Riverside Drive gets a little crazy in Washington Heights. Part of it angles in toward Broadway, but never quite reaches it, while the main part is bridged above West 158th Street on a viaduct. Riverside Drive above West 158th is also split in two, with a two-way section separated from a one-lane section by a tree and vegetation-filled cliff. In this part of town, Riverside Drive is lined with large apartment buildings and expensive townhouses… except for #857, which is a slight looking two story house with what appears to be recently installed siding. Not only is it unusual for Riverside Drive, it’s one of its oldest buildings.
Here’s #857 Riverside in 1940. Then as now, it’s wedged between an apartment building and a townhouse, but it looks nothing like it does today. The Italianate house has had its porch and cupola stripped away. Only the roofline bracketing remains as a reminder of its past glory.
The Greek Revival/Italianate #857 was built in 1851, according to John Freeman Gill in the NY Times. No doubt, sitting in the cupola once afforded a Hudson River view. Historians contend that the house is connected to the Underground Railroad rescuing slaves fleeing the South; abolitionist Dennis Harris owned the house from 1852-1854. Harris owned a sugar refinery on Duane Street downtown and profited from slavery even as he decried “the peculiar institution” publicly. A further whisper, that cannot be corroborated, has it that the house was built by one of John James Audubon’s sons; the famed ornithological painter lived a short distance away and is buried in nearby Uptown Trinity Cemetery.
Despite its historic connotations the building isn’t landmarked, and developers plan to raze it and construct a 13 story condo building in its place. Appeals to the Landmarks Preservation Commission were rejected recently (reminiscent of the LPC’s failure to protect the Richard Upjohn 1847 St. Saviour’s Church in Maspeth, Queens over a decade ago). Its current resident Albert Wright, says he was swindled by the developers and is refusing to vacate. Meanwhile, advocates including Manhattan boro president Gale Brewer continue to advocate for the building’s preservation.