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Upper East Side - Manhattan (79th Street to 93rd Street)

This is a John Bute Holmes 1874 cadastral map of the Upper East Side neighborhood of Manhattan - the only specific map of this area to appear in the 19th century.

The map depicts the region from Seventh Avenue (or at least where it would be if Central Park hadn't been built) to Second Avenue and from 93rd Street to 76th Street. It includes the area currently occupied by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guggenheim Museum, Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, The Jewish Museum, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir.

The bulk of the map is occupied by the northern reaches of the Common Lands, including the boundary between the Common Lands and the village of Harlem. This boundary was a diagonal line approximately from the intersection of today's Second Avenue and 79th Street to what would be the intersection of 92nd Street and Seventh Avenue if Central Park had not been constructed. Also evident are the early planning stages of what would become Park Avenue - some of New York city's most coveted real estate.

Common Lands

Settlement on Manhattan Island began at the southern tip, where Battery Park is today. One of the easiest indicators for modern-day visitors is the lack of an organized street-grid in this part of the city. Growth farther north on Manhattan Island was slow, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries. Then, even when people decided they wanted to live outside of the organized settlement, they elected to purchase land along either the Hudson River or the East River so they could easily travel into the city either by boat along the river or one of the two main roads that traveled north up the island. These roads, the Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway), which led up the west side of the island, and the East Post Road, which ran along the island's east side, were built along ancient Native American hunting paths which allowed for easy development. The Common Lands stretched from the intersection of these two roads north in an irregular fashion to Harlem's boundary with the Commons. 

These two phenomena created a lack of interest in settling the land in the central part of the island. Traveling there was difficult, and the land either consisted of rocky outcroppings or low-lying overgrown marshland. All of this 'vast wasteland' was thus given to the government of New Amsterdam by the Dutch administrators in 1685 and reaffirmed by the English twice after they acquired the colony. Almost no one bought or rented the land from the colony, and it remained that way until the infancy of the United States, when the government of New York City inherited what had become known as the Common Lands.

At that time, New York City had little tax income, and so leveraged the Common Lands, which the Common Council, the city's governing body, believed could be developed. They contracted Casimir Theodor Goerck, a city surveyor, to survey the Common Lands and divide it into five-acre lots that would then be sold at auction. Goerck, for his part, did the best he could with a massive task. By December 1785, he had laid out a middle street, a rough estimation of today's Fifth Avenue, but almost none of the lots were of equal size. A handful of lots sold the following summer, but not many, most of which were in the extreme southern reaches of the Common Lands near the established city. In 1794, the Common Council again contracted Goerck to survey five-acre lots, but this time he was to also survey a road parallel to and on either side of the middle road. He was also to survey sixty-six-foot-wide east-west streets to allow for easier access. These roads would closely mirror Fourth and Sixth Avenues in the Commissioners plan of about a decade later, as would the east-west streets, although the Commissioners gave almost no credit to Goerck for the inspiration.

OCLC 50548127.
John Bute Holmes Biography

City Surveyor John Bute Holmes (ca.1820-1887) was a compelling figure, as much for his scandalous personal life, as for his ingenious maps.

The details of his early personal life are difficult to trace, partially as he constantly changed his version of his biography. At one point he claimed to have been born on the Island of Mauritius in 1822, and to have moved from there to Cork, Ireland; according to his account, he moved from Cork to the United States in 1838. He held the position of City Surveyor in New York in the 1860s through 1880s and eventually settled on a farm in New Jersey, where he died.

According to the cataloging of Lindsay Turley, of the Museum of the City of New York:

John Bute Holmes was married to at least four women during his life, sued by a fifth for "impeaching her chastity" as a result of "breach of promise of marriage," known to have lived with another "as husband and wife," and was reputed to have killed a policeman with whose wife he was involved. Some of these relationships appear to have overlapped, and most of the wives were unaware of the previous wives, even when the unions had been dissolved legally. It wasn't until Holmes's death in 1887 that the four legal (or at least to their knowledge) wives came face to face in an attempt to claim their inheritance. The dual nature of Holmes's maps strangely seems to reflect the duplicitous nature of Holmes's life...

A few different accounts in the New York Times attempt to sort it out, and briefly, this is what I've come away with:

  • Wife # 1: Anna Maria Clear, married Cork Ireland 1838. Holmes left her in 1856, Anna filed for divorce in 1875. One daughter.
  • Living as husband and wife: Ida Kerr, dates unknown.
  • Wife #2: Hannah Wright Williamson (also his half-sister), marriage date unknown. Three children.
  • Sued for breach of marriage promise: May Chamberlayne, 1874.
  • Wife#3: Mary Sullivan Browning, marriage date unknown. One son.
  • Wife#4: Katie Meadows, married ca. 1886.

See the MCNY blog entry on John Bute Holmes here:

Holmes is thought to have produced a total of 21 maps of between the 1860s and the 1880s. We have not completed a total census of all map titles from Holmes' series, but we have handled over a dozen from one collection only.

"Farm Maps"

Although it is now hard to believe, Manhattan, as recently as the early 19th century, was largely covered in open farmland. As the city rapidly developed during the 19th century, all hints of its previous bucolic state fell away. In the 1860s, this transformation became a fascination for City Surveyor John Bute Holmes (about whom, more later).

Holmes began gathering old surveys and documents that related to Manhattan's previous land use and landowners, transposing new lot and street detail over the previous geography.

There was a long history of mapping Manhattan's farms, both during the actual agricultural era and thereafter. One of the greatest cartographic feats was Randel's Farm Maps which are reminiscent of Holmes' without the "modern" overlay.