Trailblazing James J. Coogan, Merchant, Real Estate Manager And More, Harlem 1846 – 1915

James Jay Coogan, January 16, 1846 – October 24, 1915, was the borough president of ManhattanN Y from 1899 to 1901, and a successful merchant and real estate manager.

Coogan started out as an upholsterer and opened a furniture store on the Bowery.

Through his dealings with furniture laborers, he became known as a friend of the working class and eventually became friendly with Richard Croker, one of the leaders of Tammany Hall.

He was a graduate of New York University School of Law. In 1888, he was nominated by the Urban Labor Party for Mayor of New York City but came in fourth, and Hugh Grant was elected Mayor.

He married Harriet Gertrude Lynch, a daughter of William L. Lynch, who had many real estate holdings in Manhattan, including the land on which the Polo Grounds stood.

He managed the properties and is the source of the Coogan’s Bluff and Coogan’s Hollow names.

Coogan’s Hollow

The area later known as Coogan’s Hollow was granted by an act of the King of England to John Lyon Gardiner in the 17th century.

In the mid 19th century it was passed from Sarah Gardiner to her granddaughter and her husband Sarah and William L. Lynch.

The Lynches owned significant expanses of real estate in and around the current New York City. They were one of the largest property owners in the New York area.

Nineteenth-century newspapers are littered with the family’s real estate acquisitions and transactions and consequent legal battles.

The property, one the last vestiges of land granted by royal charter in Manhattan, would house the Manhattan Polo Grounds during the 1870s.

The lot underwent an extensive remodel and reopened on September 25, 1880. Four days later, the Polo Grounds were opened to the public for the first time as a baseball arena.

The Lynches leased many of their properties to commercial and government entities.

For example, the lease on the Polo Grounds and Manhattan Field to the New York Giants brought the family $20,000 a year, as part of a five-year deal signed in February 1895.

Amid a potentially expensive legal battle in December 1897, the widow Sarah Lynch transferred ownership of the Polo Grounds property to her daughter Harriet Gertrude Lynch Coogan, wife of James Jay Coogan.

James Coogan

In his youth James Coogan, born in 1845, learned the trade of upholstery. He eventually opened a furniture store in the Bowery called Coogan Brothers Furniture. Coogan also obtained a law degree from New York University.

In the mid-1880s he married Harriet Lynch and also became involved in politics. In 1888 Coogan ran for mayor of New York on the Union Labor Party ticket but lost, coming in fourth.

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Dismayed over his financial losses during the campaign, Coogan withdrew from politics to oversee his mother-in-law’s real estate interests.

Due to his administration of these properties, the area around the Polo Grounds became known as Coogan’s Hollow, now generally referred to as Coogan’s Bluff.

Society for American Baseball Research wrote that spectators standing above the hollow on the 8th Avenue Viaduct, the Harlem Speedway, or the stairway of the elevated train had an excellent vantage point for games played upon the New Polo Grounds, while more distant views were available to those standing atop a stretch of the palisades soon dubbed Dead Head Hill.

His duties also led to many connections with Tammany Democrats. Due to his friendship with Tammany boss Richard Coker, Coogan became president of the Borough of Manhattan in January 1899. His term ran until 1901.

In October 1915 Coogan died at his apartment at the Netherland Hotel at age 70.

Big Plans

It was rumored in late 1910 that Madison Square Garden would be sold and possibly close. Also in April 1911, a fire burned down much of the grandstands at the Polo Grounds.

This set into motion some grandiose plans which the Lynch and Coogan families had been pondering for some time.

For one, the park was expanded, becoming the third steel and concrete ballpark in the majors. The Coogans also purchased additional lands opposite the Polo Grounds and set to build a huge $6,000,000 athletic park at Coogan’s Bluff to fill the entertainment gap.

The 90 acres north of 155th Street and between Speedway Park, St. Nicholas Avenue, and the Harlem River was to be called Olympia and modeled after the Olympia of London. The attractions at New York Olympia would potentially include:

  • transfer of shows from Madison Square Garden within a new facility
  • National Horse Show Association with stables and show area
  • new baseball stadium built by John Brush and the Giants
  • track and field area with clubhouse, grandstands and training facility
  • boathouses and docks

In July 1912 Coogan went to London trying to lure business for the area.

For one, he wanted to land the Shakespearean Exposition; but more importantly, he wanted to entice the International Olympic Committee to hold games at the Polo Grounds in 1920.

Most of the plans didn’t pan out.

Death

He died of heart disease on October 24, 1915, at the Hotel Netherland in Manhattan, New York.

He was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York City.

Photo credit: 1) James J. Coogan. 2) Dead Heads hill.

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