(revised and updated) Though far from the state of dilapidated ruin that would excite the fantasy of the modern romantic, the worn facades of the monumental museums that make up Audubon Terrace in Washington Heights look sufficiently weathered to induce a civic form of melancholia. Step into the courtyard of this once bright place and see verdigris on copper doors, layers of city dirt wedged into the carved incisions spelling out names of Spanish conquistadors high along the walls, grasses peaking up between the cracks.
Flash backward and imagine the estate that once belonged to John James Audubon, the famous naturalist and explorer, and then jump forward to the early 1900s when railroad heir and philanthropist Archer M. Huntington commissioned this acropolis. But flash-forward again to the present, and closer investigation hints not of signs of decay suggested on the surface but rather points to simmering signs of life. Considering that the blocks to the south comprise the necropolis known as the Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum, that's saying something.
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The construction of Audubon Terrace, this formal configuration of museums between 155th and 156th Streets just west of Broadway, began in 1904. The plan was conceived in tandem with the building of the uptown subway, and indeed, the 1 train stop at Broadway and 157th delivers visitors conveniently to the complex.
In 1908, the Hispanic Society of America opened to the public, then the American Numismatic Society, the American Geographical Society, the American Indian Museum (1916), and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1923). Two churches are within the area - the Church of Our Lady of Esperanza and the Church of the Intercession. Later, another building was added to the Hispanic Society. Archer Huntington's cousin, Charles Pratt Huntington, a 1901 graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, designed the original buildings, and architects Cass Gilbert and William Mitchell Kendall from the firm McKim, Mead & White contributed with their designs for the American Academy. Now, of the founding residents only the Hispanic Society and American Academy remain. The American Indian Museum relocated downtown to the Customs House. Boricua College, a college founded for Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics, makes its home in the Geographical Society.
Make time for a visit to the Hispanic Society of America. The stunning Huntington collection of Spanish art is well worth a trip uptown. Leaving the brightness of the formal white Beaux Arts exterior courtyard, one that features a sculpture of El Cid by the ubiquitous Anna Hyatt Huntington, Archer's wife, and stepping into the dark and sensuous, abundantly rich interior of the Hispanic Society is like leaving ecumenical New York for a trip to the Spanish Empire. Among the many treasures are paintings by Francisco de Goya, El Greco, and Diego Velasquez, but in the richly decorated main gallery and library an abundance of works from all eras invites a long stay in this surprising place. According to a helpful gallery guide, the building housing the contemporary works should be open in a few weeks.
A visit to Audubon Terrace could also include a walk through the Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum, especially if interested in visiting the final resting place for the naturalist himself. The grave site is just to the east of the Church of the Intercession near the southeast corner of Broadway and West 155th St. I also highly recommend a walk north along Broadway to explore the stores that serve the Dominican, Honduran, Ecuadoran, and Mexican communities. Stroll to the west of Audubon Terrace to see some beautiful apartment buildings that are now part of Audubon Park, one of the city's most recent designated historic districts. A circular Beaux-Arts apartment building on Riverside Drive is built on the land where the naturalist's house once stood.
Any combination of a love of Spanish art, a longing to see the grave of John James Audubon and a hankering for Dominican food should make this a satisfying walk.
Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from July 15, 2009.
Additional external sites of interest:
• The Hispanic Society of America
• American Society of Arts and Letters
• See this informative audio-visual tour of the Hispanic Society of America on Museum Planet.
• Page from a commercial Audubon website on "Minniesland," the name for the Audubon estate, with images of the original house.
• Read this recent, March 11, 2009 article from NYT's City Room on the new glass structure linking two of the buildings for the American Academy of Art and Letters.
• Neighborhood website for Audubon Park, "the neighborhood Manhattan forgot."
More images from the walk may be found on this set on Flickr WOTBA.