Last Tuesday was a big day for Morningside Heights. First, the still-incomplete Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine was designated an individual landmark. Then, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to designate the Morningside Heights Historic District.
The district, the city’s 141st, contains 115 buildings and stretches from just south of West 109th Street (the northern boundary of the Riverside-West End Historic District Extension II, designated in 2015) north to West 119th Street. The western boundary is Riverside Drive and a portion of the district reaches as far east as Amsterdam Avenue, across the street from St. John the Divine. It does not include the main campus of Columbia University.
It does include some rowhouses owned by the school, despite the institution’s objection. It also includes two houses of worship, Congregation Ramath Orah at 550 West 110th Street and Broadway Presbyterian Church at 601 West 114th Street. They, too, objected to their inclusion. That doesn’t actually speak to the merits of the individual structures, as religious institutions often object to receiving landmark status.
Most of the district was constructed between the 1890s and 1920s, but three buildings were erected after 1960. Ninety-one percent of the buildings are intact or have only minor alterations, according to a statement made by the commission’s research staff.
The 1904 advent of the IRT subway was a big factor in the neighborhood’s development, helping surmount its high elevation as well the presence of the orphanage and insane asylum.
LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan called the district “very cohesive” in remarks at the session. “The handsome pre-war apartment buildings create stunning streetscapes along Riverside Drive, Cathedral Parkway and Claremont Avenue, while earlier townhouses and flats buildings enhance the intimacy of the side streets,” she said in a statement.
Commissioner Frederick Bland thanked both the LPC research staff and the public for their “relentless research.” “These districts don’t come in overnight,” he said.
Commissioner Michael Goldblum called the district a “very distinct place” and noted a couple of its oddities. First, he said, it’s intriguing how recently the rowhouses were constructed. Second, he noted that many cornices had been removed after one of them fell and hit a person.
The designation comes with a new feature on the LPC’s website, called the “Morningside Heights Historic District Explorer.” The three-dimensional map shows each building color-coded by age, with additional information available to users who click on each building. Srinivasan said she expects this to be useful for both property owners and the greater community.
The Morningside Heights Historic District Committee is already working to get an extension of the district.