Lower Broadway’s Haunted Past and Ascendant Present
Halloween's almost upon us, which means we had a great excuse to write a story about haunted real estate. Eastern Consolidated principal Adelaide Polsinelli and New York Historical Tours director Kevin Draper recently showed us around Lower Broadway for a look at the area’s haunted past and its booming present as an up-and-coming retail district.
At the southern end of Bowling Green, where Broadway starts, is the National Museum of the American Indian. There’s a reason it’s there, and like so much in NYC, it goes back to real estate. (Kevin says it may have to do with ghosts, too.) In the early days of New Amsterdam, when the Dutch famously bought Manhattan from the local Native Americans, the concept of private land ownership was foreign to them and there was periodic violence as the settlement grew. In 1647, the Dutch governor in charge of the colony sent out a platoon to slaughter 80 native men, women and children. Their heads were put on display at Fort Amsterdam, where the museum now sits. Kevin says their ghosts are rumored to haunt the area.
Fast forward about a century and half, and we’re in the era of Alexander Hamilton, who lived in the area and is credited as a founder of modern capitalism. We went by Hamilton’s grave, on the grounds of Trinity Church, one of the oldest churches in the New World. As most New Yorkers know, Hamilton was famously killed in an 1804 duel by then-Vice President Aaron Burr.
By all accounts the two hated each other, but Kevin tells us Burr never meant to kill Hamilton, only to graze him or fire a shot near him. Kevin can’t claim to have seen them himself, but he relayed a legend that the two men’s spirits frequent the cemetery to this day in an effort to work out their longstanding differences.
As we stroll up Broadway, Adelaide points out a site that’s unusual even in NYC: a triple-level restaurant. Restaurateurs looking for space tell her their clientele would rather climb up two flights of stairs for a seat than walk an extra block. Ever wonder why you sometimes see five Starbucks within 10 blocks in Manhattan? Adelaide points out that when you have density like you find along Lower Broadway, most folks aren’t walking far enough to notice the repeating retail anyway.
A few blocks further up Broadway and several decades after Hamilton and Burr’s time, P.T. Barnum ran a museum where Park Row and Broadway meet. It was full of oddities that included rare animals from all over the world. Kevin notes that by some accounts it was the most-visited museum in the world until it burned down in 1865. Barnum famously left the animals inside as the building burned, and Kevin says it’s rumored they’ve left the area haunted ever since. Just about on the site of the former Barnum museum, Adelaide points out a pop-up Halloween store. It’s a phenomenon you really only see in NYC, she says.
If a landlord’s looking for exactly the right tenant and they’ve got space to fill in the meantime, often you’ll see five- or six-month leases around this time of year, she says. The leases work like any other lease, she says, with tenants along Lower Broadway typically paying between $550 and $700/SF for ground-floor space. That figure goes down as you go toward the Battery. Adelaide says that’s due to lower foot traffic and less of a 24-7 vibe further south. But as the area fills up with a residential population and new retail attracts more tourists and everyday shoppers, Adelaide says we should look for retail spaces further down Broadway to fetch rents that could rival what we see in the area around City Hall.
Across Park Row from the pop-up Halloween store, City Hall Park sits on the former site of a prison for Continental Army POWs during the Revolutionary War. Kevin says the prison guards sold off food and supplies intended to keep prisoners alive. The lore, he tells us, is that the souls of those guards still wander the grounds as punishment for their inhumanity. Whether that part’s true or not, Kevin points out that when the fountain was being redone in the '90s and the ground was dug up, human remains thought to date to around the time of the prison were found.
And that brings us to the late 1860s and ‘70s, and back to real estate. You may know about the Tweed Courthouse at 52 Chambers St, named for Tammany Hall’s Boss Tweed, who managed its construction. Suffice it to say, this Tweed guy had some issues keeping the project on budget. Out of $300k allowed from city funds, Tweed spent $12M—or, as Kevin tells us, more than the US paid to acquire Alaska, which happened during the 12 years it took Tweed to get the place built (it was supposed to take just a year). It was the last straw for Tweed. He was convicted of graft right inside what would become his namesake courthouse, and spent his last days in prison. There’s a popular myth that his ghost haunts the courthouse to this day. Curious about this, Kevin tells us he’s asked people who work in the building if they ever see anything fishy. He says more than once, folks who work there have described a guy who looks a lot like Boss Tweed himself, big bushy beard and all, wandering around inside.