The Viele Map

Created by Egbert L. Viele in 1865, the Sanitary and Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York (aka the Viele map), shows the pre-grid, natural state of the island, including some 500 hills, 88 miles of streams, 21 ponds and 300 springs.

“No other city is so spitefully incoherent.”

—James Baldwin

The walking tours offered here are part of decades-long project whose eventual goal is a soon to be completed book. I worked in the worlds of publishing and education before I became a New York City tour guide about 15 years ago to write the book I wish existed when I first moved to Madison Square in 1993 (aka the Flatiron District, and, now, NoMad).

When I moved into the Breslin Hotel at 29th Street and Broadway, now the swanky Ace Hotel but back then a Single Room Occupancy welfare hotel, I shared a $600/month studio with my best friend. In-line skating was new and all the rage and for three years I skated just about every square inch of Manhattan Island. It wasn’t long before I realized that on my daily excursions after work, any direction I went from where I was living the combination of buildings from history changed in a radical, inexplicable way. Beautiful French Second Empire apartment-hotels with elaborate mansard roofs that spoke to an upper class social scene were just feet away from blocks of much more low-brow, sad looking buildings from the same time. Art deco factories for garment manufacturing were across the street from country churches. Brownstone homes were wedged in alongside jewel-box like loft buildings. I had been reading many New York City history books but none came close to explaining the city I was seeing.

When it comes to New York City history on the Island of Manhattan everyone agrees that “the city” moved uptown, but what, exactly, moved uptown? Did everything move uptown? A wide and wild assortment of buildings of brick, cast iron, steel-frame stone-clad (so-called “loft buildings”), Modern and post-Modern day skyscrapers; built as a home, flat, apartment building, a store, factory, or office building, can make up any given city block. Manhattan is an inscrutable, information-rich cityscape that begs many questions: Which buildings came first, and why? Why did some buildings survive when others didn’t? What new buildings came in and why? How did the ones that stayed, change? There is likely nowhere else on Earth where land use, “the management and modification of the natural environment into built environment,” underwent such seemingly chaotic, intense, radical and rapid change, in so compact an area, and over such a relatively short period of time, as on the land mass comprising the roughly lower third of Manhattan Island. How does one make sense of buildings that have been adapted for re-use over time, at different points in time, sometimes many times over? Is there any way to make sense of how a jumble of neighborhoods, made up of a jumble of buildings, came to be “put together”?

I went on many walking tours of the city in the hopes of understanding the history the way I was seeing it. And while there were many good tours and tour guides, none were explaining what I would eventually come to call the Frankenstein’s Monster of history and architecture that New York City was Central Park down to the Battery.

Many a neighborhood’s architectural reputation precedes it. Soho has cast iron buildings, Tribeca warehouses, the Lower East Side tenements, Times Square theaters, Museum Mile mansions. Each neighborhood has its own particular and distinct architectural make-up and “streetscape sensibility” that is the assortment of buildings retained from history. Soho has a particular look, and it’s a different look from the blocks around Madison Square. And the Lower East Side couldn’t look more different than nearby Tribeca. And while the assortment of buildings from different eras tell the story of any individual neighborhood, it’s the different combinations of different buildings across all of Manhattan’s neighborhoods that tell the story of the whole city.

I ultimately came to realize that telling the story New York City on the island of Manhattan required gathering up the reins of a hundred different histories: architecture, shipping and trade, technology, transportation, manufacturing and industry, finance, real estate, newspapers and communications, theaters; cultural economies and the evolution of housing for the rich and the poor, the history of retailing, the history of theater and entertainment. In fact, I came to see there was the history of an American culture: how we lived, how we worked, how we shopped, how we entertained each other and ourselves, that was captured and recorded, unintentionally preserved, by the slow motion onslaught of manufacturing and industry, business and office buildings, as they made their way up through the middle of Manhattan Island. But what came first were the suburbs; homes churches and schools. I was determined to find a way to tell the story of the interplay of all of these histories, and discover the unifying principles that sort out, and in essence decode, Manhattan’s otherwise inscrutable cityscape.

And so when the author James Baldwin to remarked that New York City was “spitefully incoherent,” he could have been talking about any neighborhood or district between Central Park and The Battery; these were the parts of town that were created by a slow-motion cyclone of brick and mortar, glass, stone and steel, in a pattern of building up, tearing down and building again. What was left behind was the kaleidoscope of neighborhoods we know today as Museum Mile, Fifth Avenue’s shopping district, Times Square, the Garment District, Herald Square, Murray Hill, Madison Square, Union Square, Washington Square, NoHo, SoHo, the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Tribeca, the Civic Center, City Hall and the Financial District. These are the parts of the city that contain the history of the city's historic move uptown through the middle of the Manhattan over a roughly a century-long period of phenomenal expansion and growth.

I hope to see you on a Manhattan Unlocked walking tour!

Manhattan Unlocked Historical and Architectural Walking Tours
looks at the street walls themselves to untangle the densely integrated history of New York City's built environment on the Island of Manhattan, revealing a heretofore untold story of the world's greatest city.

Formerly a blog, and soon to be a book, Manhattan Unlocked looks at how making sense of any one particular part of town requires understanding the whole history of the city's historic move uptown through Manhattan Island.

We look forward to showing you a hidden-in-plain-sight history.

Click Here to See Tours

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Morningside Heights: History is in the Lay of the Land

The last post, Why the West Side is Different, talked about Morningside Heights as an impediment to west side traffic, a virtual “island in the air.” This post will explore more of the plateau, its terrain, its major tenants through history, and what can be seen today in the streets and buildings that reveal its past.
Below is Morningside Heights on the Viele map with the “pure grid” superimposed over the terrain—the oldest and (proposed) newest features of the area when the map was drawn up in 1865.  But at the time, only the Bloomingdale Road existed, and the narrow lane branching off at 111th Street.  It’s the nonconformist road to the left.

According to the Encyclopedia of New York City, the Bloomingdale Road “opened in 1703 and ran from what is now 23rd Street to the northern  end of Bloomingdale Village, near what is now 114th Street. In 1795 the road was extended north to 147th Street and linked to the old Kingsbridge Road."

So from 1703 until 1795, the Bloomingdale Road ended at the bend in the road at 115th Street, just before the river.  The narrow road that branches off at 111th Street seems to have been a dry passage up to the plateau.

courtesy of

And the bend in the road is still visible today!

This is 114th Street and Riverside Drive looking north; dog and walker are crossing Broadway at 115th Street (toward the Hudson).  Not only can you see the bend in the road, there’s a slight dip where the river crossed through!   Beyond the third traffic light, at 116th Street, the road follows the “new” orientation of Riverside Drive.

GoogleEarth shows it even better.  We’ll revisit this spot later.

bloomingdale @ 115

Much of the buildable land on Morningside Heights is arranged in a diagonal.  Below, Grant’s Tomb, Riverside Church and a few other tenants occupy the upper left corner.  The middle rectangle is the footprint of Columbia University, and the lower right is the property of St. John the Divine, situated on a slightly lower plateau.  (Imagine the boxes arranged diagonally the other way and all the hash marks that would be in the boundaries.)

Final 111 

The green boxes are Low Library (directly over 117th Street), Butler Library (on the north side of 114th Street), and St. John the Divine (directly over 112th Street). 

If you’re familiar with the area, follow Broadway (Eleventh Avenue) up to 121st Street and you can see where the ground drops away and the 1 train emerges out of the north side of the plateau.

Let’s look at the topography from street level.

This is Amsterdam Avenue (Tenth on the Viele map) at 117th Street looking south, Columbia is on the right.  117th Street is a high ridge across the center plateau.  In the middle distance you can see the lower plateau of St. John the Divine.  The bus crossing way up ahead is on 110th Street, the south boundary of Morningside Heights.


On the other side of campus, Broadway, you can see the same undulation in the road.  The south boundary of Morningside Heights is beyond that last bump.


Back on Amsterdam, 117th Street looking the other way.  You can see why this area was avoided in the days of horse and foot travel. 

Zooming in is even more dramatic…


The hill on Broadway is best seen in this old photo. 117th Street is at the end of the first traffic island (the one with the subway station in the middle of Broadway). The first building on the right is Lewisohn, the Mathematics Building is north of it on Broadway.  In between them is where 117th would run if it crossed campus, the apex.

symp 11

Exactly where 117th Street would be, squarely on the apex of the central plateau, sits Low Library.

And here’s St. John the Divine, on the lower plateau.  This view is looking east along 112th Street, from Broadway to Amsterdam.


For Seinfeld fans…

Toms Restaurant

But these weren’t the first institutions to occupy the choice real estate of Morningside Heights. Before Low Library was built on the high center point, the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum opened its first building in 1821 on the exact same spot.  It would literally be under the rotunda of Low if it were standing today.  You can see the trees in the back appear to descend down the hill.

bloomingdale asylum ii

The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum was joined in 1843 by the Leake and Watts Orphanage, which moved onto the lower plateau of today’s St. John the Divine.  For nearly 50 years the two neighbors enjoyed quiet, woodsy grounds. The therapeutic gardens of the insane asylum were located on the lower half of Columbia University, between 114th – 116th Streets.

Below are the buildings of both institutions, superimposed on the later ones.

Final 11111

A few of the buildings are…
The insane asylum’s first building is directly over Low Library.  Men’s and women’s wings were added within a few years of the first building.
Macy Villa (a “men’s department”) sits directly on 116th Street.
The Superintendent’s House is the building closest to Broadway (Eleventh Avenue).
The conservatory is the cross-shaped building on 117th Street.

The barn and stables sit over the left side of Butler Library, in the therapeutic gardens.

The gymnasium and bowling alley sit on the right side of Butler, also in the gardens.

The orphanage building sits at the south crossing of St. John the Divine.
A single structure from both institutions survive today.

For context, the building to the far right is Macy Villa.

 Today it is Buell Hall on the Columbia campus.


Macy Villa’s original location was on 116th Street.  It was moved back to build Kent Hall, its beautiful porches removed in the process.  It was built as a residence for wealthy male patients and was the last structure built on asylum grounds, in 1885—just 10 years younger than Low!  You can see the conservatory to the right, nestled in the trees where St. Paul’s Chapel will eventually be.  Also, Grant’s Tomb (1897) is visible in the distance. 


The gymnasium and bowling alley are in the lower left.

Buell hall

The insane asylum’s therapeutic gardens (not owned by Columbia yet).  The shrubby boundary in the foreground is 114th Street, the eventual south border of Columbia.  The gymnasium and bowling alley are to the right and Macy Villa is in the back, blending in a bit. 


The photos above were taken sometime around 1900-1910. I’m not sure of the date of the picture below, but it was after the building was moved, since its porches are gone.  What’s remarkable is all the ivy—it grew in just a few decades—1920s?

macy villa

The other survivor from the Bloomingdale Heights days (as it was called in the 1800s) is the Leake and Watts Orphanage Asylum.  Along the south side of the Cathedral you can see the 1843 Greek Revival building to the right of the fountain.


Usually Greek Revival buildings are massive, domineering structures.  Here it looks like a car port next to St. John the Divine.


The orphanage in the 1860s, with hopefully soon-to-be-adopted children out front.  The east wing (right side) of the building was removed during the cathedral’s construction.

Museum of the City of New York

Only the facade seems to be the same, and there’s been a lot of landscaping.  The west wing (left side) of the building is still there though.


Now let’s focus on the roads. Here’s a close up of the narrow lane coming off the Bloomingdale Road. Locally, Columbia students call the old road “Asylum Lane.”  It makes sense, the road ends equidistant between the two asylums.  The reason students are familiar with it is because it left its mark on buildings constructed along its path.

Final 4

There are four circles in the image below (they’re very light), and a line showing the path of Asylum Lane.  Two circles indicate Macy Villa (nearby its original location) and the Leake and Watts orphanage.  The other two circles are on the path of Asylum Lane, showing buildings with walls built at angles as a result of the old street!


Here’s a close-up showing Broadway and 111th-113th Streets.

Asylum Lane palimpsest2

And if you really can’t see them…

Asylum Lane palimpsest2b

The buildings themselves were not necessarily built on Asylum Lane; they may have been built alongside older buildings that were, and so had to follow the walls of the those buildings. It's an artifact, a manifestation of the palimpsest, and it can get passed down through generations of buildings. (Another example of the city-as-palimpsest can be found in first post, Ghost of the Broadway Central, it’s short).

Here’s a street view of those buildings on the west side of Broadway, just north of 111th Street.  Only the middle building has both walls with the Asylum Lane angle.  Asylum Lane would have passed to the right, by the teal awning.

The building to the south (left, above) is the Heights Bar and Grill. It has a great rooftop bar and shares one angled wall with its neighbor to the north.


The door is straight.  But the walls and the tile floor point to the area between the orphanage and insane asylum.


I find it fascinating that in 2011 an interior space can still be determined by an old road from the asylum days of the 1800s.  And in fact, the road is much older than that!


In 1701 Jacob de Key bought nearly the entire Morningside Heights plateau from the city.  In 1735 Thomas Key (an heir apparently) sold the plateau in two chunks: the Hudson (western) side to Adrian Hoaglandt, and the eastern side overlooking the Harlem Plains to Harmon Vandewater.  In the 1700s the plateau was known as Vandewater Heights.  Thus, the chain is: Vandewater Heights (1700s)-Bloomingdale Heights (1800s)-Morningside Heights (1900s).  

With all of its years of rural tranquility, Vandewater Heights did see one brief flash of spectacular violence with the Battle of Harlem Heights, a small but important morale-boosting victory for the Continental Army. The first (and just about only) time the Redcoats were sent in a retreat.  Here’s a plaque affixed to the Mathematics building on Columbia’s campus to honor the battle in 1776—55 years before the insane asylum moved to the plateau, when Hoaglandt and Vandewater were the main tenants.  


The plaque reads: “To Commemorate the Battle of Harlem Heights, Won By Washington’s Troops On This Site, September 16, 1776.  Erected By the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York.”   Because they’re interesting, here’s an enlargement of the medallions in the lower corners:

   IMG_0566 IMG_0565

And here’s a map of the battlefield, drawn by Henry Phelps Johnston, 1897. 

battle of harlem heights
Courtesy of the Columbia University Press

The Vandewater property is in grey and the Hoaglandt property in pink.  In 1776 the Bloomingdale Road still ended at 114th Street (see where the solid road ends and the dotted road begins—at the bend in the road at 115th Street).  Here’s a close-up of the area we’re interested in…

battle of harlem heightsiii

The black square at the end of the old Bloomingdale Road, and across the river, was the Hoaglandt home since 1735.  Vandewater had also been on the plateau since 1735, but at the time his property didn’t border the Bloomingdale Road.  Harmon Vandewater built “Asylum Lane” along his property line to access the Bloomingdale Road.  (Johnston’s map simply marks it as “Lane.”) Also, it extended in the other direction, towards the park, leading to a path down the cliffs!

Here’s the map once again, with the blue indicating the Hoaglandt and Vandewater homes, and the full extent of Vandewater’s road leading to Morningside Park.

Final 3

One more piece of evidence. In 1784, at the end of the Revolution, Nicholas de Peyster bought the Hoaglandt property, and a year later his brother James de Peyster bought the Vandewater side. 

Here’s the area again, now from the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811. It was ten years before the insane asylum came; still farmland, but now owned by the Peyster brothers.  You can clearly make out the old Vandewater road, along with another connection leading downtown.  See it on the bottom right?

comm pla12

Here’s an approximation of the road as it would appear on today’s grid.

asylum lane aii

There are actually three entrances to Morningside Park that could possibly be the old path that led down the cliffs.  If indeed any of today’s entrances are the old path, my best guess would be this one, at 114th Street.


One last piece of cool history, over near the Hoaglandt house.  It seems choice sites were recycled through history.  This passage is from the book New York of Yesterday, by Hopper Striker Mott, 1908…

It was still standing when that was written in 1908, but only for another 4 years.  It was torn down in 1912 to build the Hamilton, an apartment building. 

But this country estate built for the president of Emigrant Savings Bank was contemporary with the asylums. From 1840 – 1912, the Carrigan mansion stood at that bend in the road on 115th Street.  Its Greek Revival architecture was the same style as the orphanage, built just three years later in 1843—the style of the period.  If it were standing today it would be 50 years older than Macy Villa.

1153a Courtesy of New York Public Library

And it sat like a time capsule amongst the middle class apartment buildings of Morningside Heights until 1912.

Courtesy of New York Public Library

Here's the Hamilton today (those are the same buildings on the right as the picture above).


And the Hamilton sits just east of the crook in the old Bloomingdale Road, between 114th and 115th Street, where the river once ran through.



  1. So interesting!

  2. Wow, this is amazing work! Thank you for sharing your insights on Morningside Heights, a life-long passion of mine. I did a series of radio documentaries on the neighborhood. One can be found here, if you're interested:

    I'd like to pick your brain on some issues. Are you free for a call?

    Best regards,
    Dan McSweeney

  3. Many years ago I lived near 111th and Amsterdam, and i notice there's a diagonal between the Clara Court on 111th)and 1046 Amsterdam. Was there a road there at some time?

    1. Hello. I know that angle, as it borders the 111th Street Garden. I believe it reflects the line of the New York Hospital's property (Bloomingdale Insane Asylum).

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