A Bridge Over Broadway, a Glimpse into the Past

A 1903 view down Broadway, from Fulton Street, shows a pedestrian bridge that once spanned the street. Photo: The New York Public LIbrary

May. 19, 2017

It’s a sunny afternoon in August 1903, and the scene looking north on Broadway from Fulton Street—with St. Paul’s Chapel on the left—is, of course, very different from what we see there today.

Aside from the almost total absence of women and the straw “boaters” on nearly every male head, almost all the buildings in the photo have gone, with the exception of St. Paul’s. Just beyond the church is the Astor House, built in 1836 by the celebrated entrepreneur John Jacob Astor. For decades it reigned as New York’s most prestigious hostelry (President Lincoln was among its notable guests), but by 1903 it was losing its luster. Torn down 10 years later, it was replaced by a larger structure that is confusingly called the Astor Building.

On the other side of the Astor House is a block of low-rise buildings that in 1912-13 would give way to the new and monumental Woolworth Building. Still further along, in the distance, is the pyramidal crown of the Home Life Insurance Building, which survives across from City Hall.

All the flamboyant structures on the right in the photo have disappeared, too. The most important is the bulky, mansard-roofed building across from the Astor House: it is the old City Hall Post Office that long occupied the southern end of City Hall Park; universally (though perhaps mistakenly) disliked, it was finally demolished in the 1930s.

There are two things in the photograph, however, that deserve special attention. One is the bridge structure spanning the street just this side of St. Paul’s. It is the remains of an iron span that was put up in 1866 at the urging of a hatter named John N. Genin whose shop was at the south-west corner of Fulton and Broadway and who felt his customers should be spared the necessity of crossing the dangerous street to reach his place. And it is true that New York streets seemed replete with peril. They were filled with “driving, jostling, and elbowing,” remarked a British visitor.

“Add to this the crashing sounds of rapid omnibuses, flying in all directions, and carts...and we have a jumble of sights and sounds easy to understand but hard to describe.”

For a while the bridge was considered a delightful novelty. People loved having their pictures taken on it.

Then its charm wore off. The long stairs leading up to it were a burden, and most New Yorkers felt that, after all, the best way to cross the street was to ignore the dangers and just barge across, a sentiment that is, if anything, even more current today. And so Mr. Genin’s bridge was abandoned. Also notably present in the picture is the crowd collected in the center, partly on the sidewalk and the rest in the street. The picture’s caption refers to it as a “possible curb trading group,” meaning a group trading stocks and other securities right there in the open air—once a common occurrence in the Wall Street area. Indeed the New York Stock Exchange itself began outdoors, in 1792, when a group of brokers met under a buttonwood tree in front of 68-70 Wall Street and agreed to abide by a set of rules governing their behavior and eligibility to trade securities. They moved indoors a year later, but curb trading by other groups continued through the 19th century and well into the 20th.

The largest and most important of these outdoor gatherings usually met on Broad Street near the New York Stock Exchange and became known to the financial world as the Curb Exchange. For the most part its members handled the securities of smaller and riskier companies than those represented on the NYSE. But its volume could be huge: during the Civil War it commonly traded 10 times as many shares a day as the older exchange.

Not until 1911—well after this photo was taken—did it move indoors, to a building on Greenwich Street. But by 1930 it had more foreign issues on its list than all other American securities markets combined. Finally, in 1953, “the Curb” decided it was time to become a little more respectable. It changed its name to the American Stock Exchange.

This article first appeared in the February, 2004, edition of The Tribeca Trib.