Heins & LaFarge beaver plaque at Astor Place
It’s John Jacob Astor’s birthday today. The Astors were a powerful family in early New York history, making their fortune from the beaver pelt trade, and eventually owning a ton of city real estate. They’re why we have Beaver Street in the FiDi, and why Astoria is called Astoria. (He didn’t even put up a lot of the money for developing Astoria, they just wanted his name and he obliged.) The name “Astor” is everywhere in this city–almost like “Trump”!
If you look at the Astor Place 6 subway station, you may notice some critters you don’t normally see in other stations. The Astor family had made its profits from the beaver pelt trade, so in a nod to their fortune, the station features tiles of beavers! The tiles and plaques were designed by George C. Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge, both relatives of stained-glass master John LaFarge, in 1904.
This certainly isn’t the only New York landmark named for Astor. One of my favorites is Astoria, Queens. The neighborhood was known as Hallett’s Cove (though it now encompasses Steinway, Ravenswood, and a few more). Steven Halsey, a local fur merchant, established a ferry route across the East River to 92nd Street, wanted Astor to invest money in the neighborhood, and petitioned the state legislature to rename it Astoria. He won, though Astor invested just $500, and never set foot in Astoria. He could, however, see the neighborhood across the river from his summer home on 87th Street. According to the Daily News, Astor himself said “They named Astoria, Ore., after me and I’m never going out there. And now you’ve named Astoria, L.I., after me and I’m not going out there, either.”
John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), ca. 1840. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. George K. Livermore