By Lisa Kava
Upper West Sider and longtime Riverside Drive resident, Stephanie Azzarone fell in love with her neighborhood quickly. “The beautiful architecture, the old homes, the peace and quiet of Riverside Park, the view of the Hudson River all make me very happy,” she told West Side Rag on a Zoom interview. Her appreciation grew stronger over time.
Riverside Park served many purposes to Azzarone at different life stages: when her son was young she practiced soccer with him there, and for over 30 years she has read, biked, and strolled in the park daily. During the height of the pandemic, Riverside Park provided an escape. “It was where I went to breathe,” she said.
A former freelance journalist with her own public relations firm, Azzaraone became fascinated with the monuments and buildings she saw as she walked in the park and along Riverside Drive. She wanted to learn more about them and their early residents. But when she looked for a book about the history of her neighborhood, she couldn’t find one. “I discovered much had been written about Central Park and Fifth Avenue, but there were only bits and pieces here and there about Riverside Park and Riverside Drive,” Azzarone said. So, she decided to write a book herself. Heaven on the Hudson: Mansions, Monuments, and Marvels of Riverside Park (Fordham University Press) is her first book. There are photographs by Robert F. Rodriguez.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
WSR: How did you find the answers to your questions?
Azzarone: Walking up and down Riverside Drive, talking to doormen, supers, and residents. But I also took a deep dive into newspaper archives from the 19th century and immersed myself in Landmarks Preservation Commission reports and 75 years of New York City Parks Department meeting minutes.
WSR: Riverside Park has expanded over the years. What geographic area does the book cover?
Azzarone: The focus is on the original Riverside Park area from 72nd Street to 129th Street.
WSR: What time period does it cover?
Azzarone: I start before the 1600’s, talking about the Native Americans and then the Dutch Settlers, up to the present day. I cover the Riverside Park Conservancy and changes that have taken place over time. Speaking of which, I am very excited that funding was just proposed for the repair of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. The interior was deteriorating and dangerous. It would be fabulous for this monument to be open to the public.
WSR: Were there many former mansions on Riverside Drive that are apartment buildings today?
Azzarone: Mansions took up a lot of Riverside Drive up to the first two decades of the 20th century. There were combinations of freestanding villas (another name for large mansions) and row houses (townhouses). The large private residences were almost all eventually converted to apartment buildings. There are only two freestanding mansions that remain today: one at 107th Street is still a private residence, and the other at 89th Street is a Yeshiva called Yeshiva Ketana.
WSR: Do you have a favorite mansion?
Azzarone: The Schinasi Mansion, on 107th Street, which is still a private residence. It’s this gleamingly white marble confection. It is the only privately owned free-standing villa on Riverside Drive. It was built in the early 1900’s for Morris Schinasi, a tobacco baron.
WSR: You write about other people who lived in the neighborhood. Do you have a favorite person in the book?
Azzarone: One of my favorites is Julia Rice. She lived with her husband and children in the other remaining freestanding villa on Riverside Drive in the 1900s. Julia started the first anti-noise organization in the country, called The Society for the Suppression of Unneccesary Noise. Back then the tugboat operators made Julia crazy as they blew their horns all night long. With the help of Columbia University students, she tracked how often this was happening, determined the difference between necessary and unnecessary whistling and campaigned to stop “unnecessary noise.” Through her determination, she ultimately was able to get legislation passed.
WSR: Are there any lesser known monuments you like?
Azzarone: Just north of Grant’s Tomb there is a tombstone in the shape of an urn that marks the spot where young St. Claire Pollock at age 5, in the 1770’s fell to his death from the rocky cliffs that faced the park. It is called The Amiable Child Memorial. On the anniversary of his death people leave flowers, toys, rocks, and other remembrances. It is hard to find unless you’re looking for it.
WSR: Do you talk about the Hudson River? What about the boats?
Azzarone: The book talks about the Hudson River largely in context of the view, the types of ships you can see then and now, the vision of the Palisades across the water, how the view was a big draw to settlers and how the docks along the river impacted that view. It also has sections on the yacht clubs, marinas, and the walkways along the river. I look at how people’s access to the river has changed over time. The whole book is about the growth of a community along the river.
Azzarone is currently working to become a certified tour guide. She plans to lead walking tours of Riverside Park and Riverside Drive in the spring of 2023. Tour dates and details will be posted on her website when finalized.