Mount Morris Park Historic District

Central Harlem

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Early Years (1658-1851) The history of the Mount Morris Park His·toric District goes back to 1658, the year Dutch settlers founded the town of Nieuw Haerlem. Mount Morris, a wooded promontory among the Round Hills, was called Slang Burg, or Snake Hill, by the Dutch. Between 1664 and 1674 New York passed back and forth between the Dutch and the English, with British rule finally established in 1674. In 1776, at the be-ginning of the Revolutionary War, Washington attempted to withstand the British army behind fortifications on Harlem Heights. The colonials tried valiantly, with-out success, to fend off the British from the fort they had erected earlier that year on Snake Hill, which commanded the mouth of the Harlem River. Washington was forced to retreat to Fort Washington and then to White Plains. Until the mid-19th century, Harlem was a sparsely settled farming area. The largest landowners were members of the Benson family, descendants of Captain Johannes Benson who had s ettled there in 1696. The Mount Morris Park Historic District occupies a portion of the Benson "Race Course Farm," as it was called in the 19th century because it encompassed the Harlem Park Trotting Course. In 1851, Samson Adolphus Benson of Fishkill, N. Y., a sixth generation descendant of Johannes Benson, sold the farm, which had been divided into City lots a few years earlier, to John Bruce, a well-to-do Brooklyn resident and hardware dealer in New York. When Bruce sold the lots for development, the deeds included restrictive covenants which assured the future residential character of this District, border-ing on picturesque Mount Morris Park. In the 1850s and, indeed, until considerably later, the streets in the District were unpaved and builders dumped surplus earth in the roads to improve their grading. Lenox Avenue was still known as "Sixth Avenue" and Mount Morris Park West was called "The New Avenue" on the 1848 map of Samson Adolphus Benson's property. This map also explains the sharp diagonal of the boundary of the Historic District, at the rear of Nos. 12-28 West 120th Street, which was established by the direction of the old Manhattan Road which passed through the Benson farm. Mount Morris Park was acquired by New York City in 1839, a nd wa s first known as Mount Morris Square. Until late in the 1870s Mount Morris Park was a popular spot for weekend excursions. New Yorkers came here for country walks and picnics; the nearby race track was an added attraction. The opening of the "El" in 1872, however, was a pivotal point: Harlem became a suburb of the City, which was rapidly expanding northward.

Source: Landmarks Preservation Commission

Central Harlem

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