Welcome to Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill and West Harlem. Historically and architecturally, it is one of New York City’s richest and most diverse neighborhoods. The development of the area from West 135th to West 155th Street, Edgecombe Avenue to the Hudson, spans a period of over 350 years and is an exciting and evolving chapter of the settlement of Manhattan Island and the development of New York City. The first non-native settlers of the area were farmers of diverse origins (eleven Frenchmen, four Walloons, four Danes, three Swedes, three Germans, and seven Dutchmen) who were offered land grants by the Dutch West India Company after founding Nieuw Amsterdam at the foot of Manhattan in 1625.
In 1658, Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant established the Village of New Harlem, which includes the area now known as Hamilton Heights. During the Revolutionary War, temporary fortifications were built throughout Harlem Heights as far north as 160th Street. In late October 1776, several skirmishes occurred between what is now West 130th Street and West 145th Streets. Following the defeat of the Continental Army at the Battle of Brooklyn in the previous August, these encounters were the first demonstration of the ability of the Continental Army to match at least the better-trained and equipped British forces.
In 1791, the Bloomingdale Road was extended to meet the Kingsbridge Road at present day West 147th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue giving easier access to the area and attracting residents who often created grand estates and country retreats, enticed by the cool breezes, panoramic views, and inexpensive land with rich soil. The last remaining great house of this period is The Grange (1801-2), the twelve-room country home of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. The Federal-style house, designed by John McComb Jr., a co-designer or City Hall, is now a museum operated by the National Park Service, open to visitors daily. Hamilton’s thirty-two acre property extended from present day Hamilton Place on the west, to Hamilton Terrace on the east, and from West 140th to West 147th Streets.
With the construction of the New York State-financed Croton Water Aqueduct in 1842, the area began to lose its rural character. The aqueduct ran along present day Amsterdam Avenue, bringing water to the city through iron pipes placed inside masonry channels. The partially buried and covered over aqueduct created a ten-foot high roadway that impeded drainage and obstructed views from the surrounding grand estates.
The growth of New York City intruded upon the bucolic calm of Hamilton Heights. New transportation links (the elevated railroad on 8th Avenue with stations at 135th and 145th Streets opened in 1879 and the IRT subway line in 1904) spurred rapid urbanization. The large country estates were sold and divided into building lots for speculative development. William H. De Forest, one of the early developers, along with his son, William De Forest, Jr., developed much of the land south of 145th Street. In the 1870s and 1880s, De Forest purchased The Grange and surrounding property in several transactions. He later donated the house to St. Luke’s Church and arranged to have it moved to accommodate his development plans. The De Forests laid out streets and planned single-family houses. An 1886 article in the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide noted that the development “will certainly have a strong distinctive character of its own, though bearing more resemblance to the suburbs of London than to anything in the vicinity of New York.” St. Nicholas Avenue attracted freestanding mansions including one in a Romanesque Revival style still standing at 10 St.Nicholas Place, the grand home of James A. Bailey, the circus king and partner of Phineas T. Barnum.
By the early years of the 20th century, much of Hamilton Heights as it exists today had already been constructed. The row houses, built in a variety of styles such as Beaux Arts, Queen Anne, Dutch and Romanesque Revival, and in a rich palette of colors and materials, are considered among New York City’s most beautiful. The work of many notable architects, including Neville & Bagge, George Pelham, and William Mowbray, is represented here. Apartment buildings became more fashionable and the most comfortable were described as “French Flats”. Early residents of these houses were middle-class, professional people and their families, either native-born or immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and Italy. Norman Rockwell, America’s great illustrator, lived with his parents, from age three to seven at 789 St. Nicholas Avenue. The impresario Oscar Hammerstein I lived at 333 Edgecombe Avenue. George Gershwin wrote his first hit song “Swanee” at his residence at 520 W. 144 street in 1919.
In the1920s and 1930s, as an increasing black population occupied Harlem’s housing, many affluent African-Americans began to discover Hamilton Heights. During these years, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, and many of the new residents were artists, writers, musicians, government workers, and professionals. Part of the area became known as “Sugar Hill”, where the sweet life was enjoyed. At that time, the neighborhood’s most elite addresses were 409 and 555 Edgecombe Avenue. Important residents of 409 included singer Julius Bledsoe (the original Joe in Showboat); William Braithwaite, poet and novelist; Eunice Carter, one New York State’s first African-American judges; May Chinn, a pioneering physician; Aaron Douglas, the great muralist; W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the NAACP and editor of Crisis; and Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Number 555 boasted actor and political activist Paul Robeson; legendary jazz pianist Count Basie; and social psychologist Kenneth Clark.
During the1950s and 1960s, Hamilton Heights suffered a fate similar to other row house neighborhoods in New York. Flight to the suburbs, poor building maintenance, and abandonment of property all contributed to the neighborhood’s decline. Many one-family homes were divided into apartments. In spite of this decline, Hamilton Heights retained its remarkable beauty. In 1974, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated a significant portion of the neighborhood an historic district. However, several community activists and architectural historians recognized that this designation failed to incorporate many outstanding blocks of row houses and apartment buildings. After a long campaign, a much wider area was given protection by the landmark laws. In March of 2000, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Hamilton Heights Historic District Extension, which includes the fine apartment houses along the east side of Amsterdam Avenue between West 145th and West 140th Streets. The Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill Historic District, designated in 2000-2002, takes in the blocks between West 145th and West 155th and stretches generally between Amsterdam and Convent Avenues to Edgecombe Avenue. Aside from honoring the architectural heritage of the neighborhood, this significant designation recognizes the important cultural and historical role Sugar Hill has played in African-American history.
Today you will see a neighborhood in the midst of what some have described as a second Renaissance. In 1968, Arthur Mitchell established the Dance Theatre of Harlem finding a permanent home at 466 West 152nd Street in 1971 in a renovated former garage which was further enlarged by Hardy Holtzman Pfieffer Associates in 1994. Other arts organizations that have impacted upon the revitalization of the neighborhood include the Harlem School of the Arts at 645 St. Nicholas Avenue in a building by Ulrich Franzen & Associates (1977), the Children’s Art Carnival at 62 Hamilton Terrace.
But today Hamilton Heights is a row-house lover’s paradise. Block after block of elegant and picturesque architectural gems serve as reminders of the neighborhood’s rich history.
Restoration and renovation abound, and scores of new homeowners, attracted by the neighborhood’s astounding beauty have made Hamilton Heights their home. Enjoy!
A neighborhood like no other…