From 1840 to 1841, lower than a decade after a cholera epidemic ravaged New York Metropolis, two daughters-in-law of John James Audubon, the wildlife painter, died of tuberculosis, the second whereas dwelling with Audubon in Decrease Manhattan.

Like the various New Yorkers who’ve fled town throughout this 12 months’s Covid-19 pandemic, Audubon promptly left city, relocating three generations of his household to the nation to flee what he referred to as the “scorching bricks and pestilential vapors” of city life.

For $4,938, he purchased 14 acres of picturesque woodland alongside the Hudson River within the space now often called Washington Heights, a parcel that stretched northward from a hundred and fifty fifth Avenue, an unpaved cart path on the time. Right here, on a steep hillside by the water, the creator of the lushly painted “Birds of America” constructed a two-and-a-half-story clapboard body home over an English basement, with inexperienced shutters and verandas back and front.

Thus started the humanization of the realm’s pure panorama, a course of that may inexorably lead — with appreciable irony — to the transformation of the famend naturalist’s beloved nation holdings right into a densely populated city neighborhood of cheek-by-jowl condominium buildings.

The story of the realm’s evolution from hinterland to suburb to metropolis is comprehensively informed in Matthew Spady’s fluidly written new historical past, “The Neighborhood Manhattan Forgot: Audubon Park and the Households Who Formed It” (Empire State Editions, Fordham College Press).

Credit score…Katherine Marks for The New York Occasions

Mr. Spady, a market analysis challenge supervisor and a former opera singer, grew to become inquisitive about his neighborhood’s long-forgotten historical past in 1997, when he and his associate, Scott Robinson, determined to maneuver into the Grinnell, a Renaissance Revival-style condominium home inbuilt 1911 at 157th Avenue and Riverside Drive.

“Who or what’s Grinnell?” requested Mr. Robinson, a query that led the pair to the New-York Historic Society, the place a librarian confirmed them an encyclopedia entry on the environmentalist George Chook Grinnell. Grinnell grew up on Audubon’s property after the painter’s loss of life, and Grinnell’s 1938 obituary in The New York Occasions famous that he was typically referred to as “the Father of American conservation.”

The encyclopedia reported that Grinnell “had been within the classroom of Lucy Audubon,” the painter’s widow, Mr. Spady recalled in an interview, “and that actually stirred my creativeness.”

Over the following 23 years, Mr. Spady grew to become an obsessive citizen-historian, poring over hundreds of deeds, wills, church information and newspaper articles. His analysis uncovered the counterintuitive story of how two of probably the most famous naturalists of their eras actively contributed to the urbanization of the Arcadian panorama each males beloved and referred to as dwelling.

The Audubons moved into their rambling clapboard homestead in 1842. The home was 9 miles from town’s edge, and was full to bursting with each creativity and folks. Audubon’s portray room was on the primary flooring, and he and his spouse slept in a second-floor bed room overlooking the river and the New Jersey Palisades, with two grandchildren in a trundle that pulled out from beneath their mattress.

The Audubons’ sons, Victor and John Woodhouse, remarried, and the 2 {couples} and their kids slept in a number of of the opposite 4 second-floor bedrooms. For a time, Samuel F.B. Morse rented the basement laundry room for telegraph experiments.

The homestead sat simply 20 ft from the Hudson on the backside of a steep slope. The household referred to as the property “Minnie’s Land” for Mrs. Audubon, whom the boys affectionately referred to as Minnie, the Scottish phrase for mom. For sustenance, John Woodhouse raised pigs, cows and chickens and planted practically 200 fruit bushes. In enclosures, the household saved bears, wolves, foxes and different four-legged fashions that Audubon and John Woodhouse painted for a monumental new compendium referred to as “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.” Victor painted the scenes’ backgrounds.

In 1851, after a number of years of deteriorating well being and funds, Audubon died in his portray room, his last nesting place. The Hudson River Railroad had arrived two years earlier, and though its tracks severed Minnie’s Land from the water, its trains introduced monetary alternative.

With Higher Manhattan all of the sudden inside commuting distance of downtown, and the Audubons strapped for money, they offered off the jap portion of their holdings and developed the remainder into town’s first railroad suburb. Extending from a hundred and fifty fifth to 158th Streets west of eleventh Avenue (now Broadway), Audubon Park was a gated group of 12 Italianate villas, most of them occupying hillside promontories.

In response to Mr. Spady, the Audubons exerted as a lot management over who moved into their bourgeois Shangri-La as any fashionable co-op board, making certain that each one the preliminary residents have been Episcopalians of the service provider class.

Victor and John Woodhouse constructed new homes alongside the river, and their mom lived six months a 12 months with every of them. However by 1862, pneumonia had taken John’s life, and Victor, an alcoholic, had died after a drunken fall and an ensuing sickness. In 1864, Mrs. Audubon offered the homestead to Jesse Benedict, a lawyer, who dressed up the easy body home with showy plumage typical of the post-Civil Battle interval: a mansard roof and bay home windows on two sides.

With the passing of the Audubons, the park that bore their identify step by step got here beneath the sway of the Grinnell household. Like Audubon earlier than him, George Blake Grinnell, a cotton service provider, had anxieties about illness and metropolis life that led him to lease a home within the park in 1857. Seven years later, he purchased the Hemlocks, an Italianate villa on the positioning of a former rooster yard, which he later topped with the inevitable mansard roof. Enriched by a second profession as a stockbroker, he saved on shopping for property, finally amassing about two-thirds of Audubon Park.

George Chook Grinnell, his eldest son, was born in 1849 and loved a “Huck Finn” childhood, stated John Taliaferro, the writer of the 2019 biography, “Grinnell: America’s Environmental Pioneer and His Restless Drive to Save the West.”

George Chook “would go off into the countryside and go searching, typically lacking” his quarry, Mr. Taliaferro stated. “However it wasn’t mischievous, as a result of Madame Audubon was his tutor, and he’d carry her birds and she or he’d describe what they have been, so he discovered on the ft not of John James Audubon however of his widow.” When the boy introduced her a captive crimson crossbill, she set it free.

Although George Chook was anticipated to enter the household enterprise, the pure world provided another path.

“The ghost of Audubon was actually nonetheless fairly current there,” Mr. Taliaferro stated of Audubon Park. “There was that alternative: Do you change into your father or is there one other mentor that steers you in a distinct path in your life, and I feel that’s what Audubon was to Grinnell.”

Because the editor of Forest and Stream journal, the founding father of the primary Audubon Society and a champion of nationwide parks, George Chook performed a number one function in bringing environmentalism into the tent of conscientious progressivism. A glacier in Glacier Nationwide Park in Montana bears his identify.

However he left a distinct sort of imprint on the panorama of Audubon Park. As plans have been being drawn as much as prolong Riverside Drive uptown from Grant’s Tomb, Grinnell and his household used their political connections to wangle a serpentine inland detour of the drive from a hundred and fifty fifth to 161st streets, a route that ran proper previous the entrance door of the Hemlocks and boosted the Grinnells’ property values.

This maneuver minimize the Audubon homes off from the remainder of the park, leaving the wildlife painter’s outdated dwelling hunkering gloomily within the shadow of a 40-foot retaining wall, with the brand new Riverside Drive looming above it.

To satisfy the calls for for money from his siblings, Grinnell started promoting off the household’s holdings in 1904, capitalizing on a brand new 157th Avenue subway station on the positioning of their former vegetable backyard. Briefly order, condominium homes started rising on the jap facet of Riverside, together with the 13-story Renaissance Revival-style Riviera, which a developer began constructing in 1909 on the spot the place the Hemlocks had stood.

Consequently, by the point the drive opened in 1911, a surreal state of affairs had developed. In essence, apartment-dwelling inhabitants of the twentieth century may stroll proper as much as the sting of Riverside Drive and peer down on the nineteenth century — the Audubon homestead and the tattered remnants of Minnie’s Land 40 ft beneath.

The homestead was offered to a developer, and wreckers had already torn off the roof and bay home windows in 1931 when Harold Decker, a Bronx ornithologist, introduced that the home could be moved six blocks uptown, the place it was to be restored. As a substitute, the home vanished from its new location, doubtless picked aside by scavengers amid the Nice Melancholy.

In 1931, a Medieval Revival-style condominium constructing, 765 Riverside Drive, was constructed on the unique Audubon homestead web site. And right this moment, historical past seems to be repeating itself with one other failed preservation marketing campaign in Audubon Park.

When town acceded to native requests to designate an Audubon Park Historic District in 2009, it excluded 12 brick-and-limestone rowhouses constructed within the Eighteen Nineties on West 158th Avenue close to Riverside. Efforts by Mr. Spady and the Riverside Oval Affiliation to have the row added to the district have been unfruitful, and the brand new proprietor of Nos. 636-640 has obtained demolition permits for all three.

Because it occurs, the primary proprietor of No. 638 was Reginald P. Bolton, a dogged preservationist who had tried as early as 1905 to rescue the Audubon homestead from the wrecking ball. To at the present time, a weathered wood signal bearing his surname hangs above the doorway beneath the steps. However it appears unlikely that the nameplate, or certainly the complete home, will lengthy survive the continuing growth that Audubon unwittingly set in movement when he started taming the land there within the 1840s.

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