857 RIVERSIDE DRIVE, Washington Heights

by Kevin Walsh

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.

Check out the ForgottenBook,┬átake a look at the gift shop, and as always, “comment…as you see fit.”

1/22/21

7 comments

Anonymous January 23, 2021 - 7:29 pm

I think that Berenice Abbot might have also taken a picture of that house but in the 1930s

Reply
Tal Barzilai January 24, 2021 - 12:28 am

Unfortunately for NYC serving a part in history even if it was significant isn’t always a reason for saving it as much of it has been demolished in the past to make way for what is there now, plus developers are known for having good relations with certain groups and politicians in getting what they want.

Reply
redstaterefugee January 24, 2021 - 8:53 am Reply
Peter January 24, 2021 - 10:55 pm

It would be an excellent development if someone finds proof that the building was part of the Underground Railroad, as it would then have historical value and would be safe from demolition.

Reply
chris brady January 25, 2021 - 5:52 pm

I say let it be demolished.Any house that has one of those cheezy fake stone wall facades(which never fool anyone,by the way)
like this one does is already doomed anyway.

Reply
AP January 31, 2021 - 4:00 am

What really makes this house historic is that it’s probably one of the last detached single-family homes on Manhattan Island that’s still a private
residence.

The Dyckman farmhouse and the Morris/Jumel mansion are owned by the city and have long been museum pieces. There are some detached houses in Marble Hill, but that’s on the mainland. This is really one of the island’s final surviving single-family detached homes that can be inhabited and that’s
still standing even in the 2020s. That alone is an historical accomplishment.

Reply
839 Riverside Dr. Resident March 2, 2021 - 7:18 pm

I say restore it or demolish the thing. I have to walk by that eye sore every day, and the place it treated like an actual dump, garbage all over the place ALWAYS! It is basically just used as a storage shed for the maintenance people in 839 and 843 Riverside Dr. Just look at the news footage of the inside of the place. It will absolutely fall apart on it’s own. If it’s really a historic landmark then treat it with some respect. If not, better to put the site to good use and improve the integrity of our otherwise beautiful street.

Reply

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