Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, New York, United States
Physically the proposed Mount Morris Park Historic District is a relatively level area extending generally from Mount Morris Park on the east to Lenox Avenue on the west, from 119th Street on the south to 123rd Street on the north.
It faces but does not include Mount Morris Park itself in which a notable outcropping of rock rises to considerable elevation. Mount Morris Park interrupts Fifth Avenue which extends south from the south side and north from the north side of the Park.
The proposed Mount Morris Park Historic District is a fine residential area which has maintained its attractive late 19th century architectural character remarkably well. This part of the City was largely built up during the latter part of the 19th century, with rows of unusually handsome townhouses and several notable churches. Some of the most stately residences are to be found along Mount Morris Park West.
The buildings in this District represent cany architectural styles including the Romanesque Revival, the French neo-Grec, the Queen Anne and a number of structures designed in the classical and Renaissance traditions popularized by the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.
In the Romanesque Revival style are the Bethel Gospel Pentecostal Church, built originally for the Harlem Club, and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, both on Lenox Avenue. St. Martin’s (formerly Holy Trinity) Church, with its noted carillon, is undoubtedly the handsomest example of this style of architecture remaining in Manhattan today.
On the southwest corner of Mount Morris Park West and 122nd Street is the fine Mount Morris Presbyterian Church, designed in modified classical style. The Ephesus Seventh Day Adventist Church at the northwest corner of Lenox Avenue and West 123rd Street is also notable architecturally, and its lofty spire is in itself a landmark.
A large townhouse at the northwest corner of 123rd Street and Mount Morris Park Vest is a particularly fine example of the neo- Renaissance style introduced by the architects McKim, Mead & White. Among townhouses in the District, the brownstone rectory of the Mount Morris Presbyterian Church on 122nd Street is one of the handsomest and best preserved residences in the City. Here one finds the original interiors unchanged since the day they were built, furnished in complete harmony in Victorian style.
The bold decorative detail of the residences in the District runs the gamut from the neo-medievalists of Viollet-le-Duc to the classical traditions of the turn of the century. The love and care lavished on these fine houses bears witness to the pride of both their original owners and their present occupants.
This area was first built up with a fine assemblage of architecturally notable structures with a remarkable quality of homogeneity that gives the area a special character, readily recognized when one enters or leaves it. It is this character which distinguishes it as an Historic District.
Valiant efforts have been made to maintain the character of the neighborhood both as a residential community and as an area containing much notable architecture Economic forces and several depressions have taken their detrimental toll but the fine architecture remains a source of pride to today’s residents.
The conversion of once privately owned homes to rooming houses and the introduction of stores at the ground floor of residences along the Avenue are some of the inevitable consequences of economic change.
Redevelopment plans have been made for this area and it is considered that designation as an Historic District will be an added factor contributing to its preservation and upgrading. Present dangers to the area are renovations to existing buildings which destroy their original exterior character and the possible introduction of new buildings or additions of inappropriate exterior architectural character.
Importance of the District
The Mount Morris Park Historic District includes a remarkably interesting . cross-section of turn of the century townhouses and churches. These buildings represent many styles of architecture spanning a period of over four decades.
The churches and individual residences are among the finest in the City. The quality of design and workmanship of these buildings establishes the exceptional character of the District. Outstanding among them is the row of townhouses on Mount Morris Park West. The survival of a substantially unbroken row of handsome residences and churches facing a park is, in itself, rare in Manhattan.
Early Years (1658-1351)
The history of the Mount Morris Park Historic District goes back to 1658, the year Dutch settlers founded the town of Nieuw Haerlem. Mount Morris, a wooded promontory among the Round Hills, was called Slang Burg, or Snake Hill, by the Dutch. Between 1664 and 1674 New York passed back and forth between the Dutch and the English, with British rule finally established in 1674.
In 1776, at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Washington attempted to withstand the British army behind fortifications on Harlem Heights. The colonials tried valiantly, without success, to fend off the British from the fort they had erected earlier that year on Snake Hill, which commanded the mouth of the Harlem River. Washington was forced to retreat to Port Washington and then to White Plains.
Until the mid-19th century, Harlem was a sparsely settled farming area. The largest landowners were members of the Benson family, descendants of Captain Johannes Benson who had settled there in 1696. The Mount Morris Park Historic District occupies a portion of the Benson "Pace Course Farm," as it was called in the 19th century because it encompassed the Harlem Park Trotting Course.
In 1851, Samson Adolphus Benson of Fishkill, N. Y., a sixth generation descendant of Johannes Benson, sold the farm, which had been divided into City lots a few years earlier, to John Bruce, a well-to-do Brooklyn resident and hardware dealer in New York. When Bruce sold the lots for development, the deeds included restrictive covenants which assured the future residential character of this District, bordering on picturesque Mount Morris Park.
In the 1850s and, indeed, until considerably later, the streets in the District were unpaved and builders dumped surplus earth in the roads to improve their grading. Lenox Avenue was still known as "Sixth Avenue" and Mount Morris Park West was called "The New Avenue" on the 1848 map of Samson Adolphus Benson’s property. This map also explains the sharp diagonal of the boundary of the Historic District, at the rear of Nos. 12-28 West 120th Street, which was established by the direction of the old Manhattan Road which passed through the Benson farm.
Mount Morris Park was acquired by New York City in 1839, and was first known as Mount Morris Square. Until late in the 1870s Mount Morris Park was a popular spot for weekend excursions. New Yorkers came here for country walks and picnics; the nearby race track was an added attraction.
The opening of the "El" in 1872, however, was a pivotal point: Harlem became a suburb of the City, which was rapidly expanding northward.
Development of the District
Speculative building began in 1878 and continued into the early 20th century, encouraged by plans for an East Side subway line, resulting in successive booms in Harlem real estate. William B. Astor, Oscar Hammerstein, Henry Morgenthau and Oswald Ottendorfer were among those associated with speculation in the area. Elegant houses, generally built in rows, a few apartment houses, churches and public buildings began to appear in the last two decades of the 19th century.
They were designed by such prominent Hew York architects as Arnold W. Brunner, Hugo Lamb of the firm of Lamb & Rich, George F. Pelham, William A. Potter, J. R. Thomas, Thorn & Wilson and James E. Ware. In 1903, the New York Herald compared the houses along Mount Morris Park West favorably with the mansions along Fifth Avenue. Prominent political leaders, professionals, businessmen and tradesmen occupied these fine residences; many belonged to the Harlem Club and were members of the Harlem Board of Commerce.
The original residents of the Mount Morris Park Historic District were of Dutch, English and Irish descent. Soon after the turn of the 20th Century, a few German Jewish families moved to the Mount Morris Park area. In 1903, Blacks first came to Harlem, and Lenox Avenue and 135th Street subsequently became the nucleus of a radiating Black population.
Despite the influx of Blacks to Harlem before, during and after World War I, the Mount Morris Park area remained a middle-class white enclave until the Depression. Between 1935 and 1940 a great increase in the number of vacancies led to Mount Morris Park’s transition to a Black neighborhood.
These demographic changes are reflected in the history of its religious buildings. For example, the Ephesus Seventh Day Adventist Church now occupies the structure erected in 1885-87 for the Reformed Low Dutch Church of Harlem, originally organized in 1660. Here, Johannes and Samson Benson served as deacons in colonial days; later, Samson Adolphus Benson served as an elder.
In 1901, the church was enlarged to accommodate the expanding local population. Today, the congregants arc Black and the Sunday school has been converted to a Baptist Temple. Mount Olivet Baptist Church, organized by Blacks in 1878, moved in 1924 in a building on Lenox Avenue at 121st Street which had been occupied since 1907 by a synagogue, Temple Israel of Harlem.
This was the first Black church on Lenox Avenue. The pastor of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, the Reverend John H. Johnson, was an active member of the Citizens League for Fair Play, which picketed the 125th Street business area in 1933 in a successful effort to persuade white merchants to employ Blacks.
Churches in the District sponsored the appearance of many famous Americans, of which only a few are mentioned here. Booker T. Washington spoke at the Ephesus Seventh Day Adventist Church.
Robert H. Perry appeared at the Mount Morris Baptist Church in 1916. In 1917, Marcus Garvey addressed a meeting at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in his efforts to organize a Liberty League.
The District Today
The District includes well-maintained, owner-occupied residences, rooming houses, a few apartment buildings and a number of churches. In addition to these, two former residences on Lenox Avenue, a former parsonage and the buildings originally occupied by the Harlem Club and the Harlem Library have been converted to religious uses.
Mount Morris Park is currently regaining its stature as a focus of community activity, following a long period of neglect. It is serving once again "as the pleasure ground of a population many times greater than … any of the small downtown squares," to quote the Harlem Local Reporter of 1890. Back in 1886, it had been the site of a spectacular Independence Day celebration and, in 1890, the City supported bi-weekly concerts in the band pagoda.
Nowadays, the City’s popular annual Summer Festival attracts people from the entire metropolitan area to the ;ark. The Mount Morris Park Recreation Center and Amphitheater, created largely through the generosity of Richard Rodgers, serves as a facility for concerts, educational and cultural programs for all ages and for community recreation. The swirling pool complex, which opened last year, was constructed by the first Black-owned architectural firm to be awarded a Parks Department design contract.
The Mount Morris Park Historic District is served by several charities. Jewish Family Service and Catholic Charities, for example, offer counseling, home-making courses and related services. In the area are the Central Harlem Referral Unit of the New York City Youth Board, the Narcotics Addiction Control Center at 10 Mount Morris Park West, the Mount Morris Child Health Center and the Mount Morris Children’s Center. The latter, a church-related organization, serves over a hundred three to ten-year-olds.
The major portion of the Mount Morris Park Historic District is included in the Milbank-Frawley Circle Urban Renewal Area, a program which it will enhance. The community is conveniently served by the many shops along 125th Street, It is also served by the Hospital for Joint Diseases, located on Madison Avenue between 123rd and 124th Streets. Educational facilities include, within a block of the District, an elementary school, a Catholic high school and the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library.
Transportation facilities, buses, subways and railroads, are amply adequate for the community needs.
– From the 1971 NYCLPC Historic District Designation Report
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