Jewish Upper West Side and Riverside Drive

By | May 27, 2013

so how, exactly, does a walking tour of the Jewish Upper West side turn into an 8.9 mile walk that includes a long overdue visit to Riverside Church and Grant’s Tomb? Pretty much the same way a “quick walk to Bennett Park” turned into a walk to Inwood Hill Park last Friday. The tourist side of me gets a bee in my bonnet and, I’m there, so why not?

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I love long been fascinated and intrigued by the architecture of the Upper West Side. I’m sure a significant portion of my Instagram photos are tagged with either “Looking Up, UpUpUp and/or Archigram”. It’s just so different: historically, culturally and architecturally. So when the Conservancy announced this new tour for 2013, I was instantly excited. This tour was distinct from other Conservancy tours in that we were able to go into one synagogue: the modern Orthodox Jewish Center on W. 86th St. While not as architecturally distinct as the other congregations we saw, it’s interesting to see a multipurpose building really serving the needs of the community. What made the tour also more interesting was that some of the attendees were members of the synagogues we saw so they were able to fill in some of the questions that people asked.

It’s interesting how many buildings built as churches are now synagogues and vice versa and, to me, how many times some congregations moved. I also realized how many times I walked past gorgeous buildings like Shaare Zedek and had no idea the history I was passing by. Most interesting to me was how well the synagogues in the area meld in well with the churches and amazing 20th Century architectural masterpieces like The Cornwall, The Belnord, the Apthorp, etc. I’d really like to do a tour of the “lower” Upper West Side to see Shearith Israel, among others.

Among the non-Jewish sites, I was in awe with The Belnord for its amazing opulence, the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, which looks like it belongs in the Mediterranean with its architecture; The Cornwall for its architectural detail and Virginia O’Hanlon’s (Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus) home on W. 95th Street**.  As an aside, why on earth do the Wikipedia pages for The Belnord, Cornwall and Appthorp have such horrendous photos of amazing buildings?

The weather ended up being an order of magnitude better than expected and I began thinking about where I should head when the tour wrapped since the gym wasn’t so interesting anymore. I was originally leaning Marcus Garvey Park, but then the light bulb went on. I was at 95th & Amsterdam. Where have I been talking about since last Memorial Day Weekend? Time to head north along the river.

Until I recently, I had no idea how many monuments and memorials there were along Riverside Drive and in Riverside Park. I’m sure I walked past quite a few without realizing it. Last week, I mentioned the pluses and minuses of traveling with a smart phone and last summer I mentioned how the Great Manhattan Loop does allow me to see NYC as a tourist. So what do I need to do to not miss things I’m seeing along the way? Get a guidebook. Ideally I’d love to find one that focuses on the history, monuments and architecture since that’s what most interests me … but I’d settle for anything with a (location based) index since what I can’t do with the travelogues and social histories is easily find the author’s section on the area I’m walking on a given day. Any suggestions? ***

Missed Eleanor Roosevelt, again. Should figure out a way to have a Roosevelt Day in NYC and do Four Freedoms Park and then head west to her statue. But I did see:

  • Joan of Arc at W. 93rd St. – possibly the first statue made by a woman to be installed in NYC, installed in honor of her 500th birthday. It includes stones from the Tower of Rouen where she was held before her execution and was unveiled by the wife of Thomas Edison who, apparently, doesn’t warrant her own name. Its base includes a small copper box containing a letter from President Woodrow Wilson to George Kunz  one from the vicar of Rheims Cathedral and from the Cardinal of New York and “fairy stones” that symbolized the tears of Saint Joan. Thanks again, Daytonian.
  • Firemen’s Memorial at W. 100th St., which my brain keeps making “FDNY memorial” which makes it really hard to Google. Its history goes back to 1908 and the death of the Deputy Fire Chief. It was opened in 1913 and is now home to a ceremony, held annually in October, marking those who died in the line of duty.
  • a memorial to Louis, or maybe Lajos Kossuth a hero of Hungarian Independence. The statue is well maintained, but I’m not certain why it’s where it is — or in NYC at all. That’s a thought I’d revisit later.

You can’t not look at the architecture when walking up Riverside Drive. From The Colosseum (now owned by Columbia), The Mansion House whose exterior belies its long history, and the Hendrick Hudson which isn’t sure if it’s Spanish or Italian. I really need to take the time to come explore Riverside Drive properly rather than solely as a road to get elsewhere.

Oh yeah, elsewhere, the point of this elongated walk. I honestly feel that one of the down sides of the internet and digital cameras is that you lose the sense of seeing something for the first time. I think back to a family trip upstate when we went to Letchworth State Park. I was in awe of the waterfalls there and asked my parents how I’d know the difference between photos there and of Niagara. I had no idea what Niagara Falls looked like before I went to realize that, while beautiful, Letchworth couldn’t hold a candle.

This was not at all the case with Riverside Church. I’d read about it, knew it was the tallest church in the US but had no idea of its scale until I first saw its base. It’s HUGE. It’s a city block or more. It’s also far more than a church. It’s huge hub of social justice,  its history can be told in many pieces and with many connections to other key players in NYC history (excuse the mid 90s quality digital photos). Its carrillon is among the world’s largest and most storied. It’s amazing… and I didn’t get inside. I actually had no idea it was open to the general public, but wasn’t dressed for it anyway. So, a good excuse to go back.

From the church it was a short hop to Grant’s Tomb aka General Grant’s National Memorial which was all decked out for Memorial Day. “Let Us Have Peace” was resonant in Grant’s time…as well as now. The Tomb has been on my NYC Bucket List for much more than a year, yet I found myself woefully unprepared. To start, I had no idea the tombs or Grant and his wife were “not buried” (yes, that’s the answer to the endless who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb riddle), nor did I realize it was and still is the largest mausoleum in the United States with a significant public art component. While Riverside Drive still retains some elements of old New York, it’s amazing to see how much it has changed since the days it was a stroll through the park. I was disappointed that I wasn’t aware of (and consequently missed) the Tomb of the Amiable Child (Ephemeral New York, Daytonian) So glad the child’s memory lives on.

I needed Dad to see and understand the Tomb properly, but I’m so glad I went. It felt like a pilgrimage. It, sadly, was a quick visit. while the Tomb is beautiful, it doesn’t have a lot of information and I was tired by the end of my walk so I made a quick trip to the gift shop for a souvenir for Dad, and headed home.

** Daytonian in Manhattan is joining Untapped Cities’ New York section, Infrastructure and Curbed’s Camera Obscura as my go-to look stuff up blogs until I actually get a guidebook. Oh and of course sources of additions to my Bucket List because they’re all so well researched and photographed.

*** non guidebooks I’m now curious to read:

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