New York City Photo Focus- Lampposts
New York City is overwhelming to the senses. There isn’t a square inch that hasn’t been built on, rebuilt, touched up, or painted over. Sometimes it takes a purposeful look to notice the very basic things that make up the urban landscape. Take for instance the lampposts that line nearly every street in the 5 boroughs. Have you ever thought that they would make a nice photograph? Maybe, maybe not. I urge you to look again. The street lights, stoop lamps, lampposts and other sources of illumination are an iconic architectural element in the city and have as much history as anything else in NY. The design and placement of these structures have often helped define different districts. Whether it’s the ubiquitous standard lights lining the wide Manhattan Avenues or the individual street lamps that adorn the brownstones of Park Slope, the fixtures that New Yorkers have chosen to light their neighborhoods often gives them very unique personalities.
The history of municipal street lighting mirrors the history of technology and architectural tastes. A brief chronology of the Lamppost in NYC starts with a 1697 law that all citizens must have lighted candles in their street side windows. Official city-built candle lanterns were affixed in that era leading up to the instillation of oil lamps in 1762. The first gas lamps were seen on Broadway in 1823 (several years after Baltimore became the first American City with Gas lighting). Even after the first electric street light hit NY in 1880, gas lamps dominated the cityscape, outnumbering electric for nearly the next half century. Since then there have been numerous design changes in City Lamps but thankfully there has never been a push to homogenize them. The most recent change happened just last year. In 2011 the city held a design contests for new lamps and the winner has already been installed along Church Street running south of the World Trade Center site. See the design here.
Of course all that means little to modern urban exploring photographers looking for a taste of the past. Many of the early designs for lamps have been retro-designed for modern use but are not built at the original dimensions or with original materials. If you are looking for the real historic lamps, there are about 100 remaining cast iron posts scattered throughout the city. For example the popular 8-foot fluted post that became popular in the 1860 have mostly disappeared, but there are still two remaining for photo hounds; one that stands without a light fixture at 211th street and Broadway, and one that has been rebuilt as electric at Patchin Place (west village). For another “find” go to the last remaining ornamental twin post that can still be seen on 5th avenue between 17th and 18th st.
There are almost 75 posts that have been designated as landmarks and thankfully will be protected from destruction. A few dozen more are locate in already protected historic districts like the Flatiron. And then there are those still to be noticed. The historic quirks of New York may never all be found. So, while walking the streets of New York, keep watch for the old and unique. To hunt for historic lampposts or just ones that are different and interesting do a little online digging. The fine folks at Forgotten NY track these wonderful NY elements for you.
For a starter exercise you can find the Donald Deskey lamppost design that has been used in the city since its first use in 1958 on the corner of Murray Street and Broadway. Or search for Type six Bishops Crooks.
If you want to explore for yourself I’d recommend starting in some old new York neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant, Astoria, Brooklyn Heights or Harlem. Before you go, take a look at this excellent essay on the history of city lights: Historic Lamppost designation report.
As always, go prepared, enjoy your photography outing, and when you get back share your pics with us here.