Historic, but not famous

George Petrie, YMCA founder in NYC
Location of the first YMCA in NYC.

George Petrie (1828 – 1902), a young New York City businessman, was instrumental in the founding of the YMCA in New York City after being inspired by his visits to the London YMCA while visiting the Great Exhibition of 1850. Petrie brought back literature on the London facilities and organized a committee around the ideas of the London YMCA.

With the help of Mercer Street Presbyterian’s Rev. Isaac Ferris, Petrie set up a temporary facility in rooms on the third floor of the old New York City Lyceum at 659 Broadway. Many men new to the city, flocked to the YMCA, using its library and meeting place, network of friends and surrogate family, and help in finding housing, churches, and jobs with YMCA businessman backers.  The idea was to promote the improvement of the spiritual, mental and social conditions of young men.

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Historic, but not famous

John G. Coster, merchant

John G. Coster and his older brother, Henry, were born in Holland.  Henry arrived in New York prior to the Revolution and John (who had been educated at a physician) followed a few years later.  They established Brothers Coster & Co., later renamed “Henry A. and John G. Coster.”

In The Old Merchants of New York City, published in 1863, the brothers are mentioned as some of the finest merchants in New York City. Walter Barrett wrote “No better merchants ever lived in this city than these two.  When these two honest, guileless merchants formed a partnership in the town”. They sold items from Holland and were famous for their tape made of flax among many other products.

Following Henry’s death in 1821 John continued working in retail and finance.  In 1826 he succeeded Henry Remsen as President of the Merchant’s Bank, and he was a director in the Manhattan Bank, the Phoenix Insurance Company and the Globe Insurance Company. He also held out against selling his mansion at No. 227 Broadway  to John Astor who bought every other property to build his huge mansion. When John sold, he was paid $60,000 for the house and land; about $1.5 million today.

Mr. Coster purchased two plots at Nos. 539 and 541 Broadway, between Spring and Prince Streets for his new living quarters.  He commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis and Ithiel Town, two of the preeminent architects of the day, to design his new home.  Completed around 1833, the free-standing mansion was faced in granite.  Three stories tall, its hipped roof sat behind a parapet with a central section of balustrades.  The double-doored entrance sat within an elegant, columned portico.

When John  died in 1846 the neighborhood around his granite mansion was shockingly changing as the entertainment district inched up Broadway. His grand mansion was eventually turned into a theater. It housed an exhibit of Chinese Art and the mansion that once housed fine artwork, costly furniture and imported carpeting, became home to “the wonderful elephant, Tippoo Saib,” lions, panthers and other beasts when Van Amburgh & Co’s. Menagerie moved in. In 1865, P. T. Barnum leased the mansion as a replacement for his recently burned down theater.

In 1868, a fire broke out and the buildings were destroyed. Within a year the cast iron S. A. Beekman & Co. building was completed. The building just north of Spring street has retail stores on the bottom level and loft apartments above.

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Historic, but not famous

Harold Rome, composer, lyricist

Harold “Hecky” Jacob Rome (May 27, 1908 – October 26, 1993) was an American composer, lyricist, and writer for musical theater. He was born in Connecticut and played piano in local dance bands and was already writing music while studying architecture and law at Yale University. He graduated in 1929 with a Bachelor of Arts, and continued into Yale Law School. He moved to NYC as an architect, but continued to write music. Much of the music hewas writing at this time was socially conscious and of little interest to the mainstream audiences.

In 1937, he made his Broadway debut as co-writer, composer, and lyricist of the topical revue Pins and Needles. After a 2-week professional run, it was adapted for performances by members of the then-striking International Garment Workers’ Union as an entertainment for its members.  The show was a huge success, running for 1108 performances, and prompted George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart to invite Rome to collaborate on another topical revue, Sing Out the News, in 1938.

This began a long career in musical theater with his music and/or lyrics  heard in such films as Rear WindowAnchors AweighThousands Cheer, and Babes on Broadway. His Broadway song appearances include Call Me Mister, Wish You Were Here, Fanny, Destry Rides Again,  I Can Get It for You Wholesale,  and The Zulu and the Zayda.

In 1991, Rome was presented with a special Drama Desk Award for his “distinctive contribution to musical theater.” Later that same year, he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. He died of a stroke in New York City at the age of 85.

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Historic, but not famous

John Bunny, comedian, silent film star

John Bunny (September 21, 1863 – April 26, 1915) was an actor who was often described as “the first internationally recognized film comedian.” Between 1909 and his death in 1915, Bunny was one of the top stars of early silent film, as well as an early example of celebrity.

Bunny was born in New York City and raised in Brooklyn. The son of English immigrants, he initially worked as a clerk in a general store before joining a small minstrel show at the age of twenty. His stage career spanned over 30 years and included work in tour and stock theater companies around the US until he worked his way onto the Broadway stage. His performance as Bottom in a Midsummer Nights Dream brought great acclaim and he decided to move to the movies after seeing how film was effecting the stage.

He approached Vitagraph studios and started working with them in 1910, accepting a lower rate of pay than he made on Broadway. He ended up starring in over 150 films for the studio.  They often paired Bunny with the comedian Flora Finch, with whom he made over one hundred popular comedies that came to be known as “Bunnygraphs” or “Bunnyfinches”.

Headstone in Evergreen Cemetery

Bunny had been acting in films for only five years when he died from Bright’s disease, a kidney disease, at his home in Brooklyn on April 26, 1915. He was survived by his wife and two sons and interred in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York

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