In my novel, The Better Angels, a group of time travelers journey back to Civil War-era New York City to solve a mystery. One of the locations they explore is 209 Broadway in lower Manhattan. Let’s pretend you, like my characters, can time travel. What will you see when you journey 160 years into the past and arrive in 1860?
At 209 Broadway you’ll find St. Paul’s Chapel. It was built in 1766. George Washington worshipped there on his inauguration day. Many years later, on 9/11 it will be given the name “the little chapel that stood.” Exhausted rescue workers and first responders will use it as a place of rest and refuge.
Looking to your right you see the studio of Mathew Brady, the city’s most famous photographer. Here, Brady takes many of his most famous portraits, including those of Dolley Madison, Daniel Webster, Winfield Scott, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Walt Whitman, and John Audubon.
Now look to your left to see the Astor House, the most fashionable hotel in the city. It was built by John Jacob Astor and opened in 1836. Brady has lodgings at the Astor House which allows him to rub elbows with many of the political and cultural leaders of the time. In February 1860, Brady will take the first ever photograph of presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln will return to the Astor House a year later on the way to his first inauguration. One sad footnote to the Astor House is that John Jacob Astor’s great grandson, John Jacob Astor IV, will die on the Titanic in April 1912.
Now look directly across the street. If you have 25 cents, you can visit the most famous tourist attraction of the time: Barnum’s American Museum. It opened in 1841 and attracted thousands of visitors who wandered among the fabulous exhibits of animals, inventions, archaeological artifacts, and oddities on display. In 1865, the museum will be destroyed by fire.
Once you return to present-day New York, what do you see? To your left you see a Staples where the Astor House stood. Barnum’s has been replaced by a bank and a clothing store. On the site of Brady’s studio is an early twentieth-century building whose tenants include media and publishing firms. But turn around. St. Paul’s Chapel, now more than 250 years old, still stands. It is the oldest surviving church building in Manhattan.