Uptown Girls Part 3: From Gothic Revival Villas to Fantasy Estates In the Heights
After looking at some of the former homes and mansions of the Upper West Side, Bloomingdale, and Audubon Park neighborhoods, the last installment in this series goes all the way to the northernmost tip of Manhattan, to what is today known Washington Heights and Inwood.
Thanks in part to its hilly topography and relatively close distance to the growing city at the opposite end of the island, summer homes and farms stretching back to the colonial era could be found here.
The establishment of a train station at Tubby Hook (an earlier name for Inwood) in 1851 however, was followed by boom in the number of suburban villas and country estates.
Even as the population of the city relentlessly marched northward in the early twentieth century, this area was still sparsely populated enough to see the building of several large country places. Remarkably a number of these nineteenth century homes lasted well into the 1920s and 1930s –to follow are some of them.
The gothic revival Flitner Villa was built for a New England sea captain in 1856 at 17 Bolton Road. The house remained in the possession of his children until it was destroyed by fire in 1930.
The Ferris/Isham house was built in the 1850s. With three wings radiating from the central hall of the brick and frame house, it was designed to take advantage of the breezes and views of its hilltop location. After owner Peter Isham died in 1909, his heirs donated portions of the estate, including the house, to form Isham Park. The home had various uses but deteriorated over time and was demolished in the 1940s by order of Robert Moses.
Dr. William Sweetser built another hilltop home in the area around 1860. Perhaps inspired by the Ferris Isham House, it had four equal-sized wings extending from its core, in the shape of a greek cross. This unique home stood well into of the 1920s.
Of the many interesting homes built here before the Civil War, one became an instant landmark upon its completion in 1855. Designed by AJ Davis for wealthy merchant August Richards as a summer residence,it was later sold to General Daniel Butterfield in 1869.
Originally Called Woodcliif Castle, it would be more popularly known as Tweed Castle while owned by William “Boss” Tweed and later, Libbey Castle.It razed in 1939 during the development of Fort Tryon Park.
Seaman Drake Estate
Another mythical estate predating the Civil War was the Seaman Drake estate. In 1855 John Ferris Seaman began building a formal summer home on a twenty-five acre agricultural estate he had purchased several years earlier with his brother. Incorporating elements of the italianate and second empire styles, the mansion, constructed of gleaming white marble quarried nearby featured a domed tower and modish interiors.
Marble was also used for the estates outbuildings, which included a carriage house and roman-style triumphal arch at Kingsbridge Road entrance.
After passing to his wife’s nephew Thomas Drake, the mansion became the clubhouse of the Suburban Riding and Driving Club in 1895.
Contractor Thomas Dwyer later purchased the property and turned back into a private home. Dwyer sold the estate in 1938 to developers who razed the mansion and built the Park Terrace Gardens apartment complex in its place.
The marble gatehouse arch amazingly survives to this day, its top poking above the lower commercial buildings the sprang up in front of it over the years.
As the nineteenth century marched on, some of the earlier homes were enlarged to accommodate proper gilded age lifestyles. This home on West 175thstreet, still standing in 1930, shows an original gothic villa dwarfed by later additions.
Another example was an 1850s home purchased by New York Heraldd publisher James Gordon Bennett Sr. who enlarged and embellished the place, transforming it into an elaborate Victorian mansion while expanding the grounds substantially.
His son James Gordon Bennett Jr. inherited the estate upon his father’s death but seldom used it after he left America for Paris in the 1870s. The unoccupied estate remained intact for decades, serving as a bulwark against development. That changed in 1919, when papers announced that the property, divided into 500 building lots, would be auctioned off on behalf of his estate.
in 1905 Dr Charles Paterno, who made a large fortune developing large apartment buildings on the Upper West Side began construction of a castle on seven acres overlooking the Hudson River. Four years and $500,000 later, his new home would decidedly eclipse Libbey castle in scale and grandeur.
Lavish even by the gilded standards of the day, it featured an indoor swimming pool and a cellar dedicated to cultivating mushrooms.
Greenhouses and Italian gardens graced the grounds, bordered by a long pergola sitting atop a massive terrace, affording splendid views of the Hudson river and Palisades.
Paterno, ever the businessman, decided to raze his castle less than 30 years later to construct a complex of five co-op apartment towers on the grounds which he named Castle Village (Click here for a video taken of the castle’s demolition). Few motorists who drive past former estates massive retaining walls along the Henry Hudson parkway (recently repaired after a partial collapse in 2005) realize what once stood atop them.
Tryon Hall Billings Estate
Horsing enthusiast C K G Billings was initially attracted to the area by its proximity to the Harlem Raceway, and bought property to build a stable complex and lodge upon, which would serve as a retreat from his midtown mansion.
When completed in 1903 Billings decided to celebrate with a formal dinner for 36 friends there served on horseback. His caterer Louis Sherry convinced him to hold it at his midtown location instead. The resulting press photo lives on as an example of the excesses of the gilded age.
Ten years later Billings commissioned architect Guy Lowell to design a proper mansion there to use it as a fulltime residence.
The resulting Louis XIV-style home featured a double height squash court interior courtyard, and a tower with an octagonal observatory for his guests to enjoy the 360 degree views.
A mere Three years later Billings sold Tryon Hall to John D Rockefeller, who planned to demolish the home and donate the grounds to the City for a park.
Once the plan became public, outcry against the mansions destruction was immediate. Rockefeller changed course, renting the mansion out as a residence. The mansion’s salvation was short-lived however, when a fire leveled it a decade later in 1926. While the property was incorporated into Fort Tryon Park, traces of the estate remain today, including the stone arches over a portion of the original entrance drive and the former caretakers cottage.