There’s a quaint two-story red brick shop on Columbus Avenue that is currently a Patagonia store. It’s a lovely Flemish style brownstone and terra cotta building located directly across the street from the American Museum of Natural History. With its large archway, I always assumed it must have been a horse stable. I was surprised to discover that it was built in 1893 for Joseph R. Hennessy as an oyster market and restaurant and was designed by Clarence True. True was a very prolific architect of this era, designing 33 buildings that year alone. He is best recognized for his outstanding contributions to the townhouse and row house inventory on the Upper West Side, but I have not been able to find any other existing commercial properties by his hand.
What really intrigued me most when I began my research on this structure was the ubiquitous local oyster industry of that century. Today oysters are on the menus of many restaurants around the city with most east coast varieties coming from places like the Long Island Sound, Chesapeake Bay and the waters of New England and Canada. However, as recently as the early 20th century, New York City Harbor supplied the city’s oyster diet. When Henry Hudson arrived in 1609, it was said that the waters contained over 220,000 acres of oyster beds; nearly half of the oysters in the entire world. Many grew to enormous sizes; some as large as dinner plates. Introduced to the new settlers by the local Lenape Indians, they would prepare them by wrapping the entire shell in seaweed and placing them into an open fire. Oysters quickly became a staple in the diet of the average New Yorker and taverns and street carts that served these bivalves began to pop up all over the city.
By the early 1900’s, oysters were on the verge of complete depletion with over 1 billion per year being harvested and consumed. To contribute to the problem, the oyster beds were disrupted by continuous urban expansion and development. The marshy shorelines and rocky shallows, where the oyster beds thrived, were routinely being replaced with bulkheads, piers and landfill. To make matters worse, millions of gallons of raw sewage were being dumped into the harbor on a regular basis. In the early 1920’s, the city began closing down oyster beds, due to fears of food borne illness. In 1927, the City closed the last oyster bed in Raritan Bay.
New York City oysters never really disappeared completely, but they are functionally extinct. Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the water quality of the harbor has improved. Since oysters play a key role in the ecosystem, with their ability to filter up to 50 gallons of water per day and their function to attract other marine life, there is an initiative to boost the population. By 2030, The Billion Oyster Project seeks to distribute one billion live oysters around 100 acres of reefs around the harbor, hoping to restore New York City’s title as “oyster capital of the world”.
You can find out more by visiting their website: https://www.billionoysterproject.org/
Click here for a link with maps and descriptions of oysters currently found in the Long Island Sound https://www.oysterater.com/region/long-island-sound/
To read more about the history of the NYC Oyster:
Click here for more about the history of the Joseph R. Hennessey Oyster Market and Restaurant designed by Clarence True: