Uptown Girls Part 2 : Audubon Park
The New York Public Library and the Museum of the City of New York gave an incredible gift to all lovers of history, architecture, and architectural history in particular when they digitized their photography archives and made them accessible online, offering the opportunity to explore the buildings, streets and neighborhoods of New York as they looked decades (in some cases well over a century) ago.
In my last post, I looked at some storied homes in Bloomingdale and Morningside Heights. We now jump a couple of dozen blocks north, approaching the environs of Washington Heights. Long after other sections of the city had filled up, this area retained a more rural character, with irregular roads and plots that standing in refreshing defiance of Manhattan’s relentless gridded streets further “downtown”. This post will focus on Audubon Park in particular, at the southernmost end of this area.
The roots of the neighborhood’s name date back to 1841 when the great naturalist John James Audubon purchased a fourteen-acre tract along the Hudson river, putting the property, roughly bound by what is now 155th and 158th streets, in his wife’s name as a buffer against economic uncertainties.
Soon a comfortable villa, in a simple Greek revival style rose on the property.
Wild animals that served as models for his next planned folio looking at North America’s animals (a follow up to wildly popular Birds of America), could be found in pens and enclosures on the grounds.
After his death in 1851, economic necessity soon forced the family to begin selling off some of their land. Fortunately, they were not for the most part standard townhouse-sized lots, but larger parcels, upon which suburban villas began to spring up in the 1850s and 1860s, creating an enclave known as Audubon Park.
The Grinnell family purchased a commodious home called the Hemlocks in 1864 which they added onto over the years.
The Wheelock family, which had been leasing a home from the Hall family at 158th st., bought additional land to the north, extending the neighborhoods footprint to 159th street. They razed the former Hall residence and erected this second empire mansion on it in 1869.
Audubon’s heirs finally divested themselves of the family home itself around 1871. Its new owners, the Benedicts, modernized the place adding a mansard roof and fashionable victorian trim.
While Broadway marked the eastern boundary of the enclave, some of the middle-class townhomes built on the narrower lots to the east echoed the suburban irregularity of design found in the larger villas to the west.
As in other parts of Manhattan, development was inevitable in the twentieth century.
In 1908 the Grinnell family, which controlled the largest portion of the former estate, began developing apartment buildings on their property.
The Extension of Riverside drive essentially cut the enclave off from the neighboring streets, but oddly served to turn the neighborhood into something of a time capsule from an earlier time for a few years as well.
The last home standing in the neighborhood was the Wheelock mansion, captured by photographer Berniece Abbot in 1937 as part of the Federal Art project project shortly before it was torn down.
Efforts had been made to preserve the Audubon house (which had become quite rundown) several years earlier.
It was dismantled in the late 1920s and put into storage, with the intention of it being rebuilt in a new location as a monument to the naturalist. The Depression and World War 2 put the project on the back burner however, and years later no one could seem to locate where the pieces of the home had been stored!