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Historic Street Lampposts (Lamppost 13)

Historic Street Lampposts (Lamppost 13)

Financial District, Manhattan, completely new York City, completely new York, United States

24M (type-M) Post nos. 7-15, 45, 78, 95.

A simplified descendent of the mast arm post first used as part of the "Boulevard" lighting system (fig. 21). The base and shaft match the 24A bishop’s crook. Two designs of scrollwork between the arm and shaft were used. This is the closest old design of mast arm post to those today being reproduced. The reproductions incorporate the garland on the shaft and the newer style of scrollwork.


Approximately 100 historic, cast-iron lampposts are known to survive in the City of completely new York. The earliest, dating from the mid-nineteenth century, are two gas lampposts. Electric lights first appeared in 1880, on Broadway. The first installation of truly ornamental electrified cast-iron posts occurred on Fifth Avenue in 1892.

By the 1930s, completely new York streets were lighted by an extraordinary variety of lampposts, brackets, and pedestals. During the 1950s and 1960s most of these posts were replaced by "modern" steel and aluminum types. Approximately 100 old iron posts and brackets have been identified; some have survived by accident, while others have been preserved by the special effort of the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture. today often standing in forgotten urban spaces or oddly quaint in their juxtaposition to modern buildings, these lampposts reflected the variety and exuberance of the city’s architecture. Those which survive continue to grace (and, in most cases, light) the city’s streets and are maintained under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation.

Sixty-two lampposts and four wall bracket lamps are included in this designation. The remainder are already protected within designated historic districts or are on designated landmark sites.


A Brief History of Street Lighting

The history of street lighting in completely new York, as in other major cities throughout the world, closely parallels that of the development of lighting technology. From candles and oil, through gas, to electricity, street lights have always reflected the technology and tastes of their time.

Candles and Oil The first efforts at coordinated street lighting in urban settings appear to have begun in the seventeenth century, although some attempts at lighting for feast days may date to medieval times.1 Between 1667 and 1763, Paris had as many as 6,500 candle lanterns suspended fifteen feet above streets and installed fifteen yards apart. Pulleys at each side allowed for servicing from adjoining buildings. The candles were lit twenty nights per month (moonlight provided sufficient light on other nights) and from October through March.2

Amsterdam streets were lighted by oil lamps in 1669, those in Hamburg in 1675, and those in Vienna in 1687.3 In London, a 1694 licensing arrangement called for oil lamps to be lighted at every tenth house from 6:00P.M. to midnight between Michaelmas (September 29) and Lady (Annunciation) Day (March 25). The City of London took over the job in 1736 and installed 5,000 lamps in the streets, five times the previous number. By 1738 there were 15,000 oil lamps lighting the streets of London.4

On November 23, 1697, the Common Council of completely new York, "having considered ‘the great Inconveniency that Attends this Citty being A trading place for want of having lights in the Darke time of ye moon in the winter season,’ it is ordered ‘that all and Every of the house Keepers within this Citty Shall put out lights in their Windows fronting ye Respective Streets.’" Shortly thereafter the requirement was changed to every seventh house, and this method of street illumination continued for over 60 years.5 In 1762, the city was authorized to levy a tax for installing lamps, paying watchmen to attend them, and purchasing oil,6 apparently representing the city’s first attempt at municipal street lighting. Contemporary illustrations depict polygonal lanterns atop plain wood posts (figs. 1 and 2).


Gas lighting was first exhibited in London’s Pall Mall for the King’s birthday in 1805. In 1809 this street was the first in the world to be permanently lighted by gas. By 1823, 215 miles of London streets

were lighted with over 39,000 gas lamps.7

Shortly after Baltimore became the first city in the U.S. to introduce gas street lighting in 1817, the completely new York Gas Light Co. was incorporated on March 26, 1823. A few weeks later, it was awarded the first franchise to supply the city with "buildings, works, and apparatus for the preparation and manufacture of gas; cause the necessary pipes to be made of cast iron, and to be laid; and manufacture and supply in the most approved manner sufficient quantities of the best quality gas…for lighting Broadway from Grand Street to the Battery." This work was completed on May 11, 1825. The next year the city contracted with completely new York Gas Light to extend its system of gas lines and cast-iron lampposts to all streets between the East River and the Hudson River south of Grand and Canal Streets, with 2,400 posts spaced 100 feet apart to be installed by May 1828s (fig. 3).

The post design that became standard for gas lights was introduced around 1860.9 Its simple, fluted eight-foot base and shaft were topped with a short, horizontal bar used as a ladder rest and surmounted by an eight-paned, polygonal lantern, or luminaire10 (fig. 4). These posts quickly became ubiquitous. Two of these posts have been located–one at the foot of Patchin Place in the Greenwich Village Historic District has a modern electric luminaire (fig. 35), and the other at the northeast corner of 211th Street and Broadway has no luminaire (post nos. 44 and 85).11 The technology of gas lighting changed little until 1893, when a gas burner incorporating an incandescent mantle was developed.12 The "Welsbach" mantle produced a gas light three times as bright as previous burners (thirty-five to forty candlepower as opposed to thirteen candlepower). A woven ceramic mantle, or shroud, placed over the gas flame produced a bright, white light.13 completely new luminaires were developed for the completely new gas mantle burner. Two types of luminaires, both cylindrical in form, were retrofitted to existing gas posts (figs. 5 and 6). In 1904 "a great improvement" was made when 16,000 old gas lamps in Manhattan and the Bronx were changed to mantle lamps.14

Gas street lighting maintained a considerable presence well into the twentieth century, and long after the introduction of electric street lighting. In 1913, there were still 44,653 single mantle gas lamps on the streets of completely new York. Even at this late date, a trial was being conducted of twenty-eight "inverted" mantle gas burners. One thousand eight hundred sixteen naphtha-vapor lamps were in use in outlying areas. By contrast, about 37,000 electric street lamps of various types had been installed by 1913.15 C.F. Lacombe, the engineer in charge of illumination in the city at this time, noted that gas was still generally in use in residential districts and on other streets with little night traffic. Electric lamps were, however, rapidly making inroads in these areas.

There were exceptions to the standard gas post and lantern. In parks and on boulevard-like streets, ornamental posts were often used, and in certain locations such as around monuments, they and their luminaires were quite elaborate (fig. 7). Also, in a tradition extending to today, certain businesses, such as restaurants and hotels, often installed their own fancy lampposts at either the curb or property line adjacent to their buildings indicating "in a most artistic manner that the building is a public one….

The advent of these ornamental lamps has done much to lend an air of cheerfulness and gaiety to many streets…" (fig. 8).17


Over 200 years passed from 1650, when Otto Von Guericke, a German physicist, first recognized that light could be produced from electricity, to the development of a practical means for producing, distributing, and using electricity for lighting. Von Guericke’s experiments produced flashes of light by exciting a turning sulphur ball by friction with the hand, and by drawing a piece of amber through a woolen cloth.18 In 1730, Granville Wheeler and Stephen Gray sent an electric current through 886 feet of wire,19 and in 1800, Sir Humphry Davy created a brilliant spark when he broke contact between two carbon rods connected to a battery. While this experiment led to creation of the first arc lamp in 1808, it was not practical because no battery had yet been developed that could maintain a continuous flow of current.

The first incandescent lamp was invented in 1820, when the Englishman De La Rue installed a coiled platinum wire in a glass tube.21 In 1859 Moses G. Farmer of Salem, Mass. lighted his home with a series of platinum strips in clamps, set in the open air and connected to batteries. Neither this nor any other of the many lamps developed in the 1840s and 50s proved practical for electric lighting.22 Finally, in 1860 Sir Joseph W. Swan began studies using a carbonized paper filament in a vacuum, but faults in the vacuum-sealing process caused failure.23 The first successful electric lights were arc lamps, which consist of two electrodes, usually carbon, separated by a short air space. When electric current is applied to one electrode, it flows to and through the other, striking an arc across the gap. The glowing arc and adjacent incandescent ends of the electrodes provide the light.24

Although Dungeness Lighthouse in England is reported to have had the first commercial application of arc lights in 1862,25 practical arc lights appear to have been developed in 1876-77. In Russia, Paul Jablochkoff, an army engineer, invented what came to be known as the "Jablochkoff candle." And the American Charles F. Brush, having invented a nine-inch diameter dynamo capable of powering an arc lamp, went on to invent a practical arc lamp and to develop an arc light system in Cleveland. His first lamp burned eight hours before the carbons were consumed.

The first public exhibit of arc lighting in the U.S. occurred on a street corner in Newark, N.J. in 1877. Then, in 1878, what is believed to be the first permanent electric street lighting was installed in Paris, with sixteen Jablochkoff candles lighting Avenue de l’Opera.27 The next year, Charles Brush installed the first lights to illuminate a street in the U.S.–twelve carbon arc lamps in Public Square, Cleveland.28 Only six years after the Cleveland installation there were 600 lighting companies in the U.S.29

Brush Electric Light and Power Co. of completely new York provided completely new York City with its first electric street lighting. In December 1880 Brush’s arc lamps were installed along Broadway from 14th to 26th Streets. At the same time, Madison Square was illuminated by arc lamps placed on a 160-foot high tower.30 A visitor from London, William Preece, described the effect as that of pale moonlight. By October 1884 Preece could write of "the brilliantly illuminated avenues of completely new York," on which he "drove from the Windsor Hotel, NY, to the Cunard Wharf, a distance of about four miles through streets entirely illuminated by electricity."31 Contemporary photographs show that these early arc lamps were generally placed atop relatively tall, plain posts, and that they became fairly widespread in central commercial areas of the city in the 1880s (fig. 9). They were always accompanied by the older gas lamps, as the electric generation and distribution systems would not become reliable until well into the twentieth century. (Photographic evidence indicates that some of the bases of these arc lamp posts may have been retained with completely new shafts and bishop’s crook tops installed. Identified as Type 6BC (fig. 20), the two remaining bishop’s crook posts with this base may therefore be the oldest [in part] extant electric lampposts in the city [post nos. 69 and 84].)

Improvements continued to be made to arc lamps, including the development of a type that could be fully enclosed in a globe and one that added metallic salts to the carbons, making possible a luminous or "flaming arc of considerable intensity. "32 Comparisons of photographs taken only a few years apart reveal that luminaires were frequently changed to take advantage of the completely new lamp technology. Arc lamps continued to be common for street lighting through the 1910s, when improvements to incandescent lamps, including gas-filled tungsten filament lamps, finally allowed them to supplant the carbon arc. It appears that the old, long-drop luminaires were retrofitted for use with tungsten lamps, as they remained in place into the 1930s, when they were replaced with stubbier luminaires designed specifically for incandescent lamps.

Ornamental Lampposts

By the late 1880s the technology reached a certain threshhold, and attention was turned to the artistic design of lampposts. The first installation of posts that can properly be called ornamental occurred in September 1892 on Fifth Avenue between Washington Square Park and 59th Street (fig. 10). The completely new York Times reported:

Fifth Avenue is to be lighted with handsome electric lamps…. The Edison Illuminating Company will furnish the light on an improved system, consisting of a completely new style of arc lights used on a low-tension circuit….Fifty cast-iron poles, 20 feet in height, and each carrying two electric lamps of about 1,000 candle power…will be ornamental in character, as will also the lamps, which will have artistic ground-glass globes and brass trimmings….The avenue is likely to present a very brilliant spectacle, as there will be 100 lights.34

The spectacle was evidently not brilliant enough, as 50 more of the posts were placed in the middle of each block early the next year.35 These elegant posts were the earliest form of the twin lamppost, predecessor to later styles common on boulevards, parkways, and significant public places. The last of these posts, originally located at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 17th Street, within the Ladies’ Mile Historic District, has been undergoing restoration and will shortly be returned to Fifth Avenue, between 17th and 18th Streets (post no. 47).

The design of these Fifth Avenue twin posts incorporates a relatively slender, fluted base, which makes a transition to the fluted shaft with a collar adorned with acanthus leaves. A foliate capital terminates the fluted shaft, above which is a smaller ladder rest, and a plain pipe leading to a large ball, which serves as the anchor for the horizontal cross-arm. C- and S-scrolls support the cross-arm against the vertical shaft. An unusual spiral wire finial terminates each end of the cross-arm, and another sits on top of the central ball. They have a form that appears to represent a flame or electric current. Luminaires were suspended from the ends of the cross-arm. Through the 1930s, the luminaires, though modified, remained long and elegantly proportioned (fig. 11). After that, luminaires became increasingly truncated, and the original elegant proportions were lost. The designer and fabricator of this post have not been identified.

These posts underwent two modifications early in their history. First, the plain upper section of shaft pipe was lengthened, and then the entire cast-iron fluted shaft was replaced with a longer one. These changes were probably made to provide more evenly distributed light and to reduce glare.

A number of ornamental arc lamp posts were designed following the successful installation on Fifth Avenue. The precise dates of introduction, as well as the designers and fabricators of most of these posts, remain undiscovered. The earliest of these, introduced around 1900, is the bishop’s crook (fig. 12), so ubiquitous it is almost a symbol of completely new York, though it was installed elsewhere in the U.S. (for example, in Savannah, Ga.). Several variations of the bishop’s crook were made. The earliest type incorporated a garland on the fluted shaft, a short ladder rest, and was made from a single iron casting up to the crook section. The largest collection of this type is in City Hall Park (post nos. 3, 5, 23, 27, 28, 29, 31-35, 81, 82). Later types eliminated the garland and ladder rest, incorporated lengths of plain iron pipe at the top of the shaft, and had other minor decorative and proportional differences (post nos. 1, 2, 4, 6, 17, 19, 24, 30, 36-43, 56, 79, 80, 83).

In 1908, the "Boulevard" lighting system was introduced on Broadway north of Columbus Circle and on Seventh Avenue north of Central Park.36 It consisted of the first "mast-arm" post, that is, a vertical shaft similar to that of the bishop’s crook with a ten-foot horizontal arm over the roadway. Elaborate scrollwork, with attached leaf-form castings, filled the space between the horizontal arm and vertical shaft (fig. 13). These posts were placed on sidewalks at street corners. On the medians, a different type of post–the lyre–was installed. Also with a shaft similar to the bishop’s crook, the post was topped with a harp- or lyre-form ornament, in the center of which hung the luminaire (fig. 14). No examples of either of these post types remain, although examples of two later versions of the mast-arm type–today known as the Type-G (post nos. 70, 71, 96-100, [fig. 22]) and the Type-24M (post nos. 715, 45, 78, 95 [fig. 21])–survive.

A variant of the lyre post, installed at the Municipal Building, was designed by the firm of McKim, Mead & White. As the building was designed in 1907-08 and built in 1909-13, it is unclear whether the more common lyre post as used on Broadway was modelled after this firm’s design, or vice-versa. The main distinguishing feature of the McKim, Mead & White design is a large, openwork anthemion crowning the lyre top.

By 1913, in addition to the Fifth Avenue twin, bishop’s crook, mast-arm, and lyre posts, a "reverse scroll bracket post" (today known as the Type-F) had been developed and was in use on lower Seventh Avenue and elsewhere (post nos. 46, 60-62, 72, 73, 103, and 104 [fig. 24]). Also, posts about 45 feet high with twin luminaires using powerful flame arc lamps were installed in Times Square and other large, open spaces37 (fig. 15). One of this type remains, at the intersection of Amsterdam Avenue, Hamilton Place, and 153rd Street. (post no.59 [fig. 31]). Also, "for use on buildings in narrow streets downtown," bracket versions of the bishop’s crook (post no. 77 [fig. 32]), "reverse scroll," and various mast-arm types (post nos. 18, 92-94, 104 [figs. 33 and 34]) were installed on the facades of buildings.38

By 1913, the first two post types had been designed for tungsten incandescent lamps. Because these lamps provide less intense light than arc lamps, the posts were short–about nine feet high. The first, of elegant "French design," originally was installed in Central Park and on Riverside Drive.39 Known later as the Type-C or "Boulevard" Type, five of these posts survive (post nos. 75, 76, 105, 106, and 107 [fig. 16]). (This post type appears in turn-of-the-century photographs with gas luminaires. They were probably later converted for use with electric lamps.) The second type, designed by Henry Bacon in 1911, is today known as the Type-B post. First used to light park roadways and special areas such as the Central Park Mall, the post soon was installed throughout parks in the city. Many hundreds of old and completely new examples remain today.

In 1913, C.F. LaCombe, the engineer-in-charge of illumination for the city, described the post and lighting options: Enclosed arc lamps, reinforced by flaming arc lamps, were installed in congested areas such as Times Square. Arc lamps lined main avenues and business streets practically over their whole length in Manhattan and as far as necessary in the other boroughs. Tungsten incandescent or gas mantle lamps were used on residential streets and commercial streets of minor importance.40 At the time, there were 19,180 standard, enclosed arc lamps; 17,991 incandescent lamps; 78 flaming arc lamps; 44,653 mantle gas lamps; 28 inverted mantle gas lamps on trial; and 1,816 naphtha-vapor lamps. The city’s 28 lighting companies owned the luminaires used on all these posts; they also owned arc-lamp posts. The city owned the gas posts and the incandescent-lamp posts in streets and parks that were provided with underground service.41 By 1931, there were only eight public utility (lighting) companies. They owned posts designed for 300-watt lamps and over, while lampposts using 200-watt or smaller lamps were designed and owned by the city.42

In a lecture he gave in 1913, LaCombe explained the method used for developing completely new post designs, for both company-owned and city-owned posts: The posts were first drawn, life-size plaster models made and revised, the pattern developed and corrected "until a satisfactory and harmonious result combining artistic effect with engineering construction was attained." The design was then submitted to the Municipal Art Commission and its criticisms embodied in the final result.43

Although tungsten lamps supplanted carbon arc lamps in the 1910s and 20s, development of newer arc-type lamps continued. These newer lamps incorporated "gaseous conductors" including mercury vapor (1901) and sodium vapor (1933). While these lamps were highly efficient, their monochromatic light was unpleasant.44 Somewhat improved versions of these and other gaseous conduction lamps have today supplanted incandescant lamps for street lighting.

The number of cast-iron lamppost designs continued to grow through the 1920s, spurred in part by the decentralized nature of the electric distribution system and equipment ownership. By 1934, when the city’s Bureau of Gas and Electricity catalogued the posts then in use, 76 types of standard posts were identified; an even larger number of "special" post types was identified in use on bridges, viaducts, at monuments, and on public plazas.45 Although some of these posts represented minor variations one to another, there was nonetheless an extraordinary variety.

Later History

Although the ornate cast-iron lampposts designed early in the century predominated into the 1950s and ’60s, completely new posts continued to be designed for special locations. The parkways designed under the jurisdiction of Robert Moses in the 1920s and ’30s originally were lighted with lamps on rustic wood posts. Moderne-style steel posts were often designed to accompany mid-twentieth century bridge and tunnel construction projects, such as the Triboro Bridge, entrances to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the old West Side Elevated Highway, and the Manhattan approaches to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. Many of these posts survive. Park Avenue had a system of single and twin streamlined steel posts. The aluminum post designed by Donald Desky in the late 1950s and installed beginning in 1963 was perhaps the first made specifically to accommodate the "cobra-head" luminaire. Its contemporary elegance is best appreciated when the post is clean and polished and seen in a context of modern buildings.

The current standard, octagonal, galvanized steel post with cobra-head luminaire dates from the era of wholesale urban "renewal," interstate highway construction, and suburban sprawl. The replacement of thousands of ornate cast-iron posts with this type was nearly complete by the early 1970s, when the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture reached agreement with the city to preserve about 30 old posts, identified with smaller bronze plaques mounted on the shafts. Subsequently, a number of additional survivors have been found. These remaining examples of historic lampposts reflect the variety and exuberance of the city’s historic architecture and the delight and pride taken in the city by its inhabitants and builders.

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