Audubon Terrace

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Dr. divides at 155th St. Most northbound drivers roll on, oblivious to their
road’s change of name from Riverside Dr. to Riverside Dr. West. Riverside
Dr. proper branches off, like a Mississippi bayou, winding northeasterly between
cliff-like art deco and beaux-arts apartment buildings until it strikes Edward
M. Morgan Pl. and 158th St., where it turns west
rejoin Riverside Dr. West. The surrounding neighborhood, nominally part of Washington
Heights, might be better defined as Audubon Terrace.

I went there
some months ago because my fiancee and I were seeking a new apartment. We are
both reasonably well-paid professionals and expected no difficulties. We looked
in all the fashionably not-yet-fashionable neighborhoods, including one or two
she’d lived in before some years before.

And yet
we had difficulties from yet another new postwelfare welfare class (the first
one includes all the illiterate, self-importantly gruff security guards who,
post 9/11, have license to harass one at every public building). This new class
consists of semi-literates who, perhaps having tried and failed behind the McDonald’s
counter, have become real estate brokers, armed with their employers’ exclusive
listings for rental apartment buildings.

For example,
we liked Inwood, up at the Dyckman St. stop on the A train. We spent numerous
weekends prowling its streets. However, every attractive rental building only
showed apartments through brokers. The brokers invariably made appointments
only at times convenient to them (such as 3:30 p.m. on a weekday, when we were
both at work), for which they were invariably late, having been caught in traffic
with their dingy secondhand Cadillacs. They frequently didn’t have keys
to the apartments that we had come to see, because they "hadn’t been
able to link up with the building super." They showed three or four couples
the same apartment at the same time.

Other brokers
were interested only in sales. We stopped by the storefront office of Inwood’s
leading broker during its posted business hours. The windows were full of fliers
for rental, cooperative and condominium apartments. The door was locked. The
only occupant was a shaven-skulled slacker, complete with tattoos, asleep on
a leather couch, oblivious to our knocks. We telephoned them daily; the receptionist
promised they’d call us back; they made a liar of her.

we gave up on Inwood because its brokers seemed uninterested in helping people
rent their clients’ apartments. Later, through Kathi Sidewitz, a pleasant
hard-charger at Buchbinder Pretium & Warren, we found a charming, affordable
apartment that suited our needs.

But enough
about us. Audubon Terrace begins at 155th St., the northern limit of the street
commissioners’ plan of 1811. They believed it the point beyond which New
York "could never grow." Probably that was why Trinity Church, its
Wall Street churchyard nearly full, established its rural cemetery there in
1843. Now Manhattan’s last active cemetery, Trinity Cemetery offers "individual,
companion and family crypts for full-casket entombment." Designed by Calvert
Vaux, one of the architects of Central and Prospect Parks, Trinity’s 24
acres of trees, rolling hills and grass climb from the Hudson to Amsterdam Ave.,
providing a sense of what our island looked like before our forefathers reshaped
it to their wills.

Among its
permanent residents are John Jacob Astor and Madame Jumel (streetwalker, financier
and second wife of Aaron Burr, who divorced him for adultery when he was in
his late 70s; somehow, one thinks that elegant old rogue took great pride in
the accusation). Every Christmas, several hundred carolers visit the grave of
Clement Clarke Moore, whose once-mighty literary reputation (a biography of
Scanderbeg, Albanian national hero; translations of Juvenal, an edition of his
father’s sermons, treatises and political pamphlets) now rests entirely
on "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," better known as "The Night
Before Christmas."

John James
Audubon lies nearby beneath a 16-foot tall Celtic cross. Among the first of
many Haitians to come to New York, Audubon was a skilled portraitist who survived
as a teacher of art, dancing and French. His passion was nature: his masterpiece,
the collection of 435 plates published as The Birds of America, was the
fruit of about two decades’ travel throughout North America, from Labrador
to the Florida Keys to the Louisiana bayous, working in watercolor, pencil,
pastel and oil to present birds in their natural habitats, engaged in their
natural activities. Even the engraving of the plates required 11 years. He financed
the book by selling subscriptions, at the then-phenomenal price of $1000 each.
Parenthetically, no more than 200 copies were printed.

once owned the neighborhood. He built Minnie’s Land, a simple, elegant
two-story Greek Revival house on what is now the site of 765 Riverside Dr.,
at 156th St. (Minnie, a Scots endearment for mother, refers to Lucy Audubon,
his wife.) In 1863, 12 years after Audubon’s death, Lucy sold the house;
subsequent owners added a third floor and a mansard roof. It was demolished
by 1932. Until the mid-70s, a bronze plaque was affixed to the front of 765
Riverside Dr., inscribed, "Here stood Minnie’s Land, home of John
James Audubon…it was while a guest of Audubon, here, that Samuel F.B. Morse
sent the first telegraph message from New York to Philadelphia." The plaque
vanished a generation ago, probably stolen by junkies for its value as scrap
metal, and the building’s owners apparently have felt no obligation to
replace it.

By the 1870s,
the neighborhood was an exclusive residential area called Audubon Park. Its
age of elegance was short-lived: by the early 1900s, the construction of the
Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) company’s subway (today’s 1 line)
and of Riverside Dr. ignited a development boom, transforming Audubon Park’s
large homes, trees and gardens into massive beaux-arts apartment houses.

the result is what should be among New York City’s most livable communities:
densely populated, yet rich with museums, parks, a major medical center and
a university. Its river views are magnificent. Its convenient, practical street
pattern, combined with the IRT 1 line, was enhanced by the Independent (IND)
Subway System’s 8th Ave. line in 1932, giving the neighborhood easy access
to midtown and Lower Manhattan.

While open
land was still available, millionaire and philanthropist Archer M. Huntington
bought most of the block east of Riverside Dr. between 155th and 156th Sts.
He envisioned a cultural center of museums, academies and scholarly societies,
based on his own creation, the Hispanic Society of America. He offered land
to other cultural institutions and frequently subsidized the construction of
their buildings. The result, an enclave named Audubon Terrace, is among New
York’s most handsome collections of beaux-arts public buildings. Perversely,
almost none of these jewel-like buildings serve their original occupants.

There stands
the Hispanic Society of America; the former Museum of the American Indian (now
also occupied by the Hispanic Society: the Museum’s collection moved to
Washington, DC; its collection at the old Customs House in Lower Manhattan is
merely a boutique); the former American Geographical Society (Boricua College
occupies the building); the American Numismatic Society (which is planning to
move downtown); and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, America’s
pale imitation of the Academie Française.

was too much the aristocrat to trouble himself with charges of patronage: his
architect-cousin, Charles Pratt Huntington, designed the complex, and his wife,
Anna Hyatt Huntington, ornamented it with her sculpture. Thus, her grandiloquent
equestrian statue of El Cid Campeador (1927) dominates the terrace. An admirer
wrote, "The Cid gloriously bestrides his mount, he carries himself with
exactly the flourish that is associated with his legend, and from the tips of
his feet to the hand clenching the staff of his flaunting banner he is magnificently
alive." Not particularly good criticism, but an accurate description. On
the forecourt’s rear walls are her equestrian bas-reliefs of Don Quixote
(1942) and of Boabdil, Granada’s last Muslim king (1943), who is shown
having reined up to gaze upon his lost city for the last time. On its base is
engraved a verse by Mr. Huntington:

He wore
the cloak of grandeur. It was bright
With stolen promises
and colours thin,
But now and then the
wind–the wind of night–
it and showed the broken thing within.

to Audubon Terrace stands 790 Riverside Dr., a massive exemplar of American
beaux-art, occupying most of the block. Its magnificent marble lobby is great
fun: it has a kind of wonderful splendor, being somehow rich without ostentation
or vulgarity. Interest in the building as a residence has been rising for the
last decade.

Like most
great buildings, 790 Riverside is no stranger to controversy. Some two years
ago, longtime rent-stabilized tenants who had not purchased their apartments
at the time of the building’s conversion were evicted almost en masse.
Their apartments had been purchased out from under them by newly rich yuppies
who, as the law permits, evicted the tenants to live in the apartments themselves.
Life is tough that way. A two-bedroom, two-bath, 1500-square-foot cooperative
apartment in the building was recently sold for $490,000 after reportedly being
on the market for one day. The monthly charges were said to be $810, 45 percent
of which was tax deductible.

the area needs amenities. There are no nearby supermarkets (bodegas don’t
count) or gyms. Riverside Park, acclaimed by those who don’t know it as
Manhattan’s only state park, is nearly inaccessible, dark and ominous.
We could only reach it by going down Dead Man’s Hill, the local nickname
for 155th St.’s long incline past Trinity Cemetery down to the river, and
entering an underpass beneath Riverside Dr. A burned-out car lay there nearly
blocking the door to a New York City Dept. of Transportation maintenance garage.
(Note to the local City Councilmember: obviously, local DOT employees don’t
care enough to remove it; pick up the telephone and call the borough commissioner.

The underpass
crosses a railroad without crossing the Henry Hudson Pkwy., forcing us to run
through traffic to get to the park. We then walked north for about 45 minutes
without finding any signs showing how to leave the park. Finally, we found a
decaying footbridge, leading to a labyrinth of cracking macadam paths, leading
to the Henry Hudson Pkwy., again forcing us to run through traffic to regain
the streets at 181st St. There’s no point to a park if you can’t get
to it and, once there, can’t leave it. (Note to local state senator
and state assemblyman: a budget allocation to extend the existing footbridge
across the Henry Hudson Pkwy. and for good signage wouldn’t cost that much;
moreover, the Governor, who is working to get Latino votes, might want to support
funding for repairs to the park itself.

neighborhood police protection has improved since mid-April 1994, when Police
Commissioner William Bratton learned that at least several dozen cops at the
30th Precinct, the so-called "Dirty Thirty," were running a paid protection
racket for local drug dealers while beating and robbing other dealers who had
not learned to get with the program. This may have explained the lousy local
crime statistics. When your local police are running rackets, they have no time
to enforce the law. Bratton arrived with the arrest team, personally took the
badges of two of the bad cops and announced that the badge numbers of the convicted
officers would be permanently retired so no future cop need endure the disgrace
of wearing them again.

It could
only get better from there, and it has. Audubon Terrace is not the last frontier.