Once a Farm with a Bay
The history of Turtle Bay dates back to 1639 when the Dutch governor gave two Englishmen a land grant of forty acres, crossed by a creek that emptied into a bay of the East River. Some historians attribute the name to the turtle-filled creek, while others say it had nothing to do with turtles, that the name was more likely a corruption of the Dutch word “deutal” (a bent blade), which referred to the shape of the bay. Regardless, the turtle feasts of the day prevailed and so did the name, Turtle Bay Farm.
From the early days of European settlement and through the Revolutionary War, the bay offered sailing ships a safe haven from winter gales and the capricious currents of the East River, making it important to the commerce of Manhattan. Shipbuilders established a thriving business in Turtle Bay, and by the time Robert Fulton tested his steamboat on the East River in 1808, the wharf area was filling up with breweries, carpentry shops, mills, and small industries.
As the city grew in the mid-1800s, Turtle Bay saw its share of squalor as well as squires. Among the country gentlemen were Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune. “The house,” he wrote,
was located on eight acres of ground including a wooded ravine or dell on the East River at Turtle Bay, nearly opposite the southernmost point of Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island).
Edgar Allan Poe, a friend and neighbor of Greeley, wrote of the pleasures of rowing a small boat around the island and bemoaned the city’s plan for a grid system, which doomed the natural landscape. In his commentary for the Columbia Spy newspaper, Poe wrote of his exploration around Turtle Bay cove:
I procured a light skiff and made my way around Blackwell’s Island on a voyage of discovery and exploration. The chief interest lay in the scenery of the Manhattan shore, which is here particularly picturesque. The houses are, without exception, frame and antique…I could not look on the magnificent cliffs and stately trees, which at every moment met my view, without a sigh for the inevitable doom–inevitable and swift.
Poe was right; the grid system would transform Manhattan into a neat pattern of squares, which would be subdivided into lots and developed for housing. From 1840 to 1850, large avenues continued to be opened up to the north, and the hilly landscape was graded to form cross streets.
James W. Beekman saw the city expanding, and he embarked on an ambitious plan to develop his property through the sale of small plots for private residences. On 50th Street he acquired various plots to round out his holdings, then moved out of the Mt. Pleasant mansion. In 1859, he gave land and financial assistance for a church (Dutch Reformed) on 50th Street, with a deed that contained a covenant that should the property not be used as a church, it would revert to the Beekman heirs. The Reformed Episcopal Church stands at this site today. The Turtle Bay area south of the Beekman holdings was developed on a more haphazard basis since it was not restricted to residential use.
Civil War Draft Riots
In March 1863, the first Draft Act was passed and an enrollment office was established at Third Avenue and 46th Street. No sooner had it opened than an angry mob marched on the office and burned it down. The July 13 uprising started as a protest against a conscription act that allowed draftees to be exempted from military service by payment of $300. To impoverished immigrants, that figure translated to a rich man’s war fought with poor men’s blood. Within hours, the entire blocks between 45th and 46th Streets were destroyed. The rioting went on for more than three days before troops managed to contain the mobs, which burned and looted whole sections of the city. In August, thousands of soldiers, cavalry patrols, and artillery were sent by order of President Lincoln. New draft offices were opened, but enforcement was lax because of widespread opposition to the Civil War by local government and the press.
Commerce and Cheap Housing
After the Civil War ended, the building of brownstones transformed the once bucolic landscape, block by block, while the waterfront became a commercial sinkhole. By 1868, the beautiful bay was filled in, its charms sullied by slaughterhouses, packing sheds, cattle pens, rotting wharfs, and railroad piers.
As waves of immigrants poured onto Manhattan’s shores and the El trains commenced operations on Second and Third Avenues, Turtle Bay drifted into the decay of crumbling tenements and tawdry rooming houses. In addition to Italian, German, Irish and Jewish immigrants, the area attracted the city’s night people: actors, musicians, stagehands, and waiters who worked in the fine restaurants near Broadway.
Resurgence Begins with Turtle Bay Gardens
There was much ambitious building and renovation in the 1920s, which restored many of the brownstones into fashionable townhouses. Turtle Bay became popular with the literati, and it was then that Turtle Bay Gardens was born as a large communal garden in the backyards of houses bounded by 48th and 49th Streets between Second and Third Avenues. Since its inception, the garden community has attracted a long list of prominent New Yorkers: Tyrone Power, Dorothy Thompson, Maxwell Perkins, Mary Martin, and Katharine Hepburn, to name a few. (See Turtle Bay Places of Interest: Beekman Place and Other Famous Haunts.)
Modernization and Development
Not until six city blocks of slaughterhouses along the East River were razed in 1946 for the United Nations was the blight of First Avenue transformed into an international enclave of modern architecture.
Since the deafening rattle of the last “El” train was silenced, Turtle Bay has seen a building boom of unprecedented growth, filling the area with towering office buildings, high-rise apartments, and condominiums.
As this surge of growth began to alter the course and character of Turtle Bay, it became clear that its residents needed a voice in how development affected their neighborhood. Thus, in 1957, the Turtle Bay Association was born. At the time, the purpose was to protest the widening of East 49th Street to become a high-speed traffic thruway. That battle was won, along with many others, but the organization’s work goes on, striving to preserve the beauty of this distinctive neighborhood while seeking a good accommodation for the demands of the future.