Before the Main Branch of the New York Public Library, before Bryant Park, there was the reservoir. For the second half of the 19th century, much of Manhattan's drinking water came from a single man-made lake located at Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets. 4 acres surrounded by walls 50 feet tall towered above the city limits.
This was the Croton Distributing Reservoir-- known among locals as the Murray Hill Reservoir.
The brick facade of the reservoir was modeled after Egyptian architecture.
The Murray Hill Reservoir
Built between 1839 and 1842, Murray Hill's reservoir was designed to channel and store water from the Croton River in Westchester County. At the time of construction, the reservoir was one of the largest and most dominating buildings in its vicinity, and its builders took this into account. Along the tops of its 25-foot thick walls, public promenades offered sweeping views of the city. We modern Murray Hill-ites in our elegant co-ops and towering condos might take such vistas for granted, but in mid-19th century Manhattan, one has to imagine the impression the reservoir left on the local residents. At least one contemporary seems to have enjoyed the reservoir in particular; Edgar Allen Poe is said to have taken his walks along its walls.
The reservoir was a local landmark of Murray Hill for over 50 years, as recognizable then as Grand Central is today.
Public pumps, local wells, and a handful of private reservoirs had previously supplied New Yorkers with whatever drinkable water was available, and those without easy access to such resources made do with cider or beer. As a result, epidemics became commonplace throughout the city, and the construction of the reservoir quickly gained bipartisan support from elected officials. Costing $500,000 (about $12 million today), the reservoir was considered the grand culmination of the Old Croton Aqueduct System. The Croton network was groundbreaking, drawing from the vast natural resources of the eponymous Croton River to the north, and carrying its waters 170 miles to reach New York City spigots.
Whereas other reservoirs dotting the aqueduct system were situated outside urban areas, being either too discreet or unsightly to recognize, Murray Hill's was specifically designed to be the proud and public face of the Croton System. Although many Manhattan-ites would never see or appreciate the full expanse of the aqueducts that brought them potable water, everyone knew the Murray Hill Reservoir, being both a major achievement in public health and urban development, and an architectural icon in its own right.
When the reservoir officially opened to the public on July 4, 1842, a crowd of 20,000 flocked to visit it. Each person was given a glass of fresh Croton water, with ice for good meausure.
The reservoir shortly before its demolition in 1899.
Few remember the reservoir today, but there are some traces left behind. Inside the Main Branch of the New York Public Library, on the second floor, remnants of the reservoir's original granite are built into the foundations of the current structure. A plaque honors the 500 workmen who spent two years dismantling the reservoir and preparing the site for the library we enjoy today.
A Word From Dan & Aaron
We hope you enjoy reading our series on Old Murray Hill as much as we enjoy researching and writing it. What historic places would you like to see us cover next? If you haven't already, be sure to check out our historical timeline of Murray Hill on our website. See you next week!