11 May - 2022

In the Heights: City Blocks from an Architectural Blockbuster

Revisiting the movie In the Heights was an excellent antidote to the challenges of these times. In Lin Manuel Miranda’s celebration of community, multi-generational families, the immigrant experience, and enduring friendship, we felt the pulse of Washington Heights. This inspired us to take a day trip to experience first-hand the vitality of the movie’s locations. We found the storefront at 175th Street and Audubon, and other streetscapes that are the backdrop to memorable scenes. We visited Highbridge Park and the WPA-era pool at Amsterdam and 173rd, the settings for the film’s romantic moments, the effervescent Mambo at 2, and the dazzling dance choreography of the updated water-ballet. We saw many of the neighborhood’s five story brick and stone buildings, with their central stair and decorative iron railings, that resembled the home of many of the main characters.

While the movie brought a contemporary beat to Washington Heights, we found strong echoes of the area’s past that date back to the Revolutionary War. The historic Jumel Mansion, for example, served as Washington’s headquarters in 1776, and is the oldest building in Manhattan. The mansion, which can be visited today, is built as a square linked to an octagon, with a balustraded captain’s walk, and once allowed views stretching 115 acres, from the Harlem to Hudson Rivers. Linking past and present, we found that Lin-Manuel Miranda was given a writing space in the mansion as he worked on Hamilton. We could see how the majesty of the building, an American version of an English Villa, could have inspired some of the playwright’s attention to period details. Steps away, along what was once the cobblestone driveway of the mansion, an architectural surprise awaits in Sylvan Terrace with its unique double row of restored 19th century yellow two-story wood houses with matching green shutters and decorative canopies. At the time these homes were built, Washington Heights was still an expanse of farmland. Later, the development of town houses and early 20th century limestone and brick apartment buildings transformed the area into an urban neighborhood that attracted many notables. The landmarked Roger Morris apartment building on 158th, for example, was at one time home to Count Basie, Paul Robeson, Joe Lewis and Kenneth Clark.

The life of John James Audubon, the naturalist and painter provides another layer of history traceable to Washington Heights’ rural past. Audubon painted many of his famous works from his clapboard home, built close to the Hudson River, on 14 wooded acres that he and his wife Lucy purchased in 1842. Far from the urban environment of downtown Manhattan, the Audubons ran a working farm with pigs, cows, chickens, and newly planted fruit trees. From a rented basement laundry room there, Samuel Morse conducted some of his important telegraph experiments. When for financial reasons, the Audubon family sold some of their land, new owners built individual town houses in the once agrarian area. Eventually, these homes were supplanted by the brick apartment buildings that line Riverside Drive today. The few surviving row houses are beautifully detailed reminders of the many archi-textures that characterized Washington Height’s history.

The Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights.


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