Last week, I was scouting up in Washington Heights and found myself heading south down Amsterdam.
As I was walking, I noticed a stone wall on my left…
…with a little staircase set into it:
Curious, I headed up…
…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!
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.
Sylvan Terrace was originally a carriage path leading to the front of the nearby Morris-Jumel mansion, built in 1765:
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.
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.
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.
By 1981, the houses had been restored to their original appearance, each with a matching yellow, green and brown color scheme:
Each home features a 11-step stooped entrance:
I love the overhang over the doors:
Each entrance features matching lettering on glass panels:
The stoops are actually of varying height. For example, the doorway here is just under 6 feet high…
…while another just across the street is well under five feet:
Each house is adorned with bracketed eves, green shutters, and little flourishes under each window sill:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
PS – You might recognize Sylvan from Boardwalk Empire – Nucky moves Mrs. Schroeder to a house here in season 1.
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