Earlier this year, I wrote about a cluster detached Victorian houses along Woodycrest Avenue, around 164th Street, in the High Bridge section of the Bronx. In doing so, I explained why I thought they might be the last significant group of this type of architecture that remains in the Manhattan-Bronx street grid– a geography that roughly corresponds to the pre-1898 City of New York. Tonight, I found a graphic at Big Map Blog that adds some context to the Woodycrest houses: an 1897 bird’s-eye view of the urban fabric that surrounded the then-developing Grand Concourse:
It’s an unusual perspective. The core of Manhattan, to the south, would lie far to the left of the framed perspective. The land in the foreground is what’s now called the Bronx, and the narrow, horizontal strip of water that runs behind it is the Harlem River. Beyond that are the bluffs of upper Manhattan, and in the far background, the New Jersey Palisades rise above the Hudson River. Basically, this image shows the northern frontier of New York City’s urban growth at the end of the Victorian period.
It’s hard to know how accurate the details are. It would take a good amount of work to determine, for instance, just how precisely they depicted what was on the ground in 1897. Based on the presence of a number of landmarks (viz., the Croton Aqueduct, the Broadway Bridge, the tower in High Bridge Park), and the accuracy of its major-streets pattern, it would be fair to conclude that this is a relatively faithful snapshot of the city. On the other hand, I don’t think there was ever a suspension bridge that connected Inwood Hill with Spuyten Duyvil. So, you have to take the given visual data with a fair degree of skepticism.
Look at Harlem: the gridded blocks on the far left, beyond the Harlem River. You can see that the boxy, attached row houses and apartment buildings are beginning to fill in the landscape. Rapid development may be indicated by the completely vacant land that is being gobbled up by sudden density. That is, it doesn’t look as if there was ever a phase of detached house development in these blocks– they just went straight from greenfields to urban density. For example, here’s a close-up of Seventh Avenue at 145th Street:
In another three decades, this level of density would come to cover nearly the entire scene of this drawing. But moving right, circa 1897, you see trees, fields, and detached houses with traditional pitched roofs. Did these all exist? Probably, in some form. Most of the components of this low-density scene are gone today, but at the end of the 19th century they were still, apparently, typical of the uptown landscape, on either side of the Harlem River. Even if this image were ambitiously forward-looking, it wouldn’t present any less density than what actually existed at its time. So this close-up view of development along the Concourse near Tremont Avenue is illustrative:
If this depiction is accurate, it provides an interesting context. A lot of these houses, especially those in the foreground along East 177th Street and Mount Hope Place, appear to have been ornate, turreted, large homes. The low density of these blocks at that point in time fits with some research I did in grad school which indicated that most of the large apartment buildings above City College (Broadway/137th) were built after 1900. Of course, the entire uptown scene depicted in this image might have been an ideal setting for the construction of many spacious, airy Victorian houses, if the rapid march of tenements hadn’t borne down on the new lots as quickly and persistently as it did. But we do see a scattering of detached Victorians in the snapshot of 1897, including the ones that still survive on Woodycrest Avenue:
This is a reverse perspective of the modern one, above, but it’s absolutely the same block, in spite of the fact that the old map, interestingly, calls the street Bremer Avenue, rather than Woodycrest. And if you look around the rest of the image, you’ll see other houses here and there that are either clearly detached Victorians, or possibly detached Victorians. Some even have details, like wraparound porches, mansard roofs, and conic towers. (Significant clusters can be found in the blocks around Claremont Park, around 183rd Street west of Aqueduct Avenue, and along the steep bluffs that rise above the Harlem River.) Again, the accuracy of the specific details would take a good amount of legwork to verify, but their very presence suggests that they were representative of at least some portion of the area’s architecture. Today, the vast majority of these types of houses are gone from the blocks of uptown New York City, long since replaced by the large apartment buildings that are now, themselves, becoming historic.
I think maybe the most interesting aspect of this image is its suggestion that such houses in New York City may even have been rare in their own time. That is, only a handful were built, before they went out of style, before the rapid march of dense apartments filled in the empty canvases of the newly platted blocks. They are rarer still, today, since so many of the original detached structures of all types in the Bronx and upper Manhattan have been demolished. It would be reasonable to think that the presence of a Euclidean zoning scheme in 1897 might have saved more of these houses, and encouraged the development of others like them in the upper part of the city. But such laws would also have prevented the development of the apartments on the same blocks that have since served as homes for generations of immigrants and working-class New Yorkers. Land use decisions are often trade offs– another reason to take note of the houses that remain on Woodycrest Avenue. These structures are relics of a New York City that might have been, but never was: a city, visually, more like San Francisco, Boston, or even New Orleans.
Update: The New York Public Library has a 1909 insurance map, shown below, which corroborates the presence of a large collection of detached Victorian houses in the vicinity of Woodycrest Avenue and West 164th Street, including the extant structures and a number that are now gone. A similar map, dating from 1900, confirms that there was once a similar cluster of architecture in the vicinity of Mount Hope Place and the Grand Concourse: These houses have nearly all been replaced. Note that the building footprints seen in both maps include wraparound porches, rounded turrets or towers, and other distinctive features of this type of architecture.