Mrs. Addison J. Rothermel, New York Herald, January 24, 1909.

Near the beginning of the last century, Mrs. Addison J. Rothermel faced both an agonizing loss and a difficult decision.  Tuberculosis had taken her husband and doctors warned that her two teenage boys, Addison Jr.  and Royale Valray, might also succumb to the “white plague” if they continued to live in the cramped and unventilated apartments of the day.

But where to find fresh air in an overpopulated metropolis?

In 1908, the widow Rothermel, and her two boys, took their doctor’s prescription for an outdoor existence quite literally and began living aboard the houseboat “Valray;” which they docked off Dyckman Street on the Harlem River—just a short walk from the newly constructed and elevated subway station.

It was there, among the squatters, construction workers and other house-boaters that the Rothermels found a home.  Interestingly, the move likely had the most profound impact on young Addison Jr., who perhaps stumbled upon a film set somewhere not far from his floating abode.

A film set?

While hard to imagine, some of the earliest known commercial films were shot in the then mostly undeveloped countryside of the Dyckman Valley.  Not only were there movie lots on Broadway, where some of the first silent films were shot, but Inwood Hill also served as a backdrop for many a western scene.

Universal’s first outdoor studio, established in 1909 at Dyckman Street. In this studio the late Wally Reid began his moving picture career as a prop boy and was converted into an actor by Otis Turner, manager of the studio. Others who worked here for Universal were Herbert Brennon, King Baggot, Tom Ince, Mary Pickford, Ben Turpin and the late George Loane Tucker. (UPI stock photo)

While the uptown film scene lasted no more than a couple of years, (they later relocated to Fort Lee, New Jersey and then Hollywood) the timing was just right for Addison Jr. to be discovered.

Thomas Edison examining film in 1912.

In 1912, Addison, was cast in the role of young Jimmy Hawkins in the first screen adaptation of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The one-reel silent film, commissioned by Thomas Edison, was shot in Bermuda and was directed by J. Searle Dawley.

According to newspaper clippings, the entire family made the voyage to the far flung tropical isle for production of  Stevenson’s  classic tale of “buccaneers and buried gold.”

It is likely no coincidence that Addison was chosen for the part.  After all, he was well suited to the role, having practically grown up on a boat himself.

The New York Dramatic Mirror, June 12, 1912.

What a thrill the trip must have been for the two teenagers.  The exotic sandy beaches, new technology and and the hunt for hidden treasure in a fantastic world of make believe.  Truly a far cry from their happy, but dank existence, on the Harlem River.
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Isham Gardens

by Cole Thompson

Isham Gardens Advertisement, New York Evening Post, 1924

Between Seaman Avenue & Park Terrace West

Designed in 1924 by the architectural team of Springsteen and Goldhammer, Isham Gardens was the brainchild of builder Conrad Glaser. Glaser envisioned an uptown utopia where middle class New Yorkers could live amidst a resort like atmosphere.

And, Springsteen and Goldhammer were up to the task. They designed a romantic Italianate manor with sweeping views of Isham Park.

Wall Street Journal announcement for Isham Gardens dated Aug. 30, 1924

Wall Street Journal announcement for Isham Gardens dated Aug. 30, 1924

The consummate salesman, Glaser began a relentless advertising campaign where he espoused the clean air and vacation-like qualities of Isham Gardens.

A 1924 advertisement published in the New York Times promised a doctor, dentist, valet, barber, beauty salon and taxi stand all on premises. In a March 26, 1924 article printed in the New York Evening Post, Glaser also boasted that his 1,500 perspective tenants would also enjoy a ballroom, billiard room, roof garden and even a swimming pool.

Where Glaser intended to find room for all these amenities, which included a band-shell for hosting twice weekly concerts during the summer months, remains a mystery.  Glaser’s pitch also included an observation tower so that all residents could take in the majesty of the Hudson River and the Jersey Palisades.

A Times article dated August 16, 1924 described Isham Gardens as it neared completion:

The Isham Garden Apartments, located in the heart of Isham Park and overlooking the Hudson River and Spuyten Duyvl inlet, is nearing completion and will be ready for occupancy Oct. 1. The first unit of the project will contain 191 apartments with a total of 425 apartments ready by May 1, 1925.  The entire group of buildings face along 214th Street and cover the blocks bounded by Park Terrace East, Park Terrace West, Seaman Avenue and Indian Road.

Isham Gardens is but one block from the beautiful Baker Oval, Columbia University’s athletic field, 304 feet from Spuyten Duyvil inlet, immediately adjoining the New York Park Department nurseries, several blocks from Inwood Park, which is to be enlarged by 111 acres of land the city is buying this Fall, and but three streets from Inwood’s shopping centre.

Each apartment of Isham Gardens overlooks a  strip of public property.  This was made possible by Conrad Glaser, owner of the project, having purchased half of the Isham estate. The Isham famly bought the land over 200 years ago and several years back presented the city with Isham Park and the balance of the land was sold to the present owner.

The apartments contain twin, three, four and five rooms with all the latest improvements.  Some of the features of Isham Gardens is the radio equipment installed on the roof for the use of the tenants in hooking up their sets; a large, beautiful ballroom for social activities of the new community, four tennis and handball courts, free to the tenants and their friends, and boating on the Hudson.”

Sadly, Glaser’s utopia did not include elevator service.

An early photo of Isham Gardens shows a gatehouse/rental office and a bus offering free rides up the hill from Broadway.

Isham Gardens, New York Evening Post, Sept. 20, 1924

And while the reality of Isham Gardens modern amenities didn’t last long, Glaser’s skills as a pitchman helped jumpstart a real estate boom in the neighborhood that continues to this day.

Isham Gardens, Buffalo Morning Express, May 4, 1925

Isham Gardens today

Isham Gardens today

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Paranormal Inwood: The Strange Case of Walter Francis Burns

W.F. Burns logo

As a cool autumn breeze settled in on his home among the trees on the western slope of Inwood Hill, Walter Francis Burns awoke from a terrible dream.  Lost in a chilling nightmare Burns had just witnessed his youngest son, Otway, run over by an automobile not far from the family’s northern Manhattan home. The […]

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History of Inwood’s Isham Park

Isham Park, Inwood, New York City

In 1862 a businessman named William Bradley Isham rented a summer retreat in northern Manhattan. He fell in love with the place and returned two years later to purchase the property. What follows is an exhaustive photo essay describing the origins of Isham Park.

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Inwood Serial Killer: “Texas Jim” Baker

Texas Jim Baker

“I had a periodical desire to poison human beings and in killing them in this manner, I derive a certain mental satisfaction.  When this mania seizes me, I want to kill the nearest person to me.” –excerpt from “Texas Jim” Baker’s murder confession. On the morning of December 27, 1928 New York Police responded to […]

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The Indian Caves of Inwood Hill Park

Thumbnail image for The Indian Caves of Inwood Hill Park

On the northern tip of Manhattan, a twenty-minute walk from the subway,  is an historical site so rare and unexpected that it warrants a detour on any tourist’s itinerary. The majestic “Indian caves” of Inwood Hill Park were once used as a seasonal camp by the Lenape people who lived in the region before the […]

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Glacial Potholes of Inwood Hill Park

glacial pothole

Just off the path, in an area of Inwood Hill Park known as “The Clove,” are a series of rock formations that have fascinated geologists and hikers for generations. These glacial potholes, which look almost man-made, are the product of glacial runoff that occurred during the last ice age some 50,000 years ago.  During a […]

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The Fort George Hill Climb

Fort George Hill

“How fast can your car make the ascent of Fort George Hill?  The hill is 1,900 feet from base to crown, with a grade ranging from ten to thirteen per cent and averaging about eleven per cent.  It is paved with cobblestones and has two sweeping curves. “ (New York Herald, March 15, 1908) The […]

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