Uncovering the hidden history that lingers beneath the surface

Living in Riverdale 2016-2017

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An underground river that flows through a vaulted brick tunnel. A hidden passage between two buildings of a historic estate, a dark and chilly channel into which no member of the public appears to have ever set foot. An old mural whose provenance remains elusive. A ghost of a house. A water channel that does not appear on city maps. Those are some of the multitude of mysteries that Riverdale carries.

Above ground, Riverdale is an area of landscaped parks, sloped winding streets amid rock outcroppings, trendy cafes and music clubs, and some of the best-known private and public schools in the city - as well as of audacious, though rarely violent, robberies and burglaries, traffic jams, heated disputes about construction plans and a slew of other urban problems New Yorkers frequently face. 

But beneath the surface, traces of Riverdale’s deep and powerful history linger on – a concealed cache of secrets waiting to be unraveled. The Press has taken a look at some of Riverdale’s mysteries that continue to whet the curiosity of historians, environmental researchers and urban explorers. 

The secret passage

Down a few flights of stairs in a building at Wave Hill Park, Frank Perrone, the director of facilities and capital projects, led the way into a narrow room that ended with an about square-yard hatch built into the back wall. 

Amid the sweltering heat outside this summer, cold air drifted into the room as Mr. Perrone opened the hatch. The section of the building has no air conditioning – the crispy chill was wafting in from a wide underground passage beyond the hatch. 

There was more to Wave Hill than met the eye.

The park is one of Riverdale’s best-known landmarks, a 28-acre estate on a hill along the Hudson River, with historic mansions and landscaped lawns overlooking the waterway and the New Jersey Palisades. Sometimes described by its employees and fans as a horticultural and artistic gem in Riverdalians’ own backyard, the park offers chamber music and jazz concerns in the summer, performed amid flower gardens. It draws people from the neighborhood and far beyond, who come in to walk or sit on the grass, read a book in the shade of a tree, take in the music or admire the sunsets and the views. 

The original Wave Hill house was built in the mid-19th century and bought in 1903 by politician and businessman George Perkins, who added and renovated a few buildings to accommodate his family and guests. An array of political and cultural celebrities stayed at Wave Hill at various times, including Theodore Roosevelt’s family, Mark Twain and Arturo Toscanini. In 1960, Mr. Perkins’ descendants bestowed the estate to New York City, which has preserved the park as a popular local gem. 

One of the additions the Perkins family made was a playhouse for children. Known today as the Ecology Building, the structure is slightly less prominent than some of the estate’s other building, such as the Wave Hill house, where renowned guests once stayed, and the Glyndor House, where the family resided. 

From the park’s main grounds above, the Ecology building looks like it is not even there at all. The building’s roof is covered with soil and overgrown with grasses, presenting one of the first “green roofs” in the city, according to Wave Hill spokeswoman Martha Gellens. Seen from higher grounds, the building seems to be merely a continuation of a sloped lawn, bordered by a balustrade with a view over the Hudson. The entrance is below, down the hill and past the site of a former children’s pool. 

That was the building where Mr. Perrone led the way to a tunnel this summer. 

The passageway, running deep underground beneath a hill, was built to connect the former playhouse with the family’s residence at the Glyndor building and to provide a quick route protected from the rain or snow outside. Fragments of the original heating pipes that were built into the walls along the bottom of the tunnel still remain, as do many of the original brass opening vents. Once, “these were all along the bottom,” Mr. Perrone said, pointing at a few remnants visible through the opening of the tunnel. 

“What’s really cool is that this tunnel was heated,” he said. 

With the passageway now closed off by a wall and a hatch, a visitor would have to climb into an opening about waist-high from the floor. But the safety of the aged tunnel is uncertain, and the park’s insurance policy prohibits anyone except employees such as restoration workers and researchers from entering, Ms. Gellens said. 

On the other side of the tunnel, at Glyndor house, Ms. Gellens walked past the delicately restored glamor of the interior and into a bare-bones storage room. Removing a couple of mops and brooms that leaned against a door, she pulled and swung the door on its hinges – revealing a spiral staircase, now partially boarded up, leading downwards into pitch darkness. 

In Wave Hill’s days as a family estate, children used to climb down the spiraling staircase into the tunnel. A bit further along, but not too far from the Glyndor-house entrance to the tunnel, researches found a section of vaulted ceilings of Guastavino tile – a system of self-supporting architectural arches that use interlocking tiles – remaining in the tunnel, Mr. Perrone said. The vaulting technique was patented in the United States in the late 19th century by Spanish architect and builder Rafael Guastavino, whose tiled arches also grace the ceilings of Grand Central Terminal and Carnegie Hall in New York and of the Boston Public Library, among others. 

At some time in the past, all of the tunnel’s ceiling may have been covered in Guastavino tile, experts speculate, but nobody seems to know for sure. 

The section where Mr. Perrone spotted the tiles is “the only piece that’s left,” he said. 

For decades, the tunnel has been boarded up, closed to any visitors except restoration workers and experts, such as Mr. Perrone and his crew. 

“That’s a definite. No one has been there,” he said. 

 

Mysterious mural 

One of the floors of the Ecology building still houses a bowling alley the Perkins family had installed in their children’s playhouse. 

No bowling balls are rolling along the wooden planks of the alley anymore. But some of the original bowling pins and balls have been preserved. 

Mr. Perrone, a passionate collector and guardian of historical artifacts found on Wave Hill grounds, stowed a trove of about a half-dozen of original bowling balls – made of heavy wood, dark and unexpectedly heavy to the touch – in a nearby storage room, barely larger than a closet. 

The desk and bookshelves in Mr. Perrone’s office in the Ecology building hold an assembly of other artifacts he had come across in the park at one time on another – old tools, horse shoes, railroad spikes, and a set of old skeleton keys that at some point apparently opened some of the estate’s doors, but the locks they had once fit seem to have long been lost or forgotten. 

“I find stuff on the grounds all the time,” Mr. Perrone said. “Cool stuff,” he added. “Crazy stuff.” 

But a bigger mystery than the keys that no longer seem to fit any locks is presented by a vast mural high on the walls of the bowling alley. Depicting scenes from Native American life, the mural was commissioned by Mr. Perkins, the former owner of the estate, in 1909, according to Wave Hill researchers, but this is where facts end and conjectures begin. 

At various points, the mural was attributed to various artists. Mr. Perkins’ descendants maintained the murals were painted by Howard McCormick. But others cast doubt on the account and argued the mural appeared to be the work of artist and explorer Frederick Samuel Dellenbaugh, who accompanied an expedition through an uncharted segment of the Colorado River, made drawings of the river’s left bank and drafted the first map of the Grand Canyon. 

Wave Hill researchers and experts polled by The Press offered various hypotheses of the mural’s authorship. The truth, it seems, is yet to be established. 

 

Underground river

About a mile away from Wave Hill sits another renowned park, Van Cortlandt, the second-largest park in the Bronx and the site of a vast lake – home to ducks, geese, a pair of swans, the occasional egret and countless catfish. 

At the southwestern edge of the lake, its water cascades down a concrete bank into a small man-made basin and then flows into a culvert guarded by a metal gate. That point, in a section of the park near W. 242nd Street, marks the end of the visible stretch of Tibbetts Brook. The waterway starts north of the city and flows through Van Cortlandt Park Lake, before vanishing.  

From the opening of the culvert onward, the remainder of the brook’s course runs entirely underground, and has done so for more than 100 years. 

Steve Duncan, an urban explorer, is one of the few people who have been inside the brook’s tunnel. It is one of the most beautiful underground channels he has ever seen, Mr. Duncan told The Press – and he has seen a lot of tunnels around the globe, including some in cities as disparate as Rome, London and Moscow. 

Mr. Duncan ventured underground on a cold winter day a few years ago, in pursuit of the mysteriously vanishing water of the brook. He donned hip-high wader boots, climbed into the culvert – and entered an “incredibly beautiful structure” of a vaulted brick tunnel, Mr. Duncan said. 

For a stretch, the tunnel runs underneath Van Cortlandt Park in a slightly curving bend, turning southwesterly toward Broadway. 

Above ground, the distance between the lake and Broadway can be covered by a brief walk, but underground, distances “feel a million times longer,” Mr. Duncan said. He was not sure precisely how long he followed the tunnel before it entered the area underneath Broadway. 

And there, the clear water of the brook merged with a sewer.

“Running underneath Broadway is this gigantic sewer tunnel [that] the clean water of Tibbetts Brook joins,” he said. It was “like adding another lane to a road.,” he said. 

Mixed with sewage, the clear water of the brook turned fetid and took on a ghastly greenish-brown tint. The walls of the brick tunnel grew slimy stalactites around an old manhole shaft. 

In the brook, “you have a very clear case of clean water,” Mr. Duncan said. “It goes underground, and  then – boom! - it’s mixed with sewage. And you can’t un-mix it, once it’s mixed with sewage.”

But for much of its length, the more than 100-year-old tunnel still looks pristine today – a reflection of the “different design standards” of a bygone era, Mr. Duncan said. 

“We call it a sewer, [but] I also call it an underground river,” he said. 

The city sent Tibbetts Brooks underground when New York joined other metropolises around the globe that started putting some of their streams into tunnels in the late 19th and early 20th century. Once convenient transportation routes and sources of drinking water, small streams had become contaminated by discharge from factories and waste from farm animals and humans, and were taking up valuable land. No longer pleased with the waterways, cities decided to hide them. 

More than a century later, environmental activists are trying to un-hide Tibbetts Brook. 

The plan is known as “daylighting,” or bringing underground waterways to the surface. The intention is to separate the brook from sewers, create a scenic above-ground stream and alleviate the pressure on the sewer system, according to environmental groups such as Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, a leading proponent of the project.

About 4-5 million gallons of water enter the Broadway sewer daily from Tibbetts Brook and Van Cortlandt Lake alone – and that is on a dry day, according to Department of Environmental Protection figures cited by the group. When it rains, the amount of water can be two to five times greater, said Christina Taylor, the director of Friends of Van Cortlandt Park who is leading the daylighting efforts. 

The water goes through the Broadway sewer to a sewage treatment plant on Wards Island. But at least 60 times each year, a surge in rainwater overflows the treatment plant and causes it to shut down – sending untreated sewage, mixed with rainwater and the water of Tibbetts Brook, into the Harlem River near 192nd Street, Ms. Taylor said. 

In all, about 1.35 billion gallons of sewage mixed with rainwater gets dumped into the river each year, she said. 

But the daylighting plan is likely to take years and millions of dollars in funding to put through. In the meantime, Mr. Duncan has a different, if perhaps quixotic, dream of shining some light on the underground river he has explored: The city could consider installing a kind of “windows” instead of metal manhole covers along Broadway, to allow New Yorkers a glimpse into the more than a century-old vaulted tunnel underneath, he said. 

 

Uncharted pipe

While Tibbetts Brook flows out of Van Cortlandt Park Lake and into a sewer, another underground channel discharges water into the lake – and nobody seems to know for sure where the water comes from. The water, meanwhile, is contaminated. 

It flows from the mouth of a tunnel on the lake’s northwestern edge, down a hill from the Parade Ground. The water accumulates in a small pool near an old, gnarled tree and trickles through the wetlands into the expanse of the lake. Its small pool never seems to freeze up, even during the coldest of winters. 

The underground pipe discharging water into the lake is believed to be connected to the Broadway sewer, but it does not seem to appear on any city-planning maps, said Christina Taylor, the head of Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, who has been testing the water and investigating its source. 

Charles McKinney, a former principal urban designer of the New York City Parks and Recreation Department who retired in August after nearly 35 years on the job, had once described the pipe as a “split-off of the Broadway sewer,” Ms. Taylor said. “But we don’t know for sure if it actually connects at all to the Broadway sewer,” she told The Press in a Sept. 22 interview.

Parks Department officials had emailed her maps of the area just the night before, “and they [were] like: we don’t see that pipe on the map,” Ms. Taylor said. 

Whether or not the pipe is connected to the Broadway sewer, it is “definitely collecting runoff from the Parade Ground,” she said. The ground is equipped with a couple of drainages, and there is another drainage at a garage near the bus stop close to the intersection of Broadway and Mosholu Avenue, and another near Van Cortlandt Stables, Ms. Taylor said.  

Her group tested the water emerging from the pipe for contaminants and found “very high” levels of fecal coliform and enterococcus bacteria, along with high levels of “conductivity” - water’s capability to pass electrical currents, which usually increases when water is mixed with salt or other types of solids, she said. As of mid-October, the Parks Department was planning to conduct more tests to determine if the bacteria came from human waste or animal waste, Ms. Taylor told The Press. If animal waste is the culprit, it likely comes from the geese on the Parade Ground, she said. 

One way to determine whether the pipe is connected to the Broadway sewer would be to conduct a dye test – deposing pigments into the sewer system and seeing whether any come out of the pipe by the lake. But the Parks Department could only conduct tests inside the park – and has done so at various locations, Ms. Taylor said. Her group is still trying to persuade the Department of Environmental Protection to do the same on Broadway, she said. 

“The mystery is – where is it coming from? We don’t know,” Ms. Taylor told a Sept. 21 meeting of the environment and sanitation committee of Community Board 8. 

 

The ghost of JFK’s house

A stone’s throw away from Wave Hill Park, a vast dusty-gray mansion sits on the corner of Independence Avenue and W. 252nd Street. Its wide windows have no curtains or shades, but offer a glimpse of unfinished empty spaces inside. Nobody has lived there for decades.  

The building’s address, 5040 Independence Ave., is the same as that of a 20-room mansion where a young John F. Kennedy had lived with his family in the late 1920s. Since then, the mansion changed a succession of owners. 

The drab deserted mansion that sits on the lot today is not the same house where Kennedy grew up – nor is it an entirely different one. 

“It’s the same building, but it’s been altered and enlarged,” said Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx borough historian and a history professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. The Bronx historian is appointed to the office by the borough president, like the official historians of other counties who are appointed by their local leaders. 

The latest “reincarnation” of the building “doesn’t look the same [as the Kennedys’ home],” Mr. Ultan added. 

But the skeleton, or parts of it, of the Kennedys’ former home is still there somewhere. The phantom connection to the famed family hovers around the unfinished ghost of a mansion: Views among local residents diverge on whether describing the current structure as the Kennedys’ former home is justified or not. 

“I’m sure that, for instance, many of the elements that were the structural elements of the building... are there,” Mr. Ultan said. “For instance, the foundation of the building might be original and perhaps some of the vertical beams that hold up the roof could still be there.” 

How much of the Kennedys’ former home remains on the lot? Mr. Ultan said he was not sure. But whatever the exact scope of the alterations, they were far too vast for the building to be designated as a historic landmark, he said. 

The alterations took place some time near the end of the 20th century, probably in the 1980s or 1990s, Mr. Ultan said, conceding he could not recall the exact years. The last known sale of the mansion, according to city records, took place in 1990. 

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