Shortly after the turn of the century a small group of investors, led by real estate broker Andrew J. Cobe, made a land grab in northern Manhattan. Their vision—a sprawling thirty-one acre amusement park to be built on the current site of Columbia University’s Baker Field.
Cobe was a shameless self-promoter who had been kicked out of Cuba in the late 1890’s for his role in a souvenir peso scheme. Now, surveying the open pastures, rail access and nearby waterways of Inwood, the P.T. Barnum side of Cobe instinctively kicked in.
The self appointed president of the newly formed Corporation Liquidating Company had recently made a major acquisition. In a move that likely caused Jan Dyckman to spin furiously in his grave, Cobe, and his newly formed syndicate of private investors, bought all the property alongside the Spuyten Duyvil they could get their hands on. The purchase included one of the Dyckman family’s ancestral homes.
Now, as the chilly autumn winds bore down on shoreline, Cobe knew he could actually sell this idea. A few plugs from the press couldn’t hurt either.
In an article published in the New York Tribune on September 13, 1904, one of Cobe’s representatives first described the future Wonderland, “Kirby , Pettit & Green, who designed Dreamland (on Coney Island), are the architects. Their preliminary drawings show a massive entrance, opening on a main concourse, which will stretch diagonally from end to end of the property.
This concourse will be 180 feet wide and 1,800 feet in length. In the center of this boulevard will be a lagoon, bridged at convenient points. No two buildings will be alike, and every possible order of architecture will be introduced. A variegated color scheme, introducing some brand new effects, is promised.
There will be a large open air amphitheatre for the production of a new fire fighting show on lines larger than have yet been attempted. Then there will be a theatre for spectacles after the type of ‘The Storming of Port Arthur.’ A famous magician is to have his own theatre, with a stage which will make possible a new line of magic. There will be gardens typical of different parts of the world, and several foreign villages. An English tea garden on the banks of a miniature Thames, an old Italian town and an Alpine pass and village are among the features arranged.
An enormous swimming pool will be erected near the river front. Part of it will be enclosed and the water kept at even temperatures, making bathing possible from May until the end of September, in water of the same temperature found in August. Outside there will be a large pool in the open for use in the warmer months. It is possible that the famous Sutro baths in San Francisco will be reproduced.”
Cobe expected to have the two million dollar project up and running by March of 1905, he explained in a November, 1904 New York Times article. He also provided Times readers with more spectacular details on the park, which was, at the time, really just a just a cow pasture.
According to the Times, the park’s designers “have striven to make Wonderland a place very different from all other recreation parks, although the familiar ‘chutes’ will not be left out”.
Cobe’s description included not only rides, but enchanting foreign micro-cities so popular at world expositions. “There are to be a German village, a Japanese village, a sixteenth century German castle and gaily colored pagodas.”
The article went on: “Within Wonderland’s boundaries is the old Dyckman mansion, which will be turned into a mammoth ballroom and casino. Between the mansion and the esplanade walk, where now is a thick grove of trees, will be gardens laid out with curving paths and rustic benches. The natural characteristics of the grove will be interfered with as little as possible.”
In just a few short years the subway would reach Inwood and the park would become a goldmine. That was the pitch anyway. In the meantime workers would have all winter to build Wonderland from the ground up.
Winter wasn’t the ideal season to embark on a major construction project, but no one seemed to question Cobe’s judgment.
By the spring of 1905 Wonderland was still relatively undeveloped, but Cobe and new park director Thomas Riego Hart assured New Yorkers of a July 1stopening.
Hart provided more tantalizing details on the layout of the park to a New York Herald reporter on April 2nd.
“Wonderland”, the Herald scribe told readers, “will strive to be what its name implies. It will embrace some of the leading features of Earls Court, in London; Willow Grove Park, in Philadelphia, and several of the successes which have made Luna Park and Dreamland, at Coney Island, famous. In addition, it will have Italian gardens, lakes, Venetian canals and deep shaded rambles.”
The park would also now include, thirty-two different amusements, including “a reproduction of the storming and taking of 203 Metre Hill, at Port Arthur” to be directed by Bolossy Kiralfy.
Beginning the 1880’s, the Hungarian born Brother’s Kiralfy dazzled world audiences with their theatrical extravaganzas involving a then primitive form of electricity. They were especially renowned for their riverfront spectaculars—the bright lights dancing on the water’s surface. Wonderland offered just such a backdrop.
If the promoter’s claims were to be believed, the venue would also attract some of the most popular musicians of 1905. “Wonderland”, the Herald reported, “is scheduled to have Walter Damroach, if possible, open the season and to engage Sousa and Victor Herbert for some time in the summer.”
Six days after the Herald article, the real estate section of the New York Times announced: “Wonderland Sold for $1,000,000.”
According to the article, “The tract, which consists of nearly all the land included between Broadway, Two Hundred and Eighteenth Street and the Harlem Ship Canal, was bought last fall by Andrew J. Cobe from the Dyckman estate and has since been headed by Thomas Reigo Hart as the site for an amusement park. It is said that the purchase means that the amusement enterprise will be carried out.”
Despite such promising reports, the grand July 1st opening never took place. Cows continued to graze where Venetian canals and Japanese gardens had been so excitedly promised just months before.
In November of 1905, the death knell sounded on Wonderland. Wrote the New York Times, “Andrew J. Cobe has sold, through David Stewart, a one half interest in the ‘Wonderland’ property at Broadway and the Harlem Ship Canal. It was said yesterday that all projects had been abandoned for converting this property into an amusement park, and that it would be developed for resale.”
Wonderland had been but an illusion.
In 1921, Columbia University, using money donated by Park Avenue banker George Fisher Baker, Jr., purchased the abandoned Wonderland site. Today Columbia’s athletic center, including Baker Field, occupies what could have been the Coney Island of Northern Manhattan.
When Wonderland’s promoter died in December of 1924, the Times noted his passing with two simple sentences, “Andrew J. Cobe, real estate and theatrical broker, with offices at 233 West Forty-second Street, died yesterday of heart disease at his residence, 76 West Eighty-sixth Street, age 59. His wife, two sons, a daughter and two brothers survive.”
A bit of Inwood trivia: Jason, the owner of the Indian Road Cafe considered naming his establishment “Wonderland.”