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Audubon’s Final Nesting Place

Monday, May 2, 2016

On West 158th Street west of Riverside Drive—a steep sluiceway for cars streaming down to the Henry Hudson Parkway—stands a handsome if bedraggled row of houses that seems to have been forgotten by time. The twelve houses, eclectic brick-and-limestone dwellings capped variously by gables or pressed-metal cornices, were all completed by 1898, making them the oldest surviving buildings within the historic footprint of Audubon Park, the name given to the lands of the great naturalist John James Audubon after his death in 1851.

When New York City created the Audubon Park Historic District between West 155th and 158th Streets in 2009, it left out this plucky row, 626–648 West 158th. Now, some area residents, in alliance with the Riverside Oval Association, are seeking to redress that omission. The initiative recently got a boost when the neighborhood was selected for the 2016 Six to Celebrate program of the Historic Districts Council, a citywide preservation group, which will provide support as these Audubon Park neighbors prepare a request for the city landmarks commission to expand the historic district to include the houses.

This local effort has particular historical resonance, as it echoes the attempts by the preservationist Reginald P. Bolton, the first resident of one of the row houses, No. 638, to save Audubon’s homestead from the wrecking ball a century ago.

The area was still country when Audubon moved uptown from White Street to escape what he called “the pestilential vapors” of city life. In 1841, he paid $4,938 for 14 acres of woodland along the Hudson River extending north from 155th Street (an unpaved cart path at the time). There, near the southern margin of his land, he built a two-and-a-half-story clapboard frame house over an English basement, with green shutters and verandahs front and back.

It was a comfortable if crowded home. The first floor held a dining room, a living room, a pantry, Audubon’s painting room and a library. The second floor had five bedrooms. Audubon and his wife, Lucy, slept in the southwestern one, with two grandchildren in a trundle bed. The Audubons’ two sons, Victor and John Woodhouse, and their wives and children were scattered about in other rooms on that floor. In the basement were the kitchen and laundry room, which was rented for a time by the inventor Samuel F. B. Morse for telegraph experiments.

The land, to which Victor added six acres, was picturesque. Waves rolled onto the beach near the house, and the family planted a peach orchard and cornfields. A stream ran through the property, widening into a pond that gave way to a waterfall. According to Harriet Audubon, a granddaughter of the wildlife artist, there were live animals in cages, including foxes and a muskrat. Audubon named the area Minniesland for his wife, whom his sons called Minnie, the Scottish word for “mother.”

The Audubons’ first five years there were “Arcadian,” according to Matthew Spady, an avid independent historian who is developing a book proposal on Audubon Park after more than 15 years of digging up every relevant deed, map and letter he could get his hands on. Income from an edition of Birds of America, Audubon’s signature work, “provided them a healthy revenue stream,” Mr. Spady said, “and the farm offered them a certain amount of self-sufficiency.”

But in 1847, Audubon’s health began to deteriorate, with the family’s finances following suit. In 1851, at the age of 65, the naturalist died in his painting room.The Hudson River Railroad had arrived two years earlier, cutting off Minniesland from the water but also bringing the area within commuting distance of downtown. To make ends meet, Lucy Audubon and her sons sold the eastern portion of their property and developed the remainder into a suburb, called Audubon Park, where they rented and sold homes.

“They exercised as much control over who moved in as a co-op board would,” Mr. Spady said. “All the initial people who moved in were Episcopalians of the merchant class.”

The Audubon sons built houses for themselves in the park, with Lucy dividing her time between the two, and in 1864 the original Audubon homestead was sold off. The buyer was Jesse Benedict, a lawyer, who tarted up the unpretentious frame house in a Victorian mode. A new mansard roof, all but de rigueur in the post–Civil War period, enlarged the top floor, while bay windows were appended to two sides.

The atmosphere there in the late 1800s was not entirely serene. As a neighbor, Minnie Stone Martin, recounted in written recollections obtained by Mr. Spady, one of the Miss Benedicts “complained that no sooner did a ‘beau’ start to commit himself than a freight train would come by and by the time the 100-odd cars had gone clanking past, the young man would think better of it!”

In 1888, city records show, the Benedict heirs sold the house to William Kramer, owner of the Atlantic Garden, a Bowery barroom and concert hall beloved by Germans. Kramer rented the house to a succession of tenants, including Daniel F. Tiemann, a former mayor of New York.

But it wasn’t long before the house was cut off from the eastern portion of Audubon Park, most of which was owned by the Grinnell family. Working with political allies, the Grinnells wangled an extension of Riverside Drive from downtown that departed from its straight path at Audubon Park, taking a curving course inland from 155th to 158th Streets that assured the Grinnells maximum frontage on the new drive.

Consequently, by the early 1900s the Audubon house had a 40-foot retaining wall at its back, with the incomplete roadway of Riverside Drive looming above it. Apartment houses began rising on the eastern side of Riverside, and by the time the Audubon Park section of the drive opened in 1911, a bizarre situation had developed. In essence, inhabitants of the 20th century could walk right up to the edge of Riverside Drive and peer down at the 19th century—the deteriorating Audubon homestead and the remnants of Minniesland.

As early as 1906, Bolton, the preservationist who lived on West 158th, had been involved in championing the rescue of the Audubon house and the conversion of the remnants of Minniesland into a public park. But in 1929 the New York City Board of Estimate rejected the idea. When the house was sold to a developer in 1931, Bolton mounted an eleventh-hour effort to have it moved, but was unable to raise adequate funds.

The developer’s wreckers had already begun tearing off the porches and roof when Harold Decker, a Bronx ornithologist, stepped forward with the money to relocate the house. The building was transported in sections to parkland at 161st Street and Riverside, where Decker told The New York Times it would be restored. But instead, the house vanished. What became of it is unknown, though amid the Great Depression it seems likely that it was picked apart by scavengers. All that survives of the Audubon homestead are a few scraps, such as a floorboard fragment at the New-York Historical Society.

In 1932, a Medieval Revival–style apartment building, 765 Riverside Drive, went up on the original site of the Audubon house, built on steel piles running 45 feet below curb level. A sister building next door at 775 Riverside, completed in 1930, was recently converted into a condominium. A big sign running across its façade trumpets its name: The John James. 

John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in Spring 2017


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