New York

The glorious mansions on a lovely Harlem block

Nineteenth century New York had lots of freestanding, single-family mansions.

Few survive today, but one Harlem block is host to four. These bells-and-whistles monuments to wealth and status do a pretty good job blending in with the walkups that surround them.

You’ll find these mansions at St. Nicholas Place and 150th Street, in the middle of Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood.

Sugar Hill is roomy and lovely, but I don’t think the name was in use when James Bailey (of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame) decided to build this magnificent castle of a home in 1888 (below, in 1895).

It’s a Medieval limestone mansion with 64 windows of mosaic glass and 30 rooms at 10 St. Nicholas Place—an offshoot of St. Nicholas Avenue, a high and wide road popular among the Gilded Age rich who went coaching there.

“Bailey thought that St. Nicholas Place would be lined with other mansions and would develop into a Harlem version of lower Riverside Drive,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 2001 New York Times piece.

“But Bailey was disappointed by apartment construction in the area in the 1890s,” Gray stated, and he sold the home in 1904. In 2014 after years of use as a funeral home, the Bailey house underwent a renovation.

Next door to the Bailey Mansion and visible in the above photo is another castle of a home, one whose backstory isn’t quite clear.

The AIA Guide to New York City noted it but didn’t provide any detail; a family named Alexander occupied the wood and stone Queen Anne beauty, with its unusual porch and gumdrop turret, early in the 20th century.

Across 150th Street is 6-8 St. Nicholas Place. Once it was two separate mansions: Number 6 is the Romanesque-inspired rowhouse built in 1895 by Jacob Baiter, a yeast manufacturer.

Number 8 (below) is the John W. Fink House, a Queen Anne from 1886.

“Now used as a hotel, these two buildings were connected in a conversion to a psychiatric sanitarium in 1912,” states Carolyn D. Johnson in Harlem Travel Guide.

At the end of short 150th Street on Edgecomb Avenue and with commanding views of upper Manhattan is the Nicholas and Agnes Benziger House.

This fortress of loveliness went up in 1890—when Harlem “still resembled a country village,” the Landmarks Preservation plaque on the front of the home says.

Nicholas Benziger was a successful publisher of religious texts. “The mansion features a flared mansard roof pierced by numerous gabled dormers and a richly colored iron-spot brick facade,” the plaque informs us.

In the 1920s, it became part of a sanitarium, and then in 1989 became permanent housing for formerly homeless adults (above).

[Third photo: MCNY x2012.61.22.37; seventh photo: New York Times; ninth photo: mrmhadams.typepad.com]




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