The Audubon Park Historic District [†], located in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, is a cohesive landscape of 19 large apartment houses and one free-standing duplex house indicative of the area's transformation in the early 20th century into a densely developed residential neighborhood. The boundaries of the historic district encompass all or part of five blocks extending from West 155th Street to West 158th Street, from Broadway and Edward M. Morgan Place to Riverside Drive West. The district complements the Audubon Terrace Historic District that adjoins it to the southeast.
Audubon Park is named for John James Audubon (1785-1851), the famous naturalist and illustrator of birds, who purchased the picturesque estate overlooking the Hudson River in 1841. shortly after publishing what would be his most famous work, Birds in America. Washington Heights was still largely secluded at the time, comprised primarily of farms and woodlands, and the location of country estates for a succession of wealthy families starting in the late 18th century. The roughly 20-acre estate came to be known as Audubon Park in the 1860s when Audubon's widow began selling off parcels of the estate for the development of free-standing single family homes.
Following the arrival of the IRT Broadway-Seventh Avenue subway line in 1904, Washington Heights rapidly developed with apartment buildings and accompanying commercial structures. The apartment houses within the historic district were constructed between 1905 and 1932 and were marketed as modern and elegant addresses in the tradition of the grand apartment houses in the neighborhoods of the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights to the south. They were generally given names intended to recall the area's history and impart a sense of stature — such as the Grinnell, named for an early local estate owner, or Hispania Hall, a reference to the nearby Hispanic Society of America — or names evoking romantic and exotic associations — such as the Cragmoor, the Rhinecliff, or the Cortez. Among the architects who designed buildings in the historic district are several local firms well-known for their work on apartment houses, including George F. Pelham, Schwartz & Gross, George & Edward Blum, Denby & Nute, and Neville & Bagge.
The apartment houses range in height from five to 13 stories, with several of the structures, such as the Sutherland at 611 West 158th Street designed by Emery Roth and the Riviera at 790 Riverside Drive, exuberantly executed in the Beaux-Arts and Renaissance Revival styles and featuring light-colored materials including white, gray, and beige brick, terra cotta, and limestone. Elaborate cornices are generally of pressed metal and sometimes incorporate green Mission-style tile, such as the Renaissance Revival style Grinnell at 800 Riverside Drive and the Mediterranean Revival style apartment house at 807 Riverside Drive. Other styles seen within the historic district include the Medieval Revival style Kannawah at 614 West 157th Street, which features elaborate molded terra-cotta window surrounds, stylized pinnacles, and keystones, and the Arts and Crafts style Vauxhall at 780 Riverside Drive, which features creative use of faience tile friezes and decorative brickwork. Along the west side of Riverside Drive and along Riverside Drive West sit several fortress-like beige-brick apartment buildings designed in a Medieval Revival style, featuring castellated parapet walls and molded terra-cotta arched entryways.
Another distinctive feature of the large apartment houses of the historic district are the complex floor plans, often either U- or H-shaped, or incorporating multiple wings allowing for courtyards and maximum light and ventilation. In contrast to the larger structures of the historic district sits the duplex house at 809 and 811 Riverside Drive designed in a Mediterranean Revival style with a red-brick facade, gabled roof of green Mission-style tile, and one-story solaria, built in 1920 to the designs of Moore & Landsiedel. Intended as a model residence to showcase the development strategy of wholesaler Nathan Berler, the duplex, which retains all of its historic fabric, was apparently the only example built.
The vast majority of the buildings within the historic district are highly intact, retaining the vibrant architectural details and character that attracted residents to the area a century ago. The curving streets and dramatic vistas that result from the hilly topography continue to define the neighborhood as a distinctive enclave of apartment buildings with a powerful sense of place.
Audubon Park Historic District Designation Report, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, 2009, nyc.gov, accessed November, 2022.
155th Street West • 156th Street West • 157th Street West • 158th Street West • Edward M Morgan Place • Riveerside Drive