In 1971, the residents of the Mount Morris Park neighborhood celebrated the designation of the neighborhood by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission as an Historic District—one of the earliest landmark neighborhoods in New York City. This was the culmination of years of persistent efforts and involvement by the residents to preserve the historic, cultural and architectural legacy of the neighborhood.
The Early Neighborhood
Following the Civil War, the remainder of the Benson farm was developed with rows of speculative townhouses. For over 100 years, the community adjoining Mount Morris Park has been widely recognized as one of the city’s most charming and distinctive residential enclaves. Bosses of the notorious Tammany Hall political club found the opportunity to make money in Harlem properties particularly irresistible. Ironically, not only did infamous personalities, like the Hon. Richard Crocker, live adjoining Mount Morris Park, but one of their fiercest critics, the cartoonist Thomas Nast, lived and worked in the neighborhood as well.
Richard Rodgers (1902-1979), one of the geniuses of the Broadway musical theater, lived during early childhood at No. 3 West 120th Street, where his father practiced medicine on the parlor floor. Although the Rodgers family moved from 120th Street in 1911, Richard’s connection to the neighborhood was rejuvenated in his late teens. He met songwriter Lorenz Hart, who lived at No. 59 West 119th Street. Notable achievements of the Rodgers-Hart partnership, lasting until 1942, include, On Your Toes and Pal Joey. As a gift to the “old” neighborhood, Rodgers donated the Amphitheater in Mount Morris Park in 1970.
Marcus Garvey Park
Long before any European settlement, the rocky hill of Manhattan mica-schist in Mount Morris Park was well known among Native Americans for the superb vantage over the island. Dutch colonists who established the town of Nieuw Haarlem in 1658, called it “Slang Burg” or “Snake Hill.” And during the War of Independence, the hill’s strategic position near the mouth of the Harlem River led to a series of skirmishes between the Patriots and the British.
In 1837, the Board of Aldermen of New York City decided to establish a residential square — Mount Morris Park. Petitioners, in opposition, attempted to delay the project unsuccessfully. On September 4, 1839, a report was presented and confirmed that the 20,173 acres of the old Benson family land grant farm, most recently used as a race track, from 120th and 124th Streets between Madison and Fifth Avenues, was transformed into a public park. The name, Mount Morris, remains a mystery. Was the park named for Robert H. Morris, mayor from 1841-1844? Or, had the old Benson farm, as some old timers insisted, once been owned by members of the famous Morris’ of the Bronx? They, too, operated a race track across the Harlem River. Their connection, if any, to Mount Morris is unconfirmed.
Construction is present everywhere — as once vacant and decaying brownstones and apartment buildings are undergoing renovation. However, the revitalization of a neighborhood must include infusing life into the commercial corridors. Residents are encouraged that planning in that direction has begun, starting with Lenox Avenue (renamed Malcolm X Boulevard in 1988). Not only is the boulevard getting a needed face-lift, but the promises of new businesses coming to this neglected commercial corridor abound.
Mount Morris Park Churches, Mosques and Synagogues
Most of these structures reflect the influx of various populations from the prosperous white Protestant families who built many of the landmark church structures, to affluent Jewish families from Western Europe and poor Orthodox Jewish families from Eastern Europe, who built or converted Protestant churches into synagogues. Today, these structures are occupied by black congregations, but the evidence of those who came before has been preserved by those who worship in them now.
In addition, some African American congregations converted grand movie theaters into churches in the 1960s, like First Corinthian and Canaan. The Masjid made famous by Malcolm X is a cultural treasure that dominates the southwest corner of 116th Street, and New York’s largest black Hebrew congregation makes its home in the mansion built for the Arm & Hammer magnate, John Dwight.
This list has been provided for those who wish to worship in the Mount Morris area either on Friday at the Masjid, on the Sabbath at Ephesus where the famous Boys’ Choir of Harlem was founded or on Sunday morning in numerous Christian churches including the Ethiopian Coptic Church. Or, if one wants to take in the splendor of late 19th century ecclesiastical architecture, the Neo Gothic, Queen Anne, Italian Renaissance-inspired and Roman Classical Revival facades are available for viewing any day of the week.
(picture) The Commandment Keepers. The entryway to Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, this Italian Renaissance-inspired mansion was commissioned by Arm & Hammer Baking Soda magnate John Dwight. Designed by Frank A. Smith in 1889-90 the current congregation, which was founded in 1930, occupied it in 1962.
(picture) Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. The first native-born Jewish architect, Arnold Brunner, designed a brand new place of worship for Congregation Temple Israel. Inspired by newly discovered archeological remains of the classical Second Temple built in Jerusalem during Roman occupation, this building is still a notable and impressive local landmark because of the dedicated preservation efforts of the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church which has occupied the building since 1925.
(picture) Greater Metropolitan Baptist Church. Greater Metropolitan Baptist Church, which was landmarked in 1994, was originally built for the St. Paul’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1897/1898. This Neo-Gothic building was designed by the German immigrant architects Schneider & Herter, who were also the architects for the landmark Park East Synagogue/Congregation Zichron Ephraim on East 67th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues.
(picture © Photo by Chester Burger) St. Martins Episcopal Church. The impeccably preserved sanctuary of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, the finest Romanesque Revival style church building surviving in New York City. This church boasts the second largest set of carillons in New York..
(picture) Seventh Day Adventist.Church. The Gothic-inspired Collegiate Low Dutch Reformed Church (church and rectory, 1885-87; church hall at rear, 1894-95), was designed by John Rochester Thomas, who designed the Hall of Records/Surrogate’s Court on Chambers Street. The church was leased to the Ephesus Seventh Day Adventist congregation in 1930 and purchased in 1939. Ephesus was established through a merger of New York’s two oldest Black Adventist congregations.
The Dutch Village
The historic development of Harlem began with an Indian village on the banks of the Hudson River, between 110th and 125th Streets. Attracted by the fertility of the soil and the ease with which the area could be defended as a military outpost, settlers incorporated the Village of Harlem in 1658 under Dutch rule. By 1661, the farming community had 32 adult men — most of them heads of families — and a contingent of soldiers paid to protect and help build the village.
In 1672, slaves built the first road from lower Manhattan to Harlem over an old Indian trail known today as Broadway. With transportation to downtown New York chiefly by riverboat, the new village developed its economic base centered around the farmer’s market, tavern and ferry house in the vicinity of 125th Street and the Harlem River. A gateway to Harlem developed at Central Park North and Lenox and St. Nicholas Avenues in the early 1700s, as way stations were built to accommodate travelers from New York.
Prior to the American Revolution of 1776, the community was quietly becoming a choice area for gentlemen farmers to build country estates and wealthy merchants to build elegant houses. The Morris-Jumel Mansion, designated a landmark in 1967, was built in 1765. This Georgian country house at 160th Street and Edgecombe Avenue served as General George Washington’s headquarters during the War of Independence.
The Residential Suburb
The Manhattan street system, laid out according to a plan of 1811, had the effect of altering Harlem’s appearance from an idyllic valley of farmland into a residential area. Harlem was developed in stages as hills were leveled, streams were filled and transportation was improved. The most important development to affect Harlem’s growth was the construction from 1832 to 1835 of the New York and Harlem Railroad running along Park Avenue from City Hall to the Harlem River. Conceived as a real estate venture, as well as a means of passenger and freight transportation, the railroad helped to unify the island, but also created serious environmental problems and a formidable barrier between East and Central Harlem. In 1873, the Village of Harlem was “annexed” to the City of New York. As transportation, commerce and industry developed and numbers of immigrants arrived, Harlem became the city’s first suburb. It was considered one of the most fashionable residential areas in which to live.
The Urban Industrial Center
Single family brick and brownstone residences began to rise in West and Central Harlem, attracting upper and middle income families. With the construction of the Second, Third and Eighth Avenue elevated lines during the 1870s and 1880s, most of the Old Law walk-ups and elevated tenement houses were built on lots measuring 25 to 50 feet by 100 feet, with building coverage up to 90% of the lot. The Tenement Housing Act of 1901 slightly upgraded design standards mn primarily by reducing coverage to 70% of the lot. The completion of the Lenox Avenue subway in 1904 was accompanied by a major building boom and rampant real estate speculation.
According to the 1910 Census, the Greater Harlem area extending from 110th to 155th Streets between the Hudson and Harlem Rivers had a population of approximately 500,000 persons, of which roughly 50,000 were Black and 75,000 native-born White. The vast majority were immigrants from Russia, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Australia, Hungary, England, Spain and Scandinavia.
Migration of Blacks to Harlem
Although a few Blacks have lived in isolated areas of Harlem since its early settlement, it was in the early 1800s that they began to move into the area in greater numbers. By 1830, Black farmers had settled on East 130th Street, between Fifth and Park Avenues, with Mother AME Zion church as the focal point of the settlement.
From 1904 onward, large numbers of Blacks began to move to Harlem from lower and midtown Manhattan and from out of town. This was, in large part, the result of an over-optimistic building boom at the turn of the century, which forced developers faced with financial ruin to start renting apartments designed for White middle-income families to the new arrivals. At first, landlords rented to “respectable” Black families at outrageous prices. As Blacks started to arrive in masses, landlords raised the rents and subdivided apartments to begin a legacy of over-crowding and poor building maintenance that formed the foundation of slum conditions.
Efforts to keep Harlem White were made by business, civic and property owner associations, but they failed in the end simply because realtors found it profitable to sell and rent to Blacks. By 1918, the Black population numbered 60,000 persons living mostly between Park and Eighth Avenues from 130th to 144th Streets. A few Blacks were even able to buy houses on Striver’s Row along 138th and 139th Streets. These homes were built in 1890 for $10,000 to $12,000 and often sold at a loss by Whites moving to other parts of the city and suburbs.
“The Capital of Black America”
Harlem had the character of a day and night “city within a city,” during the 1920s and thrived as a major entertainment center and showcase for talented Black artists. Jazz clubs provided jobs and income to the area. Theaters, libraries and institutions, like the YMCA, provided outlets for cultural expression in the community.
Harlem’s Black population rapidly increased from 83,248 in 1920 to 203,894 in 1930, with a residential density of 236 persons per acre, or twice that of Manhattan as a whole. Low incomes and high rents forced two or three families into apartments designed for one family.
Areas to the West and North were exclusively White, except for “Sugar Hill,” which was occupied by a few middle and upper income Black families. Most Blacks were concentrated in Central Harlem, with East Harlem’s Puerto Rican population coming mostly after 1930.
The Depression of 1929 brought all new construction and building maintenance to a halt. A community that was becoming the leading Black metropolis of the world was, at the same time, rapidly declining into an area of extended slum neighborhoods.
However, Morningside Heights, Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights did retain a higher level of maintenance, in part due to the influence of major institutions in these areas.
The mood of the 1930s was characterized by community demands for improved housing conditions, better social welfare, higher standards of health care and more educational opportunities. Political pressure resulted in legislation for several capital improvement programs funded by city, state and federal agencies. Under the Roosevelt Administration, the WPA Program was especially effective in physical development projects. The Harlem River Houses, 557 units of low-rise housing, completed in 1937, were Harlem’s first public housing project built with federal assistance. It remains today one of the best maintained public housing complexes in Harlem.
In 1944, one of Harlem’s first master plans was produced by a team of architects and planners headed by William Lescaze. Focused on Central Harlem between 110th and 125th Streets from Morningside to Fifth Avenues, the plan laid the framework for the present superblock public housing strip between 112th and 115th Streets, extending from Lenox Avenue to the Harlem River.
Urban Renewal and its Impact
The Urban Renewal Act of 1949 raised the hope with its promise to provide decent housing for every American family. In the decade that followed, however, slum clearance programs resulted in the relocation of as many, if not more, families as they housed, establishing at the same time a pattern of monolithic architectural design in overwhelming superblock housing developments with few design amenities.
In part, as a result of previous slum clearance policies, the 1960s were characterized by a period of community suspicion and concern, as well as a desire for control over and a change in the approach to urban planning and development. Although the middle of the decade saw a large number of new urban renewal projects designated in Harlem, often at the request of involved community groups, large areas are still unaffected by such plans, with the result that much decay has continued unchecked.