In early November of 1938 newspapers around the globe trained their headlines on a stunning victory on the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland.
The heroic story of Seabiscuit, a small, knobby-kneed horse who preferred sleeping to racing, over War Admiral, the four to one favorite, captured everyone’s imagination.
The underdog had slain Goliath and stoked the hopes and dreams of a nation emerging from the Great Depression.
Amid the backdrop of this inspirational tale, New York Sun reporter Gerry Fitch was given the rather tedious assignment of documenting the impending demolition of a once splendid mansion on the northern tip of Manhattan.
The mansion in question, the old Seaman-Drake estate, was nearly a hundred years old and Fitch would soon become well versed, and possibly even enchanted, by its rich, romantic history.
Fitch soon realized he too was witnessing an historic moment. But in his story, the beloved underdog, once dubbed the “Mount Olympus of northern Manhattan,” hadn’t a chance. A scarcity of real estate combined with a local building boom rendered the once fantastic home obsolete. The home would soon be razed in order to make room for a five-building housing development to be named Park Terrace Gardens.
A magnificent stable a block away, once also owned by the Seaman family would also be demolished to make room for even more apartment houses.
When Fitch visited the home in 1938 the old mansion was truly a shell of its former self. The statuary, the gleaming white marble, even the stunning cupolas that could once be seen from miles away, had long since been stripped away.
Only one section of the home was still inhabitable. In that wing lived builder and architect Thomas Dwyer, who had purchased the home from Seaman descendant Lawrence Drake in 1906.
Dwyer ran his business, The Marble Arch Corporation, from the attic of the arch, which graced the Broadway entrance to the property. Dwyer, an architect of some note, was well known for his work on municipal projects, monuments and museums around the metropolis. His Soldiers’ and Sailors’ monument on Riverside Drive remains, even today, part of Manhattan’s urban landscape.
His more fanciful designs included the aquarium inside New York’s former Castle Garden and marble detail work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
During discussions with Dwyer, reporter Gerry Fitch learned the history of the grand old marble mansion as well as the former stable that was also slated for demolition.
Dwyer was obviously distraught to see his former home taken apart by the wrecker’s ball, but was a builder and a pragmatist.
Standing there, on that November day, Dwyer and Fitch realized the import of what was soon to transpire. This was the twilight of the old neighborhood, that fleeting moment in history where the knobby-kneed neighborhood favorite is finally defeated by the march of time.
Amazingly, the marble arch, from where Dwyer designed forgotten landmarks of old New York, survived. The arch, its walls supported by low-slung garages on either side, can be seen today on the west side of Broadway at 216th Street.
Below is Fitch’s article describing the last days of the old house on the hill.
New York Sun
November 5, 1938
Last Days of Old Mansion
Dwyer House in Inwood Will Soon Give Way to Modern Apartment Buildings
By Gerry Fitch
Inwood is high and handsome and has become so popular that even the many new apartment buildings cannot satisfy all the Manhattanites who have re-discovered this northerly end of the city. So it is welcome news that a group of five new eight-story apartments, built around large gardens, will shortly be erected on one of Inwood’s highest points, to be ready for occupancy next summer.
The 118,000 square feet of property to be thus occupied is the tract bounded by Park Terrace West and Park Terrace East, 215th to 217th Street. It is a desolate surface of exposed rock and corroded earth, topped by a gloomy mansion that has made many a passing motorist gaze up toward it as though it might have been a setting for a Bronte novel. It is of gray stone, with a high square tower, and it stands skeleton-like, windows gaping, stone parapets broken, commanding a view over the Hudson, Harlem and East rivers.
This house is known as the Dwyer house. Its present owner, Thomas Dwyer, who was a prominent contractor, has lived in it nearly thirty years; when he bought it long ago it was already fifty years old. If you climb up to the house you will notice that while most of it could correctly be called a ruin, there is one section that is in neat repair, its bright and curtained windows affording strange contrast to other broken windows made steadily worse by the rocks of passing schoolboys. This conditioned section is the one Mr. Dwyer has made his own in recent years, hating to leave until, as his “For Sale” sign on the property sets forth, he could find a “perfectly responsible party” with whom he “might take an interest in the improvement of the property.”
Such a party was found this week. In one of the largest sales of vacant Manhattan real estate closed in several years, the Thomas Dwyer family sold the property through Jacob and Emil Leitner, brokers, to a corporation headed by David Rose. The corporation’s plans for development of the site call for more than two acres of landscaped gardens, the five fireproof buildings occupying a comparatively small portion of land.
A Former Showplace
Each structure—they have been designed by Architect Albert Goldhammer—will contain eighty apartments with suites of three, four and five rooms. Rentals have not been set, but rentals for attractive suites in the Inwood section are around $75 a month for three and four rooms.
Down will come the Dwyer mansion before many weeks. Thomas Dwyer will move not far away, however—just down the street known as park Terrace East to an apartment at No. 10. And when the new buildings are up he can move back to the very plot he has kept for so long. He hates to see the house come down; he can remember when it was a showplace of northern Manhattan.
You arrived at the estate and were confronted by an imposing stone arch. You drove under this and then round and round the grounds in spiral ascendance until you arrived at the great stone steps. There was an impressive entrance and much outside statuary. Inside were large rooms, with ceilings fifteen feet high; wall niches with more statuary, grand stairways and mantelpieces, conservatories, balconies.
It all remains in altered form. Jammed up against the stone entrance arch—it looks about the size of the one in Washington Square and faces Broadway at 116thStreet—are now small shops that hide all but the top of the arch.
The grounds have been so dug out in places that they look like a series of trenches surmounted by a sort of old gray army tank that is the towered house.
Mr. Dwyer added a third story of ten rooms, and the tower thirty years ago, but has always been sorry he did. During late years a number of visitors, failing to observe the lived-in section and thinking the place abandoned, have climbed the stone steps to the entrance and jangled the bell, just to see if it would ring. That’s what I did, and, believe me, the bell rings. It is something of a shock to have the door suddenly open and a young man in a bathrobe, obviously disturbed, trying very hard to be polite over the intrusion. No wonder the Dwyer family is reconciled to moving.
Near Two Subways
The neighborhood is now quickly reached by both the Eighth Avenue and Seventh Avenue subways. On a nearby height to the south stands the tower of Mr. Rockefeller’s medieval cloisters. To the north is Baker Field. Historic Dyckman farmhouse is a few blocks away. Spuyten Duyvil Creek flows into the Hudson just beyond. All around are charming English-type one-family brick cottages and new apartment houses, “modernistic” or Colonial in design.