Hidden away down some stairs in the historic New York Public Library's flagship location in Midtown, away from all of the typically high-traffic areas among its hallowed halls, is a piece of New York City history even older than the library itself. Find the right stairwell, and it will take you down to stone walls that were part of an 1800s distributing reservoir, which also acted as a promenade for New Yorkers and attracted the attention of Edgar Allan Poe.
Before the library was built at 42nd and 5th, that area was home to the original Croton Reservoir, a massive above-ground reservoir that held 20 million gallons of water from the Croton River—it boasted walls 50-feet tall and 25-feet wide, and stood where the New York Public Library and Bryant Park are located today. It was a fairly short-lived structure, lasting from 1842 to 1900, demolished two years before the cornerstone was laid for the library.
The NYPL's Madeleine Viljoen, PhD, tells Gothamist that the reservoir existed due to New York City’s expansion during the early nineteenth century, which "necessitated the construction of new dams and reservoirs to increase water supply to its residents." Croton Reservoir was the most famous among them, "designed with cornices and monumental pylons to draw comparison with Egypt and other early hydraulic civilizations."
While it served a function, it also became a popular gathering spot for New Yorkers, who were able to walk atop the stone walls — Viljoen notes that "the towering structure drew visitors for bucolic strolls on its massive walls and for views onto lower Manhattan."
In an 1844 edition of the Columbia Spy, Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “When you visit Gotham, you should ride out Fifth Avenue, as far as the distributing reservoir, near Forty-third Street, I believe. The prospect from the walk around the reservoir is particularly beautiful. You can see, from this elevation, the north reservoir at Yorkville; the whole city to the Battery; and a large portion of the harbor, and long reaches of the Hudson and East Rivers." The elevation Poe refers to was from the promenade, which hosted those bucolic strolls and, according to the writer, made for a "delightful scene at night, with the moonlight dancing on the water."
When the reservoir was first erected, Viljoen says it was "situated on the outskirts of town," but as happens in this city, the area became popular and more developed rather quickly. "As the city encroached on the area, the reservoir’s location at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street – deemed 'the most central and easily accessible spot on the Island' – became desirable as the future site of the New York Public Library’s Research Branch."
While some remain intact, the dismantled stones from the reservoir’s walls were repurposed and used as the Library’s foundation. If you want to see the remains, you'll have to wait until it's safe enough to explore the library again — when it is, you'll find the stone wall on the lower level of South Court (near the auditorium).
There's also a Croton Reservoir plaque located in the subway system, on a wall in the passageway that connects the 5th Avenue station and 42nd Street station.
As part of our month-long Dear NYC series, we're looking at New York City gems hidden away at the New York Public Library. The NYPL’s four research centers offer the public access to over 55 million items, including rare books, manuscripts, letters, diaries, photographs, prints, maps, ephemera, and more. Integral to these robust collections is the Library’s extensive material related to New York City, and as NY works to come together, cope, heal and recover from the 2020 pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the many issues that divide us, it is important to look at that history and remember: New York is resilient. New York is strong. New York has seen its share of hard times. And, as always, with Patience and Fortitude (the names given to the Library’s beloved lions in 1933 by Mayor LaGuardia for the virtues New Yorkers needed to get through the Great Depression) we will get through it, together.