Untrodden Broadway: The Hidden Gems of a World-Famous Street

Posted June 14, 2018 3:59 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — I am three blocks from the Broadway local subway stop, just past West 204th Street. Right before me is a time machine, capable of transporting me back to when most of Manhattan north of Canal Street consisted of hilly meadows, orchards and plowed fields. The Dyckman Farmhouse and Museum is the oldest remaining farmhouse in the borough, made of fieldstone, brick and white clapboard with a gambrel room and Dutch door, dating from about 1783 — a magical stop on Broadway’s least-discovered northern stretch.

Broadway is arguably the most famous thoroughfare in the world (by one measure, 250 million hits on Google versus 6 million for the Champs-Élysées). But in the city that never stops recycling itself, it takes a discerning flâneur to find the few original landmarks like this one that have survived along Broadway’s 13-mile route from one end of Manhattan to the other.

Most guidebooks to Broadway begin at the Battery (named since the 17th century for the artillery placed there to protect the settlers from an invading fleet), and focus on Bowling Green, Trinity Church, St. Paul’s Chapel, the Sun Building, Flatiron Building and Shubert Alley in Times Square.

But on a drizzly morning recently, Fran Leadon, a City College of New York architecture professor and the author of a new book, “Broadway: A History of New York City in Thirteen Miles” (W.W. Norton), hosted a two-person walking excursion of the less traveled blocks on the final stretch, beginning just before Broadway merges with Riverside Drive and Dyckman Street. The mission was to find some of the thoroughfare’s hidden historical treasures, the sites often overlooked by neighborhood residents as well as tourists.

Our tour of the two northernmost miles included what was once a Gilded Age enclave in Inwood, where Broadway is flanked by idiosyncratic historical sites that are not only neglected by most visitors’ guides, but eclipsed by the street’s commercial bustle.

The first anomaly is the Dyckman Farmhouse and Museum, open for public tours. The Flemish colonial house faces two buildings across the street. One, incongruously, is a gas station. In the other, a relative newcomer to the gentrifying neighborhood, the Dyckmans might have felt right at home. It’s a beer garden.

A little farther north, now the site of a mini-storage warehouse, is where the Benedetto family operated the last working farm in Manhattan until the mid-1950s (and where rhubarb jam now sells for $6.90 a jar in a French grocery).

On the west side of Broadway, starting around 212th Street, is Isham Park, once the location of an Italianate villa owned by the leather merchant William B. Isham, on a promontory with sweeping views of both the Hudson and Harlem Rivers. Near the entrance is a brown milestone, presumably an original marker, that was set into the wall.

If you look closely, in the driveway of an auto repair shop between 215th and 218th Streets, you can see a crumbling marble replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The graffiti-scarred relic, dating from 1855, was the gateway to a grand 25-acre hilltop summer estate (now the site of the Park Terrace Gardens apartments) belonging to John F. Seaman and his heiress wife, an eccentric descendant of Sir Francis Drake.

Also near 215th Street is the majestic flight of 110 steps, which evoke the Rue Foyatier in Montmartre. The steps connect Broadway with Park Terrace East and Inwood Hill Park (and supposedly the site of the storied $24 purchase of Manhattan from the Indians). The park, on a schist ridge 200 feet above the Hudson, is home to Manhattan’s largest remaining forest and where caves attest to the most ancient habitation in New York from pre-Colombian times to seasonal camps occupied by the Lenape people as late as the 17th century.

Not surprisingly, many of Broadway’s more familiar, and oldest, landmarks are concentrated in the miles that begin at the southern tip of Manhattan, Leadon’s Mile 1, where the Dutch settled New Amsterdam four centuries ago.

Broadway (originally Heere Staat, or High Street, then Brede Wegh, or Broad Way) got its name because it began at the expansive 17th-century ramparts of Fort Amsterdam, which commanded a hill that sloped down to Bowling Green, Manhattan’s oldest park (another rumored site of Peter Minuit’s $24 deal).

The tiny greensward was surrounded by a cast-iron fence — it still stands — to prevent vandals from desecrating the equestrian statue of King George III, which was toppled in 1776.

“Certainly, the first half of Broadway, as it developed, was without question the economic engine of the city,” Leadon said. “And, it’s the city’s spine, the thing that unites and divides” — downtown, the snootier “dollar side” to the west versus the cheaper “shilling side” in the early 19th century; and in Washington Heights, the Jews to the west and Dominicans to the east more recently).

Leadon, who grew up in Gainesville, Florida, and lives in Brooklyn with his family, first saw Broadway from the air while flying to Boston on a field trip from the University of Florida, then visited Times Square while studying architecture at Yale.

He was inspired to devote an entire book to Broadway eight years ago after collaborating on the “AIA Guide to New York City” and discovering that except for David W. Dunlap’s exuberant “On Broadway” (1990), few other authors had done their urban anthropology spadework.

What surprised him most were how many lives — now, including his own — were entwined with the history of the street — George Washington who worshipped at St. Paul’s Chapel; entrepreneurs like F.W. Woolworth and A.T. Stewart whose commercial flagships flanked City Hall; the iconic figures who were feted with tons of ticker tape in the Canyon of Heroes; the loiterers who gawked at skirts sent billowing by the wind tunnel that the Flatiron Building created at 23rd Street and were shooed away by cops who bellowed “23 skiddoo”; and the ghosts along the stretch of Broadway that undulates past Times Square, whose reputation for bright lights and shattered dreams were epitomized in its legacy as the Great White Way and the Street of Broken Hearts. As it meanders north, Broadway is studded with architectural gems like the antique apartment buildings, many of them spared by the Landmarks Preservation Commission from New York’s merciless cycle of demolition and redevelopment.

The Ansonia at West 73rd Street, the Beaux-Art home of Enrico Caruso, Babe Ruth and Igor Stravinsky, was where the 1919 “Black Sox” World Series scandal was plotted. (It was the first air-conditioned hotel in the city and, a century ahead of its time, ran a farm on its roof.) The colossal Apthorp, at West 79th, was built by the Astor family and defined by iron gates that guard a central courtyard.

These majestic structures arrived with the first wave of development driven by the subway, rising on what had been vacant plots.

“A lot of the Broadway buildings are the only buildings that have ever been there,” Leadon said.

Farther uptown, Broadway morphed piecemeal from what some historians say was a Wickquasgeck Native American trail that meandered the length of Manhattan into what was called the Bloomingdale and Kingsbridge Roads. Hamilton Grange, Alexander Hamilton’s 1802 seat of a 32-acre estate just east of Broadway, survived from those times, as does the Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum, established in 1842 and the final residence of John James Audubon and Mayor Edward I. Koch.

We know that Broadway ends in the sea if your walking tour heads south toward the Battery (Carl Sandburg called the street a “tall-walled river of rush and play”), but what about if, like we did, you intrepidly walk north?

Theoretically, you could continue to Albany and beyond. But Leadon, for the time being, ended his book in Marble Hill, which is flanked on three sides by the Bronx and on the fourth by the Harlem River, which carved that 93-acre duchy away from its original home borough.

But that would mean Broadway terminates ignominiously in the checkout line of a C-Town supermarket. And anyone who has ever walked the street, in whole or part, knows that Broadway really never ends, surely not like that.

The street has always been more a state of mind than a mere physical space, one that has defied the unbending Manhattan grid for two centuries as it snaked uptown and that even now, defying its name, is being narrowed to accommodate pedestrian plazas.

“Broadway is New York intensified — the reflex of the Republic, — hustling, feverish, crowded, ever changing,” the journalist Junius Henry Browne wrote in 1868. “Broadway is always being built, but it is never finished.”