History of Inwood’s Isham Park

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As the population crowds around the park in commercial and residential buildings, this breathing space of exceptional beauty, with its varied topography, will be more and more appreciated and remain a constant reminder of the generosity of the donors and the wisdom of the city officials in accepting and preserving such a noble gift for the benefit of the people of the City of New York.”  -Borough President George McAneny on the gift of Isham Park (New York Times, March 24, 1912)

Sketch of the William B. Isham home, New York Sun, August 3, 1934.
Sketch of the William B. Isham home, New York Sun, August 3, 1934.

An Uptown Oasis

In the summer of 1862, shortly after General Robert E. Lee assumed control of the Confederate Army, a 35-year-old leather merchant named William Bradley Isham rented a sprawling wood-frame house on a verdant promontory on the uppermost tip of the city.

William Bradley Isham portrait from Warrensburgh Historical Society.
William Bradley Isham portrait from Warrensburgh Historical Society.

The rental was intended as a seasonal retreat, but the businessman with the blue eyes, beard and mustache apparently made a connection with the land, for two years later he returned to purchase the home and surrounding property.

For half a century the Isham family tended lovingly to their uptown oasis, in northern Manhattan’s Inwood section, before donating the land to the city for use as a park that would bear their family name.

The Isham Estate

The Isham’s two-story house rested squarely on a hilltop with sweeping views of both the Harlem and Hudson Rivers.

Isham Estate, circa 1905.  The Isham home is located at the rear center of the lawn.  Photo courtesy of Don Rice.
Isham Estate, circa 1905. The Isham home is located at the rear center of the lawn. Photo courtesy of Don Rice.

Dr. Floyd T. Ferris, the principal physician to the Cholera Hospital on Duane Street, had occupied the home until his death seven years before the Isham’s first visit.

Dr. Ferris’ old home, likely built in the 1850’s, was of an unusual design. Three extended wings together formed a cross that maximized both light and ventilation.

Isham mansion in 1934 photograph.
Isham mansion in 1934 photograph.

It is an interesting brick and frame building of peculiar shape, having a spacious central hall with a winding staircase and gallery from which the rooms extend in three wings,” wrote Reginald Bolton, an eminent turn of the century Manhattan historian. (Reginald Bolton, Washington Heights Manhattan: Its Eventful Past, 1924)

Bolton would also point out the significance of the site, one of the highest vantage points in the city, during the Revolutionary War:

Isham Hill was the scene of some events of the Revolution, when in November,  1776,  the Hessian advance parties took possession and erected on the edge of the park looking south two redoubts.  A sharp encounter took place on November 8th, when the Pennsylvania troops, ensconced in the woods of Inwood Hill, drove in the Hessian outposts and fired their quarters.  The entire Hessian division moved over the park area where on November 16, 1776, the assault on Fort Washington was made.” (Historian Reginald Pelham Bolton, New York Times, March 24, 1912)

Isham Estate circa 1905, collection of Cole Thompson.
Isham Estate circa 1905, collection of Cole Thompson.

The property’s twenty-four acres included greenhouses, a gardener’s cottage, a cold spring and a stable.

Half a century after William Isham assumed control of the property, his son, Samuel, would describe the move to Inwood.

My father,” Samuel said, “leased the Kingsbridge place for the Summer of 1862.  The next year we went to Newburg, but in 1864, he bought the place.  It was then very rough, much of it a tangled thicket of red cedars, but the lawns about the house had been carefully kept up.  He cleared it, moved the stable from the top of the hill to its present place, regraded the whole hill from top to bottom, planted nearly all of the trees that now remain, and in fact remade the place into about what it is now.   At that time the surroundings were only beginning to be suburban.  The Kingsbridge Road was a good dirt country roadlong regretted by us after it had been graded and widened, for the new street remained for years unpaved– a waste of dust in dry weather and a slough of mud in wet.  

Mile marker twelve of the old Post Road.  Still in place today at the 212th Street and Broadway entrance to Isham Park.
Mile marker twelve of the old Post Road. Still in place today at the 212th Street and Broadway entrance to Isham Park. (Photo courtesy of Don Rice)
Kingsbridge mile stone, Source: A Landmark History of New York,  By Albert Ulmann, 1903.
Kingsbridge mile stone, Source: A Landmark History of New York, By Albert Ulmann, 1903.

One relic we got from the operation– the old milestone twelve miles from the City Hall,  had stood some hundred feet below our gate and when it was thrown into the rubbish heap by the workmen, my father got it from the foreman and had it built into the wall by our gatepost.  It had been a well-known milestone, by the way.  

For many years, up to a comparatively short time before we bought the place, the old Dyckman House just beyond it had been the last stopping place of the drivers on their way to the city.  The cattle pastured overnight in the meadows east of the road and the next day were driven to the Bull’s Head at Twenty-third Street.

Our house, which was built,  I think,  by the Mr. Ferris from whom we bought the place, has remained almost unchanged.  In fact, its peculiar plan rendered extension practically impossible.  I suppose it dates from the fifties.  The older traditions of the place go back to the Revolution, when, like all adjacent country, it was fought over.  There were traces of earthworks toward the creek and in the grading and plowing there were cannon and musket balls turned up with old buckles and buttons.  The lime kilns, which were the peculiar characteristic of the place, may have been pre-Revolutionary.  From our gate up to the north end of the island extends almost the only marble formation in Manhattan.  (I have the impression that there is one other.)   Down by the creek there were kilns built to burn the marble into lime.  

Barn on Isham property circa 1885, MCNY.
Barn on Isham property circa 1885, MCNY.

The old stone building, now a barn, was used to store the lime, which was shipped in sloops from a dock in the creek.  This end of the place was probably its main center of activity a century ago.  There was a small house there in 1862 used by the gardener, and though that was comparatively recent, there were other signs like apple orchards and the like which indicated that a farmhouse had stood there.  A stronger argument is a spring of pure, cold water on the bank at the edge of the swamp.  Near this spring still stands a cherry tree which must now be well over 100 years old and which shows its age.  It used to yield an abundance of dark sweet cherries, and I suppose it may be the sole surviving specimen of the ‘Dyckman Cherry’ a species famous in its day, but now supposed to be extinct.

Cows on Isham Estate, circa 1900, MCNY.
Cows on Isham Estate, circa 1900, MCNY.

“My father’s farm was for pleasure and not for profit but he had been born and brought up in the country and knew something about it, enough to take great delight in managing his farm.  After one of the more extensive grading operations, the hill was sown with wheat and when the crop was harvested and thrashed, he drove himself with sacks of grain to a grist mill that then stood on Spuyten Duyvil Creek near the old Kings Bridge and brought back the flour so that he could boast that he had eaten bread raised by himself on Manhattan Island.” (New York Times, March 24, 1912)

The Swamp

Isham, born in Ulster, New York on April 29, 1827, had assembled a considerable, and growing, fortune running a hide and leather business amid a fetid stretch of tanneries in an area of downtown known as the “Swamp.”

Since the 1790’s tanners had clustered around the “Swamp,” named for the rivers of toxic runoff and noxious fumes created by what had once been the center of leather manufacturing in the United States.

Isham’s base of operations, a five-story brick building, which he built in 1857, was located on 91 Gold Street.  The family also owned 93 Gold Street, next door to the leather warehouse.  Both structures would remain in the Isham’s hands through the turn of the century.

Shoe and Leather Reporter,Vol. 59, 1891.
Shoe and Leather Reporter,Vol. 59, 1891.

An advertisement in an 1891 edition of Shoe and Leather Reporter describes an importer of leather, “the largest dealers in the world,” specializing in “goat, sheep, deer and kangaroo skins,” as having a branch in Isham’s warehouse.

The summer of 1862, spent miles from the animal smells, huge vats of tannic acid and the broken, sickly faces of tannery workers, must have proved curative for the hard-working leather boss.

The Isham Spring

In the Spring of 1898 author James Reuel Smith visited the Isham estate while conducting a survey of the few remaining natural sources of drinking water in
northern Manhattan.  While describing a spring on the property twenty or so feet from the Isham stable Reuel captured a rural scene hard to imagine today:

It (the spring) is at the foot of one of four little fruit trees, which, with two others a short distance away, are all that is left of what was perhaps long ago a flourishing orchard.  The tree behind the spring looks like a peach tree.  Buttercups grow around it.  Wild birds sing in the four fruit trees and drink at the spring.  Their piping song mingles with the whistling tugs on the Canal. 

Turn of the Century view of Inwood Hill and the Palisades from the Isham Estate, NYHS.
Turn of the Century view of Inwood Hill and the Palisades from the Isham Estate, NYHS.

The Isham’s horses and three cows come to the spring about noon for their drink, the cows respectfully giving precedence when a thirsty horse approaches by rising lumberingly and moving away with dignified alacrity.

Isham stable spring photographed by James Reuel Smith on June 9, 1898.
Isham stable spring photographed by James Reuel Smith on June 9, 1898.

The spring rises at the base of a small rock.  It is eighteen inches deep and about twenty inches across.  Natural rock forms the back of its basin, and in the front a piece of white Kingsbridge marble, which has become slimy and yellowish-brown. 

Isham Meadow Spring, June 29,  1898. Note the ridge of Inwood Hill to the left. Photo by James Reuel Smith.
Isham meadow spring, June 29, 1898. Note the ridge of Inwood Hill to the left. Photo by James Reuel Smith.

Bubbles rise from the bottom, which is somewhat sandy and over which a conical fungus grows.  The water is not cold but cool. Although exposed to the direct rays of the sun.  I drank from it, and found it a trifle salty.” (James Reuel Smith: The Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City, at the End of the Nineteenth Century)

The Isham Household

A tall man, even by today’s standards, Isham stood six-foot-six and was, by all accounts, a doting father.  On the Inwood hilltop Isham, and his wife Julia, would raise six children, Charles, Samuel, William Jr., Porter, Julia and Flora.

Pair of silver cups inscribed "Porter Isham" (b. 1863) and "Julia Isham" (b. 1866). The cups were made in New York by Francis W. Cooper, the leading American maker of ecclesiastical silver at the time.
Pair of silver cups inscribed “Porter Isham” (b. 1863) and “Julia Isham” (b. 1866). The cups were made in New York by Francis W. Cooper, the leading American maker of ecclesiastical silver at the time.

At least three of Isham’s children, Samuel, William and Charles, attended P.S. 52 on nearby Academy Street.

1870 US Federal Census record on William Isham and family.
1870 US Federal Census record on William Isham and family.

According to the 1870 United States Federal Census four female domestic servants, all Irish, also lived in the household.

Throughout the mid to late 1800’s William Isham’s business flourished.  He would also become involved in banking, serving as vice-president of the Bank of the Metropolis and president of the Bond and Mortgage Guarantee Company.

Outside of the boardroom Isham was equally at ease mingling with New York Society. According to an 1897 biography, Isham was a member of Metropolitan and Riding clubs, the Downtown Association, the New England Society and the National Academy of Design.  He was also a patron of the American Museum of Natural History.

Locally he was a generous benefactor of the Mount Washington Presbyterian Church.  Isham would also serve as a trustee of the Dyckman Library which had been incorporated in 1862.

In addition to the country home on the Kingsbridge Road, the Ishams also maintained a city residence on East Sixty-first Street near Fifth Avenue.

Isham Ginkgo tree at 212th Street and  Broadway entrance to Isham Park.
“Isham” Ginkgo tree at 212th Street and Broadway entrance to Isham Park.

While many in Isham’s position might have considered the Inwood property a simple summer home, Isham treated the property like hallowed ground.   It is possible, even probable, that Isham planted the giant Ginkgo on 212th and Broadway, which survives today.

Isham's Garden, Photo by Ed Wenzel, 1906
Isham’s garden, Photo by Ed Wenzel, 1906

A gentleman farmer, Isham is said to have harvested the last wheat grown on the island of Manhattan.  In fact, in 1893 Isham sent part of his harvest to the Chicago World’s Fair.

Arrowheads found by William Isham.  Source Archeological investigations on Manhattan island, New York city  By Alanson Skinner.
Arrowheads found by William Isham. Source Archeological investigations on Manhattan island, New York City By Alanson Skinner.

Poking and prodding through the soil Isham would occasionally uncover relics left by those who came before him, including arrowheads that were later donated by the family to the Museum of the American Indian.

A Family Gift

In 1911, two years after Isham’s death, his daughter, Julia Isham Taylor, offered nearly six acres of her father’s estate to the city for parkland on the condition the park bear her family’s name.

Isham Park to Spuyten Duyvil, 1912. (Photo courtesy of Don Rice)
Isham Park to Spuyten Duyvil, 1912. (Photo courtesy of Don Rice)

The following year William Isham’s sister, Flora E. Isham, donated more land to preserve the view of the Hudson River and Palisades to the west.

Isham Park Celebration reprint from 75th Good Shepherd anniversary program. (Collection of Cole Thompson)
Isham Park Celebration reprint from 75th Good Shepherd anniversary program. (Collection of Cole Thompson)

On September 28, 1912 more than 5,000 New Yorkers, many of them children, gathered on the lawn of the Isham house for a celebration marking the donation of the Isham land to the City of New York for use as a public park.

The festivities began that Saturday morning as two hundred school kids gathered on 207th Street and Broadway and marched in a parade up the hill to the Isham house.

Isham Park opens, New York Herald, Sunday, September 29, 1912.
Isham Park opens, New York Herald, Sunday, September 29, 1912.

Constance Smith, a student from nearby Public School No. 52, who sat atop a great Bay horse, led the procession.

After speeches by Manhattan Borough President George McAneny, Park Commissioner Charles B. Stover, local historian Reginald Bolton and others, the children again stole the show with a series of folk dances.

The new park totaled five-and-a-half acres.

John Connolly, park keeper, Isham Park, New York City, August 5, 1914, NYHS
John Connolly, park keeper, Isham Park, New York City, August 5, 1914, NYHS

The park space increased yet again in 1914 when Samuel Isham, by then a noted painter and art critic, collapsed on a golf course, and, as per his will,  left yet another parcel for public use.

In 1917, Julia Isham purchased a rocky outcrop, known for its Inwood marble, along Isham Street and Seaman Avenue, and gifted this piece of land to the Parks Department.

1916 map of the area.
1916 map of the area.

Through two more acquisitions, these by the Parks Department, in 1925 and 1927, the rough boundaries of the original Isham estate were reestablished.  In all it had taken sixteen years to stitch together the land we know today as Isham Park.

In those early years, there were some notable differences to the park we know today—the most obvious being the house itself, which remained in the park until the 1940’s.

1915 Meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution at the Isham mansion.
1915 Meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution at the Isham mansion.

For decades the old home was used as both a museum and a meeting place for groups including the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Greenhouses also remained on the park grounds through the 1940’s.  These and other structures would be demolished under the direction of then Park’s Commissioner Robert Moses.

The Lungs of the Neighborhood

Spuyten Duyvil looking south into Isham Park and buildings on Seaman, 1927.
Spuyten Duyvil looking south into Isham Park and buildings on Seaman, 1927.

From 1904, the year the elevated subway arrived at Dyckman street, until the late-1920’s, Inwood was a chaotic neighborhood that was clouded by dust and barren of vegetation.

Seaman Avenue and Isham Street in 1926.
Seaman Avenue and Isham Street in 1926.

Throughout the district workers raced to construct new apartment buildings, demolition crews  blasted away huge rock formations and Broadway, still a dirt road, was often choked with mud.  Life in the “newly discovered” neighborhood often proved nerve-racking for new arrivals and old-timers alike.

Isham Street north to Broadway 1926.
Isham Street north to Broadway 1926.

What an oasis Isham Park must have seemed to those early Inwood residents.

The streets in this territory,” wrote the New York Times, “are almost entirely bare of trees, and except for the cool and shady retreat offered by Isham Park, there is no place where mothers and children could find relief from the summer heat.

Entrance to Isham Park, 1918. NYHS.
Entrance to Isham Park, 1918. NYHS.

There is a large garden at the southeast corner of the park; elm and maple trees around the mansion and groves of fine trees all over the ground. 

Avenue of Elms leading to Isham property in undated photo from Don Rice.
Avenue of Elms leading to Isham property in undated photo from Don Rice.
Same shot a century later. (212th Street and Broadway entrance to Isham Park today)
Same shot a century later. (212th Street and Broadway entrance to Isham Park today)

A magnificent avenue of elm trees border the carriage way leading into the park from the Broadway entrance; this carriage way continues up to the mansion, which is surrounded by well-kept lawns, and the grounds are traversed by numerous winding pathways.  On account of the high elevation of the park there are uninterrupted views looking in nearly every direction.  Access can now be had from Broadway and 212th Street through the old iron gateway and thence by carriage road through the avenue of elms and around the westerly slope of hillside up to the mansion.  There are large groups of maple and locust trees along the boundary lines of the extension and these form a most beautiful natural frame or border for the Hudson River view from the hilltop.” (New York Times, March 24, 1912)

A Neighborhood Remembers

From the earliest days of the Twentieth Century Isham Park has provided a place of peaceful respite from the chaotic lives of city dwellers.

Countless current and former Inwood residents have fond memories of time spent in Isham Park.

Sisters pose in Isham Park in the 1920's. (Source: “A Study of an Urban Community and its Children, 1890-1991,” Sanford Gaster, Ph.D., 1993)
Sisters pose in Isham Park in the 1920’s. (Source: “A Study of an Urban Community and its Children, 1890-1991,” Sanford Gaster, Ph.D., 1993)

Mary Miller, who was born in 1918 and lived on Academy Street near Post Avenue, recalled good times in the park in an interview with oral historian Sanford Gaster.

We used to go sledding down what we called ‘Snake Hill,’ which is really Park Terrace West.  You’d slide down to Isham Street.  And if you were really brazen, you would continue all the way down to Broadway, as far as you could go, all the way to Vermilyea, sometimes all the way to Sherman.  Everybody did it.  I never heard about anyone getting hurt.  The priests used to do it.”

There was a section of Isham Park just across Isham Street from Good Shepherd School, and that part had a playground with equipment and everything.  Just in front of it were the rocks of the park, which we could climb up and down.  Since the play area wasn’t fenced, we used to go back and forth from the rocks to the equipment.  On the rocks you would use your imagination.  Imagination was everything when we were kids: one rock would be our houses, our apartments and everything. They used to close off Isham Street after school so the kids could jump rope and skate.” (“A Study of an Urban Community and its Children, 1890-1991,” Sanford Gaster, Ph.D., 1993)

Working in the Isham Park school garden, New York City, August 16, 1915.  NYHS
Children working in the Isham Park school garden, New York City, August 16, 1915. NYHS

Elsa Brady, who was born in 1914, remembered visiting the park when she was around ten years old:

They used to have band concerts in the summer,” Mrs. Brady recalled, “and they would be on the porch playing; everyone would come up. Your parents would take you.  It was the only time you went on the grass—you didn’t go on the grass when I was a kid!  I mean, everything was taken care of. “ (“A Study of an Urban Community and its Children, 1890-1991,” Sanford Gaster, Ph.D., 1993)

Rose Mulligan, whose family moved to Inwood in 1923 when she was six years old also had fond memories of the park:

That park was like a flower garden,” Mulligan remembered.

Gardener's cottage near Broadway entrance to Isham Park in 1925.  Note mile marker embedded in wall at bottom left of photo.
Gardener’s cottage near Broadway entrance to Isham Park in 1925. Note mile marker embedded in wall at bottom left of photo.

It was tended by a caretaker who lived in a lovely cottage there.  We had arbors all through the walks, and in June there were roses that I remember very well.  Except for the real wintertime, there were always flowers.  Pretty walks—that’s all that I remember it being.  There was nothing else to do.  You couldn’t really play there; it would be out of place.  At least in front of the house you could play games.” (“A Study of an Urban Community and its Children, 1890-1991,” Sanford Gaster, Ph.D., 1993)

Isham Park Today

In 2012 Isham Park celebrated its Centennial.  Once again a parade of students entered the park from the 212th Street entrance as the band played on.

Isham Park Centennial flyer.
Isham Park Centennial flyer.

Atop the hill there were speeches,  games and music.

Isham descendants Carol Collins Malone and her brother William Bradley Isham Collins attended the celebration.

Isham descendants Carol Collins Malone and her brother William Bradley Isham Collins in Isham Park for the Centennial celebration.
Isham descendants Carol Collins Malone and her brother William Bradley Isham Collins in Isham Park for the Centennial celebration.

Its inspiring to see so many people here today,” Malone told the Centennial crowd.  “We were here in the 1960’s as children and the branches were broken and the park was in disarray and it was really sad.  So we can really appreciate the enormous amount of time and energy that has gone into your stewardship.”

Julia Isham Taylor (Source:  Fronticepiece from Down the Thames, by Julia Isham Taylor, published in 1939)
Julia Isham Taylor (Source: Fronticepiece from Down the Thames, by Julia Isham Taylor, published in 1939)

If my great aunt Julia were here today,” Malone continued, “I can’t imagine how thrilled she and her family would be to see all of the work you have done.

She was a very modest person, Aunt Julia, and I have a feeling that if she were here she really wouldn’t want to be recognized.  So it is especially pleasing to see that you’ve made this great effort.”

Bench in Isham Park.
Bench in Isham Park.

The granite benches below the rise are inscribed with sayings,” Malone noted. “And one of them says, ‘In that mansion used to be free-hearted hospitality.’  So its with special pleasure that we are accepting your hospitality here today.”

Thank You

Isham Park today.
Isham Park today.

And, because of the Isham’s timeless gift, future generations can build memories of summer days and playtime atop one of the most beautiful spots in Manhattan.

Isham Park Timeline:

  • April 29, 1827: William Bradley Isham is born in Ulster, New York.
  • 1830: Julia Burhans, future wife of William Bradley Isham is born in New York.
  • 1849: William Bradley Isham arrives in New York City and forms a partnership with George Palen and Isaac H. Bailey in the leather industry.
  • 1852:  Isham marries Julia Burhans, the daughter of Colonel Benjamin Peck Burhans of Warrensburg, New York.
  • July 20, 1853: Birth of eldest son, Charles G. Isham.
  • May 12, 1855: Birth of son Samuel Isham.
 New York Morning Courier,  March 30, 1855.
New York Morning Courier, March 30, 1855.
  • 1855: Notice appears in the New York papers announcing the formation of a “Hide and Leather business” which lists William B. Isham as general partner.
New York City deaths recorded, November 1855. (NYPL genealogy database)
New York City deaths recorded, November 1855. (NYPL genealogy database)
November 8, 1855, Floyd T. Ferris obituary, New York Evening Express
November 8, 1855, Floyd T. Ferris obituary, New York Evening Express
  • November 6, 1855: Death of Dr. Floyd T. Ferris, the original owner of the Isham’s Kingsbridge estate.
Seaman mansion and arch from a distance in 1903.
Seaman mansion and arch from a distance in 1903.
  • 1855: The Seaman-Drake estate is built just north of the Ferris (Isham) home.  For nearly a century the huge marble home will tower over the other dwellings in the neighborhood. The mansion is razed around 1937 to make way for the construction of the Park Terrace Gardens apartment complex.  Today the only remaining physical evidence of the once sprawling estate is the mable arch on Broadway; once the entrance to the Seaman-Drake grounds.
  • 1857: William B. Isham builds and opens a leather shop at Number 93 Gold Street.
  • December 1857: Birth of son, William Burhans Isham.
Isham home in background of photo by William Gray Hassler, circa 1912-1914, NYHS.
Isham home in background of photo by William Gray Hassler, circa 1912-1914, NYHS.
  • 1862:  The Isham family leases the Inwood estate from the family of Dr. Floyd T. Ferris for the summer.  Ferris, the principal physician to the Cholera Hospital on Duane Street had summered at the uptown home until his death in 1855.  The two-story home sat on twenty-four acres.  Amenities included a stable and greenhouses.
  • May 11, 1863: Birth of son, Porter Isham.
  • 1864: The Isham family purchases the Inwood estate they had summered in two years earlier from the estate of  Dr. Ferris.
  • June 28, 1866: Birth of daughter, Julia Isham.
  • 1870: According to the United States Federal Census the Isham family unit is comprised of, William B. Isham, 43, Occupation: Iron Merchant, Wife: Julia B., 41, Occupation: “Keeping House,” Children:  Charles, 17, Samuel, 15, William B. Jr., 12, Porter, 7 and Julia, 4.   Four Irish domestic servants are also listed as living with the Ishams: Julia Mack, 22, Mary Dynn, 28, Mary Teller, 35 and Jane McAvoy, 40.
  • August 2, 1873: Birth of daughter, Flora Isham.
  • June 1898: James Reuel Smith visits the Isham estate while conducting a survey of the few remaining natural sources of drinking water in northern Manhattan.
  • 1890:  William Bradley Isham retires from business, though not entirely.  He remained Director of the Bank of the Metropolis and President of the Bond and Mortgage Guarantee Company.  He also managed the Presbyterian Hospital (which later became Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center) and served as Vice President for the Hospital of the Ruptured and Crippled.
  • 1893: Isham sends the only Manhattan grown wheat to the Chicago World’s Fair.
  • June 1903: William Isham’s daughter, Flora, marries Minturn Post Collins.  The ceremony, at the Isham’s Kingsbridge home, is a small affair. Dr. William R. Richards and Rev. George Shipman Payson officiate.
1903 William B Isham Passport application.
1903 William B Isham passport application.
  • 1903: William Bradley Isham applies of a passport:
    • 1903 Passport Application
    • William Bradley Isham
    • Born: Malden, NY on April 29, 1827
    • Occupation: Banker (Bank of Metropolis)
    • Age: 76
    • Height: 6 feet 6 ½ inches
    • Forehead: High
    • Eyes: Blue
    • Nose: Straight
    • Mouth: Medium
    • Chin: Medium
    • Hair: White
    • Complexion: Fair
    • Face: Oval
William Isham's obituary, New York Times, March 24, 1909.
William Isham’s obituary, New York Times, March 24, 1909.
  • March 23, 1909: Retired leather merchant William B. Isham dies in his home on 5 East 61st Street.  He was 82 years old.
  • May 29, 1910: Pilot Glenn Curtiss makes a surprise landing on the Isham lawn.
  • May 25, 1911: Julia Isham Taylor offers six acres of her father’s estate to the city for parkland on the condition the park bear her family’s name.
Isham Park gift letter, published in New York Times, March 26, 1911.
Isham Park gift letter, published in New York Times, March 26, 1911.
  • May 26, 1911: The New York Times publishes a letter from Julia Isham Taylor offering her land to the city for use as a park.
  • October 1911: Paulist Fathers purchase land from the Isham estate for the formation of a new parish.  The $150,000 transaction paves the way for the creation of the Church of the Good Shepherd.
  • September 16, 1911:  Construction workers unearth a complete human skeleton on the Isham property.  The bones are are at first believed to be the remains of a Revolutionary War era soldier.   They are later determined to be the remains of a Native American. The workers, employed by the firm Donald & Barry, report finding skulls, bullets and powder horns scattered in the ground about the property.
  • 1912: Julia’s aunt, Flora E. Isham donates more land to preserve the view of the Hudson River and Palisades to the west.
William H. Hurst House Circa 1915, note Isham home in background. (Courtesy: Hurst family)
William H. Hurst House circa 1915, note Isham home in background. (Courtesy: Hurst family)
  • 1912: Brick institutional style home is built for the family of William H. Hurst on the corner of Park Terrace East and 215th Street.  The now bricked up structure survives today.
  • September 28, 1912: More than 5,000 persons gather on the lawn of the Isham house for a celebration marking the donation of the Isham land to the City of New York for use as a public Park. Julia Isham Taylor and Flora E. Isham, who made the gift, are unable to attend. The gift is made in the name of William B. Isham, from whom the women inherited the property. During the ceremony Rev. John J. Hughes announces that the Paulist Fathers have purchased an adjoining tract of land from the Isham family on which they intend to build a school and wooden chapel to be called the Church of the Good Shepherd.
  • July 29, 1913: New York Times reader complains that Isham Park is being “neglected.” “…I wish to call attention to the general neglect apparent in what appears to be Isham Park.  I refer to the part bordering on Broadway above 212th Street.  The stone wall has been broken in several places, an unsightly path has been trodden from the street to the ridge above, and the entire hillside and street are littered with newspapers and sheets of wrapping paper.”
Isham House with writer Clifford N. Shurman,  New York Herald,  May 17, 1914.
Isham house with writer Clifford N. Shurman, New York Herald, May 17, 1914.
  • June 1914:  Benjamin C. Blauvelt of the Washington Heights Taxpayer’s Association sends a letter to the Park Commissioner Cabot Ward complaining that his department has neglected Isham Park.      Ward responds: “When I became Commissioner I found that no plan for landscape improvement had been prepared, while $15,000 of the $30,000 appropriated had been used to equip the old Isham house with a    heating plant and in the rebuilding of the old greenhouse.  This expenditure I consider useless, because the old mansion did not need such equipment and is in such poor condition that it is doubtful if it will be retained in the permanent development of the park. Mrs. Taylor, who gave the larger part of the property to the city, including the old house, in memory of her brother, the late William B. Isham, told me she has no sentimental desire that the house should be retained.  It possesses no historical associations. Meanwhile, it is occupied occasionally by several associations to who different rooms allotted by Commissioner Stover.”  He went on to say….”The old Isham house will remain where it is for the present.  The societies which have had rooms allotted to them may remain there.  The only tenant that I asked to vacate was the proprietor of a tea room who I found had been allowed to appropriate one wing of the house for private business.” (New York Times, June 7, 1914)
Samuel Isham, seated at left with other artists in 1889.
Samuel Isham, seated at left with other artists in 1889.
  • June 13, 1914:  59-year-old Samuel Isham collapses and dies on the links of the Maidstone Country Club in Easthampton, New York.  The cause of death was an aneurism.  Isham was a respected artist and the author of “A History of American Painting.”
  • March 5, 1915: Twenty-four city lots belonging to the late Samuel Isham, as per his will, are gifted to the City for the expansion of Isham Park.  The new land gives Isham Park frontage on Broadway and provides and unobstructed view of the Harlem River.
Broadway entrance to Isham Park in 1925.  Note mile marker and the now missing explanatory plaque.
Broadway entrance to Isham Park in 1925. Note mile marker and the now missing explanatory plaque.
  • April 19, 1915:  Bronze plaque commemorating the Isham’s gift installed in Isham Park.
  • May 31, 1915: The City History Club dedicates a tablet explaining the significance of the old twelve-mile stone in a ceremony held at the entrance to Isham Park on Broadway and 212th Street.
New York Herald, October 28, 1917.
New York Herald, October 28, 1917.
  • December 6, 1917: Julia Isham Taylor donates a fifth tract of land, totaling twenty-two city lots, for the further extension of Isham Park.  The gift includes 400 feet of property on the northeast corner of Seaman Avenue and 200 feet on Isham Street.  The donation represents the fifth addition to the park on behalf of the Isham family.
  • June 9, 1919: William and Julia’s son Charles dies of heart disease at his home on 122 East 38th Street.  He was sixty-four.  His wife, Mrs. Mary Lincoln Isham, the granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln, and one son survive him.
  • August 1922: Isham estate sells off their last real estate holdings in Inwood to developer Paul Braus.  This last piece of land, in the family since the 1860’s,  includes the southeast corner of Broadway and 213th Street.
Isham Gardens shuttle bus and rental office in 1924. NYPL
Isham Gardens shuttle bus and rental office in 1924. NYPL
  • 1924: Construction begins on rental complex named Isham Gardens that will now border the park.
  • April 1929:  William Bradley Isham, son of William B. Isham Sr., died after a brief illness.  Isham was a close friend and Princeton University classmate of President Woodrow Wilson.  Isham had entered the family leather trade but had retired years earlier to pursue a life of philanthropy within the Presbyterian Church.
Granite benches constructed in Isham Park. Source 1930 Annual Report from Parks Department.
Granite benches constructed in Isham Park. Source 1930 Annual Report from Parks Department.
  • 1930: Granite benches are added to Isham Park by the Park’s Department.
  • October 1934:  Mrs. Flora Isham Collins, who, with her aunt, made the original gift of land for Isham Park, dies after a brief illness that first presented during a visit to the family estate, Islecote, in Bar Harbor, Maine.  Her husband, Minturn P. Collins, and three children, Minturn, Jr., William and Julia, survived the sixty-one year old.  She is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
  • November 1932: Miss Flora Isham Taylor, the sister of William Bradley Isham, dies at the age of 95.
  • 1934: Author Helen Worden describes the Isham home in her book, “Round Manhattan’s Rim.”   “It is a curious place, built at an angle, with a huge circular hall in the center and big rooms opening off at various corners. The drawing room is occupied by the Washington Heights branch of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The other rooms on the same floor are given over to Department of Parks offices, while the upper floor has been converted into apartments.
1937 aerial showing Park Terrace area building boom. The lonely, soon to be demolished, building in the center is the shell of the former Seaman-Drake estate.
1937 aerial showing Park Terrace area building boom. The lonely, soon to be demolished, building in the center is the shell of the former Seaman-Drake estate.
  • 1937:  Construction is completed on two apartment buildings, 50 Park Terrace West and 57 Park Terrace West, near Isham Park. Seaman-Drake mansion razed to make way for the five-building apartment complex called Park Terrace Gardens.
  • March 6, 1937:  Mrs. Julia Isham Taylor, who gave Isham Park to the city in her late father’s name, dies at 74.  Her husband Henry Osborn Taylor, an historian of the Middle Ages, survives her.
  • April 7, 1941:  Three teenagers digging for arrowheads in Isham Park unearth a leather satchel containing nine sticks of dynamite.  The eight inch long package had been inscribed with the word “danger.”  Police speculate the explosives had been buried about five years earlier.
  • April 13, 1941:  Henry Osborn Taylor, husband of Julia Isham Taylor, dies after a weeklong bout with pneumonia.
Bruce Reynolds Garden in Inwood, New York City.
Bruce Reynolds Garden in Inwood, New York City.
  • 1970: Isham Park Restoration Project, led by J.A. Reynolds begins tending to plot of Isham Park bordering on Park Terrace East.  This section of Isham Park is later renamed “Bruce’s Garden” in honor of Bruce Reynolds.  Bruce, a Port Authority Police Officer who volunteered in the garden as a child, lost his life at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
  • 1971: The Inwood Civic Council fights to save the giant ginkgo tree at the 212th Street and Broadway entrance to Isham Park.  Soil erosion had left its roots bare and a fence was suggested to protect the 200-year-old tree from vandals.
Isham Park today.
Isham Park today.

Get Involved:

Throughout its history Isham Park has relied on the stewardship of neighborhood volunteers. Care to lend a hand? It’s a local tradition.

Isham Park Restoration Program 1970, Inc.
The group works to instill a sense of responsibility to Isham Park in children, teenagers and adults and maintains Bruce Reynolds Memorial Garden.

Contact: J.A. Reynolds at (212) 942-2563 or at billiemarie3@aol.com

Volunteers for Isham Park
A group devoted to maintaining the park’s serene and harmonious space and raising awareness of its history and intended cultural role through clean-ups, fundraising and education.

Contact: Pat Courtney at volunteersforishampark@gmail.com

13 COMMENTS

  1. a fascinating piece of our history – as New Yorkers. I’ve never visited the Inwood area o
    – hence I’ve never been to Isham Park. But it is now on my list.
    Thank you for such a good piece of research and writing.
    R. Tuft

  2. Wonderful history. Attended PS 98 in the Mid 1940’s. We were allowed out for lunch and would play in Isham Park. In winter months, would return to class soaked from playing in the snow and sliding down the park hill. Teacher would have us sit atop the radiator to dry off.

  3. What a wonderful history – thank you so much. I lived on Park Terrace as a kid in the 60s and loved this park. It’s great to know its history

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