Updated: Feb 29, 2020
Nearly half a million people were crammed into lower Manhattan during the 1850s living in a three, sometimes four, floor world. The high points of the city were the spires of Trinity and St. John’s Churches. There were exceptions.
On the corner of Broadway and Ann Street stood a massive structure everyone wanted to visit. Flags of the world flapped in the breeze from the rooftop of the five-story structure as hawkers lured 400,000 visitors a year to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. People marveled at the wild exhibits and displays from the far reaches of the globe. Little person General Tom Thumb and conjoined twins Chang and Eng performed daily. Children chased Barnum’s bulletin wagon as it warbled through the streets slapping exhibit posters on buildings.
Minutes away on Barclay Street, the majestic Astor House Hotel catered to the rich and famous. This five-story Greek Revival building had 309 rooms with gaslights and 17 bathrooms. Among its guests were former president Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, and British author Charles Dickens. Lincoln stopped by on the way to his inauguration. Built by John Jacob Astor, the hotel had its own gas plant and fed water to its rooms using a steam engine. Unaccompanied women weren’t allowed to dine alone and were scuttled into a separate ladies dining room. By its final demise in 1926, the once five-story behemoth was dwarfed by the skyscrapers surrounding it.
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