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Nyack People & Places: Nyack Through the Lens––An Exhibit of Gilded Age Photographs

When people hear the term “Gilded Age” they may think of Julian Fellowes’ new TV series or of some distant time populated by remote, wealthy Americans in big houses wearing elaborate clothing. A new exhibit by the Historical Society of the Nyacks, Nyack Through the Lens, brings the Gilded Age closer to home by featuring the work of two Nyack photographers who document up close the people and places from 1870-1910.

The fact that these photographs have survived is itself an important story. Only through the efforts of the Perry family and the Nyack Library are we able to see today how villagers lived some four generations ago.

The Gilded Age

The period of 1870-1900 was a time of great prosperity in America and a time of great income inequality not unlike today. Tycoons of industry, inventors, real estate developers, and scores of others accumulated new, unheard-of wealth. It was the age of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Guggenheim, Frick, Gould, and so many others. Enormous city mansions, river and ocean-front summer homes, extravagant dinners, exotic vacations, and recreational sports became de rigueur among the wealthy. At the same time, waves of immigration and suppression of African Americans produced an extremely poor working class that struggled to get by working at low wage jobs in poor conditions. The middle class prospered as new houses, roads, railroads, and technology fostered a demand for professionals and services.

Nyack, Gem of the Hudson

Frank Brush’s photograph of the 22-room estate named Undercliff on N. Broadway in Upper Nyack from around 1890.

Nyack on the Hudson, as we were then known, prospered as well. Before the Civil War, Nyack was a sleepy farming community. By the end of the century, the churches, houses, and business buildings, many of which still stand, were all in place. What was unique about Nyack during the Gilded Age was that the area was a go-to summer place for the wealthy who wanted to escape the heat and disease of summers in the city. Nyack became more accessible with the opening of the Northern Railroad in 1870, the Nyack Ferry to Westchester, and numerous steamboats plying the Hudson River.

Several large hotels, the St. George Hotel, the Prospect House, the Tappan Zee House, and the Pavilion were built in Nyack, taking advantage of the local natural scenery to provide recreation for guests – walking, boating, hiking, rowing, swimming, tennis, golf, bowling, horseback riding, and scenic vistas. The Nyack Opera House provided sophisticated cultural events. The Nyack Philharmonic society, local dramatic groups and touring performers regularly appeared.

With so many seasonal visitors, Nyack businesses prospered. Bakers, grocers, laundries, livery services, and more were kept busy. Hotels were staffed with chefs, waiters, maids, and groundskeepers. To top it off, much of Nyack farmland was purchased to build elaborate summer homes, especially along the river front.  As described in advertising of the period, Nyack was truly the “Gem of the Hudson.” 

The Photographers

Isaac Van Wagner (1843-1916) was already a trained photographer at age 17. At 18, he enlisted in the Civil War serving in the Zouaves, regiments who wore Turkish-style uniforms. He settled in Nyack around 1870. He opened Nyack’s first photography studio where hundreds of villagers sat for their portraits enhanced by studio props and backdrops. “Van’ was a popular presence in the village, living at a house he had built at the SE corner of S. Broadway and Cedar Hill Ave. The house still stands. The idea of building the facing three-story brick buildings on lower Broadway seems to have come from Van Wagner. The first of the buildings became the site of his last Nyack studio in the 1880s at the SW corner of S. Broadway and Hudson Ave.

Frank Brush (1857-1916) grew up at his family home at 18 Van Houten St. in Upper Nyack and lived there for his entire life. He married Gertrude Ackerman from a well-known local family. We don’t know why he took the photographs he did. Presumably like many enthusiasts, he took photos of family, friends, and places of interest to him. At one time, he ran a greenhouse growing violets for export. For this reason, he may have been acquainted with Arthur C. Tucker who also grew flowers and who built a fabulous Victorian confection of a home known as Undercliff in Upper Nyack. Perhaps due to this connection, we have Brush’s detailed views of the Tucker house that was removed in the 1920s.

How the Exhibit Came About

A cabinet portrait by Isaac Van Wagner of Stephen Merritt from the late 1870s. Note the studio props and back drop and how well dressed this young man is.

The Historical Society of the Nyacks typically hosts three exhibits a year in its museum at 50 Piermont Ave., itself a historic 1850s Italianate building built by Peter DePew. Historians long discussed a need to assemble the photographic record from our early days and the works of Isaac Van Wagner and Frank Brush provided a detailed and broad range of subjects from which to choose.

The works of both could easily have been lost to time. After Frank Brush’s death, his wife retained the glass negatives and prints and, before her death in 1943, she gave them to a neighbor, Winston Perry Sr. They sat in a cupboard in the garage for 30 years. When his son, Win Perry Jr. became interested in history, his father passed them on. According to Win Perry, his “father was a great collector of things related to local history: photographs, documents, furniture, fabrics, tools and implements. I have added very little to the treasures he saved. His collections have been the backbone of a number of Historical Society exhibits.”

Stereoscopes became an outdated technology and many of the slides taken by photographers like Van Wagner disappeared along with the viewers. Early sepia-toned cabinet portraits were destined for storage boxes and family albums. We are fortunate to have examples of Van Wagner’s stereoscope slides from the Win Perry, Jr. Collection and cabinet photos of the Merritt-Crawford family archived as a unit by the History Room of the Nyack Library.

Since the quality of some of the originals degraded over time, society trustee Lee Hoffman undertook a digital restoration of the exhibit photographs to enhance the clarity and detail of each photograph.

Through the efforts of two photographers who never managed to take a selfie for posterity, and the efforts of dedicated historians, Nyack Through the Lens was curated for view at the Society Museum from February through April 2022. The exhibit provides a sweeping view of Nyack in the Gilded Age including three-dimensional landscapes viewable through a stereoscope. From estates to farms, from hotels to churches, from the Hudson River to Rockland Lake, you won’t want to miss this portrait of Nyack, the Gem of the Hudson.

See Also

Nyack People & Places: Way No One Smiled in Old Photographs

Historical Society of the Nyacks Newsletter, A Record of Life About to Change Forever

Nyack People & Places: Win and Betty Perry-A Life Partnership

Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. Hays is currently president of the Historical Society of the Nyacks. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is brought to you by Sun River Health, Nyack Fan Card, and Weld Realty

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