Where Gumbo Was #188
The Wave Hill estate, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, includes gardens, greenhouses, houses and surely one of the most beautiful views possible across the Hudson River. It's one of New York's least-known public treasures, and it deserves better.
Among those who know it we count the only ones to correctly guess the location: Jonathan L, not surprising since he lives only minutes away from it, and PortMoresby, who has a sharp eye for gardens everywhere.
Unless you looked this way, you'd never know you were really in the city...
Wave Hill is tucked away on a quiet street in a neighborhood of luxury houses and estates; when I first knew of it, over 60 years ago, that's just what it was: the largest private estate in New York City.
The estate, which the family gave to the city in 1960, was the home of the George W. Perkins family. Perkins was a businessman, politician and a partner of J.P. Morgan who put together Wave Hill's 28 acres by buying up three adjoining estates in the early 1900s.
The gorgeous view of the Hudson River Palisades from Wave Hill is no accident; when traprock miners began to mine the Palisades for building material, Perkins was tabbed by New York and New Jersey to head a joint commission to save them—by finding private buyers who would then turn the land over for a park. Perkins got JP Morgan to fund the entire cost, but with an unusual condition: Morgan insisted that Perkins join him as a partner in his investment bank.Dorothy Perkins, above with her father, donated the estate to the city
Perkins was president of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission from 1900 until his death in 1920. Those were also years in which he bought Wave Hill and much of the land around it. His family already lived on one of the adjoining properties, and they never moved into the Wave Hill house itself.
Instead, they concentrated on adding gardens and greenhouses, terraces and pergolas, gentle slopes and forest-scapes. Perkins even built a mostly-underground recreation building on one of the lower lawns, to block development of a street system and development between the estate and the river.
When Mark Twain leased the house for two years just before Perkins bought it, he built a treehouse parlor in a chestnut tree on the lawn. He was a fan of winter there: "I believe we have the noblest roaring blasts here I have ever known on land; they sing their hoarse song through the big tree-tops with a splendid energy that thrills me and stirs me and uplifts me and makes me want to live always."
The house itself, originally built in 1843, and which now houses a cafe, event spaces, classes and a children's art program, was leased to others. Before Perkins, it has already been temporary home to Theodore Roosevelt, biologist Thomas Henry Huxley and Mark Twain; during the Perkins ownership it was home to Bashford Dean, first Arms and Armor curator of the Metropolitan Museum, to Arturo Toscanini and in the early 1950s to the British delegation to the United Nations.
This huge room, known as Armor Hall, was built by Dean; before the Cloisters, it held much of the Metropolitan Museum's armor collection.
My first awareness of Wave Hill, in fact, is from the early 1950s when my family lived in a far-less-ritzy part of Riverdale, but no so far away that we weren't caught up in a buzz over a royal visit; Queen Elizabeth, mother of the present queen, stayed there for several days while visiting New York in 1952.
After Perkins died, his daughter and her husband continued to live in the family house, rebuilt after a 1927 fire. That's now called Glyndor Gallery, and houses rotating art exhibits. That's it, just above.
The houses and the gardens are not all that's on offer. There's a regular program of concerts, exhibits, workshops and demonstrations. On the day of my visit, a feature program looked at the birdlife of the area and of the lower Hudson Valley, with a showing and demonstration, including falconry.
Part of the reason it's so little known, despite extensive outreach to schools with programs for students, is its location. It's several long blocks from the nearest bus line, a couple of miles from the nearest subway. And the parking lot only has room for about 30 cars (although there's a shared lot just a free shuttle ride away).
But in part because it is not as subject to crowding as some other city refuges, it can also be a place to come and just sit on a lawn in a chair and enjoy a quiet afternoon of sun and reading.
My attention was caught by this white butterfly; it took quite a few shots to get him this steady. In film days, I would have wasted the whole roll!
For more information and for event schedules, see Wave Hill's website.