One of our favorite NYC Things is that you can still touch centuries-old pieces of the city, and one of the oldest and coolest things you can lay your hands on is inside another really old and cool thing! The Croton Reservoir was a massive above-ground reservoir that held 20 million gallons of water—it boasted walls 50-feet tall and 25-feet wide, and stood where the New York Public Library stands today. When the Library was built, some of its remains were left intact. Those remains are currently down a staircase leading to an auditorium.

The NYPL's Angela Montefinise tells us that anyone can see these remains—"you can still see it on the lower level of South Court in the Schwarzman Building (near the auditorium). It's not closed off. If you walk into South Court on the first floor and look down, you can see it (if you don't want to go all the way downstairs)." But while it's open to the public, it's only open "when the auditorium is in use for a public program. If there's no program it's not open, but once can still see the Croton remains by looking over the railing on the first floor of South Court." There's also a plaque located in the subway system—on a wall in the passageway that connects the 5th Avenue station and 42nd Street station.

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Looking up at the Croton Distributing Reservoir remains. (Photo by Amy Finkel/Gothamist)

A few more facts about the reservoir:

  • To build it, the adjacent plot (now Bryant Park) also needed to be cleared, which meant exhuming thousands of bodies and transporting them to Wards Island, as the land there was a potter's field at the time.
  • The project was completed in 1842—a moment historian Henry Collins Brown called "the greatest forward stride in the city's history, [with] the general introduction of running water."
  • In an 1844 edition of the Columbia Spy, Edgar Allen 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." That elevation Poe referred to was from the promenade, which hosted gatherings on a daily basis, making for a "delightful scene at night, with the moonlight dancing on the water."
  • By 1902, it was already torn down and the cornerstone was laid for the library's main branch.

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(Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York)

Check out some more photos of the reservoir when it was still standing, right this way.