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Convent Avenue between 140th & 150th Streets

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Street with architectural, historic and cultural significance

Place Details

Place Matters Profile

Place Matters Profile

A walk down Convent Avenue in Harlem is a walk down one of the most beautiful streets in Manhattan. The street is notable for its tranquility and harmonious design. While the street immediately pleases the eye, a close study of the buildings along the street reveals high levels of historical significance. The charm of the street is felt in its strong dual identities as a walkable index of many different layers of New York City history and as a vital, active street in a vibrant neighborhood.

Convent Avenue lies mostly in Hamilton Heights on the west side of Harlem, between busier Amsterdam Avenue and St. Nicholas Avenue. The street runs from 127th Street in central Harlem north to 152nd Street where it dives into St. Nicholas. The most famous stretch of the street lies from the northern edge of the Collegiate Gothic campus of the City College of New York at 140th Street up to the end of the street in the 150s. Convent Avenue received its evocative name from the Convent of the Sacred Heart property that opened south of 136th Street during the mid 19th century.

The most famous house on Convent Avenue has actually moved off the street. Hamilton Grange was previously located at 141st Street and Convent Avenue and made national news in June of 2008 when the National Park Service lifted the entire house onto a platform and trucked it to nearby St. Nicholas Park. Hamilton Grange has enjoyed a prominent place in New York City history since its construction in 1802. Alexander Hamilton—first Secretary of the Treasury, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and founder of the Bank of New York—discovered the area that would be eventually be named Hamilton Heights in his honor while on a hunting trip. He loved the area so much that he decided to build his country villa on 33 acres of land there. Architect John McComb Jr. designed the house in a Federal style and took current technology and efficiency into consideration while also advancing the idea that American residential architecture could be simultaneously dignified and modest.

Hamilton Grange, which obtained its name as a result of Alexander Hamilton’s Scottish heritage, served several roles. Second homes were considered a necessity among elite New York society at the time due to health concerns—yellow fever outbreaks occurred during the summer and safety dictated the abandonment of the city in the warmer months. Hamilton Grange also stood as a symbol of Alexander Hamilton’s rise to power and influence. Ironically, while the house represented Hamilton’s prominence in New York and early American society, Hamilton habitually lived beyond his means and the house never paid for itself. Hamilton’s widow eventually sold the Grange in 1833.

Across the street from the former site of Hamilton Grange lies a house with a plaque marking it as the John Henrik Clarke House. John Henrik Clarke was a historian, writer and educator noted for his work on anthologies about Malcolm X and short stories by black American authors. Next to the now empty Hamilton Grange site lies St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. R. H. Robertson designed St. Luke’s in 1889 in the Romanesque Revival style. Close inspection of the church reveals many elements that remain unfinished, such as missing towers and stonework. The history of the church ties in very closely with the history of the neighborhood because its founding white congregation eventually abandoned and locked the perfectly functioning church building in the face of an increasing black presence in Harlem. St Luke’s is the oldest of the three churches on Convent Avenue between 141st and 145th streets.

The cohesiveness of the residential architecture along Convent Avenue quickly strikes the eye of the visitor and resident alike. The visual order along the street finds its roots in the economic development of the area. Harlem was difficult to access and not a strong candidate for development until the 1880s, when the elevated train was extended along Eighth Avenue. Speculative builders rushed in and purchased lots on which to build row houses. Architects designed the houses in varying styles such as Queen Anne, Beaux-Arts, and Northern Renaissance. Developers and architects intended for each individual house to enjoy a unique design, but due to the financial crisis of the late 1890s, this idea was abandoned and the differentiation of the houses was made subtler. This can be seen at 311—339 Convent Avenue, designed by the most prominent architect in the area, Henri Fouchaux. These houses are distinguished by an individual center house flanked by five matching pairs, instead of a noticeably varying style for each house.

The apparent uniformity of the houses along Convent Avenue is also attributable to the goals of the developers, who hoped to use conservative styles to attract as many buyers as possible to a new area. Various details in the buildings reveal the hand of the developers, such as the unusually large lobbies in the apartment buildings at 260 and 270 Convent Avenue, both built in the 1910s. The architects designed opulent lobbies to attract a wealthier clientele that could afford to pay rent so that they could recoup the cost of fireproofing the buildings—these were two of the first fireproof buildings in Harlem.

The classic design of Convent Avenue’s buildings and the visual cohesiveness of the street as a whole have attracted media attention, most notably in 2001, when Wes Anderson filmed The Royal Tenenbaums in a house at 144th and Convent. The movie takes place in a fictionalized version of New York City, and indeed a walk along Convent can suggest a New York City as imagined in a novel. The cohesiveness notably ends in the northern reaches of the street. Episcopal Church of the Crucifixion, at the intersection of Convent and 149th is, without question, the most contemporary building along the street. This is the only church in New York City that was inspired by Le Corbusier’s legendary design at Ronchamp in France. The contrast between the more traditional design along the street and the white concrete forms of the church is one of the most striking sights along Convent Avenue.

The new construction first attracted middle class professional whites to the area beginning in the late nineteenth century. By the 1920s, the nearby black population began to increase and expand north from Central Harlem, eventually absorbing the Convent Avenue area. Affluent blacks began to move into the housing that white families had vacated and the neighborhood soon earned the nickname “Sugar Hill” due to the high quality of the housing stock and the successful black professionals that made the neighborhood their own. Residents in the neighborhood included Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and civil rights pioneer Walter White. The Garrison Apartments, at 435 Convent Avenue, was established as one of the first black cooperative apartment buildings in New York City in 1929. At 433 Convent Avenue is the former site of the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, where the legendary Althea Gibson, the first black person to win Wimbledon, practiced.

The local community has organized many guided walking tours and house tours to share their special place with others. Groups such as Harlem Heritage Tours and Harlem One Stop help visitors and residents learn more about the street and the surrounding neighborhood and help promote the preservation of existing housing stock. Visitors may notice that Convent Avenue lacks any commercial or retail establishments, which makes it especially unique among major streets in Harlem. Also, compared to other major thoroughfares in the neighborhood, there has been nearly no new development due to the landmark status that the entire street has enjoyed in some form for at least thirty years. The visual cohesiveness, history and advocacy of the surrounding community have combined to make Convent Avenue a unique street in Harlem that is worth seeing.
—Charles Miles, 2008


Savona Bailey McClain

Architecturally, the buildings are magnificent; most have been beautifully kept or restored. The area is rich in immigrant history, Revolutionary War history, and turn-of-the-century development

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