John Hemenway Duncan, 1888
West Harlem is graced with several rows of wood-frame houses, a rare sight in Manhattan, where fire codes in the 19th century halted their construction West 153rd Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway contains a number of wood-frame houses, but the stand-outs are nos. 512 and 514, which are vernacular, threestory, three bay houses with covered porches. These houses can be dated by their absence in the 1879 Atlas of the Entire City of New York and their presence in the 1891 Atlas of the City of New York, Manhattan Island, both published by G.W. Bromley. These dates correspond with the 1879 completion of the elevated railway along Eighth Avenue to 155th Street, which spurred the initial wave of speculative development in the neighborhood. A few streets away, nos. 454-460 West 150th Street form a row of four attached wood-frame dwellings, with an asymmetrical roofline of peaked dormers and a central gable over 458-460. Now faced in green and white permastone, historic photographs indicate that these houses once boasted Queen Anne detailing and shingle façades. The group on West 150th Street originally extended to the corner of Convent Avenue and encompassed nos. 450-460, but the end structure was demolished in the early 2000s. They were designed by John Hemenway Duncan, whose notable work includes Grant’s Tomb in Manhattan and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza.
Vladimir B. Morosov
The otherwise unassuming Russian Holy Fathers Church is smaller than other churches on the block, but makes its mark with a blue onion dome topped by a golden cross. The rise of the Soviet Union and its hostility towards the Russian Orthodox Church prompted North American religious leaders to split from Russian leadership and establish an autonomous jurisdiction. In response, religious leaders loyal to the Patriarchate of Russia founded the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and established new parishes, of which Holy Fathers Church was the first. Founded in 1928 and originally located on Fifth Avenue between 128th and 129th Streets, the Russian Holy Fathers Church moved to a converted space on West 153rd Street in the late 1930s. By 1966, under the leadership of Protopriest Alexander Krasnoumov, the congregation had raised funds to construct its own building, remaining on West 153rd Street a block from its original location.
550 West 155th Street
church: Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, 1912-15; vicarage: Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson, 1911-14
601 West 153rd Street
James Renwick, Jr., 1843; re-design: Calvert Vaux, 1881
Located at the northern edge of West Harlem, the Church of the Intercession traces its roots to the 1840s, when prominent residents, including Richard Carman and John James Audubon, petitioned a priest based in Harlem to hold Episcopal services in a building in Carmansville. Faced with overcrowding and financial insolvency by the turn of the century, the Church of the Intercession negotiated with Trinity Church to construct a new building on the grounds of its cemetery, thereby losing its independent status and becoming the Chapel of the Intercession until again becoming its own parish in 1976. The Late English Gothic Revival church and its Tudor Revival vicarage are constructed of ashlar with limestone trim. Founded in 1842, Trinity Cemetery was established to provide burial grounds outside of Trinity Church’s congested environs downtown. The cemetery’s hilly terrain, now bisected by Broadway, serves as the final resting place of, among others, John Jacob Astor Sr., John James Audubon and Clement Clarke Moore, author of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Although European settlers had begun farming the area now known as West Harlem in 1625, the community was not formally incorporated as the village of New Harlem (or “Nieuw Haarlem” in Dutch) until 1658. By the time Richard Carman began purchasing farmland in the area surrounding West 152nd Street in the 1830s, roads had been extended into the neighborhood and country estates were established as summer retreats for the city’s elite. In the 1840s, development started to encroach on this pastoral landscape as the Croton Water Aqueduct stretched through the neighborhood on its way downtown, and Trinity Church acquired a large parcel of land to construct a cemetery. After the Hudson River Railroad established a stop at the foot of West 152nd Street in 1842, the thoroughfare became the nucleus of the newly named village of Carmansville.
Carmansville featured multiple residences, several churches, a hotel and a new headquarters for the city’s 32nd Police Precinct, which was linked by telegraph to the rest of the city. The construction of an elevated railway along Eighth Avenue in 1879 further tied Carmansville to the burgeoning metropolis to the south. While the elevated railways facilitated the speculative development of blocks of brownstones for the middle class in central Harlem, the heights farther west, then called “lower Washington Heights,” saw more gradual development. When the Joseph Loth & Company Silk Ribbon Factory, one of the few industrial enterprises in the community, opened its doors at Amsterdam Avenue and West 150th Street in 1886, its immediate environs consisted of truck farms and clusters of houses.
By the time the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) Company inaugurated subway service along Broadway with a terminus at West 145th Street in 1904, this scene had changed dramatically to one of elegant rowhouses constructed in styles ranging from the Queen Anne to the Dutch Revival, lining the streets between Amsterdam and Broadway. Marking the urbanization of the area, one of the last undeveloped portions of Manhattan’s street grid disappeared when the stretch of West 150th Street west of Broadway was finally ceded to the city and opened as a public thoroughfare in 1906. Residential development was accompanied by improvements associated with an established urban neighborhood, including the opening of the Hamilton Grange Branch Library in 1906, the extension of Riverside Drive into Audubon Park in 1911 and the completion of the Church of the Intercession in 1915. While the turn of the century brought an influx of African-Americans into central Harlem, transforming that neighborhood into a national center of black culture, West Harlem’s black population gradually increased into the 1920s and 1930s.
In the post-World War II era, West Harlem’s buildings were plagued by poor maintenance and abandonment as middle-class residents moved to the suburbs and those who remained faced poverty and institutional neglect. Despite these challenges, West Harlem residents took steps to strengthen their community’s identity and affirm its resiliency. In the 1970s, residents organized to advocate for the construction of Riverbank State Park atop the maligned North River Water Control Plant, while Arthur Mitchell located his newly established Dance Theatre of Harlem in a renovated garage at 466 West 152nd Street. Today, local organizations continue to fight to preserve West Harlem and promote its unique identity as increased development threatens this dynamic community and its architectural beauty.