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1660 Madison: The Heritage of a Block (1700-1974)

Been down so long, getting up didn't cross my mind I knew there was a better way of life that I was just trying to find You don't know what you'll do until you're put under pressure Across 110th Street is a hell of a tester - Bobby Womack, "Across 110th Street "

An engraving by Jonas Umbach (1624-1693) of Harlem. Circa 1650.

The current 1660 Madison Avenue sits directly atop farmland once owned by the Benson Family, also known as Mill Farm, which dates back to at least the 1700s.

The early history of this inconspicuous parcel of land is busier than you might expect. The patriarch of the Benson family, Dirck Bensigh (perhaps the original Danish or Swedish spelling?) arrived in the New World in the mid-1600s. He and his family lived in Albany, until the midnight Massacre in Schendectady (Feb 8, 1690), in which members of their extended family were lost. Dirck moved to New York, and his son Johannes to Harlem (at the time, distinct from New York), where he bought land from Peter van Oblienis (whose father had bought it from Lubbert Gerritsen). Johannes sold the lot to his eldest son Samson on Nov 21, 1701.

A view of Harlem from Morrisania, the namesake of the small neighborhood in the South Bronx. Sep, 1765

The farm passed through many members of the family, including several Samsons, Peters, and Benjamins, each adding to the land through purchase and inheritance. The plot on which 1660 Madison Avenue later stood was owned by the family of Peter Benson; the family's other plots extended beyond of Peter's.

The arrow indicates the future site of 1660 Madison Avenue (some 150 years after this survey). Note that arrow actually is in the right place; Madison Avenue did not exist until later, carved between 5th Avenue and 4th (currently “Park Avenue”) in 1836, through the efforts of lawyer and real estate developer Samuel B. Ruggles. In fact, the entire Manhattan grid system designed in 1811 was purely theoretical for years in Harlem. The Northeast corner of the future Central Park is (sloppily) demarcated in green.

Through the 1800s, Harlem enjoyed its position as a wealthy suburb to New York, home to many politicians and high society folk. As it industrialized, it also saw immigrants and African Americans move in. By 1870, the previously successful farmlands had been depleted, and as crop yields fell, the large estates were auctioned off. In 1873, the city of New York annexed Harlem as far north as 155th street.

Bird's Eye View of Central Park, including a peek of the site that would later become The Heritage Complex (110th-111th, between Fifth and Madison. 1865.

City records suggest that in the late 1890s, the building at 1658 Madison (predecessor of the contemporary 1660 Madison) housed a branch of the William E Wheelock & Co Piano company (though these records are unclear; perhaps it was a customer who had a piano delivered there), as well as a dentist's office.

In 1912, the lot at 1309 Fifth Avenue (now one of the Heritage towers) was purchased for use as sheet advertising, for $200, by the New York Billposting Co.

1885 Map of East Harlem. The future site of 1660 Madison is indicated.

1897 Map of East Harlem. A building with the address 1658 Madison has been erected, extending to the lot of the future site of 1660 Madison.

From 1869 to 1915, the Jewish population of Harlem grew from 12 to 200,000. However, by 1930, only 5,000 remained in the neighborhood. Still, vestiges of the golden Jewish era in the area can be seen in photographs and city records.

A view of 110th Street, looking West from Madison towards Fifth. Although grainy, this photograph depicts a sign for מצבות - "Gravestones". 1920.

As they vacated their East Harlem apartments, the neighborhood was increasingly inhabited by an emerging Puerto Rican population.

Contemporary view of the area, from Google Maps.

Today, The Heritage (built 1974), a multi-building luxury condo complex, stands on the lot containing the buildings described in this article. Its addresses consist of 1309 Fifth Avenue, 1295 Fifth Avenue, 4 East 111th Street, and 1660 Madison Avenue.


I spent a good two days investigating the possibility the famed American poet, Walt Whitman, often visited his friend John H Johnston at his home at 1309 Fifth Avenue (which would have been at about 111th and Fifth). Several memoirs and Whitman's own notes use the address, recounting sometimes fascinating, sometimes pedestrian accounts of his time at the residence.

Personal correspondance from Walt Whitman to his friend John H Johnston, in advance od New Year's 1877. 31 December, 1876.

Excited to learn more about Johnston, a benefactor of the poet and esteemed businessman, I poured myself into researching his background.

Group portrait of Fred Wild, A.W. Beville, C.H. Eccles, J. Wood, R. Curwen, Charles Sixsmith. J.H. Johnston (indicated), John Johnston, J.W. Wallace, Wentworth Dixon, and William Law. About 1880?

Following his marriage to Alma Calder on April 21, 1878, successful jeweler John H Johnston moved his family north from downtown, to a building with the address 1609 Fifth Avenue. The home occupied the lot on which The Heritage complex now stands. They lived there for about 7 years.Johnston was well regarded in society, having proved himself in business and advertising, the founder of J.H. Johnston & Son, Diamond Merchants and Jewelers. He is known for having created a new business of purchasing duplicate gifts from brides and grooms, and reselling them at profit. His advertising gimmick of painting finely-dressed patrons peering into his store windows (150 Broome Street and 17 Union Square) also became a fad of the time.

However, as I continued to research the history, I was unable to find records of a building matching the description at 111th and Fifth. Finally, I located original scans of Walt Whitman's letters and writings, in which he addressed his notes to "1309 Fifth Avenue, 2 doors south of 86th Street." At this point I became terribly confused. There doesn't seem to ever have been such an address near 86th Street... Indeed, maps of the day show that 2 doors south of 86th on Fifth would be 1047 Fifth Avenue. My only conclusion is that Mr Whitman, although a legendary poet, had less proficiency with addresses. Or perhaps he simply took poetic license.

Postcard from Walt Whitman to Albert Johnston, son of jewelry businessman John H Johnston. The address 1609 Fifth Avenue is written in Whitman's handwriting, though the postcard was forwarded on. It is signed, "Your old uncle & comrade - W W. 16 August 1886.

(Still, it's neat to see the address in Walt's own handwriting, and I really did enjoy digging into the story of Johnston, the self-made diamon and jewelry tycoon.)

Obituary for John H Johnston from the New York Times.

If anyone has any other ideas regarding this confusion of addresses, please share your insight in the comments below!

To purchase any of the images in this article as framed prints, check out the gallery.

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