Postcard Views of Riverside Drive 1900-1920
The natural beauty of the surrounding area made this parcel of Manhattan real estate an ideal setting for a park and residential development.
Up until the late 19th century there was not a whole lot of home building along this western portion of the city with the exception of a few mansions perched high along the river.
As transportation options continued to improve, Riverside Avenue began attracting wealthy New Yorkers and real estate developers to the west side. The extension of the Ninth Avenue Elevated in 1879 and opening of the subway in 1904 made it possible to commute from the upper west side to New York’s business center downtown. In 1908 Riverside Avenue’s name was officially changed to Riverside Drive.
If Riverside Drive had been built as originally proposed by Park Commissioner William Martin in 1865, it would have been a 100 foot wide straight boulevard.
Fortunately that turned out to be impractical due to the natural topography of the area.
In 1873 Frederick Law Olmsted the designer of Central and Prospect Park received the job of laying out Riverside Park and Drive. Olmsted realized that incorporating the existing landscape surrounding Riverside Avenue into a park was a better plan than grading and straightening the hills along the drive.
By the time work started on the park in 1875 Olmsted had left New York City. Over the next 25 years a succession of designers, engineers and architects executed Olmsted’s proposal but not exactly sticking to his plan. Calvert Vaux, Samuel Parsons and Julius Munckwitz all had their turn in building up Riverside Drive and its park.
By the turn of the 20th century Riverside Drive was lined with expensive single family townhouses and row houses overlooking the Hudson River. Land speculation led to a spate of luxury apartment buildings in the upper parts of the boulevard.
The first portion of Riverside Drive from 72nd to 85th Street was opened in 1879. Riverside Park terminated at 129th Street. The Riverside Viaduct completed in 1900, bridged the schism between 125th and 135th Streets. Riverside Drive then continued north to 181st Street.
Here are some of the views from 100 years ago.
This World War I era view shows Riverside Drive at 72nd Street looking north. The entire block between 73rd and 74th Streets and Riverside Drive and West End Avenue belonged to one man and his extravagant home. The french style chateau with the large front lawn is the 75-room Charles M. Schwab mansion. Designed by Maurice Ebert and completed at a cost of $6 million in 1905, the home contained a gym, a bowling alley, a pool, and three elevators. Schwab had made his millions working with Andrew Carnegie. Schwab went on to head United States Steel.
The Schwab mansion was demolished in 1948 and Schwab House, an 18 story apartment building completed in 1950 stands in its place.
You may notice that there are very few apartment buildings in the lower portion of Riverside Drive.
This “small” house on the corner of 89th Street was the residence of Bishop Henry C. Potter, the seventh Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York.
Though his home may seem a bit ostentatious for a man of the cloth, Potter was beloved by many and a fierce outspoken advocate of the poor and minorities. And truthfully the house was not his idea. It belonged to Elizabeth Clark who Potter married in 1902. Bishop Potter died in 1908 and Mrs. Potter soon after in 1909.
Developer Anthony Campagna bought the block front between 89th and 90th Streets in 1923 and erected two 15 story apartment buildings on the site.
Just up the block on 90th Street and Riverside Drive stood the house of Mary Parsons designed by architect Cyrus Clark.
This postcard view looking north shows a lone vehicle at 85th Street and Riverside Drive. In the background is the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at 90th Street.
Glance over the edge of Riverside Drive and 86th Street and look down towards the Hudson River and you would have seen the Columbia Yacht Club’s headquarters. Robert Moses had the Columbia Yacht Club’s quaint building condemned as part of his West Side Improvement plan in the 1930s.
In this circa 1908 postcard Riverside Drive and 106th Street still has an abundance of private dwelling houses. The monument on the right at the top of the stairs is sculptor Karl Bitter’s equestrian statue of General Franz Sigel which was dedicated in 1907.
One of the things that made Riverside Drive so appealing to families is Riverside Park. This playground from 100 years ago does not look much different than the playgrounds in the park today.
Soon after it was constructed Grant’s Tomb became one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions. Though it is not on the hit list of history revisionists, most tourists to New York would not rank it in the top fifty places to see when visiting the city.
Ask most New Yorkers and they will tell you they have never been to Grant’s Tomb and probably don’t even know where it is.
Located at 122nd Street and Riverside Drive the memorial was dedicated in 1897, 12 years after Grant’s death from throat cancer in 1885. 90,000 donors from all over the United States raised $600,000 towards constructing this fitting memorial to the leader of the Grand Army of the Republic during the Civil War. Grant went on to become a two term president. He lived in New York City the last five years of his life. It was his desire to be laid to rest in New York that led to the building of the tomb
The memorial is overseen by the National Park Service. As pointed out, Grant’s Tomb receives few visitors now. That’s too bad because the vista surrounding the tomb is spectacular and the interior where Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia rest is awe inspiring and definitely worth seeing.
Just up the road on Riverside Drive stood the Claremont Inn, a hotel and restaurant which we have written about before.
Located at Riverside Drive and 124th Street. It was originally built as a private residence sometime between 1783 and 1807, architect unknown. Wealthy navigator and owner Michael Hogan named the estate Claremont after his birthplace County Clare, Ireland.
Claremont became a popular roadhouse and restaurant which was acquired by the city in 1872. The charming inn had spectacular views of the Hudson.
As the New York Times wrote in 1949, “By the simple expedient of “doing nothing” the Board of Estimate has converted historic Claremont Inn from a picturesque addition to the Riverside Park landscape into a ‘not very attractive’ boarded-up structure.” As the building was being demolished in 1951, two separate fires a week apart destroyed it.
A view from the Hudson River shows a recreation pier on the water, in the center is the Claremont Inn which is partially hidden between two trees and Grant’s Tomb is on the right.
On the Riverside Drive Viaduct Grant’s Tomb can be seen in the distance.
Looking north we can see the architectural wonder that is the Riverside Drive Viaduct. Along the Hudson River are many industrial buildings that once dotted the shoreline having convenient railroad access to ship and receive goods. Harlem’s Fairway supermarket currently occupies one of the buildings in the distance at 132nd Street next to the Viaduct.
Above the Viaduct north of 136th Street, you can see the changing character of Riverside Drive. Apartment buildings had been built and the area was a hub of rail and river commerce. Though the commercial stretch of this part of Riverside Drive may not have been as nice as the lower part, the city put in benches for residents to take in the views.
More apartment buildings at Riverside Drive and 142nd Street.
Above 168th Street Riverside Drive became somewhat rural. The road is unpaved and buildings are unseen.
After World War I, private dwellings in New York City with their large staffs became too costly to maintain and the land they sat upon became too valuable. Even the super wealthy realized apartment living was a better fiscal choice than maintaining 30 room townhouses.
Real estate developers bought the private homes to demolish them and build the many large apartment buildings which occupy most of Riverside Drive today.