I was rewatching the beginning of PBS’s documentary on New York the other day (which by the way is pretty awesome – get it from the library), and the point kept getting hammered home that unlike the majority of early U.S. colonies, this city was founded to make money. From the very beginning it was a commercial venture by the Dutch West India Company, not a religious retreat, not an attempt at a new beginning. In fact the Company waited four years before even forming a religious congregation. In 1628 they met as the Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, in the loft over a gristmill on South Williams Street. Their first building went up five years later, on Pearl Street, then the eastern shoreline of Manhattan. Today it’s the oldest continuous Protestant congregation in North America.
Though it’s not housed on Pearl Street anymore. The direct descendant of the original congregation is the Marble Collegiate Church, on Fifth Avenue and 29th Street. Up until 1871 the various Dutch Reformed Churches in Manhattan, all having sprung from the Collegiate Reformed, shared ministers and administrative duties in what was called the Collegium. Four churches, including Marble Collegiate, keep the Collegiate name today. The other three are Middle Collegiate, Fort Washington Collegiate, and West End Collegiate, on West End Avenue and 77th Street.
That particular church was finished in 1892, during the fifteen year period that saw the rapid development and urbanization of the Upper West Side. The church was built, appropriately enough, in a Flemish Renaissance style, modeled after the 1604 Vleeshal (or “meat-hall”) in the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands. The church stands next to the independent Collegiate School, a private K-12 boys school that claims to be the oldest school in the United States (although others claim it wasn’t an official entity until 1638, two years after Harvard University). The school itself traces its beginnings to 1628, when the first minister of the Dutch Reformed Church started teaching the catechism to Indian children. Now I don’t know, I’ve always personally been told that once you start teaching a brief summary of the basic principles of Christianity in question-and-answer form to Native American children – within city limits – well uh, you got yourselves a school there.
The block diagonally opposite the church is beautiful, as are a number of blocks that run between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, in the West 70s. The earliest surviving buildings in the area date from 1885, marking the point when the Upper West Side finally began to catch up with its East Side counterpart in land development and housing construction. The completion of the Ninth Avenue Elevated in 1879 helped a lot, connecting the area to the rest of the city. Even more relevant to the far West Side was the creation, starting in the 1870s, of Riverside Park. Frederick Law Olmstead was the chief landscape architect – it was his decision to build Riverside Drive as an extension of the Park itself, following its contours. By the late 1890s the street, and those surrounding it, were full of large single family houses and was considered amongst the most attractive and fashionable residential districts in the city. Today the whole area marks some of the last row houses to have gone up in Manhattan. By the turn of the 20th century land value had risen so steeply that even wealthy New Yorkers could hardly afford the cost of a single family dwelling. In response, residential hotels and apartment buildings became popular and acceptable alternatives. By the 1920s many row houses on West End Avenue, some less than twenty years old, were being torn down to make way for these much larger apartment buildings.
So the ones that still survive are pretty awesome to look at. With so many houses going up so quickly, architects were left free to design in whatever style they desired. As such, you get a very eclectic mix – they were intentionally going against the uniform row house design of earlier decades. The original idea, before development began, was that West End Avenue would be a commercial center, housing establishments to serve the residents of Riverside Drive. That never came to pass, instead people wanted to live here. Today I’d say it offers one of the best “urban canyon” views in the city, the flat facades of the taller buildings melding into one another as far as the eye can see, cut here and there with row houses. It feels so permanent. It also feels, perhaps because of that, like the part of town where grandmas and great uncles live, carving their tiny paths among the monoliths.
(Originally posted Oct. 30th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)