Pop quiz: What is the oldest outdoor structure in Manhattan?
Give up? If you guessed some old British farmhouse or Dutch graveyard, you’d be off by a couple millenia. The oldest structure is a towering stone obelisk behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In his Handbook to New York City (1892), Moses King gushed, “The obelisk was old in the days of the Roman Empire; antedates the Christian Era by fifteen centuries; looked down upon the land of Egypt before the siege of Troy; and was familiar to the Israelites in bondage.”
The obelisk is nicknamed Cleopatra’s Needle, though Cleopatra never set eyes upon it. In 1450 BC, Pharaoh Thothmes III erected a pair of pink granite obelisks in the Temple of On in Heliopolis in honor of his 30-year reign. He covered them in heiroglyphics praising his glory and giving blessings to Horus, “lord of diadems, guardian of Egypt, chastiser of foreign countries.” The monuments watched over Heliopolis for centuries, surviving a Persian assault that burned the city and charred the granite dusky brown. In 18 AD, the Romans relocated the obelisks to the shores of Alexandria under orders of Augustus. By this point, the base had severely weathered and was in danger of toppling over, so Augustus had four bronze crabs cast and placed at the corners, ostensibly to praise Apollo but mostly to provide stability. (The current crabs are all reproductions cast in the Brooklyn Navy Yard – the only original crab is on display in the Met.) Thus the obelisk remained on the banks of Alexandria for another 18 centuries.
Fast-forward to 1877. The Western World is gripped by a mania for all things Egyptian. London and Paris already possessed obelisks as gifts from Egypt (England received Heliopolis’ other obelisk in 1875) and New York was desperate for one of its own. Luckily, the Khedive of Egypt Isma’il Pasha was more than willing to offer her one. Having plunged his nation into severe debt waging a costly war against Ethiopia, he hoped this goodwill gesture would establish friendly trade relations for the sale of Egyptian cotton.
New York graciously accepted the gift and began searching for a suitable location. A delegation selected Greywache Knoll between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Reservoir. There, the obelisk could loom over the shoreline much as it had in Alexandria. (The Reservoir was later filled in with rubble from the Rockefeller Center construction site to create the Great Lawn.) But transporting the obelisk would be no easy feat. The hunk of granite was 69 feet tall and weighed 220 tons. How could you even get it aboard a ship, let alone move it to the middle of Central Park?
The task fell to Henry Honeychurch Gorringe, a former naval engineer with decades of experience working in Egypt. First things first. Gorringe knew no ship had an opening large enough to lower the obelisk into the hull from above, and keeping the precious relic on deck across the Atlantic Ocean was out of the question. So why not build the ship around the obelisk? Not build, exactly, but rebuild. Gorringe hired a 15-year-old steamship called the Dessoug and dry-docked it in the port of Alexandria. After removing 30 plates and 7,000 rivets from the starboard bow, he created a hole just large enough to slide the obelisk into the hull. Laborers hauled the obelisk to the dock and, in eight hours, pushed the obelisk into the hull and patched up the hole. On June 12th, 1880, the Dessoug set sail toward the eastern horizon.
After a brief stop in Staten Island to transfer the obelisk from a steamship to a pontoon for its trip up the Hudson, the great pillar landed at Quarantine Station at 96th Street on July 20th, 1880. Now came the second problem. How would they get the thing from the Hudson River to Central Park? Donor Cornelius Vanderbilt initially proposed building a specially-designed railroad solely for transporting the obelisk, but experts realized the millenia-old granite would shatter if subjected to the stresses of a bumpy train ride.
Gorringe took inspiration from the Egyptians themselves – the best way to move a giant slab of stone was to pull it. Workers erected a giant wooden platform, then lashed thick ropes around the obelisk to slowly lower it onto the platform, now covered with boards placed over a bed of cannonballs. They tied the horizontal obelisk to a team of 32 horses that, with a mighty pull, slowly rolled the boards over the cannonballs. The back half of the platform was dismantled, reassembled in front of the obelisk, and the process resumed. Thus began the obelisk’s 169-day journey across Manhattan.
It was slow work, to say the least. The obelisk didn’t even reach Broadway until October, and even then, it took eight hours just to make a right-hand turn. (At that rate, the New York Evening Post estimated it would have taken 3,000 years to get the obelisk from Egypt.) Yet in spite of the snail-like pace, the curious public flocked to see this massive antiquity dragged to Central Park. Enterprising vendors sold candied dates out of obelisk-shaped containers. Nearby bars started slinging “Obbylishes,” a cocktail garnished with needle-shaped swizzle sticks. Curiosity-seekers tried to chisel pieces off the pillar until armed guards were hired to keep it under 24-hour surveillance. Freemasons celebrated with a parade 9,000 strong to help dedicate the cornerstone of the obelisk’s eventual destination. Sewing supply manufacturers used its likeness to hock their needles and thread. Meanwhile, workers continued day in and day out, dragging the obelisk through Central Park in one of the coldest winters in living memory.
On January 5th, 1881, the obelisk reached its final destination. Two weeks later, a gaggle of dignitaries, diplomats, and donors descended on Central Park to watch the obelisk lowered to its final position. The whole week had been bitterly cold, and the New York Herald suggested that “[w]ere the obelisk anything but the solid hearted veteran that it is, yesterday’s weather would have frightened it out of the idea of setting itself up in business in this country, yet a crowd of thousands huddled around bonfires for hours to see the monument complete its journey. At five minutes past noon, Gorringe gave the signal to lower the obelisk into place via a specially-designed turning structure. The crowd erupted in cheers as the monument slowly tilted “as easily or delicately as if it were the minute-hand of a lady’s watch.” The applause continued unabated until ten minutes later, when the obelisk came to its final resting place on the pedestal.
Since that day, the obelisk has not moved a fraction of an inch, and after a 2014 restoration, probably looks better than it has in over a millennium. It’s amazing to think of how much history this single monument has seen. I’ll let James D. McCabe finish this article with his eloquent description in 1881’s New York by Gaslight:
“It is one of the oldest existing monuments of the ancient world, and carries us back fifteen centuries beyond the Christian era. It was venerable when Moses enjoyed the favor of the Egyptian court as ‘the son of Pharoah’s daughter,’ and he must have seen it frequently. It witnessed all the various changes in the destiny of Egypt, under its native rulers and foreign masters for three thousand years, and was already fifteen hundred years old when it was removed from its original site to Alexandria. What changes it shall behold in its new home in the metropolis of the Western World the future alone can disclose.”