Edward Groh’s Rose Street Sugar House Medal

by Robert Hoge

The trays of the ANS collections reveal much valuable information about coins and other objects. In some rare cases they also offer some insight into the activities of previous curators and their interests. This is the case of the Rose Street Sugar House Medal, which the ANS’ first curator, Edward Groh (1837-1905), minted to commemorate one of New York City’s most fascinating colonial buildings.

An enquiry began when a request by Mr. Don Llewallen prompted me to locate not only the medals in question but also the original documentation for them. I had never before encountered these objects which I found accompanied by the sort of data for which a researcher craves. The three examples of this medal in the cabinet, and the information about them—lying right there with them in their storage tray—came directly from my predecessor, Edward Groh. He had donated these specimens, it turns out, in 1892—the year he had had them minted. The Rose Street Sugar House Medals are ANS Accession Nos. 1892.19.1 (white metal, weight 27.527g), 1892.19.2 (copper, 49.555g) and 1892.19.3 (silver, 37.250g); all have a diameter of 44mm.

Groh’s notes on file read as follow:

Rose Street Sugar House. The building was erected in 1763 by Bernard R Cuyler whose initials are in the peak of the S.E. end[.] The front with date 1 7 6 3 faced towards the interior of the block to Frankfort St[.] the rear being on Duane St., the end about 30 feet {back} from Rose St. The west end peak contained a Diamond and under it the letters I.S. made of blue glazed brick[.] I never could ascertain to whom these letters referred. {to} [sic, struck through] The [sic, struck through] It was built for a sugar house and during the revolution {was} [sic, struck through] used as a prison. The Rhinelander family has owned the property since 1790. [the “7” of the date written over an “8”] Edward Groh

Further notes from Groh provide his complete description of the piece and its origin. These are handwritten on folded folio letterhead imprinted “The American Numismatic and Archaeological Society, New York, 186_ / Sir: ” Groh’s holographic description is preceded by a rubbing of the obverse and reverse of the medal.

Obverse: view of building date “1763” across the front between the fourth and fifth story. “B.R.C.” in the peak of the east end. “Old Sugar House Rose St. N.Y.” “Founded 1763 Demolished 1892”. Reverse: View of west end peak with letters “I.S.” above a key and two chains below. “A British Prison During the Revolution” dies cut by E. Sigel from drawings made by him of the building in June 1892. Over Struck by Seward Fulton St. NY. 3 (three) in silver 50 (fifty) in copper 100 (one hundred) in White Metal Dies in my possession. Edward Groh

The history of the Sugar House—also known as the Rhinelander Sugar House, once located on the corner of Duane and Rose Street in Lower Manhattan—has fascinated New Yorkers, students of the colonial period and the general public from its earliest days. The few intriguing remarks in Groh’s notes on the background of the Sugar House only scratch the surface of the story of this building. A very detailed article Victor Lederer, with numerous illustrations, can be found on the website of the Museum of the City of New York (http://www.mcny.org/rhinelander/rhinelander.htm).

The Sugar House was erected in 1763 on Prince Street (as Rose Street was formerly called) by Henry Cuyler. A wealthy Dutch family, the Cuylers were able to construct an impressive stone factory building. Undoubtedly, with six stories plus a basement, it was one of the largest buildings in the British Colonies. Original photographs taken before the demolition of the structure in 1892 confirm the medal’s rendering: in the upper story of the house, the letters “BRC”—representing the initials of Henry Cuyler’s son, Barent Rynders Cuyler—were worked into the façade in contrasting brick.

The building’s original purpose was to house a sugar refinery and to provide storage for various sugar products. This was a profitable industry in the Colonial period, and there are several other sugar houses recorded in lower Manhattan from the 17th and 18th centuries. Around the time of the establishment of the New Netherlands Colony, Amsterdam had become the world’s leader in the sugar industry. After the conquest of New Amsterdam and its renaming as New York by the British, London became the center, with New York and Liverpool also assuming major roles in this lucrative trade. Raw cane sugar/molasses, rum (refined, distilled sugar) and African slaves were the three staples of the infamous “triangle trade” of British Colonial North America.

The Cuylers were loyalist “tories” during the Revolution, and following the war they were dispossessed. By 1790, the sugar house had changed ownership and come into the hands of the Rhinelander family (also loyalists, ironically). Under the British occupation of New York, which lasted nearly the duration of the War, several sugar houses as well as other large buildings, such as churches, are documented as having been used as prisons for captured American rebels. Contrary to popular belief, there is apparently no existing evidence that the Cuyler/Rhinelander Sugar House was used to house prisoners. Indeed, it is unlikely that the British would have inconvenienced their staunch suppliers of sugar and rum when they could seize the sugar houses of American patriots like the Livingstons to imprison their compatriots. However, New York City guidebooks and public opinion shared the view that the Rhinelander Sugar House, which had become one of the few surviving ones in the city, had shared “preeminence among the dungeons as places of torture” (so the New York Traveler of May 1, 1861, as quoted by Lederer). A tourist attraction in the city, it illustrated a part of American history and glory for which there were otherwise few survivors. It was a frequent subject of early photographers and in a city undergoing constant demolition and building work, New Yorkers felt increasingly attached to historical sites.

By the late 19th century, the Rose Street Sugar House had aged considerably, and in 1892 the Rhinelanders decided to demolish the structure and erect a new office building on the site. Newspaper articles from that year illustrate a detailed account of the demolition process, and emotional descriptions of the building’s former life appeared. Historically more important are a number of photographs from that year, one of which could well be the inspiration for the medal. Two windows of the former “prison” were saved for posterity. One was given to the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York, where it remains to the present day as part of the Van Cortlandt House, in the Bronx. The second window, which is now owned by the Museum of the City of New York, was installed in the new Rhinelander building (itself demolished in 1968) and eventually ended up situated near its original location, in the pedestrian zone behind One Police Plaza, where it is looked after by the NYPD.

It is perhaps not surprising to find that Edward Groh, inspired by the history and myths of the Rhinelander Sugar House, commissioned this medal in 1892, the year of the demolition. The ANS records show that he had intended the subject to be part of Augustus Sage’s Series of Historical Tokens relating to the Revolution.

In the year 1859. Mer Aug. B. Sage issued his Series of Historical Tokens and I suggested to him to include the Rose St Sugar house in the series which he agreed to do if I would furnish him with the drawing and before I could do so the series was discontinued. To my regret as I wished to see the building perpetuated on a medal, thirty three years later and before its demolition, I concluded to gratify my wish and Mr E. Sigel executed the work, The word Founded was not intended as I ordered it to be “erected” and the error is due to Mr Sigel to whom I exhibited the Sage Medalet of Liberty St Sugar house and he got the words mixed up. Edward Groh

Edward Groh

Groh’s document is in an envelope marked Sugar House, Rose Street New York, Medal, 1892 [underlined in red] Size 28 [underlined in red] Page [underlined in red] In Cabinet {Silver/Copper/White Metal [underlined in red] Readers may be rather more familiar with the series of historical medalets by Augustus B. Sage, to which Groh alludes. There are distinct similarities in treatment as well as theme between the Rose Street Sugar House rendering and some of the buildings depicted by Sage (see Q. David Bowers’ American Numismatics before the Civil War, 1760-1860: Emphasizing the Story of Augustus B. Sage, Wolfeboro, NH, 1998) in his series. It is nostalgic to think that these pieces, which Edward Groh had minted at Seward’s on Fulton Street in 1892, will be “going home” in a way when the ANS moves to its new location located on Fulton at William Street.