Sylvan Terrace: A Hidden Gem In Washington Heights

Last week, I was scouting up in Washington Heights and found myself heading south down Amsterdam.

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As I was walking, I noticed a stone wall on my left…

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…with a little staircase set into it:

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Curious, I headed up…

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…and man was I blown away by what I found at the top: a cobblestone street lined on both sides with amazing 19th century wooden row houses!

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This is Sylan Terrace, one of those wonderful hidden New York enclaves like Grove Court or Washington Mews that feel worlds away from the city as it is today.

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Sylvan Terrace was originally a carriage path leading to the front of the nearby  Morris-Jumel mansion, built in 1765:

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The area was largely rural until 1882, when the land surrounding the mansion was broken up and sold. Developer James E. Ray commissioned 20 uniform high-stooped row houses on what became Sylvan Terrace. The new owners of these properties were largely middle class, and included a feed dealer and a grocer, according to a NY Times article.

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By the late 1960′s, much of Sylvan Terrace had fallen into disrepair. Many of the facades were hidden behind garish aluminum siding, the street had been paved over, paint colors varied, and many details had been removed.

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In 1970, an historic district was created to encompass Sylvan Terrace, and funds were allocated to restore the facades. Usually, only partial funding is given, but a special exception was made for Sylvan that didn’t require any contribution from the owners.

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By 1981, the houses had been restored to their original appearance, each with a matching yellow, green and brown color scheme:

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Each home features a 11-step stooped entrance:

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I love the overhang over the doors:

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Each entrance features matching lettering on glass panels:

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The stoops are actually of varying height. For example, the doorway here is just under 6 feet high…

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…while another just across the street is well under five feet:

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Each house is adorned with bracketed eves, green shutters, and little flourishes under each window sill:

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That Sylvan Terrace was saved is nothing short of a miracle. To get a sense of what this all could have been, just walk around the corner to see the rear of the houses, most of which are still covered in the aluminum siding that once adorned the fronts:

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For years, there was just one hold out to the restoration – #16, owned by a woman who preferred the stucco covering she had put on in 1950. Thankfully, the property has since been restored, and you’d never know it as anything different.

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By the late 1980′s, much of the restoration work had broken down. In a 1989 NY Times article, residents were complaining that the city should be helping with the upkeep, and that maybe they had made a wrong decision in getting rid of their aluminum siding in the first place.

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Something has definitely changed between 1989 and today. Nearly all of the properties are back to excellent condition, and homes are selling for nearly a million each.

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Stumbling upon Sylvan Terrace, in the shadow of Amsterdam Avenue’s towering brick apartment buildings, is nothing short of magical. That any single house here would survive nearly 130 years is amazing, but all 20?

That’s something special.

-SCOUT

PS – You might recognize Sylvan from Boardwalk Empire – Nucky moves Mrs. Schroeder to a house here in season 1.

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14 comments

  1. Last year I was in New York as a consultant for an opium den scene (which, oddly enough, was shot in a church in Harlem) for episode five of the first season of Boardwalk Empire. I was being shuttled around town by the props guy, and before we did the scene at the church, I was able to spend a few hours at Slyvan Terrace watching the scene described above being shot. The rows of houses and cobblestone street are so uniform and perfectly preserved that I’d assumed the whole thing was set aside specifically for film shoots. I had no idea people still lived there. Thanks for giving us the history of this place. It makes me wonder how many other pristine nineteenth-century gems are hidden under layers of mid-century aluminum siding.

  2. EX-Heights Resident

    I love this entry! I used to live at 170th and Amsterdam and shopped at that C-Town countless times. It is wild to know that if I had just taken a few more steps I would have stumbled onto this amazing find! It goes to show you that no matter where you are be aware! Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece of NYC history!!

  3. I spent two very cold nights here in spring of 2001 working on Kate and Leopold. I loved this magical little haven of history! When watching Boardwalk Empire I laughed seeing it again, remembering my nights of bonding with the script supervisor as I told her my dark alternate (hilarious) ending to K&L.

    Thanks for the memories!

  4. Hey, Scout, I actually mentioned Sylvan Terrace in that email I sent you last month about wooden houses in NYC!

    I got to Sylvan Terrace for the first time just this past July, when I got to the Morris-Jumel mansion ALSO for the first time. It’s MIND-BLOWING.

    Have you made it to Strivers Row, yet? Another amazing street, with wonderfully uniform buildings. But nothing in Manhattan is quite like Sylvan Terrace!

  5. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the Morris-Jumel mansion, which you took a picture of but didn’t otherwise identify. The mansion is a city-owned museum, Manhattan’s oldest house and, of course, George Washington slept there. It sits on one of Manhattan’s highest points, Coogan’s Bluff, and has great views of the Harlem River and Yankee Stadium. The old Polo Grounds stood just below the heights lo these many years ago.

  6. FYI: Spike Lee also filmed an exterior scene here for the film Bamboozled.

  7. I live right around the corner, and the joy of seeing Sylvan Terrace is almost destroyed by the agony of walking past the corrugated metal facade of the C-Town to get there :(

  8. I remember these well. I used to walk by them every day when I was a child in the late 40s and early 50s to go to the library on the corner. Never actually noticed the houses until i was well into my 50s. And my father used to own a garage that was on St. Nicholas Avenue, just to the north of these houses.

  9. Another area in Washington Heights to check out is Hudson View Gardens
    at 183rd street and 185th street on and off Pinehurst Ave. It is a beautiful tutor complex.
    I love the Heights!

  10. Amazing, maybe, miraculous but of course. How in the world did these buildings survive? Gotta love NYC in all its glorious inconsistencies.

  11. As soon as I saw your first picture I *knew* it was in Boardwalk Empire. :)

  12. I lived in #14 from 1960 to 1979.. I miss it dearly. We played football in Jumel Manson’s field..Wow

  13. Around the corner the Movie Malcom X was shot.. It’sthe scene right before the Audobon Ballroom.. the woman said to Malcom.. I recognize you. The house on the corner belonged to my childhood friend Jerry

  14. If you like this little gem in NYC, check out Pomander Walk on 95 St. west of Broadway. Looks like a street in an English village. You will walk right past it if you don’t see the plaque or look through the gates.

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