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Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Wonders of Manhattan Real Estate

The island of Manhattan, featuring some of the priciest real estate in the United States, inspires dreams of great fortunes that can be made by shrewd investors. Who hasn't marveled over the phenomenal rise in value of Midtown commercial and residential property in Manhattan, and wished they'd been able to get in the market when lots could be bought for even one-tenth of their current value? As this featured pamphlet from 1908 demonstrates, would-be real estate tycoons have been daydreaming for more than 100 years about the fortunes they could make by snapping up some odd little property, just off Broadway, for a song.

Map of Hot Real Estate Areas in Manhattan in 1908
The Wonders of Manhattan Real Estate: Fabulous Fortunes Made by Fearless Investors in the Last Fifty Years was originally published as a column in the Sunday, November 29, 1908 issue of the New York Herald newspaper, and reprinted as a pamphlet in the same year. Written by Cromwell Childe, a freelance writer whose other publications have such beguiling titles as Water Exploring: A Guide to Pleasant Steamboat Trips Everywhere (1902), Where Shall I Go? Short Summer Trips for Busy Men (1902), and Trolley Exploring: An Electric Railroad Guide to Historic & Picturesque Places About New York, New Jersey, and New England (1903), this essay was designed to whet the appetite of investors and prospective clients of the New York Realty Owners group, which was founded in 1896. As an advertisement at the back of the pamphlet boasted, "The New York Realty Owners incorporated will give you the same advantages as the Astor estate secures to the members of its family" (the Astors being the descendants of John Jacob Astor, the first multi-millionaire in the United States, whose real estate holdings included large tracts of land throughout Manhattan). Rich with anecdotes, this pamphlet is a delightful read for anyone who loves New York City.

Scene of Wall Street and Broadway, Manhattan, Circa 1908

Childe's essay offers some interesting insights into the factors that alternately spurred and hindered rising real estate values. As he noted on page 8, "Most men would likely figure ... that the chief factor in the development of Manhattan has been its rapid transit. That may be right, but the passenger elevator should have a good slice of the credit." Taller buildings offered more residential or business leases to generate profits for investors. On the other hand, as Childe observes on the same page, "family feuds, litigation and the whims of wealthy owners have brought about many oddities in the development of New York," dragging out the resolution of land claims in the courts and creating the rare opportunity to purchase a misshapen parcel or scrap of real estate that would grow in value.

Along with the street-car and elevator, there were other developments in Manhattan creating a hot real estate market during the first decade of the twentieth century. Ground had recently been broken for the construction of Pennsylvania Station (which opened in 1910) and Herald Square. Another hot area of growth was the Upper East Side, where Andrew Carnegie's mansion --later to become the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum --was built from 1899 to 1902.

This pamphlet was recently acquired by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries' Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum Library as a gift transfer from the Museum of the City of New York. It also bears the stamp of the New-York Society Library, the oldest library in the city, founded in 1754 and still operating on a subscription basis.

Childe, Cromwell. The Wonders of Manhattan Real Estate: Fabulous Fortunes Made by Fearless Investors in the Last Fifty Years. New York: New York Realty Owners, 1908. Call number: HD268.N5C45 1908 CHMRB Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum Library

--Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, with the assistance of Daria Wingreen-Mason, Cullman Library Technician

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