The Riverdale Historic District

Yes, Riverdale is now known as a beautiful, wonderful place to live and raise a family.  We are proud of our neighborhood that comprises more than 130 co-operatives and condominiums, and is also famously home to a private residential community known as Fieldston.

But, Riverdale has a long a rich history that is today little known or appreciated by its residents, and virtually unknown to outsiders.  The following information is excerpted from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission report on the Riverdale Historic District:

The region was developed with very special intention, and part of Riverdale was officially designated as The Riverdale Historic District on October 16, 1990. The area located along Independence and Sycamore Avenues and extending from West 252nd Street to West 254th Street, encompasses about fifteen acres of steeply sloping land overlooking the Hudson River with views to the Palisades in New Jersey. The district contains thirty-four buildings of several types situated on landscaped lots, once comprising larger estate properties, that are linked and defined by landscaping and original estate features including stone border and retaining walls; terraces; steps, paths, and driveways; cobbled street gutters; and individual specimen trees and rows of trees and hedges.  View a Riverdale Historic District map

The historic district is the nucleus of a 100-acre parcel, purchased in 1852 from William Ackerman for a suburban development, which was given the name “Riverdale.” This nucleus, including the first portion to be immediately developed, is also the most visually cohesive part of the original Riverdale development which survives.

The founders of Riverdale, five wealthy and influential businessmen—William W. Woodworth of Yonkers, and Charles W. Foster, Henry L. Atherton, William D. Cromwell, and Samuel D. Babcock of New York City — planned Riverdale as a suburban summer community beside what became at the time the only stop on the Hudson River Railroad between Spuyten Duyvil and Yonkers.

Riverdale is the earliest known railroad suburb in New York City, and it has most of the features commonly associated with the American romantic suburb of the mid-nineteenth century: genesis by a group of businessmen; an appropriate name associated with natural features; picturesque site, landscaping, and architecture; connection to the city by accessible transportation; and a layout adapted to the topography, in this case incorporating an existing road (Ackerman’s farm road).

From the outset Riverdale was intended to have larger estates, each with a freestanding house of the sort known as a “villa” and related outbuildings, surrounding a core of smaller estate lots, which were also developed with freestanding houses and related outbuildings. The area of the Riverdale Historic District corresponds to seven original estates linked by a carriage alley (now Sycamore Avenue) and one parcel later subdivided from the adjacent Wave Hill Estate. The core of five lots (corresponding to the present-day block bounded by West 254th Street an the north, West 252nd

Street on the south, Independence Avenue on the east, and Sycamore Avenue on the west) comprised the first portion of Riverdale to be developed. Each lot received a freestanding villa (at least one of which was designed by Thomas S. Wall) facing Independence Avenue, which was completed by the end of 1853, as well as stables and carriage houses. The two larger estates (the Cromwell Estate [later Stonehurst], and the Stone Estate) between the carriage alley (Sycamore Avenue) and the Hudson River were developed by the end of the 1850s. The Cromwell (Stonehurst) residence is little changed from its original Italianate villa style appearance. The configuration of these seven parcels of property remained intact until 1935, even though the villas were altered to accommodate new living. This may be seen in the four surviving villas on Independence Avenue. In the case of the house at 5291 Independence Avenue, it was thoroughly remodeled in 1886 by the distinguished American architect, Frederick Clarke Withers. Along the carriage alley (Sycamore Avenue), carriage houses, stables, and a cottage were built and/or altered in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. As automobiles began to replace horse-drawn carriages, garages were constructed. The picturesque, physical interrelationship among the outbuildings and continuous stone walls and wrought-iron fence along the carriage alley, as well as the interrelationship of these buildings to the houses either up or down the sloping sites, is unique in New York City. In some cases, these outbuildings were designed to relate stylistically to the villas, such as the carriage house on the Cromwell (Stonehurst) Estate (5253 Sycamore Avenue) and that designed by Frederick Clarke Withers at 5286 Sycamore Avenue in conjunction with his work on the house at 5291 Independence Avenue. The carriage house at 5255 Sycamore, designed by the architectural firm of Brite & Bacon, also related architecturally to the mansion it served (later destroyed by fire and demolished). In other cases, these buildings have a more vernacular character, but still incorporate picturesque features and relate to the landscape.

Beginning in 1935 with the Charles Foster Estate and the Cromwell (Stonehurst) Estate, the original parcels were subdivided for development. With one exception (the house at 5200 Sycamore Avenue, architect Dwight James Baum, 1923-24), the twentieth-century houses within the district were traditional architectural styles, such as the neo-Colonial and neo-Federal, use natural materials, and are sited in such a way that they relate to the overall landscape and topography of the seven original estates. Many of them are also oriented to the north and south private roads leading from Sycamore Avenue, which were created from the approximate position of the Cromwell (Stonehurst) carriage drive. The carriage houses and stables were subsequently converted for residential use.

Today the Riverdale Historic District is characterized by several building types — villas of the 1850s with later alterations, stables and carriage houses of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (later converted for residential use), and houses mostly from the second and third quarters of the twentieth century — which reflect the changing nature of suburbanization from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Equally characteristic of the district are landscaping and estate features, including stone border and retaining walls; terraces; steps, paths, and driveways; cobbled street gutters; and rows of trees and hedges, which survive throughout the district.

The historical significance of the Riverdale Historic District also comes in part because of its prominent residents over several generations, many of them related by the close ties of business and family, who have sought to preserve its character as a distinct suburban development.

 

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