From 1840 to 1841, less than a decade after a cholera epidemic in New York City, two daughters-in-law of the nature painter John James Audubon died of tuberculosis, the second at Audubon in Lower Manhattan.
Like the many New Yorkers who fled the city during this year's Covid-19 pandemic, Audubon immediately left town and relocated three generations of his family to the country to escape the so-called "hot bricks and plague fumes" of urban life .
For $ 4,938, he bought 14 acres of scenic woodland along the Hudson River in what is now known as Washington Heights. This property extended north from 155th Street, a then-unpaved cart lane. Here, on a steep slope by the water, the creator of the lavishly painted “Birds of America” built a two-and-a-half-story clapboard frame house over an English basement with green shutters and porches in front and behind.
Thus began the humanization of the area's natural landscape, a process that would inexorably – with considerable irony – lead to the transformation of the renowned naturalist's beloved land holdings into a densely populated urban district with cheek-shaped houses.
The story of the area's development from hinterland to suburb to city is detailed in Matthew Spady's fluent new story, "The Manhattan Neighborhood Forgot: Audubon Park and the Families That Made It" (Empire State Editions, Fordham University Press).
Recognition…Katherine Marks for the New York Times
Mr Spady, a research project manager and former opera singer, became curious about the long forgotten history of his neighborhood in 1997 when he and partner Scott Robinson decided to move into the Grinnell, a Renaissance-style apartment building built in 1911 on 157th Street and on Riverside Drive.
"Who or what is Grinnell?" asked Mr. Robinson, a question that took the couple to the New York Historical Society, where a librarian showed them an encyclopedia entry on environmentalist George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell grew up on Audubon's estate after the painter's death, and Grinnell's 1938 New York Times obituary noted that he was often referred to as 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 fired my imagination."
Over the next 23 years, Mr. Spady became an obsessed citizen historian, flipping through thousands of deeds, wills, church records, and newspaper articles. His research uncovered the counterintuitive story of how two of the most famous naturalists of their time actively contributed to the urbanization of the Arcadian landscape, both of which men loved and referred to as home.
The Audubons moved into their spacious clapboard house in 1842. The house was nine miles from the outskirts and full of creativity and people. Audubon's painting room was on the first floor, and he and his wife slept in a bedroom on the second floor overlooking the river and the New Jersey Palisades. Two grandchildren were in a trundle bed that came out from under her bed.
The Audubons' sons, Victor and John Woodhouse, remarried, and the two couples and their children slept in several of the other four bedrooms on the second floor. For a while, Samuel F.B. Morse rented the basement laundry room for telegraph attempts.
The homestead was only 20 feet from the Hudson at the bottom of a steep slope. The family named the property "Minnie's Land" for Mrs. Audubon, who the boys affectionately called Minnie, the Scottish word for mother. 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 had painted for a monumental new compendium called "The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America". Victor painted the backgrounds of the scenes.
In 1851, after several years of poor health and finances, Audubon died in his painting room, his last nesting place. The Hudson River Railroad had arrived two years earlier, and although its rails separated Minnie's land from the water, its trains brought financial opportunity.
With Upper Manhattan suddenly a commute to downtown and the Audubons needing cash, they sold the eastern portion of their holdings and built the rest into the city's first railroad suburb. Stretching from 155th to 158th Streets west of 11th Avenue (now Broadway), Audubon Park was a residential complex of 12 Italian mansions, most of which were on hillside headlands.
According to Mr. Spady, the Audubons exercised as much control over who moved into their bourgeois Shangri-La as any modern cooperative body to ensure that all of the original residents were commercial-class bishops.
Victor and John Woodhouse built new houses along the river, and their mother lived with each of them for six months a year. But by 1862 pneumonia had cost John's life and Victor, an alcoholic, had died after a drunken fall and illness. In 1864 Mrs. Audubon sold the homestead to Jesse Benedict, a lawyer who furnished the simple half-timbered house with a distinctive plumage typical of the post-war period: a mansard roof and bay windows on two sides.
With the death of the Audubons, the park that bore their name gradually came under the rule of the Grinnell family. Like Audubon before him, George Blake Grinnell, a cotton merchant, was terrified of disease and city life that led him to rent a house in the park in 1857. Seven years later he bought the Hemlocks, an Italian villa on the site of a former chicken farm, which he later covered with the inevitable mansard roof. Enriched by a second career as a stockbroker, he continued to buy real estate and eventually collected about two-thirds of Audubon Park.
George Bird Grinnell, his eldest son, was born in 1849 and had a "Huck Finn" childhood, said John Taliaferro, author of the 2019 biography, "Grinnell: America's Environmental Pioneer and His Troubled Urge to Save the West."
George Bird "went into the country and went hunting, often missing his quarry," said Taliaferro. "But it wasn't malicious because Madame Audubon was his tutor and he brought her birds and she described what they were, so he learned at the feet not from John James Audubon, but from his widow." When the boy brought her a captured red crossbill, she released it.
Although George Bird was expected to join the family business, nature offered an alternate path.
"The spirit of Audubon was still quite present there," said Taliaferro of Audubon Park. "There was this choice: become your father or is there some other mentor who will steer you in a different direction in your life and I think that was Audubon to Grinnell."
As editor of Forest and Stream magazine, founder of the first Audubon Society and national park advocate, George Bird played a leading role in bringing environmental protection into the tent of conscientious progressivism. A glacier in Glacier National Park in Montana bears his name.
But he shaped the landscape of Audubon Park differently. When plans were made to extend Riverside Drive up from Grant's Grave, Grinnell and his family used their political connections to create a detour inland via the driveway from 155th to 161st Streets, a route that directly leads to passed the front door of the hemlocks and increased the property values of the Grinnells.
This maneuver cut the Audubon houses off from the rest of the park, leaving the animal painter's old house sombre in the shadow of a 40-foot retaining wall over which the new Riverside Drive loomed.
To meet his siblings' demand for cash, Grinnell began selling the family's holdings in 1904 and took advantage of a new subway station on 157th Street on the site of their former vegetable garden. In a short time, residential buildings were built on the east side of the river, including the 13-storey Riviera in Renaissance Revival style, which a building contractor built in 1909 on the spot where the hemlocks had stood.
As a result, by the time the drive opened in 1911, a surreal situation had developed. In essence, residents of 20th century homes could walk to the edge of Riverside Drive and get a glimpse of the 19th century – the Audubon Homestead and the ragged remains of Minnie's Land 40 feet below.
The homestead was sold to a contractor, and the wreckage had the roof and bay windows torn down by 1931 when Harold Orcker, an ornithologist from the Bronx, announced that the house would be moved six blocks up to be restored. Instead, the house disappeared from its new location, which was likely torn apart by scavengers amid the Great Depression.
In 1931, a Medieval Style Home was built on the original Audubon homestead at 765 Riverside Drive. And today, history seems to repeat itself with yet another failed conservation campaign at Audubon Park.
When the city followed local requests to designate a historic Audubon Park neighborhood in 2009, it excluded 12 brick and limestone townhouses built on West 158th Street near Riverside in the 1890s. Efforts by Mr. Spady and the Riverside Oval Association to add the series to the district have been unsuccessful, and the new owner of numbers 636-640 has obtained demolition permits for all three.
The first owner of # 638 happened to be Reginald P. Bolton, a tenacious conservationist who tried to save Audubon Homestead from the wrecking ball as early as 1905. To this day, a weathered wooden sign with his last name hangs over the door under the stairs. But it seems unlikely that the nameplate or indeed The entire house will long outlive the ongoing development that Audubon inadvertently started when he began to tame the land there in the 1840s.
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