New York, NY—Elected officials joined with preservationists, historians and community members in Washington Heights to preserve from demolition a wooden, single family house at 857 Riverside Drive that is historically linked to the Underground Railroad.
The local preservationists, led by the Upper Riverside Residents Alliance, learned in August that the current owners applied for permits from the Buildings Department to demolish the house and replace it with a 13-story residential building. They submitted an application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission asking the city agency to grant landmark protection for the site, but the Commission refused.
“We learned in August that this building was going to be demolished and replaced with a 13-story tower of miniature condominiums, and we said what the heck is going on in our neighborhood and why don’t we know,” said Peter Green, a member with the Alliance.
The Commission told the Alliance that the house lacks historical architectural integrity to warrant landmark protection because of changes to the structure, and also because there is no documented link that the house sheltered slaves trying to escape from slavery.
In a letter dated December 28, 2020 to elected officials, Commission Chair Sarah Carroll said while the Commission recognizes the important history of Washington Heights, a staff review of 857 Riverside Drive determined that it does not appear to retain the integrity necessary for consideration as an individual landmark due to the extensive modifications that have been made to the house and its architectural details.
“The alterations include the removal of the octagonal cupola and wrap-around porch along with their decorative trim, replacement of windows and doors and removal of their enframements, and the addition of the permastone veneer,” said Carroll.
She added, “Because of these alterations, the house at 857 Riverside Drive retains neither the historic appearance nor adequate historic fabric from the 19th century abolitionist era, and therefore does not possess integrity of historic association, design or materials."
The building was constructed in 1851 by Dennis Harris, an abolitionist minister who participated in the Underground Railroad movement in Lower Manhattan. He was eventually driven from downtown because of his abolitionist views and then made his way to Washington Heights where, Alliance members and elected officials said, he continued to preach against slavery in a new church he founded near the house, and supporters of landmarking the building believe it's likely he continued to help smuggle escaped Blacks to freedom.
Indeed, according to a local historian, Joe Amodio, Harris built a wharf down the block from the house and bought a steamboat which could have possibly transported slaves up the Hudson River after they first took refuge in the house.
“The big question is, was this house used in the Underground Railroad. We know for sure the builder, Dennis Harris, was involved with the Underground Railroad downtown. The big question is, did he continue those efforts when he lived uptown,” said Amodio.
“It seems unlikely and is inconsistent with the facts to think that just because he had a change of address, he had a change of heart.”
Thus, Amodio and the Alliance are asking the Commission to give them more time to do the necessary research.
“What we are asking from the Landmarks Preservation Commission is just to at least give us time to investigate further. It seems so likely, but of course, we don’t know, and so we want time to figure it out,” said Amodio.
Green seconded Amodio’s request and added that the Alliance’s goal is to save the house and transform it into a memorial or monument or a civic center that tells the history of the anti-slavery movement in New York City.
“For that we’re going to need to raise money. If the house is for sale, we’d like to put together enough people to be viable buyers for it,” said Green.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who led the press conference, is calling on the Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair to grant the application for landmark protection for 857 Riverside Drive.
“We’re here because history matters, landmarks matter, black history matters, black landmarks matter,” said Brewer.
She also called on the Commission to go beyond it's stated reason that 857 Riverside Drive lacks historical architectural integrity.
“Insisting on narrow guidelines for what is and what is not significant is highly charged and, in my opinion, biased—favoring only structures in communities that have the wealth to be able to restore and preserve the historic buildings,” Brewer said.
“I represent the entire borough, I am a preservationist, but there is more money in Greenwich Village to make sure that buildings are preserved—not fair.”
For more information about the effort to preserve 857 Riverside Drive, go to saveriverside.org