New York City’s secret street
By Sarah Trefethen
Up a short flight of stairs from St. Nicholas Avenue, just steps from where the C subway line stops at 163rd Street, Sylvan Terrace doesn’t look much like New York City.
The 20 wooden houses on the car-free, cobblestone street appear to be from not only another place, but another time.
But for residents, the Washington Heights enclave is a place to enjoy the satisfaction, and headaches, of having their own house and a place kids play in the streets, all in Manhattan.
“It’s almost like not living in the city,” said Felicia de Chabris, a senior vice president at Halstead Property who has lived in her house at 2 Sylvan Terrace since 2003.
de Chabris first discovered the neighborhood through work, when an investor client was looking for properties in the area. The client didn’t end up buying anything on the block, but she filed it away in here mind as a place she would like to live.
By 2003 de Cahbris, a single mother, had moved five times with her two children. When they looked at the 1,650 s/f, three-bedroom house, she said, “They told me, ‘Mom, if we move to this house, we’re not unpacking unless you promise to stay here until we go to college.’”
The one-block street, part of the Jumel Terrace Historic District, was once a private road leading to the Morris-Jumel Mansion, where George Washington once dined with members of his cabinet.
Portions of the estate were sold off as rural northern Manhattan developed in the late 19th century. The wooden houses of Sylvan Terrace were designed by architect Gilbert Robinson Jr. and built in 1882 by developer James E. Ray, according to an article in the New York Times. Early residents were tradespeople, including a feed dealer and grocer.
Today, de Chabris reports her neighbors work in a range of professions, from publishing to academia, medicine and the arts. A number of families on the block have young children, she says.
Residents are allowed to drive on the street to load and unload their cars, but it’s not a through street and no parking is allowed.“Sometimes when I’m driving, if I’m coming back from a trip on the weekend, I have to wait for kids who are playing ball,” de Chabris said.
She listed her house in 2009 for $1.1 million, but then decided not to sell. In July, 10 Sylvan Terrace sold for $730,000.
11 Sylvan Terrace was previously on the market for $950,000 and Yvonne Maddox of Prudential Douglas Elliman is about to bring it back onto the market, though the seller has not yet settled on a price.
Maddox, who lives in Harlem, said that amenities on the far upper west side have been improving, with a “restaurant row” taking shape on Eighth Avenue and an extensive Met supermarket on St. Nicholas Avenue right by the steps up to Sylvan Terrace. Terrace residents also have the benefit of the landscaped grounds of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, which has been a museum since the early 1900s.
Other tony blocks in the historic district are lined with large, stately brownstones that sell for between $1.7 and $2 million, Maddox said. Some are single family homes while others have been broken up into unique apartments. The Sylvan Terrace houses hit the market rarely, and some have been in the same family for generations.
“It’s just one block long, but it’s one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city,” Maddox said.
But the street hasn’t always looked the way it does today. By the 1970s, many of the buildings had been altered beyond recognition. The historic district was created and the city implemented a program to use federal funds to restore the facades. Because of the owners’ limited means and the unusual character of the street, the requirement that residents contribute to the cost of the restorations was waived, according to the New York Times. The work, completed between 1979 and 1981, was controversial and plagued by reports of shoddy construction, and residents had to redo much of the work themselves.
Today, however, the ultimate goal of the historic districting appears to have been accomplished in the nearly-uniform row of beige and brown buildings with matching green shutters.
Inside, the de Chabris’ home and Maddox’s listing at number 11 both boast modern touches, such as multiple bathrooms.
The ceilings in de Chabris’ house rise 11 feet above the original wood floors. The effect is airy, warm and comfortable. Modern hollow-core doors were hanging in the interior doorways when she first moved in, de Chabris said, but she was able to salvage historic replacements from the dumpsters outside of neighborhood brownstones undergoing conversion to multi-family use, which requires fire doors.
“We all have a bit of a penchant for history,” de Chabris said of herself and her neighbors.
Sylvan Terrace made an appearance in the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire, and tourists sometimes know of the block, de Chabris said. But among New Yorkers, it remains relatively unknown.
“When I tell people in the city where I live, no one has ever heard of it,” she said.
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