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A Neighborhood of Castles in the Sky:
Washington Heights before The Cloisters

Danielle Oteri, Lecturer, The Cloisters museum and gardens; Program Director, International Center of Medieval Art; Curator, Feast on History

Posted: Friday, November 15, 2013

The Cloisters museum and gardens, 1938

The Cloisters museum and gardens, 1938

«Washington Heights—the neighborhood in northern Manhattan that houses The Cloisters museum and gardens—is built upon a series of bluffs and cliffs. Concrete staircases and creaky subway elevators connect different sections of the neighborhood, and buildings stand tall on stilts driven deep into Manhattan schist. From a distance, blocks of apartment buildings appear like castellated European villages. However, despite its once-impenetrable terrain, or maybe because of it, Washington Heights is a place where some of the wildest and most romantic medieval-architecture fantasies in New York City have been realized for over 150 years.»

Riverside Drive above 181st Street

Postcard of Paterno Castle, as seen from Riverside Drive and West 181st Street, undated

The Cloisters, of course, is not a castle, though parents may at times describe it as such to their young children who are excited about visiting with dragons and unicorns. Initial designs for The Cloisters were, in fact, inspired by benefactor John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s boyhood fascination with the ruins of Kenilworth Castle in England, but it was ultimately decided that a monastic plan would better suit The Metropolitan Museum of Art's newly acquired collection of medieval art and architecture. Rockefeller had felt since childhood that the rough and scrubby "North Hill" would make an ideal park, and decades later, when he acquired the property and helped to create Fort Tryon Park (where The Cloisters is located), he favored elements reminiscent of when the property housed a military fort during the Revolutionary War; the stonework on the Park walls and Museum ramparts reflects this rougher evocation. Today, visitors can observe the difference in stone color and texture on the lower sections of The Cloisters, contrasted against the tower and main structure that serve as evidence of the two distinct aspects of its design: the fortress and the European monastery.

Billings Estate

Libbey Castle, undated photo

Washington Heights had already been attracting ambitious and evocative architecture since the mid-nineteenth century, when wealthy New Yorkers began to see the rocky hills and high river views as an enticing location for their "country" estates. Woodcliff Castle, later and better known as Libbey Castle, was the crown jewel of northern Manhattan's landscape. It was built in the 1850s near what is today the cul-de-sac at Margaret Corbin Drive, and according to an 1895 "Gossip of Gotham" piece in the New York Times, it was "the only dwelling of its kind ever built in America. It was known as 'The Castle' and was built by its owner to imitate a castle he had seen in Austria." Owned by a succession of prominent figures that included William "Boss" Tweed, the famous residence was eventually razed for the initial development of Fort Tryon Park.

Libbey Castle during Demolition

Libbey Castle during demolition, March 1931

Further south near West 185th Street and Riverside Drive—once called Boulevard Lafayette—was the neo-Gothic behemoth known as Paterno Castle. Built of white marble, the structure was designed using an eccentric architectural vocabulary that drew influence from both Norman castles and the Rhineland. Attended by elegant Italian gardens and pergolas that peered out onto the Hudson, it also featured a cellar solely devoted to growing mushrooms and a swimming pool that filtered water directly from the adjacent Hudson River. It cost $500,000 to build (about $7 million when adjusted for inflation) and was destroyed by its owner, Dr. Charles Paterno, in 1938 so he could subsequently build the appropriately titled "Castle Village" complex of co-operative apartments. (Interestingly enough, Dr. Paterno emigrated from a Southern Italian village named Castelmezzano, which translates to "middle castle.")

Paterno Castle

Postcard of Paterno Castle, early 1930s

Two pillars from Paterno Castle remain near the intersection of West 181st Street and Cabrini Boulevard, as well as part of the massive retaining wall that resembles a dismembered piece of the Castel Nuovo in Naples. Part of the wall was destroyed in 2005 when it collapsed and slid onto the Henry Hudson Parkway, but a large section of Paterno's original wall remains intact, with the restored portion recreating the tone and texture of the façade's original grandeur.

Left: Remaining Paterno Castle pillar, near West 181st Street and Cabrini Avenue, 2013

The impracticable bluff of Fort Washington Avenue at today's West 190th Street, leading down to Overlook Terrace and Bennett Avenue, was the setting of George Grey Barnard's grand fantasy of medieval cloisters. In the early 1900s, he scouted and collected the remains of five French cloisters, shipped them to New York, and built his very own museum of medieval art and architecture—a collection that would later form the core of The Cloisters museum.

He lit his museum with candles, had staff dress as monks, and conjured the atmosphere of a deliciously gloomy medieval monastery. His sense of drama did not go unappreciated: A "Dante pageant" was staged on Fort Washington Avenue in 1921, accompanied by a dramatic reading that the New York Times praised for eschewing "the use of a stage, the natural recesses of the Cloisters serving as a natural setting."

Built across the street from Barnard's cloisters was the Hospital of St. Elizabeth's of Hungary. Architects O'Connor, Delany & Schulz incorporated elements of Romanesque architecture into the structure that may have been inspired by the rounded arches of the neighboring Cuxa Cloister. Today, the hospital has been converted into luxury apartments, serving as an elegant remnant among the less inspiring buildings that replaced Barnard's property throughout the 1940s and '50s.

Left: Hospital of St. Elizabeth's of Hungary, 2013

From the edge of the hill where Barnard's museum once stood, one can also see the glistening dome of Yeshiva University standing out among the largely Art Deco apartment buildings and the Cross Bronx Expressway. Before the Great Depression crippled the country's economy, plans for extensive Moorish revival buildings and gardens were planned across the university's property—another medieval fantasy conceived in Washington Heights—though financial limitations only saw one of the elaborate structures of the Yeshiva campus realized.

Other relics still abound in northern Manhattan. The elegant driveway of the C.K.G. Billings estate, closely situated to the present site of The Cloisters, is prominently viewed from the Henry Hudson Parkway and serves as an elegant terrace overlooking the river from Fort Tryon Park. The caretaker's cottage from the estate also remains, now used by the New York City Parks Department as a shed.

Billings Estate

Former estate of C.K.G. Billings, 1913–14

Further north in Inwood, there is a graffiti-laced marble arch that originally formed the entrance to the Seaman-Drake estate. Also originally outfitted with a mushroom cellar, the grounds were full of gardens and laced with marble sculptures. Sadly, the aforementioned arch, modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and at one time used as an office by a descendant of the Seaman family, is all that remains of the once grand property.

Elsewhere around the Heights, echoes of castle-inspired architecture remain, whether they be the studious gargoyles on the southeast corner of West 181st Street and Fort Washington Avenue, or the quiet lanes woven among the Tudor-style buildings of the Hudson View Gardens apartment complex. Although the spring that once flowed near Bennett Avenue and the precipitous cliffs of the Fort Washington and Fort George hills have been conquered by Manhattan's efficient grid, there is still something about the air and light of Washington Heights, perched atop the city, that whispers about the creative possibilities that have been felt here for nearly two centuries.

Hudson View Gardens

Gargoyles on building façade, southeast corner of West 181st Street and Fort Washington Avenue, 2013


  • Matt Morgan says:

    This is so great. Thank you.

    I'm pretty sure the studious gargoyles in the picture are on the building at SE corner of 181 and Ft. Washington, not on Hudson View Co-op, which is up a couple blocks and over one, on Pinehurst Ave. between 183 and 185 or so. The confusion is probably from the diner below the gargoyles, called the "Hudson View Diner," even though it's not in the Hudson View Co-op building. You can sort of see the Hudson from everywhere around here (although not, ironically, from that diner).

    Posted: November 15, 2013, 8:49 p.m.

  • Mark Mauriello says:

    Spectacular architecture, spectacular article. But for which this history might go unnoticed. Wonderful writing.

    Posted: November 16, 2013, 8:47 a.m.

  • Cherie Sprosty says:

    Thank you for this fascinating bit of history about our neighborhood. The images of long gone castles will be in my mind as I hurry around the neighborhood doing errands.

    Do you know more about the building at 181 and Fort Washington? The studious stone fellows on the walls have seen a lot of history go by!

    BTW, the caption on the last photo places the studious gargoyles at Hudson View Gardens. They're on the 181 and Ft. Washington building.

    Again, many thanks!

    Posted: November 17, 2013, 5:27 p.m.

  • Jessica Drummond says:

    Beautiful writing. I love feeling lost in the art history that grounds the frenetic energy of modern New York.

    Posted: November 18, 2013, 12:59 p.m.

  • Danielle Oteri says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, Jessica. Time moves especially fast in NYC and we're constantly surrounded by, looking up at or stepping on bits and pieces of the past.

    Posted: November 18, 2013, 1:45 p.m.

  • Donna Cravotta says:

    Wonderful article. I lived in Riverdale for many years and rode my bike through Inwood and Ft Washington often. I often wondered about the rich history in this area and this informative and beautifully written article fills in some of the blanks. I would love to learn more..... This seems like it should be a series there are so many hidden secrets around NYC.


    Posted: November 18, 2013, 2:20 p.m.

  • Ana Roberti says:

    Wonderful article love reading about the history. Makes me want to take a trip to visit these castles.

    Posted: November 18, 2013, 5:53 p.m.

  • Kristen says:

    Great piece, great writing, and great history in our own backyard. We want more!

    Posted: November 18, 2013, 7:18 p.m.

  • Natalie says:

    Wow! Love the history of this city. So cool.

    Posted: November 18, 2013, 7:37 p.m.

  • Lynne says:

    Mushroom cellars? Awesome article; so many juicy details. I'm going to have to print this out and go on a walking tour .... Thanks for the new outlook on UpperHattan.

    Posted: November 18, 2013, 7:39 p.m.

  • stephanie dalfonzo says:

    How interesting! My son just came home from a "travel/study abroad" program for his architecture program at Va. Tech. How wonderful to show him all the castles right here in his backyard! Great article!

    Posted: November 18, 2013, 7:40 p.m.

  • Debbie Koenig says:

    Wow. I've lived in the NYC metropolitan area my entire life and I had no idea about any of this. Guess it's time for a trip uptown...

    Posted: November 18, 2013, 7:54 p.m.

  • Pat Arnao says:

    What a wonderful and insightful article. We all know that NY is full of history ,and that's why we love it, but Danielle's article maps it out for us. So informative! I am going on my own archeological exploration next weekend. Thank you so much!

    Posted: November 18, 2013, 10:32 p.m.

  • Jessica Scranton says:

    Thanks so much. I will put this on my list of 'must see' the next time I'm visiting NYC! More please!!!

    Posted: November 19, 2013, 2:55 a.m.

  • Tulis McCall says:

    OKAY - I confess I am one of those New Yorkers who has never been to the cloisters, although I have preformed many weddings in Fort Tryon Park on the terrace, which is a gathering for so many people. Now I am going to have to go up there on purpose and take a print-out of this article with me!! This will make an excellent walking tour. Many thanks.

    Posted: November 19, 2013, 10:34 a.m.

  • Lara O'Brien says:

    What a fascinating piece! As someone who visits NYC regularly from Canada it's great to hear about neighbourhoods that are off the beaten path. I can't wait to explore this area on my next visit.

    Posted: November 19, 2013, 10:42 a.m.

  • Adam Goodman says:

    A knowledge expanding and wonder inducing article!

    Posted: November 19, 2013, 6:07 p.m.

  • Eva Lind-Mallo says:

    Great article. Thank you for researching and distilling this information on Washington Heights. Love the period photos and postcards. I look forward to reading more from you.

    Posted: November 20, 2013, 11:38 a.m.

  • Danielle says:

    Thanks to everyone who commented on this piece! Northern Manhattan has a fascinating history that is not all that far behind us as this is ostensibly the "last frontier" in the ever expanding city. Right now I'm researching the gargoyles at 181st Street as well as the abundance of "mushroom cellars" in Gilded Age NY.

    Posted: November 21, 2013, 9:58 a.m.

  • chris adames says:

    My mother and I grew up on Cabrini blvd. She in the 30's and 40's whike I grew up in the late 50's tp the 60's. I loved the area to play in and where else in Manhattan was there a forest to play cowboys and indians in?
    My Mother used t tell me that there was a series stone cloister in or near where the garden for the 190th street elevator head is. In those Cloisters was supposed to have been carved the bust of Lincoln that is now down at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.. I have pictures of my Mother standing on low cloister walls that used to be there. They seem more intersting than what is there now. Maybe a littl relocation and restoration is i order to give a sense of what was.

    Posted: November 25, 2013, 1:56 a.m.

  • Danielle Oteri says:

    Thanks for sharing your memories, Chris. The site of Barnard's original property which housed his Cloisters and his sculpture studio is closer to where 190th Street meets Overlook Terrace, right by the Fort Trying Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center. And indeed Barnard did carve a statue of Abraham Lincoln, though his was made for Cincinnati. However, the Lincoln statue that sits at the Lincoln Memorial was actually carved in the Bronx! Designed by Daniel Chester French, the carving of the full-scale sculpture was undertaken by the Piccirilli Brothers, Italian immigrants and well-known marble sculptors of the early 1900s.

    Posted: November 26, 2013, 4:01 p.m.

  • Pat Murphy says:

    Thank you Danielle for your scholarly research and commentary on the Cloisters and the castles of a bygone era. A magnificent period of NYC history. Born and raised in the Heights, I never fully appreciated its rich history. Great article. Again, thank you

    Posted: November 30, 2013, 8:53 p.m.

  • Tommy Flanagan says:

    I spent a good part of my youth at the Cloisters, I loved it up there I remember a friend of mine " Don Stroud made a movie up there with Clint Eastwood.. Great place. Tommy F.

    Posted: December 5, 2013, 7:09 p.m.

  • Danielle Oteri says:

    Pat, thank you for your comments. Tommy, you may enjoy reading this prior post about movies filmed at the Cloisters which includes Clint Eastwood: http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/now-at-the-met/features/2013/cloisters-in-popular-culture

    Posted: December 6, 2013, 8:30 p.m.

  • Marlene Seelke Galazin says:

    My grandmother, Christine Albers Seelke, at age 16 arrived in Manhattan via Ellis Island and worked at a professional cook for the Paterno family. She met her life-long friend there, Zita Franz, who was the nanni for the Paterno family.

    If the Paterno family or the Met has any information on my grandmother and her friend Zita, I would be very happy to hear from you.

    Started a family tree over twenty years ago searching for information on the Paterno family and Castle Village. Was very happy to find this website.

    Posted: June 23, 2014, 9:34 a.m.

  • Danielle Oteri says:

    Dear Marlene,

    Much of the Paterno archives are held by Columbia University as Dr. Paterno donated to them an extensive library. There is currently a scholar there working on Paterno's story. If you email me directly at danielle@feastonhistory.com, I can help connect you.

    All best,

    Posted: June 23, 2014, 12:46 p.m.

  • CATE DI LEO says:

    Paterno' s family came from Castelmezzano, Potenza, Basilicata, Italy. A very little village under the great Dolomiti Lucane. Charles Paterno lived for 7 years in Castelmezzano before going in the USA and his name was Canio. He and his family loved Castelmezzano and Italy. His Brother Saverio came back in Castelmezzano and lived there with his english wife and with their 11 children! He was the '' podestà'', the chiefmaster, for 20 years and i think he was buried there.
    Charles Paterno gave to the Columbia Paterno Library over 20.000 books. All of them in fine leather-bound with the name of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei and Giuseppe Verdi wrote on the first page, and in the centre of it Dante Alighieri and Italy.
    Please, anyone can help me to contact the student who is working to Paterno's story?. Thank you
    cate di leo, rionero in vulture, potenza, basilicata, italy.

    Posted: December 15, 2014, 12:41 p.m.

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About the Author

Danielle Oteri is a lecturer at The Cloisters museum and gardens, as well as the program director for the International Center of Medieval Art and a curator for Feast on History.

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