Monday, December 19, 2016

The Lost Great New York Aquarium - Herald Square

A postcard depicted a crowd waiting to gain entrance to the exhibition.
Largely forgotten now, William Cameron Coup was among the foremost of American showmen--those brash men who spoke in superlatives and offered audiences the biggest, the rarest and the most thrilling.  Born in 1837, he partnered with Dan Castello in 1869 and formed a "boat circus" which traveled the Great Lakes.  In 1870 they persuaded P. T. Barnum to meld his exhibition and their circus, resulting in P. T. Barnum's Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome.

In 1876 Coup took on a different partner, Charles Reiche, for an ambitious and seemingly impossible project.  The latest fad in Europe was aquariums--essentially large museums of living fish.  The men acquired the trapezoidal property between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, facing 35th Street where the theater called the Colosseum had recently been demolished.

Coup's two-story structure was faced in red brick and trimmed in limestone.  The unremarkable architecture of the exterior belied the engineering challenges inside.  The first floor contained the expansive exhibition hall and tanks; below street level were the engine rooms and reservoirs; and the "naturalists' apartments" were on the second floor.

Maintaining environments for sea and fresh water animals required an intricate system of pumps, drains, and reservoirs of salt and fresh water.   The larger fish--from six to ten feet in length--were kept in a darkened section lit by skylights.  The arrangement not only gave patrons a more naturalistic view and supposedly kept the fish from seeing the people, it reduced the amount of algae.

Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine depicted the below-the-scenes engines and reservoirs.  (copyright expired)

Coup included an innovative marketing scheme in his plans for the new venture.  "A very fine restaurant will be connected with the Aquarium, but it will differ from all others in the peculiarity that the fare it will offer will be only fish, which will be kept alive in a large tank where they may be viewed and selected by the hungry customer, who may enjoy the additional zest of catching his fish before eating it," wrote The New York Times.

In Barnum-like fashion, the showman knew that in order to draw visitors to his aquarium he needed something big, something sensational.  Nothing was bigger than a whale.  But keeping a confined whale alive in 1876 was problematic.   The Chicago Tribune held little optimism, saying the chances that a "whale will live long or not is somewhat doubtful.  His perils are five in number."  The newspaper listed the temperature of the water, the confinement, the "atmosphere of the aquarium," the purity of the water (2,400 gallons of sea water were pumped from the East River every 24 hours to refresh the tank), and keeping the mammal fed.  The Tribune noted that a bushel and a half of live eels would be fed to the whale daily.  "As the animal is too epicurean in his tastes to like dead fish, each particular eel in his diurnal bushel and a half must be alive and squirming."

The tanks were constructed using English plate glass.  The half-inch thick sheets were considered the strongest of their type and able to withstand the pressure of hundreds of gallons of water.  But even this strong glass would be challenged by the immense whale tank--25 feet in diameter and about 6-1/2 feet deep.  The New York Times reported that it held "when full from 60,000 to 65,000 gallons."

To maintain suspense and mystery, the two whales which arrived during the first week of July 1876 were delivered under cover of night.  For two weeks the tank was only half-filled with water, just enough to keep the mammals alive.  Then, on June 24, the process of filling began.

Just before noon, when the water was about six inches from the top and orders were given to shut off the flow, the glass exploded.  The Times reported "One of the workmen, who was in the act of turning off a waste-cock at the base of the wall where the break occurred, was struck with the fragments and thrown violently forward, receiving serious injuries."  Two other workmen were sent to the hospital and others were slightly hurt.  Both whales died.

A month later The New York Times, in reporting that the Great New York Aquarium was nearly completed, advised "A specially organized whaling expedition is now cruising off the coast of Labrador in search of whales to replace those that died at the aquarium recently, and Mr. Coup has offered $5,000 for the capture, alive, of the famous mammoth seal Ben Butler, which for years past has frequented the bay of San Francisco and the watering-places on the Pacific Coast."

The frustrating problem of the glass tanks continued.  On August 29 The Times reported "At 7 o'clock yesterday morning, four more tanks bursted [sic] at the New-York Aquarium...These accidents are causing a delay in the opening of the Aquarium, but as a new glass of greater thickness will be used hereafter, it is hoped that no more delays will be caused."

That same day, in another section of the newspaper, a one-line article mentioned "Three more young seals from the Bay of Biscay arrived yesterday, and are imprisoned in their respective tanks at the New-York Aquarium."

William Coup's replacement headliner arrived just in time for the Great New York Aquarium's opening.  On October 10 the New York Evening Post noted "The expected whale has arrived at the Aquarium on Thirty-fifth street, after a week's journey from the St. Lawrence to Quebec by schooner, and thence to this city by rail.  He is white, frisky, and weighs 1,500 pounds."

The Great New York Aquarium opened the next day.  Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine said it rivaled "in size and beauty any of its European contemporaries."  Coup's advertisement in The New York Herald called it "the Finest Aquarium in the World!" and "A Place of Never-Ceasing Pleasure, Interest and Study."  The ad listed "The great living white whale devouring live eels, half a barrel per day! The thousand other divertissements! The Sharks! Sea Lion! Sturgeons! Seals! Sticklebacks! Sea Ravens! Winged Fishes of the Ocean!" and reminded patrons that "while the visitors are examining the contents of the great iron and glass tanks Dodworth's popular orchestra discourses the most entertaining music."

Readers who snipped out that advertisement and sent it with 50 cents to W. C. Coup, would receive "a beautifully executed chromo-lithograph, size 30x40 inches, of the interior beauty and attractions."  It was a brilliant marketing ploy by Coup which not only helped him track the effectiveness of his advertising; but provided nearly free publicity when the posters were tacked up in homes and businesses.

For 50 cents this poster "in eleven colors, by Greyson, one of the best living chromo artists" could be had. Next to the whale tank can be seen the seal enclosure.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Biologist Frank Butler worked for the Aquarium, explaining in Popular Science magazine in July 1899, "I supervised fish culture, and when not otherwise engaged made collections of fishes and invertebrates in Bermuda and in other parts."  Butler revealed how Coup managed to keep a whale alive in such confinement.  He didn't.

"We had many white whales at different times, for the management would keep whales penned up on the St. Lawrence River to replace those which died, and would never show more than two at a time, claiming that they were rare animals and only to be had at 'enormous' expense...It would never do to have the public know that they were common during the summer in the St. Lawrence, and when one was getting weak another would be sent down, and the public supposed that the same pair was on exhibition all the time."

Some visitors to the Aquarium felt they were being duped by the former circus proprietor.  Butler remembered overhearing a tourist couple's conversation.

"Oh, I'm so glad we came here, and can tell the folks that we've seen a real live whale!"

"Lucy," this city if full of all kinds of cheats, an' I don't believe that thing is alive more'n Methuselah is; it's some indy-rubber contraption with clock-work in it that makes it go round and puff in that way."

Sadly, the whales were not clock-work and their life expectancy once delivered to the Aquarium was about three months.

Well-dressed patrons, having paid their admission of 50 cents, strolled through the exhibits.  Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine 1876 (copyright expired)

In addition to the whale tank, there were three floor pools devoted to seals and alligators, and about 150 various-sized tanks.  The Great New York Aquarium was an instant hit and was bringing in about $200 per day--more than $4,500 in today's terms.  "But," according to The Green Book Magazine in July 1914, "before long the novelty wore off and receipts fell even lower than expenses."  Theater historian Thomas Allston Brown, in his 1903 A History of the New York Stage, said that receipts dropped "to five dollars on at least one occasion." 

Coup was a businessman, not a scientist, and he scrambled to draw audiences.  A small stage was set up and live entertainments were presented.  On September 8, 1877 The New York Times reported "There will be given on the afternoon and evening of Sunday next at the Aquarium the first of a series of grand sacred concerts with an orchestra of 20 pieces.  These concerts will be continued every Sunday."

Dr. H. Dorner took over when Coup withdrew from the struggling enterprise.  The respected Great New York Aquarium suffered the humiliation of becoming a sideshow to a vaudeville theater.  On December 30, 1878 Oscar's performing horses appeared and juggler Charles Seeley made his American debut.  A pigeon show opened on February 4, 1879 and Little Red Riding Hood was staged for children on February 10.  Other attractions that year included Angie Schott, the "female magician," a tribe of Indians in April, and Professor Parker's trained dogs.

The Great New York Aquarium limped along for two years, before Dorner finally gave up.  Forest and Stream magazine reported on May 5, 1881 "On the 26th of April the New York Aquarium presented a sorrowful spectacle to those who had know it in its days of grandeur.  The great tanks were torn down, and piles of brick and mortar only remained to mark their location."  That day an auctioneer sold off the contents.

The panes of plate glass from the disassembled tanks, about 1,000 square feet in total, were sold, along with decorations and fixtures.  "Next he offered a lot of statuary of life and heroic size, including the Venus of Milo, the Dancing Fawn and the Laccoon, which were bought by Mr. George Busnell, of museum fame.  A small Octopus, which had once been in alcohol, a big pile of chairs, a stuffed Sloth and the table-tanks went to as many different bidders, the dime museums getting their share."

The magazine lamented the loss of a quality institution.  "Farewell 'The Great New York Aquarium.'...'The greed of present gain permitted all kinds of shows to invade it, and the class which once supported it in good style left it."

Thomas Allston Brown wrote "During the fall of 1882 the Aquarium was used as an Indian camp, and entertainments were given.  The building was soon torn down."  In fact, only part of the structure was demolished.  The front, 35th Street section was converted to the New Park Theatre, which opened on October 15, 1883.  Most of the equipment--chairs, scenery, stage machinery, for example--came from Booth's Theatre on 23rd Street, which had closed in 1881.

The New Park Theatre used only the front-most section of the Aquarium building.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.

In 1893 publisher James Gordon Bennett, Jr. signed a lease on the property and commissioned Stanford White to design a new headquarters for the New York Herald--far from the Newspaper Row downtown.  What remained of the Great New York Aquarium building was demolished, to be replaced by White's masterful Italian Renaissance style structure which lent its name to Herald Square.

photo from the collection of the Library of Congress

Tragically, that building was lost in 1940, replaced by the disappointing structure designed by H. Craig Severance that survives.

photograph by the author

many thanks to Paul Anater for suggesting this post

1 comment:

  1. Kind of an eerie 'steampunk' kind of Victoriana in New York. Great and fascinating tale - including the development of public aquarium glass. Our indifference to the needs of nature, particularly at that time, make for tough reading.