Barrow Street

Excerpt from the New-York Historical Society visitor’s register, 1838

SUNDRY and sustained attachments bound William A. Whitehead early to the nation’s commercial capital. They were established just after the Revolutionary War and well before his birth, upon his father’s arrival as a young immigrant from the Caribbean. A furniture-maker’s apprentice turned promising craftsman, then cashier in Wall Street’s most enduring financial institution, the elder Whitehead even wooed and won the daughter of an old New York family before he’d turned eighteen.1 His son at that age took the steamboat to the city on a weekly basis, transporting dispatches and bills of exchange for the Commercial Bank of New Jersey.  Known to Perth Amboy’s citizens as a dependable courier, familiar with the winding streets of old New York, he also regularly carried there “a dozen or more letters to be delivered in as many different places.”2

Once he had made a home on Key West as that island’s collector of customs, Whitehead spent only alternate summers in the north, but New York with its seaport was his obligatory point of transit. Historical yearnings in those years drew him into a lively correspondence with Perth Amboy native William Dunlap, a doyen of New York’s art and theater scene, and in later life a historian as well.3 But after seven years on the sun-drenched fringes of the republic, Whitehead might have recoiled had New York then been commended to him as a habitable place. Its teeming streets, jostling carts and carriages, smoke and soot would seem better kept at arm’s length.

Still, having bade his final farewell to Key West in July 1838, he was afflicted “for several months … by doubt and uncertainty.” His wife’s father, still living in Perth Amboy, would surely have preferred he settle nearby, but with two small children and a third on the way Whitehead saw no prospect there of a sufficient income. He looked first to the countryside, striking out in late summer to explore farming prospects in New York State or even Ohio, but returned dissatisfied. “My travels were in vain,” he later recalled. “I could not find any place to my liking.” By mid-October, “before cold weather set in,” he pitched his tent where he saw the best hopes of a livelihood, turning New Yorker, if a reluctant one.4

It’s small wonder that he decided to locate in one of Gotham’s more bucolic enclaves. The distinctive layout of the ninth ward, encompassing the long-settled village called Greenwich, had withstood the gridiron pattern imposed on most of Manhattan. Few of its old streets surrendered their names for numbers. While fully accessible to the city below, Greenwich Village retained a measure of identity and tranquility, and the Hoboken ferry at the foot of Christopher Street assured easy passage to even more serene settings across the Hudson.

The two-story frame building with single dormer to the left in this ca. 1900 photograph of Barrow Street fits Whitehead’s description of the house at 84 Barrow.

That fall the Whiteheads took up residence in a rented, unfurnished dwelling, “a small two story and attic house,” at 84 Barrow Street.5 The byway’s former name of Reason Street celebrated patriot Thomas Paine, author of The Age of Reason, who eked out his final years in obscurity close by. On a visit to Cuba, Whitehead had once been astonished to discover a copy of that classic of anticlerical thought, incongruously displayed in the library of a Havana convent.6

It was the incongruity of the New York street name, ironically, that could not stand. The Church of England and its American successor felt Paine’s attacks most acutely. Trinity Church downtown, owner of much of the land in and around Greenwich Village, saw that Reason Street was renamed more congenially for Thomas Barrow, one of its vestrymen and an artist, who famously memorialized the original Trinity’s destruction by fire in 1776, at the onset of the British occupation.

Steps from the Whiteheads’ new home rose the austere square tower of St. Luke’s chapel, once a rural outpost of Trinity. Whitehead and his family joined this parish within a month or two of their arrival. Even as its vestry was rocked by Oxford-inspired reforms and an ensuing wave of resignations, Whitehead found that at St. Luke’s his “ecclesiastical relations were very pleasant.”7 He himself stepped into one of those vacancies in 1840, continuing a prior record of service to the church on Key West. He remained a vestryman of St. Luke’s until relocating to Newark in 1843.

A mid-19th-century view of St. Luke’s Church.

The pastoral calm Whitehead had sought in Greenwich Village, and in some measure found, belied the maelstrom that was New York City as a whole, its relentless growth perpetuating old inequalities even as it fostered new and harsher ones. The houses in and around Barrow Street sheltered significant numbers of artisans whose homes served also as their workshops. But elegant new construction on Washington Square, just to the east, testified to an “ideal of quiet and of genteel retirement” that very few could afford.8 Opened only in 1837, the year before Whitehead arrived, Fifth Avenue sprang from the top of the Square and was soon dominated by stately mansions, while parallel thoroughfares swept farther and faster northward, flattening every hill, home and hamlet in their path.

Many knew the more humble neighborhood south of Washington Square as Little Africa. Its Black inhabitants, entirely free since 1827 by the terms of New York’s abolition law, were fated to scatter before a tide of new immigration from Europe. But the irreproachable domestic servant Whitehead advertised for may well have come from that quarter:

WANTED.–A respectable middle aged colored woman to do the cooking and washing of a small family. She must be well recommended for sobriety and industry. Apply at 84 Barrow street.9

Whitehead settled in New York City at an unsettling time, with no firm offer of work and beneath a cloud of considerable uncertainty. Scores of New York financial institutions had failed in the Panic of 1837, obliterating thousands of fortunes in the process but, as would always be the way, sowing the seeds of new wealth. Whether the economy was rebounding or in a prolonged depression depended on whom you asked. In late 1838 and through much of the following year, Whitehead applied for jobs at several banks, to no avail. Finally, a cousin of his wife’s took him on as co-partner in a brokerage at 46 Wall Street. He invested in the firm all the capital he had. After a few years of prosperity, Parker & Whitehead was one of many businesses to go under in the contractions of the 1840s.10

Stuyvesant Institute at 659 Broadway, home of the New-York Historical Society in 1838.

As a new resident of the metropolis that first fall of 1838, Whitehead hadn’t the means to foresee or forestall these and other losses. But the future was not all that concerned him. On a Wednesday in early November, he climbed the steps of the Stuyvesant Institute on Broadway at the head of Bond Street. There, one year into a ten-year, rent-free lease, the New-York Historical Society had deposited its collections in rooms on an upper floor. After many dormant years, the Society had put its financial house in order and reopened its library–no more, as former mayor Philip Hone lamented it had been, “a sealed book to the members.”11

Whitehead, a non-member, was admitted to the library with a member’s recommendation, introduced by none other than William Dunlap. Now old and infirm, Dunlap had become of late a popularizer as well as a scholar of local history–much as Whitehead was to do. Dunlap’s History of New York for Schools was issued the previous year; the first volume of a more erudite chronicle of the colony and state was then in the press, and a second would appear posthumously, after he was laid to rest in the ground of Perth Amboy’s St. Peter’s Church. Signing in with Dunlap’s name beside his own, Whitehead added to the visitors’ register his new home address, “Barrow St. New York.” What vestiges of the past engaged him on that and subsequent visits, time soon would tell.

Copyright © 2020-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830.” A transcription of this memoir is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; pages 1-3 of the transcription contains the references. See my earlier post “What’s in a name” for the New York career of Whitehead’s father.

[2] “Childhood and youth” 16.

[3] See my posts “Progress and place” and “The Dunlap benefit” for some account of the friendship and collaboration between Dunlap and Whitehead.

[4] “Childhood and youth” 44. A copy of a letter from his brother John, dated 19 October 1838, shows that the family were settled in New York by that date: John Whitehead to M. St. Clair Clarke, in John Whitehead and William A. Whitehead Papers, 1835-1844, Manuscript Group 734, New Jersey Historical Society.

[5] “Childhood and youth” 45.

[6] “Letters from Havana V,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 14 August 1838 2:1-2, reprinted in The sentinel of freedom (Newark, N.J.) 21 August 1838 1:3-4.

[7] “Childhood and youth” 45.

[8] The quotation is from Henry James, Washington Square (1880), ch. 3.

[9] Morning herald (New York, N.Y.) 12 September 1839 3:3.

[10] “Childhood and youth” 46-48. New-York (N.Y.) commercial advertiser 1 April 1840 3:1.

[11] Bayard Tuckerman, ed. The diary of Philip Hone 1828-1851 (2 vols. New York 1889) 1:271. Pamela Spence Richards, Scholars and gentlemen. The library of the New-York Historical Society 1804-1982 (Hamden, Conn. 1984) 16-17.

Images: 1) Register for visiters, 3 April 1838 – 17 March 1846. Library Department records. New-York Historical Society Records 1804-2018, RG 21, vol. 4. 2) [Barrow Street at Hudson Street.] Museum of the City of New York, MCNY X2010.11.99. 3) St. Luke’s Church, Hudson St. New York. Engraved by Hatch & Smillie. New York Public Library Digital Collections. 4) Stuyvesant Institute, University Medical College. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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