Thursday, November 1, 2018

Rare Survivors in New York City: Sylvan Terrace's Cobblestones & Row Houses, c1880

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Susan reporting,

When most of us think of Manhattan, we picture towering skyscrapers, sleek walls of glass and stone, midtown streets crowded with cabs, cars, and bustling pedestrians. Small 19thc wooden row houses and a quiet cobble street: not so much.

Yet the street shown here is indeed in Manhattan, in Washington Heights near 160th Street. I discovered it by accident, on my way to visit the 18thc Morris-Jumel Mansion (more about that in a later post.) No matter where you live, the scene may look familiar, because it has appeared as a location in numerous period films.

The street is called Sylvan Terrace. In the 1880s, the city's growth was creeping uptown, and the open fields and gardens that had so long insulated the Morris-Jumel Mansion were finally being divided into streets and house-plots. Developer James E. Ray commissioned twenty identical row houses, built on what had once been the Mansion's carriage drive. Because the neighborhood was so far uptown from what was considered the "city," the houses were exempt from fire codes that stipulated brick or stone construction, and could instead be made from less expensive wood over high brick basements.

The new street was given the pastoral name of Sylvan Terrace, another indication of how far it still was from downtown. The houses were modest, and the residents were middle-class, tradesmen and small merchants. The neighborhood continued to grow around them, larger and more lavish brownstone townhouses followed by larger-still apartment buildings. In a city where buildings are routinely knocked down within a generation to build something new,  all twenty of the little frame houses on Sylvan Terrace miraculously survived.

But time did bring changes. The original cobblestones were paved over with asphalt, and the houses themselves gradually lost most of their wood trim. Some were fronted with stucco facades, others sheathed in aluminum siding or false brick. The basic integrity of the street remained, however, and in 1970, the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission created the Jumel Terrace Historic District.

In 1981, Federal funds restored the facades to approximate their original unified appearance; the backs of the houses still reflect 20thc remodeling. The asphalt paving was removed from the cobblestone street. Reaction to the restoration seems to have been mixed at the time. Residents complained that the work had been shoddy, and a few rebellious owners began repainting the new facades. In an 1989 article about the restoration, The New York Times deplored its "deadened homogeneity."

Visiting today, it appears that the disgruntlement of the 1980s has been forgotten, or at least put aside. The houses appear beautifully maintained, and unified in their color schemes - which I personally found more harmonious than homogeneous. Perhaps it's not so much a matter of taste, but economics, that has brought peace to Sylvan Terrace. The houses seldom come on the market, but when they do, their charm and history come at a price: $1,500,000 and up.

Above: Photograph by Susan Holloway Scott.
Lower right: Photograph via Curbed NY.


Yve said...

You learn something new every time on this blog, and not necessarily what you expect. I went to look up Cobble street as in Britain the surface in the photos would be known as "sett street", cobble is very different. Wikipedia is a bit dubious on the UK definition but it seems the phrase is interchangeable in the USA. Here and in most of Europe I think, cobble streets are made of rounded pebbles which are used in their natural state and have not been worked in any way. In old town like Chester you find Cobbled and Sett streets dating back to the same era alongside each other so perhaps it was used for different reasons :)

Eric Stott said...

Here in the USA when writers talk of "Cobblestones" they are really talking about Belgian Blocks- rectangular chunks of gray granite imported from Belgium, often as a ship's ballast- the only smoothing they got was from stone grinding against stone as the ship rolled on the voyage over.

This street was nicely featured in the series BOARDWALK EMPIRE: Corrupt politician Enoch "Nucky" Thompson sets up his mistress & her child in a house- and she finds that her neighbors are other mistresses- and prostitutes.

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