Monday, July 16, 2012

The Lost 1909 Paterno Castle -- 185th Street and Riverside Drive

A postcard reveals a portion of the Italian Garden and the breathtaking views.
Twenty-three year old Charles V. Paterno earned his medical degree from Cornell University in 1899.  He would not use it for long.   The son of real estate dealer John Paterno, he was born in Castelmezzano, Italy and immigrated with his family in the 1880s. Charles and his brother Joseph took over the real estate business when their father died.  Although he would never practice medicine again, Charles retained the title Doctor for the rest of his professional life. 

At the turn of the century the Upper West Side was developing quickly and the Paterno brothers were leaders in erecting modern apartment houses for urban pioneering families.  Their Paterno Construction Company gained a reputation for producing luxurious, architecturally conservative apartment buildings.   Within a few years the brothers had amassed large personal fortunes.

In 1905 Dr. Paterno purchased seven and a half acres in the Inwood section of Manhattan with breathtaking views of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades on the opposite bank.   He commissioned architect John C. Watson to design his new home—one that would be quite unlike any of the other turn-of-the-century mansions that were rising along Riverside Drive and upper Fifth Avenue.

Taking advantage of the scenic setting 125 feet above the Hudson, Paterno envisioned a romantic Rhineland-like castle.   According to The Sun years later, “It is said that he saw a place in the country of his forefathers that made a deep impression on him.  It was in surroundings similar to the Fort Washington section.  When he decided to build himself a home on the Drive he remembered this castle and had his home built accordingly.”

Castle Paterno perched above the Hudson like a romantic Rhineland relic.
And he got what he paid for.  Costing $500,000, about $10 million by today’s standards, the four-story castle was ready for occupancy in 1909 (although still not completed).   While Paterno could have gotten away with durable (and perhaps more expected) granite for his castle, he chose white marble.  The mansion sat at approximately 185th Street on what was then called Boulevard Lafayette (an extension of Riverside Drive) and Northern Boulevard (later to be renamed Cabrini Boulevard).

Building Age called it “a residence of unique construction.”   The castle was accessed through an underground passage that ran under the front of the building.  Fifteen steps lead from the Boulevard to a terrace with a fountain.  Stairs on either side led to another landing where the tunnel opened into the side of the hill.

The New York Times depicted the unique entrance on June 7, 1908 (copyright expired)
Guests may have felt some trepidation as they followed the underground passage 75 feet, slowly ascending, to the basement of the mansion—rather like feudal knights stealing into a fortress.

The New York Times June 7, 1908 (copyright expired)
The New York Times described the first room in which the visitor would emerge within the subbasement of the house.   “One finds a room probably without a counterpart in any New York home.  This is not a dungeon into which may be thrown those who incur the displeasure of the owner, nor is it a secret compartment for the safekeeping of the family jewels.” 

It was a “mushroom vault” which Building Age explained was “for propagating the succulent fungi.”   The Times said that here with “just the right conditions of temperature and moisture, [Dr. Paterno] can have mushrooms sprouting every day in time for dinner.”  Here, too, was the wine cellar.  

The basement proper held the Turkish bath with dressing room, two hot rooms of different temperatures, massage rooms and a swimming pool fed by pumps from the Hudson River below.  There were also a grill room and “lounging room” at this level.

Finally, at 80 feet above the street level, was the main reception hall, 20 feet square.   Opening off the hall were the parlor, library, music room and Paterno’s den.  Although the architecture was inarguably medieval, the interior decoration was eclectic.

Each room of the house reflected a different period or style.  The parlor was furnished in Louis XV style; the dining room was “Colonial;” and the library was outfitted in an Asian motif.  Drawing on Andrew Carnegie’s practice of being awakened by organ music, Paterno had a clever and unique antique clock installed in the entrance hall that automatically operated the $7000 organ on the second floor gallery at certain times of the day.  The large clock also operated the set of chimes in the castle tower, announcing the hour and half hour.

The bedrooms were located on the second floor; the master bedroom measuring 18 by 20 feet.  A nursery and sewing room were also on this level.  While the house was still under construction, Building Age noticed that “an unusual feature in connection with the sleeping rooms will be that none of them will be reached directly from the hall, but through a vestibule.”

The entertainment areas were located on the third floor.  Here were the immense banquet hall and ballroom covering about 50 square feet with ceilings 20 feet high.   Balconies sprouted off the ballroom, affording guests nighttime views of the Hudson that, perhaps, made the climb to this level worthwhile.  The large billiard room was also situated on the third floor.

The roof over about one-half of the building was dedicated to a garden.  “But it will be no ordinary roof garden,” promised Building Age.   The outdoor space included an aviary, solarium and large conservatory where Mrs. Paterno’s friends enjoyed polite conversation over tea while taking in the view.   A foot and a half of soil covered the roof to accommodate a natural garden.

Below, an extensive Italian garden was laid out with colonnades, pergolas and fountains.   Below it a service tunnel ran directly from Northern Boulevard to the kitchen and servants’ quarters, eliminating the possibility of deliverymen running into family members.

By 1913 Paterno Castle was still not completed.   On February 16 The Sun noted that “Along the Drive under the house there is a pile of marble that is waiting to be put in place.”    But the newspaper was impressed by the remarkable mansion nonetheless.  “A castle of medieval times could not offer a more formidable appearance. “

Paterno Castle took full advantage of the location in its outside spaces.  “Along the 139 feet on [Northern Avenue] is a railing ten feet high of marble and iron.  It is a massive affair and harmonizes with the architecture of the castle.”  The house, said the article, “is built as far out on the cliff as it was possible to build it.  This gives a lawn of nearly 200 feet between it and the iron and marble railing along Northern Avenue.  Over the roadway at the entrance to the house is a marble porch with battlement on top, as in the feudal castle of old.”

The fence, called by The Sun "a railing...of marble and iron," mirrored the crenelated towers.
Three years later the house was officially completed.  The New York Tribune, on November 5, 1916, jibed “This might be the poet’s ‘castled crag of Drachenfels’ frowning o’er the wide and winding Rhine’ were it not the Hudson River bluffs at 185th Street, with the 35-room residence of Dr. Charles V. Paterno playing the part of the castle.”

A shady pergola wrapped along the edge of the cliff -- NYPL Collection
The castle was superbly designed for entertaining and the Paternos took full advantage.  On the afternoon of April 12, 1917 they hosted a reception for the Reverend Billy Sunday along with cooperative ministers and executive committee members of the Y.W.C.A. and Y.M.C.A.     For years society page reports would tell of tea being served in the solarium and programs of organ music being enjoyed.

The Paterno family was just finishing dinner on the evening of July 24, 1919 when a ruckus occurred.   Anna Bailey, also known as Anna Creegan, was found climbing over the garden wall.  When arrested, she had under her blouse Mrs. Paterno’s silver sugar bowl and two silver platters.

Dr. Paterno told police that how the woman got into the house was a mystery.  Despite the silver items being found on her person, the woman denied having taken them.

The Evening World remarked on the defendant’s appearance at court.   “Miss Baily, or Mrs. Creegan, was the object of considerable attention in the court room.  Although she is a trifle shy of forty, her hair is bobbed.  She wore a purple skirt, a blue waist and a red tie and carried a buff-colored sweater.”

The newspaper apparently felt her sense of style was as offensive as her theft.

Partly due to his own development, land along the Hudson at the far northern end of Manhattan increased in value.  In 1935 Fort Tryon Park, a gift to the city from John D. Rockefeller, Jr.,  was completed and in 1938 The Cloisters Museum was opened.  Dr. Charles Paterno smelled money.

He told The New York Times in August, 1938, that “the many improvements in that part of the city...had led to a strong residential movement in that area with a definite demand for the finer type of garden type apartments.”    And there was no more advantageous spot for “the finer type of garden type apartments” than the site of his castle.

Charles Paterno announced plans “to demolish his fortress-like residence which forms a picturesque feature in the Washington Heights landscape,” in The Times.  In its place the developer planned “five twelve-story detached apartment houses.”

A section of the cast iron fencing lays on its side as workmen begin demolition in 1938 -- NYPL Collection
Paterno commissioned George Fred Pelham, Jr. to design the $6 million project to be called “Castle Village.”   By the end of 1938 Paterno Castle was gone.

But today relics of the medieval-style fortress remain.  The white marble garage and servants’ quarters were converted to housing, and marble entrance columns remain as do sections of the Italian Gardens.  The guesthouse, sitting at the northernmost edge of the former estate, survived.  It sits precariously above the Hudson and retains a small garden.  Remnants of what was undeniably one of the most picturesque and romantic structures in Manhattan still exist; but the bulk of Dr. Charles Paterno’s remarkable estate was a victim of his own financial interests.

 many thanks to reader Keith Taillon for suggesting this post


  1. Spectacular home. One does not think of Manhattan when seeing this dramatic cliffside setting.

  2. I am married to a descendent of Dr. Charles V. Paterno. We both truly enjoy reading about these beautiful buildings that he helped to create. I think it is sad that they demolished the Castle, but being forward-looking men, I can understand why they did it.

    Thank you for your work in bringing this "to life" and sharing it with the public. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article and seeing the pictures. I'd never seen a drawing of how they entered the Castle, that was very intriguing!

    Lisa and Mike St.Amand(Paterno)

    1. Thanks for writing. I love hearing from the families involved in the posts. I agree--I understand why the house was destroyed; but it doesn't stop me from wishing it were still there!

  3. Thank you Tom for this piece. I learned so much. My great-grandfather was Dr. Paterno (my mother's father's father) and I enjoy every bit of information that I can learn about him and his architecture. The details you have provided are fantastic. Thank you again!

  4. Great article. Very interesting. I'd never heard of this. One thing seemed odd to me. Are the sizes of the rooms correct, 20 (main reception hall) and 50 square feet (immense dining hall)? They sound very small. Thanks.