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Streetscape and Townscape of Metropolitan New York City, 1860-1942

Several hundred prints and photographs offering the complete content of a wide range of selected image collections and illustrated monographs: Hudson River mansions, including Washington Irving's home and vicinity in the 1860s; street views by Alice Austen from 1896; a panorama of Fifth Avenue from 1911, and more.

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Alice Austen, 1866-1952. Double-decker bus. Digital ID: 79759 Alice Austen, 1866-1952. Double-decker bus. Digital ID: 79759

Collection History

Several hundred prints and photographs offering the complete content of a wide range of selected image collections and illustrated monographs: Hudson River mansions, including Washington Irving's home and vicinity in the 1860s; street views by Alice Austen from 1896; a panorama of Fifth Avenue from 1911, and more.

Background

It was natural for the founding libraries and benefactors of NYPL to collect local and regional pictorial publications, a fact that explains the strength of 19th- and early 20th-century books picturing New York City and vicinity in the Library's holdings. In addition, Library staff actively sought to supplement books with original archival materials, such as the two holdings presented here. Over time, this digital assemblage will grow, as curators identify additional New York-related illustrated rare books of interest and other small, specialized holdings of prints and photographs.

Villas on the Hudson (1860) by A.A. Turner & Classic Grounds of American Authors: Irving (1864) by George Gardner Rockwood

Augustus Austin Turner (ca.1831-1866) produced the first American book illustrated with photolithographs, its pioneering (or primitive) nature apparent in the slightly uneven printing and page alignment. Rockwood (1832-1911) was a commercial photographer who perhaps intended to launch as series with his book, illustrated with mounted albumen prints, called "Classic Grounds of American Authors," but published only the Irving volume.

Alice Austen (1866-1952)

Elizabeth Alice Austen was the privileged daughter of a prominent Staten Island family. She took up photography at age ten. The Library's holding consists of Austen's 1896 camera record of Manhattan street scenes and street types, which is very unusual in American photography of the period, as it is in Austen's work, for she never again systematically photographed the world outside her own social sphere. Although Austen never worked professionally as a photographer, she always strove for professional standards. As a result, her pictures of her home life and her social contemporaries and their daily activities provide a rich and intimate vision of a now-vanished way of life (not held by NYPL).

The stock market crash of 1929 left Austen destitute. By 1945, failing health forced her to abandon her life-long home, the 17th-century house "Clear Comfort" on Staten Island facing New York harbor. Before an antique dealer purchased the last of her furnishings, she donated her photographic negatives to the Staten Island Historical Society. There they were rediscovered in 1950, and then published prominently in national magazines. At an exhibition of her rescued work the following year, Austen reportedly observed, "I am happy that what was once so much pleasure for me turns out now to be a pleasure for other people." These NYC prints form part of the Romana Javitz Collection, a special group of photographs assembled by, and now named for, the pioneering head of the Branch Libraries' Picture Collection, transferred to the Photography Collection of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs in 1991.

Today, the ferry "Alice Austen" connects Lower Manhattan to Staten Island, and "Clear Comfort" is both a New York City Landmark and a National Historic Landmark, operated by The Friends of Alice Austen House, Inc., where rotating exhibitions continue to present examples of Austen's pioneering visual social documentation.

Fifth Avenue (1911)

Fifth Avenue, the street that became the social and cultural spine of New York's elite, first appeared on the Commissioners' Map of 1811. At that time, it was merely a country road to Yorkville (then just a tiny self-contained village), but in the proposed grid plan it would be a grand boulevard. As the City grew and prospered Fifth Avenue became synonymous with fashionable life, the site of mansions, cultural and social institutions, and restaurants and shops catering to the elite.

In 1907, alarmed at the approach of factories, the leading merchants and residents formed the Fifth Avenue Association. The "Save New York Committee" became a bulwark against the wrong kind of development. Perhaps inspired by this contemporary movement, photographer Burton Welles used a wide-angled view camera in 1911 to document this most important street from Washington Square, north to East 93rd Street.

Percy Loomis Sperr (1931-42)

Physical change in the city's appearance fascinated photographer Sperr who had a long professional relationship with NYPL. Thousands of his prints also appear in "Photographic Views of New York City, 1870s-1970s," the premiere photographic collection in the Milstein Division. This smaller collection of views depicts the boroughs of Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, capturing New York City during the Great Depression until just after American entry into World War II.

Sperr specialized in streetscapes, focusing usually on buildings and infrastructure, though passersby make occasional appearances in his compositions. This collection features views of the dismantling of the Second Avenue and Fulton Street Elevated train tracks, and the construction of the Belt Parkway.

Related Resources

Butler, Joseph T. Washington Irving's Sunnyside (c1974).

Gray, Christopher, ed. Fifth Avenue, 1911, from start to finish in historic block-by-block photographs (c1994).

Hanson, David A. "A.A. Turner, American photolithographer" History of photography 10 (July/Sept 1986): 193-211

Lynch, Virginia. Washington Irving footprints (1922).

Novotny, Ann. Alice's World: The Life and Photography of an American Original, Alice Austen (1976)

Owens, William A. Pocantico Hills, 1609-1959 (c1960).

Sperr, Percy Loomis. [Collection of photographs of Staten Island, 1924].

_____ Island scenes: pictures of Staten Island, its beauty spots, historic houses, parks, bridges, public buildings and other points of interest selected from a portfolio of over 5000 views (1937).

_____ Photograph album of New York City views and subjects [1925?].

_____ Photographic views of Manhattan (192-?).

_____ Photographic views of Staten Island [192-].

_____ [Photographs of the annual Feast of Saint Anthony of Padua, East 106th Street, New York City, 1924].

Williams, J.L. The land of Sleepy Hollow, and the home of Washington Irving; a series of photogravure representations (1887).

Library Division(s)

NYPL Digital Gallery provides free and open access to over 800,000 images digitized from primary sources and printed rarities in the vast collections of The New York Public Library, including drawings, illuminated manuscripts, historical maps, vintage posters, rare prints and photographs, illustrated books, printed ephemera, and more.