Happy New Year everyone! 2016 is just over a year old and now that the holiday rush is over my attention returns to Riverside Drive. This segment will take us from 135th Street to 96th Street. Some of Uptown’s most famous landmarks and handsomest buildings are along this stretch. So let’s keep on walking!
To begin, I took the subway to the 137th Street-City College stop. One of the original stations in the subway system. It is also one of the most altered stations on the line. Only a small section of the platform has retained the original ceramic cartouche of the three faces that symbolizes City College which is two blocks east of the station. Hopefully, the MTA, will come to their senses and restore the station to it’s former glory, but I’d like them to keep the Steve Woods “Fossils.” The bronze figures of fossilized species are what keeps the ‘modern’ station interesting.
Upstairs, I headed back to 135th Street and began to walk towards Riverside Drive. Upon turning left, one might notice a massive building that appears to be a cross between a Greek temple and a Broadway theatre. You are looking at the former Lee Brothers warehouse building. Built in 1929 by George S. Kingsley, Lee Brothers was a furniture and storage company based in Harlem. This building was to be their warehouse and later storage facility for the company. In 1984, Manhattan Mini-Storage, bought the building, but the old name, and the exterior have changed little since then.
The old Lee Brothers Inc. Warehouse.
Long rumored, to be built for the famed Astor family, the building instead has over 1,000 units of storage, a majority of which are actually below Riverside Drive. If the 134th Street’s lower level where to reopen, it would give it the distinction of being one of the few streets to be on two separate levels. The Lee Brothers building gives us a fitting welcome to Riverside Drive Viaduct.
Riverside Drive Viaduct.
The viaduct, built in the early 20th century, connects the original, Riverside Drive with its expansion up to Washington Heights. Designed by F. Stuart Williamson, the viaduct soars 80 feet above 12th Avenue and the Harlem Valley. It also happens to pass over a natural fault line so I’d really hope not to be on it when it goes. While the views facing the Manhattan side of viaduct are no longer sweeping due to both Columbia University’s recent development and the construction of housing in the mid-20th century, the New Jersey side still commands a beautiful view of their ‘mostly’ green side of the Hudson.
The viaduct has been rebuilt twice in the past 50 years and is getting a makeover with new lights to brighten the lower level. However, by doing that it does rob the area of its unique character. The arches evoke a grittier New York that was not too long ago. The atmosphere is so iconic movies, television shows and even a Lady Gaga music video have been filmed there. If there is any consolation, at least when they film at night they probably won’t need too much lighting. It might not have been what Williamson had in mind, but as they say for every action there is an equal and positive reaction.
Riverside Drive from the Southwest: Note the construction platform to install lighting underneath the viaduct.
Heading further down, I arrive at a familiar sight. It looks like the lookout at Inspiration Point! Yet its cleaner, the bathroom is open, there’s tour buses pulling in and out, what gives? Well we are just across the way from the General Grant National Monument or Grant’s Tomb for short.
Restored lookout and comfort station near Grant’s Tomb. Now part of the General Grant National Monument Visitors Center.
Grant arrived to New York in 1881, after a two year tour of the world, and a failed attempt to return to the White House. In New York, wealthy friends bought a house of the family on the Upper East Side. Yet, despite their charitable and financial efforts, Grant lost even more money to financial fraudster Ferdinand Ward. Grant had to sell some of his personal mementos to pay back his debts. Grant also began, at the urging of Mark Twain, to write his memoirs which provided his wife Julia an income. Grant managed to finish the memoir, just before succumbing to Throat Cancer in 1885.
Before he died, Grant expressed his desire to be buried with his wife, Julia Dent, and since she still resided in New York, the city was the obvious choice. Other options included West Point Military Academy, St. Louis Missouri, and Galena Illinois. Riverside Drive and the park were chosen over locations like Union Square because of a natural overlook that it sits on. If you recall in part two, I took a picture from under the George Washington Bridge, and I could clearly see the Tomb all the way uptown. So the decision to place it there worked out.
So who’s buried there?
Design to evoke the lost mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the tomb was supposed to be twice its size, and have a ceremonial pier so that excursion boats could arrive uptown. However its construction dragged on to the point when the Grant Monument Association’s president, General Horace Porter had to shame upper class New Yorkers into donating some money. Those same people who helped Grant in life had to be cajoled after his death! Richard T. Greener, the first African-American graduate of Harvard University, also led fundraising efforts which netted $600,000 from the general public for the monument. Greener also raised money from African American communities by pointing to his own success that he attributed to Grant’s role in ending slavery.
Portrait of Richard T. Greener by Larry Lebby.
On April 27th 1891, on what would have been Grant’s 69th birthday the groundbreaking ceremony was held. Next came the cornerstone laying on April 27th 1892. Finally, in 1897, on April 27th, the tomb was formally dedicated. Even though Grant himself was actually laid inside his sarcophagus 10 days earlier. In 1902, Julia Dent died, and was placed in her own sarcophagus.
Tomb rotunda the upper level was actually meant to be open to the public but alas that has failed to come to pass.
For the first few decades, the Tomb was the most visited attraction in New York City, and it even bested the Statue of Liberty. Many veterans of the Civil War came to visit the Tomb and a special detail was used to carry disabled veterans up the steep steps. As time marched on, the veterans slowly passed away, and visitation dropped. To make matters worse, Southern based historians began to create the perception that Grant was weak and ineffectual president, and when it came to his military career was just plain lucky. While not very political, Grant was elected twice, and maintained a popularity with the general public after he left. I think Grant was like most of us, sometimes we are in the right place at the right time, and sometimes at the wrong place at the wrong time.
When National Parks Service, took over operations in 1958, they actually did away with many of the historical functions of the Tomb such as the maps and historical artifacts from the Civil War. To make matters worse the park and the area around it deteriorated, making the tomb completely unsafe to visit. The structure even had graffiti on it. Luckily, during the 1990’s a series of events converged that gave Grant’s Tomb a $2 million restoration, which has brought back some of the luster. As for the re-dedication it was on, you guessed it April 27th 1997! Today the Tomb sits quiet like a silent sentinel, asking the public to “Let us have Peace.” Also a new reassessment of Grant’s life has restored much of Grant’s reputation.
Winter Sunset at Grant’s Tomb.
If you look in the back of the Tomb, you will find a plaque dedicated by the Chinese that demarcates the temporary tomb where Grant was laid, and thanks in resolving a diplomatic dispute with Japan
Plaque commemorating Grant’s legacy for the Chinese people.
Across the street to east is Riverside Church. Built during the 20th Century, like the Tomb the Church also has a rather interesting history. In fact if it wasn’t for another church nearby this one would not have been built. I’ll get to that later. The Church, a known bastion of liberal America has had the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, and many others speak there. It’s also been the funeral of notable African Americans such as Jackie Robinson, saxophonist Ornette Coleman, and the memorial service to actress Ruby Dee in 2014. I didn’t get a chance to see that service or any other of the men and women honored in the sight of God. But I did see the piano that Alicia Keys used during Dee’s memorial service. It had not been placed into storage yet when I took a tour of the sanctuary last year.
So modern it has a revolving door.
If one looks down 120th Street, you can see the tower of the Union Theological Seminary. Its collegiate Gothic tower complements Riverside Church’s 24 story tower. The best way to see that is to walk over to 121st Street for that shot. Across the way is the rather bland Internationalist Church building, the less said the better.
They look great at all the angles.
One long block later and one finds themselves on 116th Street and are greeted with two beautiful buildings. Called the Colosseum and the Paterno, they sit on perhaps the most unusual pieces of property in the area. Allegedly, the site was to be used as an extension of Riverside Park, giving Grant’s Tomb, Barnard College, and Columbia University a grand park-like entrance. While those plans never came to fruition, the block’s unique shape made it attractive for developers and the buildings were built in 1910 by Charles and Joseph Paterno. Amenities back then included mahogany dining rooms, a chauffeur’s lounge, and even wall safes! Today the two buildings and their neighbors are now housing for students and faculty for the two colleges.
Along the park, there are quite a few statues one that stuck out was Lajos Kossuth, a Hungarian lawyer, and social reformer. He was instrumental in creating the Hungarian Diet or its congress during the revolution of 1848. Unfortunately, Kossuth was forced out of the country but continued to push for Hungarian independence. He visited the United States to a hero’s welcome in 1851 only to piss off abolitionists and migrant Catholics. Nonetheless, Hungarian migrants to the U.S. dedicated the statue in the 20th Century.
Down 112th Street, there is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The largest Anglican cathedral in the world and the fourth largest of any kind. The location was chosen so that the whole city can see the structure. While external events prevented the cathedral from completion, what they have completed is nothing short of stunning, and I highly recommend going inside.
Cathedral of St. John the Divine from Riverside Drive.
Legend has it that John D. Rockefeller, gave a gift of $500,000, in 1925. There was one catch: Rockefeller wanted to expand the Cathedral’s board so that other Protestant denomination members could share in the Cathedral’s glory. The Bishop, William Thomas Manning, accepted the gift publicly, but left no mention of the Rockefeller’s proposal. Furious at Manning and the Cathedral’s lack of vision, Rockefeller focused his efforts on a more open church. That church we know today as Riverside Church.
As I’m walking down the street, I marvel at Olmsted’s vision of the drive. Everything appears in balance, with residential on one side, parks and recreation on the other, and driving in the middle. Each element of the drive receives equal treatment, for example, the park has a wide walkway that allows people to stroll at their own pace. While the cars zoom uptown to beat the traffic along the Henry Hudson Parkway to the George Washington Bridge. While stately mansions and apartment buildings sit on the right, sometimes separated by a park median, which reduces the noise and segregates local traffic.
The Pedestrian Mall.
On the corner of 107th and Riverside Drive, is the perhaps one of the grand dames of the Drive, the Schinasi Mansion. Built in 1907, for Turkish Cigarette magnate, Morris Schiniasi, it was built with Vermont marble in the French Renaissance style. Some of the rooms included a library, a drawing room inspired by King Louis XVI, and a reception hall. According to the New York Times appraisal of the mansion in 2007, pineapples adorn the interior of the mansion, a traditional symbol of hospitality found in mansions of the period. The blog Daytonian in Manhattan, who also wrote about the building, sums up the mansion best from a quote from Jewish historian Aviva Ben-Ur, “a harmonious mélange of Middle Eastern elegance and American sophistication.”
The Schiniasi Mansion.
The mansion passed hands many times after the death of Schiniasi in 1928, from a finishing school for girls, a day care center, property of a Columbia University, and then owned by a professor of Columbia University. Fans of the television show “White Collar” might recognize it as the home of June Ellington, who gave the shows main character Neal Cafferty, her spacious“guest room” (insert NYC apartment joke here).
Coincidentally enough, jazz pianist and composer Duke Ellington moved to the neighborhood in 1961, into 333 Riverside Drive. He would remain there with his sister, Rose until his death in 1974.
Rows of Mansions along Riverside Drive. 333 Riverside, home of David Canavan and jazz pianist and composer Duke Ellington 5th from left.
333 Riverside Drive sits on a block of mansions, that haven’t changed since their construction with the exception of 332, which was converted into a local Buddhist society. Before Ellington moved in David Canavan and his family occupied the mansion from 1910 to 1945. Devoutly Catholic, the Canavan’s, especially David were members of several social clubs and charities.
310 and 315 Riverside Drive, are two massive Art-Deco buildings, only have two things in common; the red window frames and the color of their bricks, otherwise you could mistake them for siblings.
The mammoth 310 Riverside Drive.
If you really want an “only-in-New-York” story, 310 Riverside Drive is your best bet. 310 Riverside Drive boasts being the tallest building on Riverside Drive itself at 443 feet/135 meters tall. Devised by Russian artist, philosopher, and explorer Nicholas Roerich, to house his museum of art and other artistic endeavors, it was completed in 1929, weeks before the stock market crash. Roerich’s museum was forced out in the 1930’s and replaced by the Riverside Museum, which showed contemporary and American Art, until it closed in 1971. I could go on about this unique building, but I’ll save it for perhaps another article post.
Nearing the end of this journey is the Fireman’s Memorial. Located at the intersection of 100th and Riverside Drive, the memorial sits on a ridge that separates the apartments from the traffic below. Dedicated in 1913 and designed Harold Van Buren Magonigle, with sculptures by Attilio Piccirilli, the memorial is dedicated to the men and women who died in the line of duty. Piccirilli, created the two sculptures, Duty and Sacrifice, using model Audrey Munson. Munson, a popular model for painting and sculpture, can also be found at the Strauss Memorial on 106th Street and Broadway and the USS Maine Monument, in Columbus Circle.
The Fireman’s Memorial.
In 1927, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), dedicated a memorial to the horses that once pulled the fire engines on the plaza floor.
ASPCA Memorial to the horses of the Fire Department of New York, heroes in their own right.
Every autumn a memorial service is held at the site for those lost past and present. In recent years, attention to the memorial has increased, due in part from the loss of 343 firefighters on September 11.
Finally, I’ve reached my final destination at 96th Street. Well not exactly, due to the areas geography, Riverside Drive vaults over 96th Street with one last viaduct, likely designed by Calvert Vaux, it shares some characteristics of the cast iron bridges in Central Park.
The 96th Street Viaduct.
And that my friends is why this one was called from viaduct to viaduct.
Also special thanks to family friend Brenna Marie Calles for information on the Lee Brothers Inc. Warehouse building and to Trisha Sullivan for help in editing this article.