The ANS Bids Washington Heights Farewell

by Joseph Ciccone

With its 150th anniversary rapidly approaching, the ANS has achieved what only the finest and most stubborn institutions can ever hope to attain: longevity. As with any institution that has passed from infancy to adolescence and on to adulthood, the passing years provide a well-earned prospective from which we can look back over the previous decades. Strong-willed and industrious individuals, such as former president Edward T. Newell, have defined certain periods in our past. But in our retrospection our longevity allows us also to move beyond these shorter periods of time to those more lengthy chronological divisions: the era. With our move to Fulton Street the ANS begins a new third era, following the first (1858-1907) when we had no permanent home, and the second (1907-2004) when we settled into a new building in Washington Heights. As we begin the new era and bid farewell to our old neighborhood, we retrace the history of Washington Heights and the home it provided the Society.

“Washington Heights” Commemorates the Revolutionary War

The area now known as Washington Heights was originally called the Heights of Harlem. The change in name occurred during the 19th century, commemorating the Revolutionary War engagement that occurred there in 1776.

During the War, Continental troops were garrisoned in the area. Due to its dramatic elevation along the Hudson River (visitors may remember the steep incline of 155th street), the Heights was a logical place to frustrate British attempts to control the Hudson. As a result, Continental forces constructed two forts on opposite banks of the River: Fort Lee on the New Jersey side and Fort Washington on the Manhattan side. Fort Washington itself was, in fact, a series of fortifications extending from today’s 135th Street north to Marble Hill. George Washington’s headquarters, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, which dates from the late 1760s, still exists today as one of the oldest buildings in Manhattan.

After the disasters of Brooklyn and the Battle of Long Island in the summer of 1776 and the abandonment of New York City in September, Fort Washington stood as the final bulwark against the British conquest of Manhattan. Skirmishing between the Continental and British and Hessian forces occurred throughout September, with the Continental troops holding the line. By October, however, with British troops massing and the British Navy commanding the Hudson, it was decided to withdraw the main force of Continental troops to Westchester County, leaving only a garrison in Fort Washington. The main battle for Fort Washington began on October 27, 1776. By November 16, 1776, American forces had surrendered and the Battle of Fort Washington was over, leaving General Washington to lead his ravaged army in retreat across New Jersey to its eventual encampment in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

Audubon Terrace Named After the Famed Naturalist

After the Revolution, and well into the late 19th century, the Heights remained fairly rural. In fact, it was the last section of Manhattan to be urbanized. Early in the 19th century, individuals used its rustic setting as a place of retreat from New York City, then concentrated on the southern point of Manhattan island. One such individual was Alexander Hamilton, who constructed his home, “The Grange” on the Heights in 1801, on a slight knoll at the south side of today’s West 143rd Street. The estate proper extended from about 140th to 145th Streets. Hamilton would remain in his beloved estate for only three years; in 1804 he died across the Hudson River from the Heights after a pistol duel with Aaron Burr. Hamilton’s home, like the Morris-Jumel Mansion, remains today in the Heights.

Hamilton, however, was not the only prominent individual to call Washington Heights home. In 1841, having grown tired of New York City, the naturalist John J. Audubon purchased thirty or forty acres of land at the edge of the Hudson River. The area is now roughly bordered by 155th and 158th Streets to the south and north, with Broadway as the eastern border and the Hudson River the western.

By 1842, Audubon finished construction on his new home. The house itself was a large, square, three-story building that faced the Hudson River and was a gift to his wife, Lucy, “a fulfillment of her lifelong dream and a recompense for the years of hardship and suffering” as noted by one of Audubon’s biographers. Audubon named the place “Minnie’s Land.” (The name was a reference to his wife; during the family’s previous stay in Edinburgh, Scotland, they had begun calling Lucy Audubon “Minnie,” an affectionate Scottish word for “mother.”)

The property included a fruit orchard and enclosures for deer, fox and other animals that Audubon might be drawing. Alexander Adams states in his biography of Audubon that the naturalist liked to take “quite walks by himself, going to the point on the beach from which he could see down the [Hudson] river, or … along the stream that ran through Minnie’s Land, a stream that flowed through two pools and dropped over a five-foot waterfall that lay between them.”

It was during his stay at Minnie’s Land that Audubon finished his work on his book The Quadrupeds of North America and the small edition of his seminal work, The Birds of America.

Audubon would die in Minnie’s Land in January of 1851. Unfortunately, although the estate was a gift for his wife, Audubon did not provide adequately for his widow and children. As a result, Lucy was forced to rent the house at Minnie’s Land and sell most of Audubon’s original drawings to the New York Historical Society to pay off the mortgage on the house. She gradually began selling off parcels of the estate and, finally, in 1863, sold the home itself.

The Audubon Estate (“Minnie’s Land”) c. 1865 on the banks of the Hudson at the foot of 156th street (credit:, LLC)

One of the individuals who purchased land from Lucy Audubon was George Grinnell. By the 1890s, Grinnell had purchased most of the land in Audubon Park, as Audubon’s estate was known. During this period, one of Grinnell’s son, George Bird Grinnell, attended a school Lucy held in her home. Influenced by her, young Grinnell became a fervent conservationist and later would propose a conservation organization, which eventually would lead to the creation of the National Audubon Society. Young Grinnell also became a major force behind the establishment of Glacier National Park in Montana.

Audubon Terrace and the ANS

The Terrace itself began as the brainchild of Archer M. Huntington, the adopted son of railroad tycoon Collis Huntington. Upon inheriting his father’s vast wealth, Huntington determined to support the arts. “Whenever I set my foot down,” Huntington later commented, “a museum sprung up.” Or, in the case of Audubon Terrace, several museums.

Starting in 1904, Huntington began purchasing property in Audubon Park between 155th and 156th Streets with an eye towards turning the area into a cultural center. With a keen interest in Spanish culture (his adoptive mother was from Spain), Huntington first founded the Hispanic Society of America in 1904. Two years later, Huntington offered the American Numismatic Society land near the Hispanic Society on which it could construct its headquarters. For the first 50 years of its existence, the ANS had not had a permanent home and instead bounced from one rented location to another.

The Hispanic Society and the ANS c. 1908. Note that the original entrance to the Terrace was from 156th Street.

Huntington’s donation, however, was made conditional on two stipulations: 1) the ANS needed to begin building its facility within two years of the donation; and 2) the architectural style of the new building needed to “harmonize” with that of the Hispanic Society. In addition, there were a series of “special conditions” which Huntington attached, which barred the ANS from conducting certain types of business on the property. Humorous from our perspective, these barred businesses illustrate just how the economy in the City has changed over the last century. They included:

Any brewery, distillery, slaughter house, smith shop, forge, furnace, steam engine or brass foundry, nail, or any other iron factory, sugar bakery, cow stable, or any soap or candle, oil or starch, varnish, vitriol, glue, ink or turpentine factory, lamp black, or any other factory or establishment for tanning, dressing or preparing skins, hides or leather, or any other dangerous, noxious, unwholesome, or offensive trade or calling or business….

Huntington would ensure compliance with the requirement for architectural harmony by arranging for his cousin, the noted architect Charles Huntington, to design the new ANS facility; Charles had previously designed the Hispanic Society’s headquarters. By December 1907, within the two-year window stipulated by Huntington, the ANS was ready to move into its new home. The next year, on April 6, 1908, the Society celebrated its 50th anniversary with a special meeting in its new headquarters and, on May 13, 1908, formally dedicated the new building. Total cost for the design and construction was $55,443.24, a princely sum a hundred years ago.

The east hall (c. 1920 before the construction of the new addition) looking towards the original entrance of the ANS

The addition to the building under construction in 1929.

Not long after the ANS opened its new uptown doors, space in the new building was already at a premium as the coin collection and library continued to grow. After two decades, in 1928, Huntington agreed to fund the construction of an addition to the ANS’s facilities to deal with the swelling collections. This new addition took two years to complete, more than doubled the size of the facilities, and cost more than $300,000. But even this addition was only a temporary fix as the staff and collections were ever expanding. Over the next 70 years, the building would be renovated internally several times to create new working and storage spaces, but there could not be any further additions due to a lack of space on the Terrace. These renovations included:

  • creating a second floor above the exhibit halls and reconstructing the second floor vault in the 1950s;
  • renovating the photography lab and studio in the 1960s;
  • reconstructing the exhibit halls in the 1980s; and
  • renovating the curatorial areas in the 1990s.

The newly constructed west hall in 1930. Note the galvanos of Adolph A. Weinman’s Saltus award medal hanging on the walls

The west hall after the late-1950s renovation

The east hall soon after the jet-age 1957 renovation

There is little question that these continual renovations created a hodgepodge of architectural styles within the building destroying its original charm; to appreciate this loss of allure one should visit the neighboring Hispanic Society building, which has left its interior—with the skylights and mezzanine—untouched.

View of the assistant librarian’s desk soon after the 1957 renovations. Former librarian Geoffrey North, pipe in mouth, is seen talking to a reader

The Museums of Audubon Terrace

The ANS would not be the last museum built on Audubon Terrace. Before Huntington was finished, four other institutions would join the ANS and Hispanic Society. Following the ANS was the American Geographical Society (AGS). The nation’s oldest geographical society, the AGS was first formed in 1851 and, by the time of its arrival on Audubon Terrace in 1911, had helped sponsor the Artic expeditions of Admiral Peary and others. Subsequent to its relocation to Audubon Terrace, the AGS would also aid President Woodrow Wilson as he prepared for the Peace Conference at Versailles after World War I.

The other institutions located on Audubon Terrace included the Museum of the American Indian (Heye Foundation), which opened in 1922, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters and American Institute of Arts and Letters, both of which opened in 1923. In addition to the museums, Audubon Terrace also hosted a church: the Church of Our Lady of Esperanza. Consecrated in 1912, the church one of the City’s first for Spanish-speaking people and includes stained glass windows, a skylight and lamp that were donated by King Alfonso III of Spain in 1912.

Adolph A. Weinman posing alongside the bronze doors he designed for the American Academy of Arts and Letters (across the Terrace from the ANS), c. 1938 (collection of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City).

As the ANS and the Hispanic Society acquired their new neighbors, the layout of the Terrace was altered to accommodate them as well as the new sculptural projects of Huntington’s wife, Anna Hyatt. The original entrance to the Terrace was on 156th street, behind Anna Hyatt’s towering statue of El Cid and its walled backdrop. Moving the entrance to Broadway made the Terrace more secure and fortress-like, but ultimately less inviting.

Overview of Audubon Terrace in 1988

Washington Heights in Turmoil

As the institutions of Audubon Terrace were being established, this area of Manhattan was just becoming linked to downtown New York City through the establishment of the IRT subway. The “Broadway-Van Cortland Park” line, as it was originally known, opened on November 12, 1904 and was completed to Dyckman Street in the northernmost part of Manhattan in 1906.

Construction of this subway line brought the first move of apartment construction to the area, with most of the apartment buildings in the neighborhood being built between 1890 and 1920. Designed in the Beaux Arts style architecture, these buildings are among the most elegant residences in the City, and included upscale-features like paneled dining rooms, electric lights, and large rooms with many windows — all in an effort to entice city residents uptown.

However, by the 1930s with the Great Depression, many of these relatively new apartments were vacant and so proved to be attractive to new immigrants. These immigrants were primarily German-Jews who fled persecution in Germany. They arrived in Washington Heights and settled among the older English population and newer Irish, Greek and Armenian groups. Of the more than 150,000 German-Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s, over 20,000 — or about one in seven — settled in Washington Heights. At the end of World War II, the Heights was the largest and most concentrated German-Jewish neighborhood in the United States, earning it the affectionate nickname, “Frankfurt on the Hudson.”

By the late 1960s, however, Washington Heights began undergoing a rapid change in ethnic composition and social status. As the Irish and German populations aged they were replaced by African-Americans and Hispanic immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Cuba. At the same time, following downward trends in the City’s overall economy, housing development declined, crime increased and businesses moved out. Gradually, Washington Heights developed a bad reputation as a crime-ridden and unsafe neighborhood; indeed, ANS members and staff experienced muggings and car break-ins, and on rare occasions (see Michel Amandry’s piece in this magazine) they witnessed still more violent crimes. Despite the tremendous improvements in the neighborhood over the last decade especially, the stigma of its earlier darker past has remained. Few native New Yorkers, not to mention tourists, venture to Audubon Terrace even today; as a result the museums of the Terrace have suffered. The ANS is not the first of the Terrace residents to seek a more visitor-friendly location elsewhere in the City; in the 1980s, the Indian Museum moved to Bowling Green, to occupy Cass Gilbert’s monumental Custom House near the heart of the financial district. And it seems we will not be the last to move: rumors are now circulating that the Hispanic Society has begun a search for a new location downtown as well.

Because the ANS has been tied so closely to the ups and downs of Washington Heights, the decision to leave was made with difficulty and sadness; but old institutions like ours have learned that in order to survive, radical, difficult changes are necessary from time to time. We will always remain, at least spiritually, in our old neighborhood. Because Audubon Terrace was designated a historic district by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the exterior of our old building cannot be altered, whatever the future holds for the interior. The Society’s name and those of prominent numismatists will remain there chiseled in stone.