History Detectives: Researching Your Building

This article was recently posted on the West Side Rag site, written by Marjorie Cohen who is a member of the Planning Committee of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group. Marjorie also arranged a wonderful program for the BNHG on March 16, 2015, when we learned how to research the history of a building.


By Marjorie Cohen

Are you curious about the history of your building, your church, your synagogue, your kids’ school? Or maybe that interesting-­looking building down the block? When was it built, who lived there, who was the architect? And what did your block look like in the 20’s, the 30’s, even earlier? The Upper West Side is full of buildings with interesting stories to tell and now, with the emergence of so many high tech tools for historians, researching a building’s history is easier than ever before.

At a recent program put together by the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group the audience got a terrific short course in how to conduct building research. The program was arranged especially for the BNHG by the staff of the Neighborhood Preservation Center. a partnership of three organizations: the Historic Districts Council, a city­wide advocate for New York’s historic neighborhoods; the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, a leader in the preservation and protection of the architectural heritage and cultural history of the Village; and the St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund, a group dedicated to the preservation of the St. Mark’s Church campus where the Center is located.

The evening’s featured speakers were Anthony W. Robins, well­ known NYC architectural historian who has written, taught, lectured and led walking tours on that subject for decades; and Susan De Vries, a New York city history consultant. Robins, the researcher for the current exhibit on NY Transportation Landmarks at the NY Transit Museum Annex at Grand Central Station, gave a thorough power point talk that highlighted links to dozens of specific research tools both on and off the internet and DeVries presented an interesting survey of the typology of west side buildings. Following the two talks, audience members were given the rare opportunity to consult one-­on-­one with volunteers­­­ Sana Afsar, Elizabeth Meshel, Katharine Fields and Hannah Gall­­ who helped them get started on their own research.

Audience members received a take­away compiled by the NPC, with links to online research sources for maps, building documentation, landmark designation reports; a bibliography; a description of the BNHG collection housed at the Bloomingdale Branch of the NYPL; and more. To download a copy of this informative document click to the West Side Rag site, then on the link to the document, positioned at this point in the essay. This link may not be posted for long.

And, now that you have all of this invaluable information at your fingertips, there are no more excuses for putting off the start of your building history search project. Happy hunting!

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Battle of Harlem Heights


by Jim Mackin, local historian and member of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group Planning Committee

The Battle of Harlem Heights begins with the Knowlton Rangers. They were men, mostly from Connecticut and some from Massachusetts, were who were hand-picked for an elite detachment to be called “Rangers.” There were Rangers in the earlier French and Indian War, but these Knowlton Rangers were the first under Washington. They were the Green Berets, the special forces of their day and they were our first organized espionage unit.

Before dawn on September 16th, 1776, the leader of the Knowlton Rangers, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton, and from 120 to 150 men, left the front lines along the ridge above “the Heights of Harlem” to see what the British were up to and might do next. They stayed close to the Hudson (then called the North River), passed by the Hoaglandt house at the northern end of the Bloomingdale Road (today Riverside Drive and 114th St) and through the Harlem Heights (known later as Morningside Heights) as futher south to about 106th St and WEA.

When the 120 to 150 Knowlton Rangers advanced south to find the British they included Thomas Knowlton’s older brother, Daniel and his 16 year-old son Frederick. At about 106th St and WEA there was a solidly built stone house of farmer Nicholas Jones. The Rangers were moving stealthily through the farm fields when they were spotted by British pickets guarding the Bloomingdale Road. The pickets fired their guns to alert the 2nd and 3rd regiments of Leslie’s light infantry that was camped near 104th St along the Bloomingdale Road. Some of the British fired from 104th St towards the Rangers, and the Rangers fired back from behind one of Jones’s stone walls. Soon, however, 400 British troops materialized and started moving in column up the Bloomingdale Road. Knowlton directed his men to hold their fire until the marching British reached 107th St. Then the Rangers stood up and fired. The British and the colonial Rangers fired back and forth for about a half an hour.

The fighting stopped when the sound of bagpipes and drums of the Royal Highland Regiment of Foot, commonly known as the Black Watch, were heard in the distant east. Each side sustained about 10 casualties.

The Rangers fell back, firing selectively to cover their withdrawal. The Black Watch stopped, but Leslie’s Light Infantry pursued the Rangers to the end of the Bloomingdale Road by the Hoaglandt farmhouse at 114th St and then positioned themselves on the rise known as Claremont just north of where Grant’s Tomb is today. The Rangers continued retreating into the Hollow Way valley at about 125th St and Broadway.

On the Claremont rise, a British bugler, in full view of colonial General Nathanial Greene’s troops on the ridge north of the Hollow Way, raised his bugle to his lips and blew the fox-hunter’s signal for the end of the chase. This was an insult indicating that “the chase was over” and the colonials were as good as fallen.

Washington’s trusted aide, Colonel Joseph Reed advocated for a response, but Washington was more calculated. He was not as strong a tactician as General Howe, but he was steady, persistent, and flexible. His decision was to try to lure Leslie’s men down from the Claremont rise, but at the same time, send forces to the east that would come up through the difficult ridge of Harlem Heights – think of the ridge in Morningside Park from 110th St to 122nd St. If successful, Leslie’s light infantry would be surprised from the rear and cut off from their other troops.

Colonial General John Nixon was entrusted with fooling Leslie’s units that an attack was underway to lure them into the Hollow Way. Nixon chose Lieutenant Archibald Crary from Rhode Island to command about 150 volunteers to make as much noise as possible moving down into the Hollow Way and create the illusion that they would storm Leslie and his men on the Claremont rise (site of Grant’s Tomb).

Meanwhile, Colonel Knowlton would command about 230 men, including his Rangers and three companies from Colonel George Weedon’s 3rd Virginia Regiment under Major Andrew Leitch, to surprise Leslie’s men by outflanking them from the south, by way of the difficult ridges of Morningside Park.

Crary’s volunteers ran down the slopes in hopes of getting a reaction from the British. A number of Leslie’s men rushed down their slope to fire at the colonials. The Hollow Way, however, was largely a swamp that came in from the Hudson River to about Broadway and from 125th to 130th Sts. So all the shooting that went on, and it went on for awhile, was across the swamp. There was no close combat. But the American General Nixon decided to bolster the effort on his side with all the rest of the 800 men that he had.

Meanwhile Knowlton and his 230 men came down from Point of Rocks by St Nicholas Avenue and 127th St. They found their way to an open rise where today’s General Grant Houses are located between 123rd and 124th St and between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway. From here they hoped to get behind Leslie’s men. But, perhaps in their enthusiasm, they fired too early. This caused some of Leslie’s men to fire back. Major Andrew Leitch was hit three times, once in the hip and twice in the stomach. The shots were fatal for him; he died the next day. Knowlton stepped up on the same ledge to rally his troops. He was shot in the small of the back and caught by Captain Stephen Brown of Woodstock, Connecticut. Brown would recollect later that Knowlton was very calm and said “I do not value my life if we do but get the day.” Knowlton died within an hour.

Captain Brown and the Captains of the three Virginia companies, Charles West, John Thornton, and John Ashby, Jr took charge. They lost the element of surprise necessary to outflank, but they pressed hard on Leslie’s men from the east. Nixon’s troops now stopped their feinting tactics and attacked outright. Since Leslie’s troops were outnumbered, they retreated south to get back with the larger group of British troops.

But they stopped to mount a defense at the northern edge of a buckwheat field that covered the area from 116th St to 120th St and from Riverside Drive east to Broadway and a little more. The Americans accumulated their forces here. And the British increased their forces with the addition of the Black Watch, reserves from General Cornwallis and the Hessians. At about noon, the Americans that numbered from 1,800 to 2,000 were stretched from Riverside Church to Teachers College: Nixon’s brigade on the western end, Sargent’s, Beall’s and Douglas’ men in the middle, and Knowlton’s and Leitch’s Rangers on the eastern end. The British, consisting of Leslie’s light infantry, the 2nd and 3rd battalions, and the Black Watch, lined up just south and parallel along 119th St. Thus the battle of Harlem Heights was enacted.

MAP of the Battle of Harlem Heights

MAP of the Battle of Harlem Heights


The Americans fought well, and Generals Putnan, Greene, and Clinton rode back and forth behind the lines to encourage their troops. General George Clinton was an American cousin of the British commander Sir Henry Clinton and the uncle of DeWitt Clinton. Some detail that made it into our history of the battle: Colonel Joseph Reed tried to stop a private, Ebenezer Leffingwell, from running away from the front line. Leffingwell tried to shoot Reed, but his gun misfired. Reed grabbed a musket from someone and tried to shoot Leffingwell, but his gun also misfired. But Reed trounced the private with his sword and had him arrested. A week later and after a court martial, Reed commuted Leffingwell’s sentence of death by firing squad.

The British were outnumbered, but would have had about 5,000 troops if Cornwallis’ reserves and the Hessian grenadiers and riflemen caught up with them. Leslie’s advantage was the pair of brass three-pounders, cannons on wheels, that each fired all of their 60 rounds. Thus there was a standoff for two hours – until the Americans started pushing through the line. But Washington ordered his men to break off the engagement and retreat. He didn’t want to get beyond the buckwheat field. His sense was that British reserves were not far off. He was right. And yet the British on the front line decided to retreat. And some Americans, who had not yet heard their order to retreat, chased the British south. There were brief skirmishes at about 111th St and 106th by Jones’ stone house, where the action began earlier in the day. By now the British and Hessian grenadiers accumulated to a force of about 5000.

In addition, three British frigates in Stryker’s Bay near West 96th Street opened fire. Cannonballs from the ships were too far away to do any damage and Washington’s order to retreat reached all the men, and so it was reported they gave a resounding “Hurrah” and fell back to the Heights of Harlem. The Battle of Harlem Heights was over on the same day it began, September 16th, 1776.

FIELD where principal action took place -- Grant's Tomb on left

FIELD where principal action took place — Grant’s Tomb on left

The Americans might have had 100 wounded and 30 deaths. The numbers are not reliable. British had somewhere between 157 to 200 wounded and between 14 and 70 killed. The Americans lost 4 officers, including Leitch and Knowlton.

Those Americans who fought in the Battle of Harlem Hghts and were captured were probably placed in the British Prison Ships.

The Americans were rightfully proud that they could win in the field against the more professional British troops. The British acknowledged the Americans in this regard by not yet pursuing them, but rather by maintaining a line from Stryker’s Bay to McGowen’s Pass to Horn’s Hook (present day Carl Schurz Park by Gracie Mansion) for the next 26 days.

Plaque Commemorating Battle at BWAY 118th Street BHH2



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Bloomingdale History Map

Vita Wallace, musician and History Group Planning Committee member, has produced a Bloomingdale neighborhood map for download — use it while you take a stroll!





Bloomingdale Self-Guided Map

Bloomingdale Self-Guided Map


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A City of Tenants

The Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group presented a program on March 20, 2014, that included Roberta Gold speaking about her recently-published book When Tenants Claimed the City: the Struggle for Citizenship in New  York City Housing.

Ms. Gold reminded us of New York City’s pioneering of public housing in the 1930s and rent controls initiated in the 1940s that have remained in place. Her book uncovers the principle of tenant citizenship, a claim by renters that they count as full citizens who hold the right to live in interracial, affordable, locally-controlled communities. Tenants struggled to exercise these rights in many neighborhoods, including the Upper West Side’s Urban Renewal Area, 87th to 97th Streets, Central Park West to Amsterdam.

see the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group’s website at: www.upperwestsidehistory.weebly.org

Cover of Roberta Gold's book

Cover of Roberta Gold’s book

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Bloomingdale/Manhattan Valley Chronology

Compiled by Gil Tauber 2001 for the Columbus Amsterdam Business Improvement District

see the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group’s website at: www.upperwestsidehistory.weebly.org

1600s     Manhattan Island inhabited by Lenape Indians. There is no evidence of permanent settlement in the high rocky Manhattan Valley area, but it was almost certainly used as a hunting ground by Indians living on the Harlem flats to the east.

1625       Dutch West India Company establishes New Amsterdam at the southern tip of Manhattan.

1664       British seize New Amsterdam, renaming it New York. Within a few years the Upper West Side is parceled out in land grants, but there is no significant settlement.

1708       Bloomingdale Road is built, roughly along the lines of present Broadway. The newly accessible Upper West Side becomes an area of farms and country estates.

1811       The Commissioner’s Plan is adopted, laying out Manhattan’s system of streets and avenues. However, it will be decades before most of these streets are anything more than lines on a map.

1821       The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum is opened on what is now the site of Columbia University. In 1834 an unused part of the Asylum property is transferred to the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum, now the site of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

1838       The Croton Aqueduct is built along Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. It includes the Clendenning Valley aqueduct bridge, up to fifty feet above ground level, extending from 102nd to 95th streets. The massive stone structure has only three openings for future cross-town streets.

1856       New York City acquires the land for Central Park.

1868       Broadway is opened, replacing the Old Bloomingdale Road.

1871       Manhattan Avenue is opened.

1872-78Sewers and water mains are laid in most of the streets east of Broadway. Underground pipes replace the above ground aqueduct.

1870s-80s            Improved city services and low land costs attract major charitable institutions including the Hebrew Home for the Aged, the Catholic Old Age Home, and the Home for Aged Indigent Respectable Females.

1879       The Ninth Avenue Elevated Railway, powered by steam locomotives, is built along Columbus Avenue with stations at 99th and 104th Streets. It is followed by the first distinctly urban tenements along Columbus Avenue and row houses along the nearby side streets.

1880s-90s            Several new churches and schools are built to serve the growing residential population mainly on or near Amsterdam Avenue.

1903       Following electrification of the Ninth Avenue El, a station is opened at 100th Street and Manhattan Avenue. Elevators lift passengers to platforms five stories above the street. Nearby vacant lots are rapidly filled with apartment buildings.

1904       The IRT subway is opened on Broadway, spurring construction of more – and larger – apartment buildings.

1932       Eighth Avenue subway line opens along Central Park West.

1940       The Ninth Avenue El is closed and torn down.

1950s     Fourteen city blocks are demolished and replaced by Frederick Douglass Houses and Park West Village. Scandals in connection with the latter project lead to the downfall of Robert Moses.

1970s     City fiscal crisis. Drugs, crime, deterioration and the abandonment of buildings beset the neighborhood.

1979       Community leaders organize Valley Restoration Local Development Corporation. It sponsors housing rehabilitation projects as well as programs to improve security and assist local businesses.

1990s     The area attracts new businesses and private investment in housing rehabilitation.


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Catching Up: Marjorie Cohen’s history writing on the Bloomingdale area

Marjorie Cohen writes history essays for the West Side Rag, our neighborhood’s e-news reporting on the Upper West Side.  Marjorie is a member of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group’s planning committee.
Marjorie has lived on the Upper West Side since the mid 60s. A big fan of the neighborhood, she fought crime on the grassroots level as Executive Director of the Westside Crime Prevention Program/Safe Haven for more than 20 years. Now, with WCPP’s mission accomplished, Marjorie is concentrating on writing and editing. She is the author of seven travel books.

The Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group thanks the editor of the West Side Rag for allowing us to share these posts.


Posted on December 16, 2011 at 2:42 pm by West Side Rag

West Side Rag Editor’s Note: This is the first in a monthly West Side Rag series by Marjorie Cohen. Each month, Marjorie will choose an object or document from the archives of the New-York Historical Society that references the Upper West Side. Read this entry:



Posted on February 7, 2012 at 12:49 pm by West Side Rag

This is the second article in our History Beat series — columns inspired by materials about the Upper West Side from the library of the New-York Historical Society. This article references items from the library’s manuscript and print collections. Read the rest of the entry:



Posted on March 29, 2012 at 1:11 pm by West Side Rag

Let’s take a look back to the Upper West Side of the 1930s and a building constructed just as the Great Depression began. For decades, it was part of a delightful and innovative business experiment, and on one day in the middle of the summer of 1933 it was the scene of a strange and tragic series of …Read the rest of this entry: http://www.westsiderag.com/2012/03/29/upper-west-side-history-a-tale-of-fast-food-and-a-strange-double-tragedy


Posted on May 25, 2012 at 1:10 pm by West Side Rag

Each month we choose an object from the N-Y Historical Society Library’s collection that relates to the history of the Upper West Side and use it as the focus of an article.  The topic for this month’s column,  >>http://www.westsiderag.com/2012/05/25/the-lion-brewery-where-beer-was-made-on-the-upper-west-side

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The Old Community on West 98th and 99th Streets

Compiled by Jim Mackin working with Jim Torain — both Jims are members of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group’s Planning Committee.

The OLD COMMUNITY is the African-American community of West 98th and 99th Streets between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue that was decimated by urban renewal in the mid-1950s.  A number of outstanding achievers were raised in the OLD COMMUNITY, as described below.  Its legacy continues with an annual gathering of its surviving members and with celebrating its history.  A 7-munute long video entitled THE TRAGEDY OF URBAN RENEWAL recounts how the OLD COMMUNITY was physically destroyed. The critically acclaimed, award-winning video was written, produced, shot and edited by Jim Epstein and narrated by Nick Gillespie, the Editor-in-Chief of REASON magazine.  Jim Epstein grew up in our BLOOMINGDALE neighborhood.  He donated his research papers on THE TRAGEDY OF URBAN RENEWAL to the BLOOMINGDALE Neighborhood History Group and they have been placed in the BLOOMINGDALE Branch of the New York Public Library.  The TRAGEDY OF URBAN RENEWAL may be seen on Youtube at:


Here are some of the notable people who were part of the OLD COMMUNITY:

SIMON P GOURDINE (1940-2012) – He was a lawyer who in the 1970s became the highest-ranking Black executive in professional sports as Deputy Commissioner of the NBA. He was also Commissioner of Consumer Affairs under Mayor Koch, General Counsel for the NYC Board of Education, and Chairman of the NYC Civil Service Commission.

HENRY “JUGGY” MURRAY (1923-2005) – He was co-founder of SUE Records (with Bobby Robinson) whose repertoire included Bobby Hendricks (“Itchy Twitchy Feeling”, lead on Drifters “Drip Drop”), Baby Washington, Barbara George (“I Know”), Inez & Charlie Foxx (“Mocking Bird”), Ike & Tina Turner (“A Fool In Love”).

CHARLES ALSTON (1907-1977) – He drew posters at PS 179 before going on to Columbia University and was related to Romare Bearden by marriage.  As a painter, sculptor, illustrator, and muralist he was part of the Harlem Renaissance known for his WPA mural for Harlem Hospital.  His bust of Dr. Martin Luther King was the first image of an African-American displayed in the White House.

RICHARD T GREENER (1844-1922) – He was the first African-American graduate of Harvard University and Dean of the Howard University School of Law. He held numerous prominent positions, including Secretary (and chief fund-raiser) of the Grant Monument Association, which created the largest mausoleum in the United State: Grant’s Tomb.

GRANVILLE T. WOODS (1856-1910) – His 60 patents including one for the “troller” which is the grooved metal wheel that allowed streetcars (later known as “trolleys”) to collect electric power from overhead wires. His most important invention was the multiplex telegraph, also known as the “induction telegraph,” which allowed men to communicate by voice over telegraph wires. But he is most well known for the power pick-up device, which is the basis of the “third rail. He turned down Thomas Edison’s offer to make him a partner, and thereafter Granville T. Woods was known as “the Black Edison.”

PHILIP A PAYTON, JR – He was the entrepreneur known as “The Father of Harlem” as his Afro-American Realty Company struggled and successfully opened Harlem to African-Americans.

WILL MARION COOK (1869-1944) – He was a violinist and prominent African-American composer of classical, popular songs, and Broadway musicals.  He gave us the very significant show “In Dahomey”, the first full-length landmark American musical written and played by Blacks.

ARTURO SCHOMBURG – He was a Puerto Rican historian, writer, and an important intellectual figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His collection of literature, art, slave narratives, and other materials of African history constitute the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

JAMES WELDON JOHNSON (1871-1938) and brother
JOHN ROSAMOND JOHNSON (1873-1954) lived in 52 West 99th Street – James was a poet and much more, and John was a composer and much more.  We know them mostly for giving us the hymn “Life Every Voice and Sing”  which has come to be known in the United States as the “Black National Anthem.”

THELMA “BUTTERFLY” McQUEEN (1911-1995) –She was called “Butterfly” in tribute to her constantly moving hands in performance of the Butterfly Ballet in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

ROBERT EARL JONES (1910 – 2006) – He was the great actor father of the great actor, James Earl Jones with a long stage, TV and movie career.  He was at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance in so many productions, but is most fondly remembered for his role in Robert Redford’s “The Sting”.

BERT WILLIAMS (1874-1922) – Partnered with George Walker, he is thought to be, by many such as W. C. Fields, to be the greatest vaudevillian of all time.

MARCUS GARVEY (1887-1940) – Marcus Garvey – a protégé of Booker T Washington, he was a political leader, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator who promoted the return of the African Diaspora to their ancestral lands and, in so doing, championing Lack nationalism.

BILLIE HOLLIDAY – “LADY DAY” (1915-1959)– Her mother ran a restaurant on West 99th Street.  She was one of the greatest voices of the 20th century.

EARL LEWIS and the CHANNELS – In February of 1956, there was a talent show at a community center in PS 179 that featured Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers (of “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” fame.)  That show brought together 3 guys from 115th and 116th Sts with 2 guys from the OLD COMMUNITY.  One of them from West 99th Street, EARL LEWIS, became the lead singer and another, CLIFTON WRIGHT, sand bass. A few days later they won a talent contest at PS 113 nearby on 113th Street. Just one week later they came in 2nd at the weekly talent show on the stage of the Apollo Theater.  In June, they recorded a song that the lead singer wrote when he was 10 years old.  That song. “The Closer You Are”, was the number 5 song for the entire year of 1956 on the charts of Alan Freed’s WINS Radio Show. They also had a hit song with “That’s My Desire.”


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