside her house to stand guard, and one witness reported that a man who answered the door refused to allow an injured rioter inside. When people started to push their way in, policemen helped keep the crowd at bay.

All this occured as the play continued on inside the opera house.

By the time it was over, soldiers had killed about twenty people (reports differ) and injured hundreds more.

The newspapers called the theater “Massacre Opera House” and “Upper Row House of DisAster Place.” (This might’ve come as a surprise to my character Amanda, who also describes the intersection as Disaster Place, thinking her nickname is somewhat original. I myself just discovered that reference while researching this piece.)

 

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Bowery at night 1871

The reputation of the opera house never recovered, and it closed in 1850. The wealthy residents of Astor Place gradually migrated farther north to Murray Hill and Madison Square. Warehouses and sweatshops came to dominate the area.

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Clinton Hall 1891

The interior of the opera house was demolished in 1853. The Mercantile Library moved in, and the building was renamed Clinton Hall. In 1891 the building was torn down and replaced with the eleven story building that stands there today. For awhile it was headquarters for a union, district 65 of the Distributive Workers of America.

In 1995 the building was bought for $41.5 million and redeveloped into condominiums. The original façade was maintained and the interior was renovated.

The people who participated in the Astor Place Riots probably wouldn’t be amused by the irony of the online advertisement for those condos that uses the “unique historical significance” of the site as a selling point to attract buyers for the “luxury 24-hour doorman building.”

Sometimes it seems like the future is just one big joke on the past. You have to wonder how John Jacob Astor managed to be a step ahead of everyone else when it came to anticipating the expansion of New York City's size and population.

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Astor Place in 1892

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Astor Place present day

It is said that Astor was asked on his deathbed if he had any regrets, and that he answered something like this: “Could I begin life again, knowing what I now know, and had money to invest, I would buy every foot of land on the island of Manhattan.”

I don't know if this, or some version of it (there are a few) is true. In any case, I suspect it persists as a reminder that us human beings are just never satisfied. So don't bother being jealous of the rich guy who made millions of dollars buying up land in the wilderness of Manhattan Island. As a matter of fact, I hear you can still get a good deal on some swampland in Florida....

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