I was scrabbling around Uptown Trinity Cemetery and its adjacent neighborhood, Sugar Hill, so named because it represented the “sweet” life to African-Americans who lived uptown, aspired to Sugar Hill’s then-luxury buildings and spacious apartments, and were then inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, a literary, philosophical and musical movement of the early-20th century. Musicians Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson, Billy Strayhorn and Count Basie called the neighborhood home, as well as civil rights activists W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, Roy Wilkins and the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr; literary giants such as Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison; and jurist Thurgood Marshall.
Sugar Hill proper is between W. 145th and 155th Sts. and Amsterdam and Edgecombe Ave. Above is seen the former NYPD 32nd Precinct headquarters, Amsterdam Ave. and W. 152nd St., a French Second Empire-style brick building that must look a bit like the way it was built in 1871, down to the rooftop crenellation, and unusual brownstone-style quoins (interlocking concrete slabs on the corners) with overall brick construction. It was most recently home to a branch of the TCI College of Technology. Originally the building included stabling for horses, a jail, and quarters for “vagrants.”
When I came up here a few years ago I was amazed to find in Maher Circle (which this intersection is properly called, in honor of a local kid killed in World War I; his first name has been forgotten) a combination horse trough, streetlamp and weathervane, the Hooper Fountain. The fountain was a gift from civil engineer/newspaperman/entrepreneur John Hooper. In his will, made public upon his death in 1889, he appropriated funds for the construction of two public fountains that had to include horse troughs and drinking fountains. Both fountains were built in 1894: this one, designed by George Martin Huss at Maher Circle, and another in Brooklyn at Flatbush and 6th Aves. in Park Slope that disappeared long ago.
The unusual design features a trough topped by an Ionic column with a human-scale drinking fountain appended, while the column’s topped by a spherical lantern topped by a weathervane.
After motorized traffic proliferated in the early-1920s the trough became an anachronism, and there were efforts made to have it moved to a bridle path. But here it remained, decade after decade, with no upkeep. Vandals finished it off in 1981. However, it was renovated, brick by brick, and restored to its old spot in the mid-1990s.
The Harlem River Driveway today is a connecting road from Maher Circle to the Harlem River Drive proper, but it started out as the “original” Harlem River Drive, long before automobiles were commonplace. Recognizing the long-standing popularity of horse racing among New Yorkers, the city built a “Harlem River Speedway” along the west bank of the Harlem River in Manhattan. The 95-foot-wide dirt roadway stretched two and one-half miles from W. 155th St. north to W. 208th St. Presaging the automobile parkways of the 20th century, the speedway was flanked by trees and pedestrian walkways. When it wasn’t used as a racetrack, the Harlem River Speedway was an exercise track.
When the Harlem River Drive was constructed beginning in the 1930s, it obliterated the old Speedway, except for a short section between what’s now the Ralph Rangel Houses (Ralph Rangel, a community worker and tenant association president, was the brother of US Rep. Charles Rangel) and W. 155th. The extant portion was renamed the Harlem River Driveway, and is now subtitled Willie Mays Drive for the superstar who played for the New York Giants from 1951-1957 at the Polo Grounds, which stood nearby until 1964.
Coogan’s Bluff is the cliff leading down to the Harlem River from Edgecombe Ave. It used to overlook the Polo Grounds, and in different eras, a temporary home for both the New York Yankees and New York Mets. The rise is named for James J. Coogan (1845-1915), a real estate owner and one-term Manhattan Borough President. Known as “Coogan’s Bluff” as early as 1893, the property went to his wife upon his passing. Coogan’s Bluff Playground perpetuates the old name. Coogan’s Bluff also became the name of a 1968 Clint Eastwood film about an Arizona lawman in NYC, the inspiration for the Dennis Weaver McCloud TV series.
A last remnant of the presence of the Polo Grounds, besides a plaque in the Polo Grounds Houses, is the John T. Brush Staircase connecting Edgecombe Ave. and the Harlem River Driveway, named for a former Giants’ owner, installed by the Giants during the 1913 season allowing fans up and down the steep Coogan’s Bluff.
John Tomlinson Brush was born in Clintonville, New York in 1845. After founding a clothing company in Indianapolis in 1875 he became involved in local baseball teams to help promote the city and business. He later owned Indianapolis’ short-lived entry in the National League in the 1880s, and acquired the Cincinnati Reds in 1895. After selling the Reds in 1902, he bought the New York Giants the same year. When the Giants won the National League pennant in 1904, he agreed with manager John McGraw that the Giants shouldn’t play the “junior circuit” American League champion Boston Pilgrims (later, the Red Sox) because of an ongoing disagreement with AL president Ban Johnson. The World Series would be played every year thereafter until 1994, when a strike canceled the Series. Brush was on his way to California on board a train in 1912 when he suddenly passed away; he’d suffered from ill health for some time.
The Polo Grounds was temporarily renamed Brush Stadium from 1911-1919, but the owner’s name lives on in metal letters embedded in the staircase’s concrete landing. After years of decay, in 2011, the New York City Parks and Recreation Department launched a $950,000 restoration project that restored and reopened the staircase in 2013. Major League Baseball donated $50,000 to the project, along with other old Polo Grounds tenants—the San Francisco Giants; the Yankees, who played there from 1913-23; the Mets (1962-1963); the New York Jets (nee Titans), who played their first four AFL seasons there, and the New York football Giants, who played there from 1925-55.
555 Edgecombe Ave. at W. 160th St. contains apartments formerly tenanted by Paul Robeson, Count Basie, Lena Horne, Thurgood Marshall, and presently, the keeper of one of NYC’s great musical traditions as pianist Marjorie Eliot has held parlor jazz concerts every Sunday since 1992 on Sundays from 4-6 p.m. in tribute to her late son, Philip. The public is welcome and donations are encouraged.
This oldest private home in Manhattan stands on a high hill at Edgecombe Ave. and W. 160th St. The Morris-Jumel Mansion was built around 1760 by a British colonel, Roger Morris, who was married to Mary Philipse: some say Mary had previously turned down a proposal from George Washington. Morris’ estate, Mount Morris, covered a vast amount of Harlem acreage, some of which would become Mount Morris Park, now Marcus Garvey Park. During the war, Morris, a loyalist, was forced to vacate the mansion and return to England; it then became a headquarters for Washington in the autumn of 1776. While President in 1790, Washington had a formal dinner in the mansion with John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
The mansion was purchased in 1810 by a wealthy French immigrant, Stephen Jumel, and his wife Eliza. They redecorated the house in the French Empire style and imported furniture; a bed purportedly owned by Napoleon can be found in the Mansion. Jumel also planted a number of cypress trees south of the mansion that were brought from Egypt by the French emperor. After Jumel’s death in 1832, Eliza married former Vice-President Aaron Burr, who is better remembered for killing Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel. Their marriage was stormy and brief, and after their divorce in 1834, Eliza occupied the Mansion until her death in 1865 (she’s entombed in nearby Uptown Trinity Cemetery). Some say her spirit is in the house, since the ghost of a well-dressed woman in the fashion of the time has occasionally been spotted in the halls. The Mansion has been preserved as a national monument since 1904.
“Sylvan” is an adjective that means “woodsy” or “like a forest” and there are three uptown alleys named “Sylvan”: Sylvan Court and Sylvan Place, which are on E. 121st St. near Marcus Garvey (Mount Morris) Park, and Sylvan Terrace, which dead-ends on Jumel Terrace facing the Morris-Jumel Mansion, with a set of steps leading down to St. Nicholas Ave. This was once the carriageway to the Morris-Jumel Mansion, but since 1882 it has been home to about 40 nearly identical clapboard wood-frame houses, meticulously maintained by their owners. It was developed by James Ray and built by architect Gilbert Morrison. Earlier critics mistook them for servants’ quarters, but they were originally middle class residences.
—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)