The OpenHouseNewYork Weekend continued with a trip to another section of Harlem, the areas known as Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill.
Like Manhattanville, the western boundary of Hamilton Heights is the Hudson River, the eastern end at St. Nicholas. The neighborhood’s name derives from its most notable early resident, the first Secretary of the US Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who spent the last years of his life here at his country home.
As with Manhattanville, development here started in earnest when the railway lines were extended. A jewels of the area is the Church of the Intercession, built on one of the highest points of Manhattan. Its origins date to 1843, when sanitation problems downtown led Wall Street’s Trinity Church to stop performing burials in their yard.
To create a solution, Trinity reached beyond the city limits and purchased a large parcel of land in the tiny country hamlet of Carmansville for use as a graveyard. The land, which they dubbed Trinity Church Cemetery, became the last resting place of many notable and affluent citizens.
Within a few years, demand began for a convenient chapel, eventually leading to construction of the Gothic style cathedral that adjoins the Cemetery. Now celebrating its 160th anniversary, the Church features an altar designed by Tiffany, notable terracotta floor tiles, and an Aeolian Skinner organ.
Nearby is Audubon Terrace, which fills a block that was once part of a farm owned by naturalist John James Audubon. Created by railroad heir Archer Huntington, Audubon Terrace was intended as a modern-day acropolis, a sophisticated center of art and culture. At the dawn of the 20th century, Huntington hired the leading architects of the day, including Stanford White and Cass Gilbert. They designed the Beaux-Arts plaza and buildings that today house the Hispanic Society of America, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Boricua College.
Sugar Hill, a residential section of Hamilton Heights, was once the country’s most fashionable address for African Americans, the place where life was sweet. In these palatial brownstones and apartment buildings lived the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, including Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn (who immortalized the neighborhood in his song Take the ‘A’ Train), Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Zora Neale Hurston and Paul Robeson.
The neighborhood was also home to prominent professionals and civil rights activists like W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Adam Clayton Powell and Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice.
When the city’s fortunes declined in the late 1960s and 1970s, this area was severely affected; as most of the well-heeled moved away, drugs and violence became widespread. Elegant brownstones were divided into cheap, poorly-maintained apartments, then vandalized. A significant number of neglected buildings were demolished or burned.
But today, Sugar Hill is on the upswing. Professionals, artists and community activists again walk these streets. Newly-created private schools and arts institutions (including the Dance Theatre of Harlem) have made this area their home.
Everywhere are signs of renewal and revitalization. Houses that were filled with squatters only a few years ago are now being restored and selling for millions of dollars. Buildings that had become rooming houses are being converted back to spacious homes and Sugar Hill is again becoming one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city.
Hamilton Heights Homeowners Association
The Hispanic Society of America
Church of the Intercession
NY Times: Living in Sugar Hill
Harlem One Stop Tour: Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill
Historic Districts Council: Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill
Hamilton Heights-West Harlem Community Preservation Organization
Harlem One Stop Tour: A Walk Through Sugar Hill
Harlem One Stop Tour: Trinity Cemetery
Dance Theatre of Harlem