Comments generated by the New York Times Article, "Preserving New York Ties to the Underground Railroad"
by John Freeman Gill, published January 10, 2021
New York NY
Black Lives Matter is a slogan that applies not only to the living but to the dead, even to New Yorkers who have been dead for a century and are part of history. The words, "historic preservation" are apparently becoming meaningless through repetition in the day to day operations of our venerable Landmarks Preservation Commission. Nevertheless, whatever a few civil servants may think, under existing law, historic preservation is not limited to the preservation of architectural ornament: damage to its decoration does not preclude landmark designation of an historic building, especially one emblematic of the long struggle for civil rights. The Landmarks Commission should reconsider the staff level decision to allow the destruction of 857 Riverside Drive.
If a fund was established to purchase the property and restore it I would be the first to contribute!
Beyond the importance of saving examples of extant buildings with possible connections to the Underground Railroad in Upper Manhattan, it seems to me that 857 should be a landmark simply because it is the last of the 19th century country villas and mansions that were built throughout Washington Heights and Inwood. And, the house is 170 years old! That’s truly remarkable anywhere in New York. The fact is that it really wouldn’t take all that much effort to restore the house to its original appearance, since the sides and rear of the house are pretty much still intact
They should be saved!
Goodness, New York has dropped the ball here. This graceful historic structure appears to be quite intact requiring little exterior cosmetic reconstruction to re-establish its elegant, hand made architectural integrity. The extant historic character of adjacent 19th century houses north of it make the argument that 857 is unworthy of designation and protection because some easily recreated carpentry work was removed seem specious. Thank you, Mr. Gill, for posting Ms. Abbott's 1939 photo and for your report. The house's abolitionist history adds a powerful argument for not losing it. Historic buildings like this, properly protected, are necessary reminders that as Americans we have permanent and stable common dignities of history that we share.
I grew up in Washington Heights at 163 St. I must have walked by this house as a little girl many times with my Dad. We spent time along Riverside Drive skating and riding our bikes. Thanks for the memory. I hope the house will be saved.
I grew up a couple of buildings away, and the dear old couple that lived there were my first babysitters. The woman grew grapes in back. It was a magical house, even then, as if from another time.
In many other cities, this building’s replacement by anything, let alone a building at least 7 stories higher than anything around it, would be unthinkable.
I hope these houses may be saved. They are a part of the history of this nation that needs preservation. But let me add that there are two houses in the small town of Richfield, Ohio, that also should be saved.
One, once occupied by Abolitionist Mason Oviatt, was nearly burned to the ground by the actions of heedless members of a Richfield park board. Oviatt was John Brown's partner in raising sheep and shielding runaway slaves in Richfield.
A second house, occupied by John Brown himself in his formative years, is for sale and may be demolished to make way for a barber shop or pizza parlor. John Brown buried three of his children in Richfield, all of whom died of dysentery. Richfield was a vibrant center of abolitionism in Ohio.
If you care about the preservation of our American history, in a time of great social change (then as well as now), look at these houses, too.
Homes that were part of the Underground Railroad are deemed unworthy of saving, yet the boyhood home of George W. Bush is going to be part of the national park service as an “historic” site. What a country.....
All for the love of money. Greed is such an awful sin.
I live in Massachusetts and many years ago went on a house tour￼ in a small local town. One of the houses had been a stop on the Underground Railroad and I was able to see the small space that escaped slaves once hid in on their journey to freedom.
It was so gratifying to drive past this house recently and see a “Black Lives Matter” proudly displayed on the front lawn. It gave me hope in this dark time.
It is critical that NYC preserve the history of the Underground Railroad that is a part of history and black heritage. Could anyone imagine wiping out critical landmarks related to the Holocaust? Then why would the city not preserve the Railroad path that links to other cities? Yes, the city needs to grow and expand, but we cannot forget our history.
Cities across the nation are creating Underground Railroad tours: https://www.ohioslargestplayground.com/meetings-groups/groups-reunions/group-tour-itineraries/underground-railroad/ Historical sites bring much-needed tourism to the city post-pandemic, which will drive revenue to the hotels and restaurants.
The city cannot destroy our city's history under the guise of advancement.
Stockton, NJ and Brooklyn, NY
Landmarks is corrupt and in the pockets of the real estate industry. I've lived in Fort Greene for almost 50 years, and now Landmarks is destroying it. Money talks. What a shame. We have Walt Whitman's only remaining house in the neighborhood, and Landmarks makes the same specious argument that it does not deserve to be saved.
NYC Riverside Drive
What we need in the neighborhood is a 10 story Parking Garage.
Girl From The North Country
Mr Wright I hope you get your house back and restore it. These historical places must be preserved for posterity for all to see
New York, NY
This is so important; to have an abolitionist-owned house, originally with a cupola and a front porch, preserved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Fascinating historical information. Thanks so much for this interesting column.
The white supremacy evident in the attack by Trump's hate groups on the Capitol building on Wednesday is shocking. This is another chance to support the pride of African American history, and the courage it took for enslaved people escaping
their slave owners in the deep South.
It is landmarked, and the other Greek Revival homes are all part of the Lamartine Pl. Historic District, because when the Draft Rioters set fire to the house in 1863 the family escaped to their roof, and ran across the neighboring roofs to a carriage waiting below.
Julie M. Finch, co-chair w. Fern Luskin,
Friends of Hopper-Gibbons Underground Railroad Site, 339 W. 29th St., and Lamartine Place Historic District in Manhattan.
New York should also consider its key role in the slave trade. It is named after the Duke of York who headed the largest slave-trading company (the Royal African Company) of his time. Without that enterprise, slavery is the Americas would have been a much different story. Many of the banks in New York City financed the slave trade and the Southern plantations that propelled it. Perhaps the city should even consider a name change, like the military bases named after Confederate generals. This is a unique moment in history. We should make the best of it.
New York, NY
A timely report when the implacable development juggernaut is momentarily slowed by minuscule hordes of immigrant virii.
Reminds that historic preservation remains a quaint counterforce to grotesque piles of subsidized monstrosities fostered by tall(!) tales far less believable than the underground(!!) railroad.
That a historic and architecturally rich house is threatened for a bland, ahistorical 13-story profiteering fantasy, tax evasive, neighborhood insult, is a microcosmic version of grandstanding schemes like Hudson Yards and Billionaires Row.
Since the battle to save Grand Central led to the establishment of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, there have been unending campaigns to diminish its effectiveness in the face of popular support like that uptown, around town, all the boroughs and across the United States. But every step of that effort has been overwhelmed by the onslaught of dense, isolationist, over-populated high rises and vast spreads of ticky-tacky housing.
So good luck to those fighting for the public against commerce, daresay a parallel to the underdog minorities against the whole hog majorities. Small victories against deprivation are better than giant affirmations of "only the little people pay taxes."
This is fascinating information. I grew up in 853, the adjacent building. My mother used to talk about the widow's walk balcony when I was a child. I have vivid memories of trying to envision a lone woman searching the river's horizon for her lost spouse. Unfortunately since there's no longer a view of the river, this was difficult to imagine. What a treat to see the original house with a view of the Hudson at long last! It's an honor to know our family lived in proximity to such an historically significant home. I hope all and any efforts can be made to save this important landmark. Thank you!
I live but a short walk of the Latimer House that was relocated to the western end of the Flushing High School athletic field, formerly the town park. While not a major attraction, it is a nice addition to Flushing's unofficial historic district that includes its Civil War era Town Hall and the Bowne House and Quaker Meeting House, both from the 1600s. Perhaps the most important structure was the farmhouse on Northern Blvd. where the Flushing Remonstrance was signed in 1657. This disappeared long ago and the site occupied by the state armory now used by the Police Department. A street marker identifies the place, which is the closest we have to "holy ground" in Flushing.
The house in question has a number problems, not the least of which is a wooden wall that is inaccessible for repair. Its preservation does not seem practical to me. Even if the house does not survive, note of its use should be made with some sort of marker.
It would be wonderful to see the house restored and turned into a Musuem celebrating the Abolition movement. Why can’t the city buy it? I agree that in its current condition it isn’t worth saving.
North Bend WA
What a timely opportunity to teach long-ignored history by preserving this neglected but priceless community asset. The glimpses of the past embodied in these homes are powerful images to share cultural and historical legacies. Once gone, they can’t be replaced and we lose our chance to connect with the human struggles they can illustrate. I hope 857 will continue to tell our children its stories.
In the 1960s, when I was a child, I lived across the street from a huge Victorian house in West Brighton, on Staten Island, that I was told had been a part of the Underground Railroad. The boy who lived there and I used to play together. His bedroom closet had a ladder in it that led to a trapdoor to the attic, and it had other similar features as well.
Both structures certainly appear amenable to restoration. NYC doesn't need another multi-story apartment building. The buildings add diversity and open sky to what otherwise would be canyon walls. Once these reminders of another era are gone, they are gone forever. Rehabilitate and allow them to stand as testaments to the past.
The public deserves this house to be restored & preserved. There is also something suspicious about this transaction. The developer has eight shell companies run out of his address and the co-developer has no records available via a google search. More due diligence must be done and we can’t allow this important part of our country’s history to be intentionally erased.
It is a great story and a beautiful historic house. It should be preserved. The addition of John Freeman Gill to the NY Times has proved very important and enhanced the paper for us readers. As someone who was brought us with the NY Times and also was a former NY Landmarks Preservation Chairman I am thankful to the Paper and to Mr Gill.
Time to get involved in preserving 857 Riverside Dr., then.
I think it is more important as a landmark.
But, it is also much more valuable as real estate.
New York City
When Fredrick Douglass escaped from slavery and landed in New York City, it was the 36 Lispenard Underground Railroad house that fed and protected him. It was here that he began his unrelenting fight against slavery. Knowing that it was a safe place, he invited Anna, his love to join him, and there they they married. Although the original house has been replaced, its place must be forever honored for protecting the man who fought with enormous energy, intelligence and courage to do what was right for our country.
How many times has the Landmarks Commission let us down and beautiful or important structures are razed? There is a reason why Paris is beautiful and Mid-town us quite ugly, preservationists protect the historically important structures, Landmarks commission should add a trip to Europe in their budget and realize something.
Every time I go to a European city I realize how much of a mess we've made of our urban streetscapes in this country. A lot of our original architecture is just as old as that of Paris, Edinburgh or Prague. It's just that - world wars notwithstanding - they haven't knocked their buildings down, or butchered them to the extent we see in these photos. 857 especially should be saved and restored to its original beauty.
Thank you sharing this fascinating history. How the Landmarks Preservation Commission could perceive this wood-frame building as unworthy of being landmarked based on the fact that it is missing its original cupola and porch is beyond remiss. It is extremely rare to have documentation stating that a building served as a station on the Underground Railroad because of the necessity of keeping such locations a secret when it was against the law to harbor a slave. If the LPC does not vote to protect this rare antebellum building, that was definitely owned by an Abolitionist, from being replaced by a thirteen-story modern tower, other developers will feel free to tear down the remaining traces of the anti-slavery movement so they can make more money. In so doing, this history will be forever lost for future generations.
The quest to preserve buildings like 857 Riverside Drive, 227 Duffield St., and the Hopper-Gibbons house at 339 West 29th St. from the greedy talons of well-financed developers can never be accomplished without tremendous grass-roots support.
Dutchess County NY
This ought to be saved, and the argument that it is too far remodeled is hogwash. Houses in far worse conditions have been restored. (look up the James Scott Mansion in Detroit) This one even has the excellent Berenice Abbot photographs to use as reference.
I grew up in Ohio. We had numerous old, very old red brick farm houses with a rich history of the Underground Railroad. Often these had a hidden room in the cellar, sometimes large, sometimes small. This is a story that should be taught in all schools. I learned of it in Catholic school.
Fascinating piece. In moments of collective madness, there appear to be individuals who have the mental and spiritual fortitude to go against the larger fear-stricken power structure. Thanks for the historical context!
Aesthetic snobbery from Landmarks Preservation Commission! It is unbelievable—and supremely irrational—that LPC would reject landmark status for a rare and historically important antebellum house just because a cupola and porch have been removed. These can be restored. As local historians dig, this house's history grows richer and more deeply symbolic. LPC's "swift" rejection is high-handed, short-sighted, and wrong.
The Tappan brothers, who were forced out of Manhattan by anti-abolitionist working class white mobs that destroyed their homes and business, moved to Brooklyn Heights, where they were threatened and the local national guard was called to protect them. They were wealthy merchants, whose business did not support slavery or the slave trade. Their homes were used for the underground railroad and they gave financial support to Frederick Douglass and others, while assisting escaped former slaves starting new lives in Canada. They opposed the colonization efforts to move free men from the South to Africa when they discovered the funding came from plantation owners trying to preserve their power and Douglass and others turned on the colonization society when their beliefs evolved and they fervently believed that Blacks had every right, as Americans, to stay here.
At a minimum, a plaque should be placed on the location of the Tappan home as a reminder that wealthy individuals are also capable of doing the right thing, even if it puts their lives in danger.
New York City-based Midwood Investment & Development plans to demolish the residence of Henry Minton, one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia. Minton was a Black abolitionist and elite caterer who hosted, among others, Frederick Douglass and William Still, father of the Underground Railroad. Minton provided John Brown a place to stay shortly before the Harpers Ferry Raid.
Midwood is demolishing the Henry Minton House, which retains its distinctive 19th-century façade, and replacing it with a generic high-rise. The community has organized to hold Midwood accountable for erasing Black history from public memory.
Americans love to talk about their heritage as a nation, but when it comes down to brass tacks are willing and eager to throw it out the window. Please save these places as a reminder of the past. Lets invest and restore these artifacts of history.
Preserve this historic landmark. It is New York history
The Landmarks Preservation agency is riddled with incompetency and only listens to REBNY. This would of not happened if Bloomberg didn't remove Roberta Gratz as Commissioner back in 2010. City officials have failed NYC preservation daily, as proof as the oldest Green Book hotel in Harlem, Hotel Olga was demolished in 2019 and the lot still remains empty.
This house sits in the midst of a group of buildings that appears to meet the criteria for designation as a small historic district, either on its own or as an extension of the adjacent Audubon Park Historic District. Altered buildings such as 857 Riverside Drive are often incorporated within historic districts. There are many such houses that were in similar condition when designated and then subsequently restored. If the Commission feels unable to designate the house individually because of its condition, even though it seems to qualify on other grounds, the historic district route is a possible alternative.
This house also sits in the midst of a group of buildings that appears eligible to be a small historic district of its own, or an extension to the adjacent Audubon Park district. Including an altered building like 857 in such a district is common practice when historic districts are designated.
I am so delighted to see this article. I live across the street from the house at 857 Riverside and always wondered about it. If it were to be demolished, it would be a crime. I thank everyone who is working to hang on to the vanishing historic buildings in the area.
new york city
This is a fascinating piece, thank you so much for opening up to your readers such an important moment in NYC history. That history must be restored to its rightful prominence in our narrative, just as this house must be restored to its rightful place on our streets. Historic House Trust? Where are you? It is not a difficult matter to replace toppers and porches. But it is impossible to restore these visual markers of our history once they are destroyed. Landmarks should own up to its inherent biases and do the right thing.
The Trust would have to get craftsmen to rebuild it. The wraparound porch, muntined French windows, full-length shutters, cupola, new clapboard -- the works.
A good chance, on the other hand, to give young people real and lucrative skills. The Green-Wood Cemetery runs programs that teach stone restoration and cutting, and the apprentices get practice repairing its monuments; and then they get jobs.
New York City, likewise, with the help of the Historic House Trust -- more on the spot than the National Trust -- certainly would be doing everyone involved a favor if they transformed neighborhood teenagers into craftspeople who can in turn take their mastery anywhere and earn a living.
The house on Riverside Drive has to be preserved, if only because it is the last standing house. The likelihood of the new owner having conned the previous owner is another reason. Alterations to the exterior can be undone. The Preservation people totally fell down on the job here.
That house on Riverside Drive as originally built is my dream house. I look for such houses everywhere.
It is a shame what has become of it.