Turtle Bay Gardens circa 1920. Photo from Library of Congress.
Midtown Manhattan’s Turtle Bay encompasses the area between 41st and 53rd streets east of Lexington Avenue, including the United Nations headquarters and the Chrysler Building. While it may not have old glass bottles or destroyed ferry remnants like Dead Horse Bay, Turtle Bay does have secrets of a different nature.
10. It Was Likely Named For Its Knife-Like Shape
A map of Manhattan from 1878. Though Turtle Bay was once knife-shaped, it evened out by the time of this map. Image via Wikimedia Commons
It all started with the 17th century arrival of the Dutch in Turtle Bay. Historians still debate the precise origins of the name “Turtle Bay,” but many have proposed that it comes from the Dutch word deutal, which meant a “bent blade.” This would be in reference to the bay’s knife shape.
However, others believe the name derived from the bay’s turtle-filled creek (once called DeVoor’s Mill Creek), once located at 47th street. Turtles thus became a popular source of food for the Dutch during the time.
9. It Was Originally A 40-Acre Farm
A drawing of Turtle Bay in 1853. There was much more natural landscape in Turtle Bay before the Civil War. Image via Wikimedia Commons
The colonial Dutch governor of New Amsterdam gave a 40-acre land grant to two Englishmen in 1639. They called it “Turtle Bay Farm” and it originally extended from just 43rd to 48th street and from Third Avenue to the East River.
8. A Former Turtle Bay Mansion Played a Role in the Revolutionary War
Image from New York Public Library from Washington Irving’s Life of Washington
James Beekman, a Whig, built a mansion on the northern part of Turtle Bay Farm, on a promontory bordering the East River. When the British used this home for headquarters during the Revolutionary War, Beekman and his family left, but lived there until 1854. The mansion was torn down in 1874, and a parlor and bedroom from the mansion can still be seen at the New York Historical Society. Today, Beekman Place between 49th Street and 51st Street just north of the United Nations serves as a reminder of the history of the family.
7. The British Sentenced Nathan Hale at Mount Pleasant
General Howe used Mount Pleasant for one of its headquarters during the Revolutionary War. While it is debated where the American Nathan Hale was actually hung (competing plaques claim to be the site in Manhattan), firsthand reports suggest that the captive was taken to the Beekman mansion property for his trial and sentencing. As written in the 1856 book Life of Captain Nathan Hale: the martyr-spy of the American revolution, the greenhouse next to the mansion “was empty of plants, and is reported and believed by many descendants of Mr. Beekman to have been the spot where Hale received his sentence.”
6. Edgar Allen Poe Used to Row and Swim Here
Southern tip of Roosevelt Island (right)
Edgar Allan Poe lived here for a short time before 1846, and often swam and rowed a small boat from Turtle Bay to the nearby Blackwell’s Island. He was also a neighbor to the writer and politician Horace Greeley at the time, and mourned the nearing destruction of natural landscape.
Poe wrote about his experiences in Turtle Bay cove for the Columbia Spy newspaper, saying, “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.”
5. Draft Riots Damaged the Area During the Civil War
The Draft Riots of 1863 are regarded as the deadliest racially incensed insurrection in American history, aside from the Civil War. Image from Library of Congress
During the heat of the Civil War, in July 1863, a mob of enraged people torched the entire block between 45th and 46th streets in Turtle Bay during the Draft Riots, starting at a military enlistment office on Third Avenue and 45th street.
The source of their ire was the first Draft Act passed that March, which let draftees to pay $300 to evade military service and therefore put the impoverished at a disadvantage. After three days, troops suppressed the riots, which had spread to and destroyed other areas of New York City by then.
4. It Was Once Home to a Huge Power Plant and Several Slaughterhouses
The end of the Civil War saw the disappearance of the natural landscape Edgar Allan Poe loved so much: brownstones sprouted rapidly and the waterfront transformed into an industrial sinkhole by 1868. These industrial buildings included the Waterside Station on the southern border of Turtle Bay, which was a coal-powered Con Edison plant that generated 367,000 kilowatts of electricity.
The six blocks of slaughterhouses (or 18 acres) lined First Avenue and the elevated train lines along 2nd and 3rd Avenues put many Turtle Bay homes into disrepair.
3. One of the Smallest Historic Districts is in Turtle Bay, With Secret Gardens Hidden from the Street
Turtle Bay Gardens circa 1920. Photo via Library of Congress.
Turtle Bay Gardens was the brainchild of Charlotte Martin, a descendant of the Dutch settlers. She brought 20 run down houses in 1919 and remodeled them, creating a shared garden esplanade between them. A copy of the fountain in the Villa Medici sits in this garden. Charlotte’s personal house had a grand ballroom with 22 foot high ceilings and a private garden.
2. There Might Have Been an X-City Instead of the United Nations
In 1946, the slaughterhouses were demolished to pave the way for one of the most important buildings in the world today: the United Nations. But before this, developer William Zeckendorf had hoped to build the X-City on the 17 acres between 42nd Street and 48th Street. This included four 40-story office buildings, three 30-story apartment buildings, two 57-story towers for offices and a hotel. There would also be a concert hall that could be the potential home of the Metropolitan Opera, retail spaces, a parking garage, a marina, a floating nightclub. A rooftop airport as larges as Central Park was planned for midtown west along the Hudson to support X-City, but Zeckendorf as unable to pay off the short term loans on this land parcel and sold it to the Rockefellers in 1946 who donated the land for the United Nations.
1. Diplomatic Brownstones and Hidden Church Cafes
If you look closely at the plates on some of the picturesque brownstones, you’ll see that some are actually offices for international United Nations missions. Another building at 17 Beekman Place reading “Grand-Duche de Luxeumbourg” under Luxembourg’s red, white and blue flag, is the office of the Consulate General of Luxeumbourg in New York City. Two buildings in Turtle Bay are the Seamen’s Churches of Sweden and Norway, which have hidden cafes inside that are open to the public – though the organizations themselves primarily serve the expatriate community.
Fun fact: the composer Irving Berlin lived at 17 Beekman Place from 1947 until his death in 1989. It adopted its current function the following year.
Bonus: It Has Some Really Picturesque 1920s Architecture
An engraving on a building on Beekman Place and 51st street
Walking around the portion of Turtle Bay closest to the East River almost feels like a different world: peaceful, uncrowded, and filled with brownstones and smaller brick buildings rather than skyscrapers. Much of the residential architecture is from the 1920s, often featuring basic Italian antecedents, stucco walls again bricks or tile. But what stands out the most are the intriguing figurines decorating some of the buildings, especially these ones on 51st street.
Now check out the Top 10 Secrets of the United Nations, Cities 101: The Evolution of NYC’s Neighborhood Names, and 6 NYC Homes of the United Nations. Get in touch with the author @sgeier97