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About Minniesland

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The Audubon Estate on the Banks of the Hudson. Foot of 156th Street at Carmansville.  Lith. of Major and Knapp, 444 Broadway, N.Y.  For D. T. Valentine's Manual, 1865.
The Audubons named their home Minniesland, and I named my website after their home.

Minniesland was the name of the New York estate that John James Audubon, his wife Lucy, and sons built for themselves in 1842 with the funds they were realizing from subscription sales of Audubon's octavo edition of The Birds of America. The name derives from a Scottish endearment for mother that Audubon's sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, had begun using during the family's residence in Scotland in the 1830s when Audubon was collaborating with William MacGillivray on his Ornithological Biography.

Minniesland was Audubon's home from 1842 until his death in 1851. As their families grew, his sons built separate houses for themselves near the original house. Both sons died at Minniesland, Victor in 1860 after several years of debilitating illness, John Woodhouse in 1862 after a short illness. The sons' wives and children and their mother Lucy continued to live in the immediate area for several years after John's death, but over time the various branches of the family relocated.

A Pictorial History of Minniesland

The estate was on Manhattan Island, north of New-York (as New York City was then called), and can be seen on a map published by Matthew Dripps in 1851, the year of Audubon's death. Audubon's grave was originally close to his home, but was eventually relocated to a tomb on the eastern side of the cemetery. 

1851 Matthew Dripps map of New-York north of 50th Street showing Minniesland

From the David Rumsey  Historical Map Collection. Used with permission.

Map Of That Portion Of The City And County Of New-York North Of 50th St. Surveyed & Drawn by R. A. Jones, C. E. Published by M. Dripps, 103 Fulton St. N.Y. 1851.
The circled area shows the location of Minniesland and Trinity Church Cemetery. See detail at right

Closeup of area of 1862 map showling location of Audubon's home and modern day gravesite

From the David Rumsey  Historical Map Collection. Used with permission.

Detail showing Minnie's Land and  most of Trinity Church Cemetery.  The cemetery was (and is today) divided by Broadway.  The red dot (not part of the map) shows the approximate location of Audubon's tomb just east of the Church of the Intercession located at Broadway and W. 155th Street.  The tomb (which includes both family and non-family members) is marked by a large Celtic cross.

 

Below are some early prints and photos showing the Audubon home, from the days when the Audubon family lived in the house to a time in the 1920s when the house, much altered, was being slated for demolition.

1853 wood engraving of Audubon's home

Early picture of John James Audubon home. This wood engraving by Richardson and Cox after W.R. Miller first appeared in Homes of American Authors, G. P. Putnam, 1853.  The original was painted by Miller on July 4, 1852, about 18 months after Audubon's death.  The engraving appeared in the many editions of  Audubon, the Naturalist in the New World - His Adventures and Discoveries  by Mrs. Horace St. John, first published in 1856.  (This scan is from the 1861 edition.)  Mrs. St. John's work represents the first formal biography of Audubon and was based almost entirely on Audubon's own writings.

1880 image of Audubon's home appearing in Harper's Monthly Magazine

Another 19th Century image of Audubon's home, this picture appeared in Harper's Monthly Magazine in October of 1880.

 






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From Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist, 1917.
  Herrick, among others, championed the cause of the house, believing it deserved preservation.  The buildings visible behind the house are still standing today.

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House in March 1925.  From "Audubon, Author and Artist" by Richard Dean, The Mentor, June 1925. The article reports the house will be demolished to allow a change in the direction of  Riverside Drive, but the house remained standing until late 1831.

 

The extended Audubon family lived at Minniesland from 1842 to 1863. These two decades were marked by many significant family events, including the continuing publication of several octavo editions of The Birds of America, the publication of the Imperial Folio edition of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845-1848), and the continuing publication of octavo editions of The Quadrupeds of North America. In 1858, John Woodhouse Audubon began publication of a second folio edition of The Birds of America with the help of the lithographer, Julius Bien. The Bien edition was discontinued in 1860 as a result of financial difficulties. Much of the family's residence was marked by trouble and loss, including the dementia and death of John James in 1851, and the early deaths of Victor Gifford in 1860 and John Woodhouse in 1862. In 1863, Lucy was forced to sell the property in order to satisfy family debts.

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Victor Gifford Audubon's home at Minnie's Land.
 From Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist,  1917.

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John Woodhouse Audubon's home at Minnie's Land.
From Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist, 1917.

 

I have corresponded with sisters Alice Ross and Kathleen McKenna, two members of the McGrath Family, the last family to live in the Audubon house.  Alice has written a short description of the family's experience in the house that she was kind enough to share:

Many of our ancestors, all members of the McGrath family, were the last people to live in what had been the home of John James Audubon in New York City’s Washington Heights, Minniesland.

The McGraths took up residence sometime after 1910. The elders were our great grandparents, Patrick McGrath and his wife, Margaret Flynn McGrath. The circumstances regarding their living in the home are not clear; they were possibly caretakers or simply renters. The McGraths had emigrated from Ireland and bore numerous sons and daughters who also had families that eventually inhabited the house.

At one time, many McGraths lived within the rambling structure which had been divided into apartments. McGraths died there, and McGraths were born there. One of those babies was our mother, Helen McCullough. Although it was little more than an aged house, she and her cousins often referred to it as “Audubon’s Mansion.”

Quite a few McGrath birth and death records, military documents and censuses establish them as living at 4 Audubon Park. We have ascertained #4 was Audubon’s home, as one of the residents achieved infamy. A biography of Audubon describes our great uncle as ‘a railroad worker named McGrath…” and goes on to mention how, on the walls in his apartment, he painted and wallpapered over drawings and paintings of birds Audubon had created.

McGraths lived in the house up until it was in the hands of the final owner, or scheduled to be demolished. The individual families would relocate to various apartments in the city. Our mother recalled having to dispose of much of her grandmother’s china, which had been brought to New York from Ireland. And so a sad note closed the story of the last family to inhabit Minniesland, “Audubon’s Mansion.”

Through a tip from Alan Gehret (now director of the Audubon Museum in Henderson KY), I located an illustrated article in the February 1932 Bird-Lore that includes one of the last photos of the John James Audubon home before it was moved from its original site. Below are thumbnails of the three pages of the article, written by Harold E. Decker, who stepped in to save the house just as demolition had begun. (Click the thumbnails if you wish to read the article.) According to the Bird-Lore article, the house was moved to New York City property at 161st Street, west of Riverside Drive, and work on the foundation was "already well advanced."

Bird-Lore Article p. 1

CAPTION: AUDUBON HOUSE ON RIVERSIDE DRIVE, NEW YORK CITY, AS IT APPEARED NOVEMBER, 1931 JUST PRIOR TO BEING TORN DOWN AND REMOVED IN SECTIONS TO NEAR-BY CITY PROPERTY. 

Bird Lore article p.2

CAPTION: HOME OF JOHN JAMES AUDUBON IN "MINNIE'S LAND," NEW YORK CITY, AS IT APPEARED IN THE FIFTIES OF THE LAST CENTURY.

Bird-Lore Article p.3

CAPTION: MRS. JOHN JAMES AUDUBON AND HER TWO GRANDDAUGHTERS, LUCY AND HARRIET.

 

The bare outlines of the see-saw fight to preserve the house can be found in the New York Times Index covering the period of October 1931 to January 1932.  On December 2, 1931, the Times reported the beginning of wrecking, but just four days later, the Times reported that the house had been saved and moved to a nearby park.  Subsequent mentions in the Index are too sketchy to draw conclusions about what happened to the house. It was the Great Depression, and funds for preservation would have been difficult to raise. Kathleen McKenna provided anecdotal information from an elderly relative that the lumber from the house eventually rotted away. Christopher Gray, in his New York Times Streetscapes column of Nov 27, 2005 responded to a query as to whether the house had been knocked down as part of construction of the Henry Hudson Parkway (the northerly continuation of the Westside Highway), "No, the house - between 155th and 156 Streets just a bit west of Riverside Drive - stood well inland of [the] Henry Hudson Parkway, completed in 1937. The house was torn down in 1931 by an apartment developer, after a last-minute salvage attempt. It was moved piecemeal to a nearby city lot, but funds for reconstruction fell short, and the whereabouts of the fragments of the great naturalist's last home are unknown."

What is there now, where the Audubon family once lived? Lou Claudio (who lived for many years in a building located on the site of the Audubon home at Minnie's Land) has kindly provided us with some photos.  The turn-of-the-century apartment buildings, river views, and areas of green are typical of Washington Heights.

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Lou writes:  The building now occupying the site of Minnie's Land, 765 Riverside Drive, can be seen on the left side of the photo.  Note the high-rise apartment buildings in the background of the contemporary photo and compare with the Herrick 1917 photo [right].

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From Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist, 1917

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Lou's photo above shows the same buildings but the wider vista allows you to see Trinity Cemetery, located on the right.  Compare the far-right building in the contemporary photo to the building in the photo from the 1932 Bird-Lore article (right).

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From Bird-Lore, February 1932

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 Lou writes:  On the right is Trinity Cemetery, and running down it's length from the top of 155th Street is "Dead Man's Hill" where we used to sleigh-ride.  In the foreground, is a section of "The Wall" where the local characters (that includes yours truly) all used to hang out.  [Photo taken facing east.]

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Lou writes: In this photo looking West out towards the Hudson River and New Jersey Palisades you can see, on the right, the building which now occupies the site of Minnie's Land, 765 Riverside Drive [the leftmost building in the photo].  I grew up passing the 2' x 2' plaque that used to be affixed to the front of the building almost every day...can almost quote it..."Here stood Minnie's Land, home of John James Audubon...it was while a guest of Audubon, here, that Samuel F. B. Morse sent the first telegraph message from NY to Philadelphia."  The plaque disappeared in the mid-'70s.





Audubon park

Another shot of 765 Riverside Drive (on the left).  [Photo taken facing north.] Lou writes:  The area in the foreground was where we played stickball and football between traffic...I took this picture from what would've been about home-plate.  From this perspective, the cemetery's behind me, and the Hudson River's to the left.

Audubon Park aerial shot

Aerial shot by Lou showing Trinity Church Cemetery, Riverside Drive, West Side Highway and the Washington Heights neighborhood.  The circle shows the approximate location of Minniesland. 

 

N. Rama Krishna, a collector from Birmingham Alabama, visited the site of the Audubon tomb in Trinity Cemetery in 2008.  Rama has kindly provided some of his photos for this page. 

Audubon monument

The north side of the monument base includes a bas relief of Audubon. On the north side of the cross are figures of various birds, some of which seem to be taken from Audubon's artwork. The inscription at the base of the cross reads, "O ALL YE FOWLS OF THE AIR, BLESS YE THE LORD, PRAISE HIM, AND MAGNIFY HIM FOR EVER." The birth date on the monument (May 4 1780) is incorrect. Audubon was born on April 26, 1785.

 




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On the south side of the cross, the inscription at the base reads, "O ALL YE BEASTS AND CATTLE, BLESS YE THE LORD, PRAISE HIM, AND MAGNIFY HIM FOR EVER." The south side of the cross is carved with animals and the dedication: Erected to the memory of John James Audubon in the year 1893, by subscriptions raised by the New York Academy of Sciences.

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Top: Bas-relief of guns, powder horn and game bag.
Bottom: Bas-relief of paintbrushes and palette.  The type of palette shown is more typical of those used with oil paints rather than the watercolors that Audubon favored.

 

An extensive, but unsuccessful, attempt was made to determine the legal status of the material from Bird-Lore, which I believe to be in the public domain. Thanks to David Rumsey, Lou Claudio, and N. Rama Krishna for allowing use of their material here, and thanks to Bill Steiner and Tom Blanton for gifts of items concerning Minnie's Land.