Did you know that without the people of Park Avenue and Murray Hill, there might not have been a United States of America? Here’s the story…
On September 15, 1776 (only a couple months after declaring independence on July 4, 1776), the American army, led by General George Washington was defeated in the Battle of Brooklyn. In the middle of the night, over 9,000 American soldiers retreated by sailing across to the river to Manhattan (they landed on Kips Bay, the area just south of Murray Hill). The next morning, as the American army was retreating north towards Harlem, the American soldiers passed through Murray Hill (which was then just informally known as the farm and residence of the Murray family).
Shortly later, the British army, led by Admiral William Howe, conquered Brooklyn (as the American army deserted) and then continued its conquest across the river in Manhattan. As the British came running after the American army as it was retreating, they passed through Murray Hill.
That’s where Mary Lindley Murray, the quick-thinking matriarch of the Murray family, comes in. She helped save America by slowing down the British. With her Murray Hill charm, she invited the British officers to tea and cake at their home as their soldiers came through her family’s farm (see the depiction below). The story goes that Admiral William Howe was so enchanted by the Murray family women that it allowed the Americans time to get away. This succeeded in delaying the British troops for a period sufficient to allow a successful American retreat, and this gave General George Washington and his American army enough time to win.
Remember, America did not win the revolutionary war in 1776, we just declared independence in 1776. We actually won the revolutionary war in 1783 via the Treaty of Paris in which Great Britain agreed to recognize the sovereignty of the United States and formally ended the war. We won because we dragged the war long enough and eventually won some major battles like the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 which caused British support for the war to fade in both the British Parliament and the British public, thus triggering this diplomatic peace treaty. Helping drag the war long enough is exactly what Mary Lindley Murray did. Unfortunately, Mary Lindley Murray passed away in 1782 (the year prior to the passing of the Treaty of Paris, but as you see in the plaque below, she credited as being a true Patriot that helped the Americans win the war (this plaque is located on the Park Avenue mall at 37th Street).
Now, contrary to popular belief, New York City never planned to design an avenue with a green mall running through it and call it Park Avenue. The avenue was laid out on the city planning grid as Fourth Avenue.
In the 1830’s, the middle of this extra-wide thoroughfare held the tracks of the New York & Harlem Railroad, these trains were not powerful enough to climb the steep incline beginning at 32nd Street, so in 1833, an open trench was dug through Murray Hill to 40th Street.
In the early 1850’s, the railroad, responding to public concern about public safety, covered the open trench between 34th and 40th Streets. The oval boulevard malls took shape, were landscaped and the Murray Hill section of Fourth Avenue, and were renamed Park Avenue.
In the 1870’s, outraged citizens demanded that the tracks north of 42nd Street also be covered. Landscaping was installed and in the year 1888, Fourth Avenue north of Grand Central was renamed Park Avenue.
Did you know that the first electric Christmas tree lights were first showcased on Park Avenue in Murray Hill? Here’s the story…
One of the experiments that came out of Thomas Edison’s lab was electric Christmas lights. Before that, people actually used to light candles and put them on Christmas trees (see pic below). That all changed when Edward H. Johnson, Vice President of the Edison Electric Light Company, was the first in the world to display his Christmas tree, which was hand-wired with 80 red, white and blue electric incandescent light bulbs the size of walnuts, on December 22, 1882 at his home at 139 East 36th Street (since Murray Hill was also the first section of New York City to be wired for electricity). Here is a link to the original article from the New York Times.
See below an image from 1908, looking north up Park Avenue from about 38th Street. On the left side between 40th and 41st Street, stands the Murray Hill Hotel with its corner towers, and between 41st and 42nd Street, the Hotel Belmont, at the time considered to be one of the tallest hotels in the world. In the far background is the early Grand Central Station.
South of 32nd Street, the name Fourth Avenue remained despite the planters installed in the 1930’s. In 1959, the City Council voted to extend the cachet of the Park Avenue name down to 17th Street, renaming that section Park Avenue South. All that remains of the old Fourth Avenue is a stretch from East 14th Street to Astor Place.
The Park Avenue Malls (32nd street to 39th street), are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.