Bohemia Blog by Agent Erik Sisco
As a real estate agent in Upper Manhattan, one of the more common questions I hear from clients is, “Do you have anything on Convent Avenue?”
It’s no wonder the word has gotten out. From its magnificent churches, to the breathtaking Gothic architecture of City College, to its quiet, tree-lined banks of historic row houses, Convent Avenue is widely considered one of the most beautiful streets in Manhattan.
Let me preface this by saying that I may be a bit biased, as I currently call Convent Avenue home. Before I was an agent at Bohemia, I was a client, and I can now safely say that our agent at the time knew exactly what she was doing on our showing, as she guided us down nearly the entirety of Convent Avenue. I fell in love with the street and neighborhood well before we even saw the apartment. I’m happy to say that my love still knows no bounds.
Running mostly through the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of West Harlem, from 127th Street in the south to 152nd Street in the north, and nestled between Amsterdam and St. Nicholas Avenues to the west and east, Convent Avenue is said to have gotten its name from the Convent of the Sacred Heart, which was erected south of 136th Street in the mid 19th century. Though the convent no longer stands (the site is now part of the southern end of City College’s campus), Convent Avenue is still home to many ornate and historic churches, including the Church of the Annunciation at 131st Street, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church at 141st Street, and the Convent Avenue Baptist Church at 145th Street.
Convent Avenue is steeped in American and New York City history. Many prominent figures have called Convent Avenue home over the years, but perhaps its most famous resident was the neighborhood’s namesake (and the subject of a little musical you may have heard of), Alexander Hamilton. It is said that the Founding Father became enamored with the area while on a hunting trip and, much to the chagrin of his contemporaries downtown, bought a 33-acre tract of land and, in 1802, built his country estate, the Hamilton Grange, on what is now Convent Avenue and 141st Street. In 2008, the National Parks Service famously lifted the Grange in its entirety onto a platform and moved it to nearby St. Nicholas Park. To this day, in the yard of St. Luke’s Church, there stands a statue of Alexander Hamilton, seemingly holding court over Convent Avenue and the area that he loved so dearly.
Convent Avenue also played a significant role in the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century. Many luminary African American artists and leaders of the time had homes on Convent Avenue, from Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Billy Strayhorn to civil rights pioneer Walter White and writer George S. Schuyler. Althea Gibson, the first African American tennis player to win Wimbledon, practiced and lived on Convent Avenue, as did Harold Stevens, the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of the State of New York. It was at this time that the area earned the nickname of “Sugar Hill,” due in part to the higher quality of housing found on streets like Convent Avenue and reflective of the “sweet life” to be had there for affluent members of the community.
Perhaps the defining feature of Convent Avenue is that it runs directly through the campus of City College, which was relocated there in 1906 (then named the College of the City of New York). Affectionately called “the Harvard of the proletariat,” City College was the nation’s first free public institution of higher education, and is known for its history of diversity and the opulent architecture of its campus. Many of the lavish Queen Anne and Northern Renaissance-style row houses that still stand today north of campus were home to early City College administrators and professors. Likewise, in the early 1900s, the development of the low-rise apartment buildings along the southern end of Convent Avenue (including my own) provided additional housing for the college’s employees and their families. Taking a stroll through the campus today, one almost feels as if they’ve momentarily stepped out of the city altogether. With its distinctive gothic spires and rolling green lawns, the campus is a picturesque and serene oasis in the middle of the bustle of Manhattan.
Just across the street from City College at 135th Street, you can find another unique reminder of the city’s history, the Croton Gatehouse. Once part of the vast Croton Aqueduct system, which brought water to the city from upstate, the castle-like, Romanesque-style building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, and was converted into a theatre space for Harlem Stage in 2006. You can still see remnants of the old pumping station, as large gooseneck vents litter the plaza around the building.
Thanks to the landmark status of buildings like the Croton Gatehouse (and much of the rest of the street), Convent Avenue has remained largely unchanged since the beginning of the 20th century. The lack of new development and the presence of very few commercial and retail establishments has helped make Convent Avenue a serene time capsule of a bygone New York. However, with convenient access to express train lines and close proximity to the nightlife and shopping districts of Hamilton Heights and Central Harlem, residents of Convent Avenue enjoy it’s quiet, secluded beauty without giving up the conveniences of city living.
If you find yourself in the area, I highly recommend taking yourself on a walk down this beautiful, storied avenue. And if you happen to find a home here, consider yourself lucky. I know I do.
(Maybe I can help you find that home!)