Sylvan Terrace is one of those parts of New York where buildings are lower, exactly two-stories, and people look like they are living in a secret world of their own, time traveling behind their emerald shutters into the late-19th century. Two lines of wooden houses, twenty on each side in uniform facade and height, create a rowhouse ensemble. Up exactly eleven chestnut-colored stairs and behind doors with identically stencilled gold numbers, live the lucky few that prize their million-dollar Monopoly properties.
Nothing’s seemingly secret in New York anymore. Way uptown, however, is a neighbourhood essential to “sweet” jazz history, Latino immigration, and one of New York’s most photogenic streets. Here, local celebrities include Maple, a gold pooch, and tons of stray cats keeping watch over the coveted location. Originally, the neighbourhood boasted residents like Duke Ellington– now it is a low-key hideaway of downtown expats.
Our geographical location is between West 160th and 162nd where West 161st would stand, a connecting street between Jumel Terrace and Saint Nicholas Avenue. On a NYC map, we are tucked away in upward right corner of Manhattan. It’s difficult to assign Sylvan Terrace to a certain neighbourhood. It’s not Harlem– maybe Washington Heights or simply The Heights? Perhaps Sugar Hill as coined during Harlem Renaissance? Whatever you want to call it, Sylvan Terrace surely belongs in a world of its own…
These clapboard homes were commissioned in 1882 as housing for servants rumoured to be taking care of the nearby Morris-Jumel Mansion, however, their occupants were solid middle-class workers living in housing quite remarkable even for the time.
The Morris-Jumel Mansion is a gem of its own. Built in 1765, it is New York’s oldest house perched atop one of Manhattan’s highest hills. Two centuries ago, the landscape was largely rural farmland grazed by sheep and covered in fruits trees, but for its strategic location, the house itself was once occupied by powers from Washington and later the British during the Revolutionary War.
In 1810, the home fell into the hands of Stephen Jumel (from whom the mansion and nearby streets get their name from today). His wife Eliza was a local celebrity, a so-called realtor of her time, trading and selling property throughout all of New York. The house remains mostly untouched as if teleported from the late 18th century. Similarly, the row-houses, while a bit younger, still remain true to their original appearance after a facelift in 1979-81.
And if Sylvan Terrace looks like a movie set to you, that’s because it often is. The residential community of wooden houses has been known to attract Hollywood film scouts– perhaps you might recognise it from Broadwalk Empire.
A true New York treasure well-worth a visit on your time-travelling Sunday strolls in the city.