From 1840 to 1841, less than a decade after a cholera epidemic ravaged New York City, two daughters-in-law of John James Audubon, the wildlife painter, died of tuberculosis, the second while living with Audubon in Lower Manhattan.
Like the many New Yorkers who have fled the city during this year’s Covid-19 pandemic, Audubon promptly left town, relocating three generations of his family to the country to escape what he called the “hot bricks and pestilential vapors” of urban life.
For $4,938, he bought 14 acres of picturesque woodland along the Hudson River in the area now known as Washington Heights, a parcel that stretched northward from 155th Street, an unpaved cart path at the time. Here, on a steep hillside by the water, the creator of the lushly painted “Birds of America” built a two-and-a-half-story clapboard frame house over an English basement, with green shutters and verandas front and back.
Thus began the humanization of the area’s natural landscape, a process that would inexorably lead — with considerable irony — to the transformation of the renowned naturalist’s beloved country holdings into a densely populated urban neighborhood of cheek-by-jowl apartment buildings.
The story of the area’s evolution from hinterland to suburb to city is comprehensively told in Matthew Spady’s fluidly written new history, “The Neighborhood Manhattan Forgot: Audubon Park and the Families Who Shaped It” (Empire State Editions, Fordham University Press).
Mr. Spady, a market research project manager and a former opera singer, became curious about his neighborhood’s long-forgotten history in 1997, when he and his partner, Scott Robinson, decided to move into the Grinnell, a Renaissance Revival-style apartment house built in 1911 at 157th Street and Riverside Drive.
“Who or what is Grinnell?” asked Mr. Robinson, a question that led the pair to the New-York Historical Society, where a librarian showed them an encyclopedia entry on the environmentalist George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell grew up on Audubon’s estate after the painter’s death, and Grinnell’s 1938 obituary in The New York Times noted that he was often called “the Father of American conservation.”
The encyclopedia reported that Grinnell “had been in the classroom of Lucy Audubon,” the painter’s widow, Mr. Spady recalled in an interview, “and that really stirred my imagination.”
Over the next 23 years, Mr. Spady became an obsessive citizen-historian, poring over thousands of deeds, wills, church records and newspaper articles. His research uncovered the counterintuitive story of how two of the most noted naturalists of their eras actively contributed to the urbanization of the Arcadian landscape both men loved and called home.
The Audubons moved into their rambling clapboard homestead in 1842. The house was nine miles from the city’s edge, and was full to bursting with both creativity and people. Audubon’s painting room was on the first floor, and he and his wife slept in a second-floor bedroom overlooking the river and the New Jersey Palisades, with two grandchildren in a trundle that pulled out from under their bed.
The Audubons’ sons, Victor and John Woodhouse, remarried, and the two couples and their children slept in several of the other four second-floor bedrooms. For a time, Samuel F.B. Morse rented the basement laundry room for telegraph experiments.
The homestead sat just 20 feet from the Hudson at the bottom of a steep slope. The family called the property “Minnie’s Land” for Mrs. Audubon, whom the boys affectionately called Minnie, the Scottish word for mother. For sustenance, John Woodhouse raised pigs, cows and chickens and planted nearly 200 fruit trees. In enclosures, the family kept bears, wolves, foxes and other four-legged models that Audubon and John Woodhouse painted for a monumental new compendium called “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.” Victor painted the scenes’ backgrounds.
In 1851, after several years of deteriorating health and finances, Audubon died in his painting room, his final nesting place. The Hudson River Railroad had arrived two years earlier, and although its tracks severed Minnie’s Land from the water, its trains brought financial opportunity.
With Upper Manhattan suddenly within commuting distance of downtown, and the Audubons strapped for cash, they sold off the eastern portion of their holdings and developed the rest into the city’s first railroad suburb. Extending from 155th to 158th Streets west of 11th Avenue (now Broadway), Audubon Park was a gated community of 12 Italianate villas, most of them occupying hillside promontories.
According to Mr. Spady, the Audubons exerted as much control over who moved into their bourgeois Shangri-La as any modern co-op board, ensuring that all the initial residents were Episcopalians of the merchant class.
Victor and John Woodhouse built new houses along the river, and their mother lived six months a year with each of them. But by 1862, pneumonia had taken John’s life, and Victor, an alcoholic, had died after a drunken fall and an ensuing illness. In 1864, Mrs. Audubon sold the homestead to Jesse Benedict, a lawyer, who dressed up the simple frame house with showy plumage typical of the post-Civil War period: a mansard roof and bay windows on two sides.
With the passing of the Audubons, the park that bore their name gradually came under the sway of the Grinnell family. Like Audubon before him, George Blake Grinnell, a cotton merchant, had anxieties about disease and city life that led him to rent a house in the park in 1857. Seven years later, he bought the Hemlocks, an Italianate villa on the site of a former chicken yard, which he later topped with the inevitable mansard roof. Enriched by a second career as a stockbroker, he kept on buying property, ultimately amassing about two-thirds of Audubon Park.
George Bird Grinnell, his eldest son, was born in 1849 and enjoyed a “Huck Finn” childhood, said John Taliaferro, the author of the 2019 biography, “Grinnell: America’s Environmental Pioneer and His Restless Drive to Save the West.”
George Bird “would go off into the countryside and go hunting, often missing” his quarry, Mr. Taliaferro said. “But it wasn’t mischievous, because Madame Audubon was his tutor, and he’d bring her birds and she’d describe what they were, so he learned at the feet not of John James Audubon but of his widow.” When the boy brought her a captive red crossbill, she set it free.
Though George Bird was expected to go into the family business, the natural world offered an alternative path.
“The ghost of Audubon was really still quite present there,” Mr. Taliaferro said of Audubon Park. “There was that choice: Do you become your father or is there another mentor that steers you in a different direction in your life, and I think that’s what Audubon was to Grinnell.”
As the editor of Forest and Stream magazine, the founder of the first Audubon Society and a champion of national parks, George Bird played a leading role in bringing environmentalism into the tent of conscientious progressivism. A glacier in Glacier National Park in Montana bears his name.
But he left a different kind of imprint on the landscape of Audubon Park. As plans were being drawn up to extend Riverside Drive uptown from Grant’s Tomb, Grinnell and his family used their political connections to wangle a serpentine inland detour of the drive from 155th to 161st streets, a route that ran right past the front door of the Hemlocks and boosted the Grinnells’ property values.
This maneuver cut the Audubon houses off from the rest of the park, leaving the wildlife painter’s old home hunkering gloomily in the shadow of a 40-foot retaining wall, with the new Riverside Drive looming above it.
To meet the demands for cash from his siblings, Grinnell began selling off the family’s holdings in 1904, capitalizing on a new 157th Street subway station on the site of their former vegetable garden. In short order, apartment houses began rising on the eastern side of Riverside, including the 13-story Renaissance Revival-style Riviera, which a developer started building in 1909 on the spot where the Hemlocks had stood.
Consequently, by the time the drive opened in 1911, a surreal situation had developed. In essence, apartment-dwelling inhabitants of the 20th century could walk right up to the edge of Riverside Drive and peer down at the 19th century — the Audubon homestead and the tattered remnants of Minnie’s Land 40 feet below.
The homestead was sold to a developer, and wreckers had already torn off the roof and bay windows in 1931 when Harold Decker, a Bronx ornithologist, announced that the house would be moved six blocks uptown, where it was to be restored. Instead, the house vanished from its new location, likely picked apart by scavengers amid the Great Depression.
In 1931, a Medieval Revival-style apartment building, 765 Riverside Drive, was built on the original Audubon homestead site. And today, history appears to be repeating itself with another failed preservation campaign in Audubon Park.
When the city acceded to local requests to designate an Audubon Park Historic District in 2009, it excluded 12 brick-and-limestone rowhouses built in the 1890s on West 158th Street near Riverside. Efforts by Mr. Spady and the Riverside Oval Association to have the row added to the district have been unfruitful, and the new owner of Nos. 636-640 has obtained demolition permits for all three.
As it happens, the first owner of No. 638 was Reginald P. Bolton, a dogged preservationist who had tried as early as 1905 to rescue the Audubon homestead from the wrecking ball. To this day, a weathered wooden sign bearing his surname hangs above the doorway under the stairs. But it seems unlikely that the nameplate, or indeed the entire house, will long survive the ongoing development that Audubon unwittingly set in motion when he began taming the land there in the 1840s.
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