North of 96th Street, Riverside Drive is a wide divided boulevard; at other points, it divides to provide a serpentine local street with access to the residential buildings. Some of the most coveted addresses in New York are located along its route.
Riverside Drive was designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted as part of his concept for Riverside Park; the 191 acres of land from 72nd to 125th Streets were undeveloped prior to construction of the Hudson River Railroad, built in 1846 to connect New York City to Albany. The first proposal to convert the riverside precipice into a park was contained in a pamphlet written by William R. Martin, a parks commissioner, in 1865. In 1866, a bill introduced into the Legislature by commissioner Andrew Green was approved, the first segment of park was acquired through condemnation in 1872, and construction began.
At the same time, Riverside Drive was being developed as a scenic parkway. Olmsted drew up the plan for the joint Riverside Park and Riverside Drive project. Afterward, several architects started work on the project. Based on Central Park, the new project consisted of “a tree-lined driveway curving around the valleys and rock outcroppings and overlooking the [Hudson] river”. From 1875 to 1910, architects and horticulturalists such as Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons laid out the stretch of park and road between 72nd and 125th Streets according to the English gardening ideal, creating the appearance that the park was an extension of the Hudson River Valley. Primary construction of the project was completed in about 1910.
In the 1930s, New York Central Railroad’s rail track north of 72nd Street was covered in a Robert Moses project called the West Side Improvement. The project, which was bigger than the Hoover Dam project, created the Henry Hudson Parkway and buried the West Side Line in the Freedom Tunnel. It was so skillfully done that many believe the park and road are set on a natural slope. Moses’ biographer Robert Caro envisaged Moses surveying the area before his project, finding:
a wasteland six miles (10 km) long, stretching from where he stood all the way north to 181st street…The ‘park’ was nothing but a vast low-lying mass of dirt and mud. Unpainted, rusting, jagged wire fences along the tracks barred the city from its waterfront…The engines that pulled trains along the tracks burned coal or oil; from their smokestacks, a dense black smog rose toward the apartment houses, coating windowsills with grit…[a stench] seemed to hang over Riverside Drive endlessly after each passage of a train carrying south to the slaughterhouses in downtown Manhattan carload after carload of cattle and pigs.
Get the best Harlem news in your inbox here.
In the 1980s Donald Trump, the owner of the 57 acres of land just south of Riverside Park that had been the Penn Central freight rail yard, proposed a very large real estate development project. However, hampered by his weakened financial condition and opposed by six civic groups (Municipal Art Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Parks Council, Regional Plan Association, Riverside Park Fund, and Westpride), Trump agreed in 1990 to their plan, which was designed to mimic Riverside Park and Drive further north. Though scaled down, the project is still the second biggest private real estate venture under construction in New York City. The agreed-upon plan would expand Riverside Park by 23 acres and extend Riverside Drive to the south as Riverside Boulevard.
Starting at 72nd Street, Riverside Drive passes through the Manhattan neighborhoods of the Upper West Side, Morningside Heights, over Manhattanville in West Harlem by way of the Riverside Drive Viaduct and through Washington Heights. Below 72nd Street, Riverside Drive continues as Riverside Boulevard which stretches through Riverside South to 59th Street where it merges into the West Side Highway.
Only a few stretches of Riverside Drive were built along an older road; due to the hilly terrain, Riverside Drive crosses a natural cleft in the bedrock at 87th Street on an iron viaduct and passes over 96th Street, Tiemann Place and 135th Street, and 158th Street on further viaducts. At Tiemann Place and 135th Street, and at 158th Street, an old alignment is present, also named Riverside Drive, while the viaduct portion or main route is officially named and signed “Riverside Drive West”. The viaduct between Tiemann Place and 135th Street is called the “Riverside Drive Viaduct”, as it is the most notable of the Riverside Drive viaducts.
At its north end, Riverside Drive merges with the northbound lanes of the Henry Hudson Parkway. In 2005, the retaining wall of Castle Village collapsed onto both Riverside Drive and the northbound lanes of the Henry Hudson Parkway. The wall was repaired and the roadway reopened in March 2008.
Riverside Drive terminated at Grant’s Tomb in a cul-de-sac, prior to the construction of the Manhattan Valley viaduct, spanning 125th Street, completed in 1900. North of 158th Street the right of way which currently carries the name Riverside Drive was known as Boulevard Lafayette, which led to Plaza Lafayette in Hudson Heights. The section exiting the parkway at the Dyckman Street exit and ending at Broadway is still known as Riverside Drive.
The M5 New York City Bus route serves Riverside Drive from 72nd to 135th Streets. The Bx6 and Bx6 SBS terminate at Riverside Drive and 158th Street.
Riverside Park, part of the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, is a scenic waterfront public park on a narrow 4 miles strip of land between the Hudson River and Riverside Drive. It is approximately 266.971 acres. The new Riverside Park South, stretching between 72nd and 59th streets, is the central element of the Riverside South development. Portions of the former rail yard, such as the New York Central Railroad 69th Street Transfer Bridge, are incorporated into the new park.
125th Street viaduct
The elevated steel highway of the 125th Street viaduct, called the Riverside Drive Viaduct, between Tiemann Place and 135th Street and rising over Twelfth Avenue, is shouldered by masonry approaches. The viaduct proper was made of open hearth medium steel, comprising twenty-six spans, or bays, whose hypnotic repetition is much appreciated from underneath at street level. The south and north approaches are of rock-faced Mohawk Valley limestone with Maine granite trimmings, the face work being of coursed ashlar. The girders over Manhattan Street (now 125th Street) were the largest ever built at the time. The broad plaza effect of the south approach was designed to impart deliberate grandeur to the natural terminus of much of Riverside Drive’s traffic as well as to give full advantage to the vista overlooking the Hudson River and New Jersey Palisades to the west.
F. Stuart Williamson was the chief engineer for the viaduct, which constituted a feat of engineering technology. Despite the viaduct’s important utilitarian role as a highway, the structure was also a strong symbol of civic pride, inspired by America’s late 19th-century City Beautiful movement. The viaduct’s original roadway, wide pedestrian walks and overall design were sumptuously ornamented, creating a prime example of public works that married form and function. An issue of the Scientific American magazine in 1900 remarked that the Riverside Drive Viaduct’s completion afforded New Yorkers “a continuous drive of ten miles along the picturesque banks of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers.” The viaduct underwent a two-year-long reconstruction in 1961 and another in 1987.
Buildings and monuments
The eastern side of Riverside Drive, once a series of luxuriously finished rowhouses interspersed with free-standing nineteenth-century mansions set in large lawns, today is lined with luxury apartment buildings and some remaining townhouses from 72nd to 118th Streets.
The brick-faced Schwab House occupies the site of “Riverside”, built for steel magnate Charles M. Schwab, formerly the grandest and most ambitious house ever built on the island of Manhattan. Among the more eye-catching apartment houses are the curved facades of The Colosseum and The Paterno and the Cliff-Dwellers Apartments at 96th Street, with mountain lions and buffalo skulls on its friezes. The Henry Codman Potter house at 89th Street is one of the few remaining mansions on Riverside Drive; it houses Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim. 310 Riverside Drive, a landmarked 24-story Art Deco skyscraper, is near Columbia University and the 370 Riverside Drive building, which was erected in 1922–23 for approximately $800,000 by Simon Schwartz and Arthur Gross. Also, the Nicholas Roerich Museum is on 107th Street and Riverside Drive. The Riverside Church is located at 120th Street and Riverside Drive.
- Among the monuments, sights, and institutions along its route are the Eleanor Roosevelt statue by Penelope Jencks, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Anna Hyatt Huntington’s Joan of Arc, the Fireman’s Memorial at 100th Street (a focus of spontaneous dedications of flowers and teddy bears after the September 11 attacks) Grant’s Tomb, The Interchurch Center, Riverside Church, Sakura Park, Riverbank State Park, Trinity Church Cemetery, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, and Fort Washington Park. Across from the Henry Codman Potter house is the Soldiers and Sailors Monument (1902). At 99th Street is a memorial to Beaux-Arts architect John Merven Carrère by his partner Thomas Hastings. The Firefighters’ Memorial at 100th Street was sculpted by Attilio Piccirilli. It was installed in 1913 and restored in the late 20th century.
- Marian Anderson (1897-1993), contralto and one of the most celebrated singers of the twentieth century; lived at 730 Riverside Drive.
- Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), a political theorist, lived at 370 Riverside Drive from 1959 until her death in 1975.
- Saul Bellow (1915-2005), an author, lived at 333 Riverside Drive in the 1950s
- Rafael Díez de la Cortina y Olaeta (1859-1939), linguist, resident of 431 Riverside Drive
- Ralph Ellison (1913-1994), writer, a longtime resident of 730 Riverside Drive.
- Alfred T. Fellheimer (1875-1959), lead architect for Grand Central Terminal and Cincinnati Union Terminal; lived at 730 Riverside Drive.
- George Gershwin (1898-1937), composer and pianist; occupied a penthouse at 33 Riverside Drive.
- Ira Gershwin (1896-1983), lyricist; occupied a penthouse at 33 Riverside Drive, adjoining his brother’s apartment.
- William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), newspaper publisher; owned a five-story penthouse in the Clarendon at 137 Riverside Drive
- Jacob K. Javits (1904-1986), United States Senator from New York from 1957 to 1981; lived at 730 Riverside Drive.
- Uwe Johnson, a German author, lived with his family from 1966 until 1968 at 243 Riverside Drive, today The Cliff Dwelling apartments
- Paul Krugman bought an apartment on Riverside Drive with his Nobel Prize in economics money
- J. Robert Oppenheimer and his family lived at 155 Riverside Drive on 88th Street.
- Sergei Rachmaninoff owned a townhouse at 33 Riverside Drive, the predecessor to the present apartment block.
- Grantland Rice, American sportswriter
- Jim Rogers, investor, and financial commentator
- Damon Runyon, American newspaperman, and author
- Babe Ruth lived at 173 Riverside Drive, then moved to 110 Riverside Drive from 1942 until his death in 1948
- Serge Sabarsky, art dealer and art expert, lived at 110 Riverside Drive-In popular culture
- Kate’s apartment in “Baby Mama” (2008) is 210 Riverside Drive
The living room of Oscar Madison’s “large eight-room affair on Riverside Drive in the upper eighties” is the setting of the Neil Simon comedy, The Odd Couple (1965).
- In the movie Death Wish (1974), architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) lives at 33 Riverside Drive.
- In the movie You’ve Got Mail (1998), Joe Fox lives at 152 Riverside Drive using the screen name NY152.
- The part of the drive over its eponymous viaduct has been seen in the movie The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).
- In the movie Vanilla Sky (2001), A deranged ex-girlfriend Julianna Gianni (played by Cameron Diaz) drives the lead character David Aames (Tom Cruise) off the road at 96th Street and Riverside Drive; The Cliff Dwelling at 243 Riverside Drive can be seen prominently in the background as the car breaks the bridge barrier, soars through the air and then off the bridge, severely injuring both characters and leaving Aames with a severe facial disfiguration.
- Scenes from Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) were filmed at 265 Riverside Drive.
- Parts of the Walter Hill movie The Warriors (1979) were filmed at locations around Riverside Park.
- Riverside Drive on the viaduct is also seen during the climax of Lady Gaga’s music video for “Marry the Night” (2011)
- In the concert film Liza with a Z (1972), Liza Minnelli performs the number “Ring The Bells” about a woman who meets her dream man while traveling in Europe despite the fact that, initially unbeknownst to them, they’d been living next door to each other at 5 Riverside Drive. The hard rock band Tora Tora have a song called “Riverside Drive” on their debut album Surprise Attack (1992).
- In the novel Illuminatus (1975), the character Joe Malik lives in a brownstone on Riverside Drive.
- In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, Amory visits Mrs. Lawrence on Riverside Drive and reflects that the open space feels more pleasant than the more crowded parts of the city.
- In the novels by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child featuring Special Agent Pendergast, the main protagonist, Aloysius Pendergast, lives in his great-uncle’s mansion at 891 Riverside Drive.
- In the novel Jahrestage (Anniversaries) by German author Uwe Johnson, the main character Gesine Cresspahl and her daughter Marie live at 243 Riverside Drive.
- In the sitcom 30 Rock, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) lives at 168 Riverside Drive.
In the TV show Mad Men, copywriter Freddy Rumsen lives at 152 Riverside Drive.
- In the sitcom Will & Grace, Will lives at 155 Riverside Drive, as do Grace and Jack (Sean Hayes) at times throughout the series.
- In the USA Network series White Collar, Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) lives in the 4th floor studio of a mansion owned by elderly widow June (Diahann Carroll), located 351 Riverside Drive (the Schinasi Mansion).
- In the Amazon Studios series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) and Joel (Michael Zegen) live in Apt 9C, located at 404 Riverside Drive (The Strathmore).
- Bob Randall’s play 6 Rms Riv Vu (1972) tells the story of a married advertising copywriter and a discontented housewife who both end up looking at the same Riverside Drive apartment. The door is locked accidentally, trapping them inside, and a connection slowly develops as they begin to share the details of their respective lives.
- Between Riverside and Crazy is a 2014 play by Stephen Adley Guirgis.
Get more Harlem history here.
Photo credit: 1) Under construction. 2) Firemen’s Memorial at 100th Street.