Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The unsweet view from Manhattan's oldest window



Sugar holds a sour spot in New York's revolutionary history. As the British swept through Manhattan, driving Washington and his Continental Army up to Harlem Heights, they collected a fair number of rebel prisoners. At first they thought to hold the prisoners in churches of 'dissenting sects' (i.e. non Anglican); finding those inadequete, they prepared to refit the city's sugar refineries as makeshift prisons. And so it was that Rhinelander Sugar House, on Duane and Rose Streets, held many early patriots of the American Revolution.

A surviving remnant of this prison can still be found, just steps off the Brooklyn Bridge, through the grand arch of the Manhattan Municipal Building. There you can find a strange barred window looking into nothing in particular.

However in the confusing and dangerous days of the Revolution, prisoners looked from it out into streets of British soldiers, rampaging fires and general mayhem. It is noted to have held those early New Yorkers 'suffering under the stigma of patriotism', often publishers of rebellious newssheets, sometimes even just those who happened to purchase them.

After the British were expunged from the city, the Rhinelander stood abandoned, eventually used for storage but largely decrepit and (according to superstitious uptowners) even haunted. By 1852, still in possession by the Rhinelander family, it was leased to a paper supplier.

In 1890, the prison was demolished and turned into an apartment building. But because nothing says comfortable living like a prison, part of the old prison and some of its bricks were incorporated into the new structure. In 1907, the Rhinelander apartment building was the scene of a horrifying elevator accident.

That building was later destroyed as well, in 1968, to make way for NYPD headquarters; however the prison window still remains as one of downtown Manhattan's living testaments to its contributions to American freedom.

If one Rhinelander prison window isn't enough for you, then you're in luck -- another
was removed and installed among the south grounds of Van Cortlandt Mansion at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx.

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