The accounts are not all in agreement, but historians say that in either 1647 or 1664 Peter Stuyvesant planted a pear tree. The Summer Bon Crétian Pear, to be exact, had been brought over from the Netherlands by Stuyvesant and given a permanent home on his estate, at what is today the northeast corner of 13th Street and 3rd Avenue. According to a Boston Globe article, it can be “presumed” that Stuyvesant would have wanted the fruit to make perry, a fermented pear drink that was a remedy for “the gravels” (Banner, 1957). This blogger is unclear on what exactly “the gravels” is, but understands that it can occur after amputations. (Stuyvesant had lost a portion of his leg to a cannonball.)
The pear tree took root and flourished in its new home for two hundred years, bearing flowers and fruit all the while. Once streets were built for the growing community, the corner where it stood came to be known as Pear Tree Corner. The pharmacy that opened there in the early 1800s became known as the Pear Tree Drugstore. In 1851, this drugstore became Kiehl’s, which is still in operation today. The neighborhood, in celebration of its pear tree, started an organization called the Stuyvesant Old Pear Tree Guards. In 1853 they decorated the tree, which caused one newspaper to label the act a political stunt, though the New York Times defended it by saying that the act had “nothing whatever to do with political affairs” and that the event was furthermore “highly creditable and gratifying to all concerned” (“Article 11- No Title”, 1853)
The Pear Tree Guards, however, were not prepared for the fate that would befall the tree in the following decade. The neighborhood surrounding it had been rapidly changing from a quiet farmland into a “crossroads of urban chaos” (O’grady, 2003). Harper’s Magazine, in 1862, had named the tree the “oldest living thing in New York,” but age was starting to take its toll. Just as the surrounding countryside was giving way to urbanization, the tree itself was a “withered…specimen, that for a dozen years has feebly held up a bunch of dead limbs with but one or two…endowed with life” (“The Old Pear-Tree Gone” 1867). After a winter storm had weakened its root structure, the tree succumbed to a collision between two horse-drawn carriages.
But even after it was gone, Pear Tree Corner continued on with a nostalgic remembrance of its namesake. The Holland Society, a group dedicated to preserving New York’s Dutch heritage, commissioned a plaque for Stuyvesant’s pear tree in 1890. It was hung from the corner of the building occupied by Kiehl’s. The plaque would remain there for the next sixty-eight years, until the building reached such a state of dilapidation that substantial renovations were needed. Kiehl’s moved into a space one street away, and the Holland Society, fearing for its plaque, had it removed and stored at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery.
The Pear Tree Corner attracted little notice for some time after that. In 1956, as part of a larger tree-planting initiative under Mayor Robert Wagner, it was suggested that a new pear tree be planted on Third Ave, but arborists at the time felt that a pear tree wouldn’t be able to survive in the “gasoline fumes or sulfur dioxide from factory chimneys (Berger, 1956). Later, in the 80s, the owner of the northeast-corner building noticed that the plaque was hanging on the wall of a medical lab across the street. Legal action was threatened, but the Holland Society kept out of the argument and little arose from it.
Then, in 2003, Kiehl’s completed a renovation of the whole storefront of their original 19th century location. They had been sharing the space with a restaurant for some time, until the latter did not renew its lease and Kiehl’s was able to expand. Philip Clough, the president of Kiehl’s, along with Bill Van Winkle, the president of the Holland Society, successfully petitioned the city to plant a new pear tree in the same place the original had occupied 136 years before. A couple of years after, Bill Van Winkle negotiated the return of the plaque from across the street, with Clough offering to pay for the removal, cleaning, and re-installation. Amidst a small ceremony in 2005, Nicholas Stuyvesant Fish, a seventh-generation descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, unveiled the restored plaque in its permanent home.
Today, it would seem that Pear Tree Corner, complete with pharmacy, plaque, and a new tree, is alive and well. Passersby can learn a little about the old tree, which the plaque tells us was intended by Stuyvesant to be a memorial “by which” his “name may be remembered.” He probably need not have worried that his name would be forgotten in this city, but thanks to the efforts of his subsequent neighborhood, we can still see what he intended.
“Article 11 – No Title.” New York Daily Times, November 29, 1853.
Alexander, Ron. 1980. “Feuding Over a Pear Tree Plaque.” New York Times, May 5.
Banner, Earl. 1957. “Country Diary: Stuyvesant’s Pear Tree.” Daily Boston Globe, December 12.
Berger, Meyer. 1956. “About New York: A Sentimental Pear Tree For Third Avenue?” New York Times, March 14.
O’grady, Jim. 2003. “A New Pear Tree Will Pay Homage to Old New York.” New York Times, November 9.
“The Old Pear Tree Gone.” New York Times, February 27, 1867.