"The Architecture and Development of Harlem," Andrew Dolkart's introduction to the New York Landmarks Conservancy book Touring Historic Harlem: Four Walks in Northern Manhattan by Andrew S. Dolkart and Gretchen S. Sorin.
Courtesy of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, www.nylandmarks.org

Harlem . . . no other neighborhood in New York City conjures up such a diversity of images as does this section of northern Manhattan. To many, Harlem is the center of a dynamic community and the heart of a vibrant African-American cultural heritage; others see Harlem as a symbol of urban blight and of the societal failures of America; and to still other people Harlem is a treasure trove of underappreciated 19th- and early-20th-century architecture, especially rich in residential and ecclesiastical buildings. In part, each of these visions is true, for Harlem is an extremely diverse neighborhood with a complex history of development and change.

Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant established Nieuw Haarlem in 1658 on land comprising most of northern Manhattan. The actual village settlement centered on the Harlem River at about East 125th Street. The village thrived as a social and political center, but most of Harlem was inhabited by farmers. Since the Dutch were slave owners, Harlem had a substantial African population from the inception of its settlement. In 1666, the British provided Harlem with a fixed southern boundary, drawing a diagonal line across Manhattan Island, running from approximately what is now West 129th Street on the Hudson River to East 74th Street on the East River. The historic boundary was forgotten as Harlem was integrated into the growing city. In fact, as early as 1683 Harlem was considered a part of New York City and County, even though it remained a sparsely populated rural district with none of the character of the burgeoning metropolis at the southern end of the island.

Geographically, Harlem divides into two distinct areas - the Harlem Plain in the central and eastern part of the area and the Heights, formed by the steep cliffs of Manhattan schist, to the west. Contact between Harlem and New York City residents was generally limited to the presence of a number of country estates on the Heights. Most of these were owned by city residents who moved to Harlem in the summer, escaping the heat and the epidemics of the city and taking advantage of the cooling breezes and expansive views on the elevated sites. Two of the estate houses are extant - Hamilton Grange (HH3) and the Morris-Jumel Mansion (JT6).

By the early 19th century, the farmland of the Harlem Plain was deteriorating and many of the farms were abandoned. However. the area retained a rural ambiance and the village continued to prosper. The inauguration of train service along Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue) by the New York and Harlem Railroad in 1837 had a great impetus on development in portions of Harlem. By the 1860s, many of the streets to the east of the railroad were heavily built up, while wooden suburban homes were scattered elsewhere in the area.

A few shantytowns appeared in the western part of Harlem by the mid 19th century. The shantytown residents were largely Irish, with a smaller number of Germans and members of other groups. A health inspector noted in 1866 that only a Third Avenue railroad car was more densely packed than a shantytown and then described the scene in Harlem in more detail:

Men, women, and children, dogs, cows, pigs, goats, geese, ducks, and chickens are almost promiscuously mixed together. The street is rank with filth and stench, and the consequence is that mortality holds high carnival there.

Shanties continued to spread throughout Harlem in the post-Civil War decades, until a goat grazing on a rocky outcropping became a standard image of the community. Despite the presence of these shantytowns, much of the area remained vacant and many New Yorker's found Harlem's rural charms inviting, and traveled to the area for picnics and other outings.

As New York City's population grew and as residential development pushed northward on Manhattan Island, the urbanization of Harlem became inevitable. For several decades, speculative development was inhibited by a paucity of commuter transit links between Harlem and the business districts to the south. This changed dramatically between 1878 and 1880 when elevated rail lines penetrated into Harlem along Second, Third, and Eighth Avenues. The arrival of the els precipitated land speculation and the start of speculative residential construction.

The metamorphosis of sections of Harlem into prestigious residential communities took place in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Intensive development occurred on the streets to the west of Mount Morris Park, on Convent Avenue and adjacent streets, and in the West 130s between Seventh and Eighth avenues, creating three of New York City's finest rowhouse neighborhoods. This development, and residential construction elsewhere in Harlem, was undertaken almost entirely by speculative builders, most of whom borrowed money to erect houses that were then either sold individually to a prospective homeowner or as a group to a middle man who then sold or rented individual units. In most cases, little-known architects who specialized in speculative rowhouse design were responsible for these buildings, but on occasion a prestigious architect would become involved in rowhouse design, such as Francis Kimball who designed what is perhaps New York City's finest row of Queen Anne houses for a site on West 122nd Street (MM22), and McKim, Mead & White, Bruce Price who were responsible for the Houses on West 138th and (HC22 and HC29). A few freestanding mansions also appeared in Harlem, notably on the Heights where, for example, circus owner James Bailey erected a spectacular house in 1886-88 (HH28).

The rowhouse builders in Harlem sought to attract middle- and upper-middle-class buyers, with many of the new residents moving to Harlem from neighborhoods south of 59th Street which were experiencing an influx of commercial development or the intrusion of cheap tenements planned to house poor immigrant families. The new homeowners and renters were attracted to Harlem by its quiet ambiance, its abundant park land, and the low cost of housing in comparison to other Manhattan neighborhoods. The vast majority of the new homeowners were American-born, white Protestants, although the area also attracted a significant number of successful immigrants. Households were often fairly large, consisting of the immediate family, extended family members, and one or more servants. Most of the servants were young women, generally recent immigrants from Ireland, although German and Swedish servants were also common and there were a few instances of live-in black servants, mostly migrants from Virginia and Maryland.

Not all of Harlem's new residents lived in single-family houses. Coincident with the construction of rowhouses, a significant number of multiple dwellings were erected. Some of these, such as the Washington Apartments on Seventh Avenue and West 122nd Street (MM24) are early examples of apartment houses designed for middle-class families, while many others were tenements. These tenements were generally of a higher quality than those on the Lower East Side and in other poor immigrant districts, and tended to attract civil servants, small business owners, and other middle- and working-class people.

The new residents established institutions in the neighborhood that catered to their religious and social needs. Since many of Harlem's inhabitants were quite prosperous they could afford to commission noted architects to erect fine new churches, clubs, and other prestigious corner sites. Harlem's streets are graced with an exceptional number of magnificent late 19th-century institutional buildings. In addition, New York City built a series of prominent civic structures, including schools, firehouses, and police stations. As residential development increased, 125th Street became the community's central commercial thoroughfare, with both small shops and larger department stores.

The building boom that created some of Harlem's finest rowhouse blocks lasted until 1893, when a nationwide economic depression not only brought a halt to new investment and construction, but also stagnated rowhouse sales. So serious was this depression that lenders foreclosed on many properties. David H. King, for example, was only able to sell nine of his King Model Houses prior to the economic downturn and in 1895 he was forced to cede the remaining 140 buildings to the mortgagor.

As the economy stabilized in 1895, and as investors reentered the market, Harlem again became the venue for extensive building. Rowhouse development continued in some areas, notably near Hamilton Grange and in the vicinity of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, but most builders turned to the construction of apartment houses. A few of the new buildings were impressively designed structures with expansive apartments, most notably the Graham Court (OS2) on Seventh Avenue and 116th Street. Many others were elevator buildings planned with comfortable units for middle-class families. However, most of the new construction took the form of five-story walkup tenements. The tenements in certain sections of Harlem filled up rapidly as many immigrant groups outgrew the Lower East Side and established new ethnic enclaves. Italians settled in large numbers in East Harlem and Eastern European Jews moved onto the streets between Lenox and Lexington avenues from about 100th Street north to about 119th Street. Although New York City's largest African-American community was located in the west Midtown area, Harlem already had enclaves with substantial numbers of black residents.

The beginning of construction on the IRT subway in 1900, with a route along Lenox Avenue in Central Harlem, and another route along Broadway on the Heights, led to what one real estate report called "a violent speculation on unimproved property . . . and an enormous increase in the construction of tenement houses." In Harlem, the vast majority of these new tenements were sited north of 135th Street in what had once been marshlands. Between 1901 and 1907, over 450 tenements were erected between 135th and 155th streets in Central Harlem. Unfortunately for developers and property owners, the arrival of the subway in 1904 did not have the desired affect on apartment rentals. By the early 20th century, as mass transit facilities out of Manhattan improved, many of Harlem's middle-class residents moved to other boroughs or to the suburbs. In addition, while the subway certainly made Harlem more convenient for those commuting to jobs downtown, it also opened up vast new territories in Washington Heights and in the Bronx where new and often better or less expensive housing competed with the tenements of Harlem.

It was the overbuilding of tenements in the area north resulting in the area north of 135th Street, resulting in the inability of owners to find tenants among the white ethnic groups who had previously inhabited most of Harlem's multiple dwellings, that led a few landlords to begin renting to black families. From this initial opening in what had been a restricted housing market, thousands of African-Americans moved to Harlem, seeking apartments in the new tenements that were far superior to accommodations downtown. So rapid was the migration that the black population of Harlem was estimated at about 50,000 by 1914, with the new migrants residing on an increasingly large number of blocks. By the late 1920s, the black population was expanding south of 125th Street into the fine rowhouse blocks of the Mount Morris area.

Very little private development occurred in Central Harlem after the early 20th century. Most of the land had already been built upon and the discriminatory policies of most banks resulted in the rejection of mortgages for new construction in a black neighborhood. Residential construction, however, continued on the Heights, an area that remained unaffected by the changing population in Central Harlem. In the second and third decades of the 20th century, many middle-class elevator building of six or more stories were erected with apartments rented to an ethnically mixed group of white tenants. It was not until the 1930s that middle-class African-American families migrated up onto the Heights, purchasing rowhouses and renting in such prominent apartment houses as 409 and 555 Edgecombe Avenue (HH31 and JT11), in the area that came to be known as Sugar Hill.

Since the 1930s, most construction in Harlem has been government sponsored, including large city housing projects, notably the pioneering Harlem River Houses (OS14) of 1936-37. Fortunately, a substantial amount of Harlem's historic architecture remains. Some of the older buildings, especially the tenements, have seriously deteriorated, but many of the rowhouses of Harlem's finest residential neighborhoods are lovingly cared for and are attracting a new generation of residents interested in preserving the architecture and history of the community.