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The Vision of William E. Dodge and George C. Perk: Riverdale's Preservation Legacy (1894-2008)

In 1894 Riverdalian William E. Dodge met with his neighbors at the Riverdale Library to brainstorm ways to stop the destruction of the cliffs of the Palisades across the Hudson. The Palisades were a geologic and scenic wonder of the world, but quarrying was leveling them so rapidly that by the time Grant’s Memorial Tomb was dedicated in 1897, its glorious vista had

been reduced to a squalid industrial waterfront. Dodge sought counsel from Frederick Law Olmsted, who was then advising Boston on its metropolitan parkway system. Six years after the library meeting, Dodge and his neighbors established the Palisades Interstate Park Commission. Theodore Roosevelt, himself a great parks man, appointed Riverdalian George C. Perkins, who gave Riverdale Riverdale Park and Wave Hill, to lead the Commission, which he did until he died in 1920. The centerpiece of the conservation strategy was to use the legal protection of parkway to conserve the landscape.

Dodge and Perkins were inspired by their success with the Palisades to apply the same strategy on the New York side of the Hudson. Riverside Drive, designed by Olmsted, had successfully protected views and created parks along Manhattan’s waterfront. In 1902 Dodge and Perkins rallied Riverdale to support a bridge from Inwood to Spuyten Duyvil that would carry Riverside Drive across the Harlem River and protect scenic views and open space in Washington Heights, Inwood, Spuyten Duyvil and Riverdale.

In 1906, New York City appropriated $1.6 million to design and begin the bridge, and Dodge and Perkins went to work raising another $1 million for the parkway’s parkland borders and statuary. In 1909 the cornerstone for the future bridge was laid at the top of Spuyten Duyvil Hill, in what is now Hudson Memorial Park. While the bridge project stalled over questions of design and engineering, Perkins was able to have much of Inwood Hill set aside for parkland. He enlisted young John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the cause. When Rockefeller received the bulk of his inheritance from his father in 1917, he made his first expenditure the land for Ft. Tryon Park. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. advised the city and philanthropists on the route, bridge, and park developments.

Riverdale got its bridge in 1936. The Henry Hudson Parkway was hailed as a stunning achievement of engineering and beauty. In Manhattan it covered the railroad in Riverside Park and created hundreds of acres of waterfront park. It graced Riverdale with eleven bridges designed by landscape architect Gilmore D. Clarke, and parks like Hackett, Phyllis Post

Goodman and the Bell Tower Memorial Park – and Hudson Memorial Park, with the statue of Henry Hudson contributed by the Riverdalians. When development followed the Parkway, it took the form of other grand boulevards; handsome architecture that preserved Riverdale as a model for local development which is responsive to the needs of the community.

Clarke went on to design the most famous parkways in the country, including the Blue Ridge Parkway through North Carolina and Virginia, and the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia.

The Riverdale Nature Preservancy and the Henry Hudson Parkway in the Bronx

Preserving a parkway in New York City has proven to be a tremendous challenge.

In 1977, Riverdale was shocked by a State plan to widen the parkway to six lanes, which would have eliminated much of its landscaped verge. Jonathan (Cord) Lagerman organized Friends of the Greenbelt to “stop the Deeganization of the Parkway,” to keep it from turning into another Major Deegan Expressway. As a result of their efforts, the parkway remains four lanes through Riverdale. Its landscaped median was sacrificed, but the green verge on either side was preserved. Their euphoria was tempered by an unwelcome surprise at the end: the State blanketed the parkway’s bridges and roads with new expressway-scale sign structures-- a

detail left off of their presentations.

Friends of the Greenbelt, later reorganized as the Riverdale Nature Preservancy, was galvanized by new City and State DOT projects over the past dozen years. In the late 1990s, DOT installed chain link fences to prevent dumping in the wooded area that borders the parkway north of Fieldston – parkland once intended by the Park Department to have a walking path. The

new fence restricted all public access. In 2000, volunteers led by several Preservancy board members received permission from the Parks Department to create Endor Community Garden in a section of the Parkway verge that remained unfenced. The hope was to decrease the likelihood that this and other sections of the parkway’s parkland would lose public access.

In 2001 the Preservancy formed the Henry Hudson Parkway Task Force in response to a new spate of unsightly projects on the parkway in Riverdale. The task force identified sites along the parkway for new greenstreet gardens, planted pots on the overpasses and trees along the service roads – all to make the public aware of the parkway’s potential.

When the NYC DOT planned to fortify the parkway’s ornamental bridges according to current safety standards, it proposed covering the stone walls of the Parkway’s overpasses in Riverdale with concrete topped with chain link. Alerted by the Preservancy, the Art Commission of the City of New York pressed DOT to come up with a design worthy of the picturesque parkway and Riverdale. The compromise design, while far from perfect, preserved the traditional stonework and wooden fencing.

In 2008, the State DOT announced a new plan to replace all of the signs along the Parkway with larger structures and panels, which would obliterate the stone bridges. The Preservancy immediately reached out to the involved agencies, urging them to choose and site the signs with sensitivity to the park context. DOT has agreed to reduce the number of structures, including large ones planned for the service roads. The Preservancy has not given up winning further concessions.

A comprehensive plan for the parkway

Years of experience have shown the danger of responding to projects at the eleventh hour. “Mitigation” is not the same as good planning. For that reason the task force enlisted the State’s support for designating the parkway as a NYS Scenic Byway, which would give it a corridor management plan and access to special funds to carry it out. That effort was unfortunately sidelined by the City, while it considers “re-purposing” parkways like the Henry Hudson. Undeterred by this setback, the Preservancy turned to a more powerful tool.

The most powerful tool to protect the Parkway: listing in the National Register

Two years ago, at the Preservancy’s request, the New York State Office of Parks and Historic Preservation (SHPO) agreed to evaluate the parkway’s eligibility for listing in the National Register. SHPO determined that the parkway does indeed retain enough of its design integrity to make it eligible, and urged the Preservancy to sponsor its nomination. At this writing the Preservancy continues to work with the State Parks Office and the National Park Service to prepare the nomination. The Preservancy has also consulted with the Merritt Parkway Conservancy and similar organizations to take advantage of their experience in developing the most effective nomination. Being listed in the Register—becoming a state or national landmark—means that any project within the parkway boundary involving federal money will be subject to review by SHPO. The highway, service roads, overpasses, sidewalks, retaining walls and landscaping and adjacent “incidental” parks will all be included. The Henry Hudson Parkway will be the first State parkway in New York City to receive this distinction.

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