Monday, March 27, 2017

The Lost John James Audubon House--Riverside Drive near 156th Street


When the Audubon house was completed in 1842, it was surrounded by verdant woodlands  watercolor by William Rickarby Miller, 1857.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Riding on the success of his The Birds of America, in 1841 naturalist artist John James Audubon purchased 14 acres of wooded land far north of the city overlooking the Hudson River.   The family was temporarily living at No. 86 White Street; but Audubon notoriously disliked cities.

Located just above what would become 155th Street, the untouched terrain contained mature elms, dogwoods and tulip trees; and water features like ponds, creeks and a small waterfall.  He registered his triangular-shaped land purchase as "Minnie's Land."

Audubon and his family had lived in Scotland while he prepared The Birds of America and his sons, Victor and John, had begun using the word "Minnie" to refer to their mother, Lucy Bakewell Audubon.  It was a Scottish endearment meaning "mother."

Audubon transferred the title to Lucy, reportedly to thank her for the decades of difficulty and separation she suffered while he worked on the book.  He erected a comfortable frame house that sat above a stone basement.  A hip roof rose above the shallow attic level, and wide matching porches at the front and back offered cool respite in summer.  The house was situated close enough to the river to enjoy breathtaking views.  The family moved in in the spring of 1842.

The Audubon boys appear to be playing two-man baseball.  etching from Valentine's Manual of the City of New York, 1864

Although Minnie's Land is often thought of as a summer estate--and indeed there were several in the upper reaches of Manhattan--this was a year-round working farm.  It contained fruit orchards, vegetable gardens, and livestock enclosures.  The family was therefore self-sufficient; eggs, milk, meat, fruits and vegetables were supplemented with fish from the river and game from the forest.

In 1846 the Audubons hosted Samuel Morse.  The inventor had been working on a telegraph line that stretched from Philadelphia to Fort Lee, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Minnie's Land.  The line was completed that year and Morse used his friend's house for the trial run.  The New York Times later reported "A receiving office for messages was opened on this side of the river in the house of Audubon, the naturalist, and two Whitehall boatmen were engaged to keep up the communication."

As Audubon worked on his book Quadrupeds of North America in 1843, the grounds filled with his subjects.  In her 1898 book Audubon and his Journals, Maria R. Audubon explained "many animals (deer, elk, moose, bears, wolves, foxes, and smaller quadrupeds) were kept in inclosures--never cages--mostly about a quarter of a mile distant from the river, near the little building known as the 'painting house.'"


William Cullen Bryant later described the drawing room in his book Homes of American Authors:

"It was not, however, a parlor, or an ordinary reception-room that I entered, but evidently a room for work.  In one corner stood a painter's easel, with a half-finished sketch of a beaver on the paper; in the other lay the skin of an American panther.  The antlers of elks hung upon the walls; stuffed birds of every description of gay plumage ornamented the mantle-piece; and exquisite drawings of field-mice, orioles, and wood-peckers, were scattered promiscuously in other parts of the room, across one end of which a long rude table was stretched to hold artist materials, scraps of drawing-paper, and immense folio volumes, filled with delicious paintings of birds taken in their native haunts."

The famous painter's career was quickly coming to an end, however.  He was already showing signs of what today we would recognize as dementia.  In 1846 a close friend, Dr. Thomas M. Brewer of Boston visited and was disturbed at Audubon's condition.

He wrote in his journal "The patriarch had greatly changed since I had last seen him.  He wore his hair longer, and it now hung down in locks of snowy whiteness on his shoulders.  His once piercing gray eyes, though still bright, had already begun to fail him.  He could no longer paint with his wonted accuracy, and had at last, most reluctantly, been forced to surrender to his sons the task of completing the illustrations of the 'Quadrupeds of North America.'  Surrounded by his large family, including his devoted wife, his two sons with their wives, and quite a troop of grandchildren, his enjoyments of life seemed to leave him little to desire."

The New York Times remembered decades later "In 1847 the brilliant intellect began to be dimmed; at first it was only the difficulty of finding the right word to express an idea, the gradual lessening of interest, and this increased till in May, 1848, Dr. Bachman tells the pathetic close of the enthusiastic and active life: 'Alas, my poor friend Audubon!  The outlines of his beautiful face and form are there, but his noble mind is all in ruins.  It is indescribably sad.'"

On January 27, 1851 Audubon died at the age of 71.  The New York Times noted simply "The latter years of his life were passed in quiet retirement."  The New-York Daily Tribune was more poetic, saying "He departed full of days and rich in honors, and his end was worthy of his life."

The funeral was held in the house (by now the spelling had become a single word: Minniesland) on January 29.  "It was largely attended by the friends of the family and other citizens," reported the Tribune.  "The funeral was wholly unostentatious and simply."  Audubon's body was removed to the family vault in Trinity Church Cemetery, which abutted the Audubon property.

Although the family struggled to keep financially float--Victor and John worked on Quadrupeds and attempted to sell subscriptions--Lucy was forced to sell off land.  In 1869 Miller's New Guide to the Hudson River callously described, "within a very short distance of the Cemetery...is what is rather pompously called Audubon Park, being a small estate of a few acres which formerly belonged to Audubon, and which, since his death, has been cut up into building-lots, and had received this high-sounding name.  Audubon's house is still standing, a plain unpretending affair, occupied, we believe, by what is left of his family." 

Finally in March 1872 she sold her beloved house to 54-year old Jesse Wheeler Benedict.  Benedict had married Frances Ann Coleman in July 1833.  The couple had one unmarried daughter, Mary.  Once a successful silversmith and watchmaker, he and his brother, Samuel Ward Benedict, had been partners in Benedict, Benedict & Co.  But in 1843 Jesse switched careers, opening a law firm.

The Benedicts updated the simple wooden house, adding a fashionable mansard roof with iron cresting, a two-story protruding bay to the side and Victorian embellishments to the porches.

photo by Samuel H. Gottscho, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Jesse Benedict died in 1872.  Frances almost immediately offered the house for rent.  An advertisement in The New York Herald on April 4, 1873 read "To Let--Furnished, the residence of the late Jesse W. Benedict, at Audubon Park, Washington Heights, New York city; property is on the banks of the Hudson; ample grounds, double house, stable, &c."

Frances Benedict died in 1887, and the property was sold to William Kramer in April 1888.  The land surrounding the house had shrunk to approximately 375 by 440 feet.  Kramer, who owned the Atlantic Garden and Thalia Theatre, paid $40,000 for the land, house and stable--just about $1 million today.

Kramer's occupancy was relatively short and by 1893 the house was home to lawyer Charles Francis Stone and his wife, the former Sallie English.   Stone was a member of the firm Porter, Lawrey, Soren & Stone.  By now the pristine woodlands that had lured James John Audubon were gone as houses engulfed the neighborhood and Riverside Drive cut through what had been the rear lawn.

The Stones appeared in the society columns as they entertained in the former Audubon house.  On February 17, 1892 Sallie gave a type of reception, the name for which has fallen into oblivion.  The New York Times reported "Mrs. Charles Francis Stone of Audubon Park gave a german last evening to Miss Bessie Hopkins of Maryland."

In February 1894 The Evening World reported that to observe Washington's Birthday, "a luncheon and music by the General Society of the Daughters of the Revolution [was given] at the home of Mrs. Charles Francis Stone, Audubon Park, Washington Heights."

By 1898 the Stones had moved surprisingly far south to No. 17 West 12th Street.  The Audubon house, out of fashion architecturally, was divided into two residences, upper and lower.  In 1905 Frederick La Mura, a contractor, lived upstairs and he sub-let the lower parlor floor to Philip H. Smith and his wife.

La Mura had moved from East 108th Street because of threatening letters he had received from the Black Hand Society--an Italian anarchist group that targeted Italian-American businessmen.  Now, on the night of November 12, 1905 a night watchman at a nearby construction site noticed two suspicious-acting men on the property.  Suddenly they ran down Broadway.

The New-York Tribune reported "Feeling sure that there was something wrong, Monahan made a careful investigation, and discovered flames issuing from the basement of the Audubon house at a point once occupied as a wine cellar, but now used as a sort of storeroom for paint pails and similar articles."

Monhan roused Smith and La Mura who rushed to the basement and extinguished the blaze.  The terrorists had broken a window and tossed a kerosene-soaked bundle of rages and newspaper inside.

By 1915 the house was suffering severe neglect.  A letter to the editor of The Sun on November 20 that year asked "Cannot something be done to save the picturesque home of the great American naturalist John James Audubon...Unless aid comes from the city authorities or private individuals it is obvious that Audubon's home is doomed to go."  The writer noted "The elements have got in some vital blows, and it is doubtful whether the building can hold together much longer."

Four days later another reader, Alfred Poindexter of Richmond, Virginia, chimed in.  "Let the mansion be rehabilitated in keeping with its memories, and converted into a museum of Audubon's friends, living song birds, a unique delight for visitors."

Concerned citizens still rallied for the preservation of the historic home six years later.  On May 7, 1921 a letter to the editor of The New York Herald warned that the building "where John James Audubon made his home for years and in which Morse installed and tried out his first telegraph instrument has been allowed to fall into decay and it cannot hold together much longer."

And on April 22, 1923 The New York Times joined the push for preservation.  Saying that the building could be purchased for $90,000 and "could be easily jacked up to a level with the Drive," an editorial added "Standing there, with its spacious rooms and sweeping staircases restored to their ancient dignity, it would make a splendid memorial to John James Audubon, and provide an appropriate home for the organization that bears his name."  But at present, the article lamented, "Rubbish litters the wide verandas" and "A dozen families are crowded, old-law-tenement-house fashion, in the rooms where Audubon worked."

When this photograph was taken, laundry hung from the rubbish-strewn lawn.  Apartment buildings lined Riverside Drive and railroad tracks separate the property from the river.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Nothing came of the proposals.  In November 1931, as developers descended on the property, DuPont Pratt donated $1,000 to move the house contingent upon $6,000 more being raised.  Money flowed in, but it was an expensive project.  On December 8 The Times reported "The expenses of moving the house to a new site have been underwritten, but a fund of $25,000 is needed to complete the work of restoration."

Wreckers began demolition in December; but were stopped at the last minute when city officials stepped in.  The Times reported "Although wreckers already had begun to tear down porches and to remove the roof and bay windows, the demolition had not proceeded far enough to interfere with restoration."

The historic home was dismantled and its sections removed to a city-owned lot awaiting the necessary fund raising to reassemble and restore it.  But during the Great Depression, when the choice of buying food or donating to historic preservation was clear, the project stalled.

As years passed, the sections were somehow misplaced.  No one knows what became of the dismantled Audubon house.  Years passed and the noble residence was forgotten.

2 comments:

  1. This is an amazing post. I'm a longtime reader of your blog, but this Audubon entry was both poignant and gripping. Kudos!

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    Replies
    1. Really glad you enjoyed it. It is such a remarkable (and tragic) story and a loss for NYC.

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