Grinnell Centennial Exhibition: The Ground Beneath Our Feet (September 26, 2010)

In April 1609, Henry Hudson sailed his ship the Half Moon up a river that would eventually bear his name, looking for passage to the Pacific. On the river’s right bank stretched a verdant island some 13 miles long. The Native American Lenape people called it Manna-hatta, roughly translated as “island of many hills.”

Approximately two-thirds of the way up the island, in line with present-day 158th Street, Hudson and his crew passed a fishing camp, though in April, the Lenape people had probably not made their yearly migration to that spot yet. Up the steep hill from that fishery, beneath a high canopy of forest trees, lay a triangular piece of land, measuring just over a half of an acre – a very important half acre to the residents of 800 Riverside Drive today, but in April 1609, wholly indistinguishable from the wooded vale surrounding it.

The triangular Grinnell’s floor plan.

Although billions of years passed during the evolution of the primordial forest that covered that hillside above the river, barely three hundred years after Hudson’s voyage, the forest had disappeared beneath a cityscape of residential buildings, sidewalks, and paved streets – and an apartment building named The Grinnell sat on that triangular half-acre.

How does a wooded vale become a cityscape? Who takes the steps that humanize a primordial forest – and why? What are the economic and social catalysts? Can people or events halt the succession of changes most often termed “progress”?

On the occasion of The Grinnell’s 100th birthday, members of the Grinnell Centennial Planning Team are mounting an exhibition of more than 50 photos, prints, maps, and documents that provide answers to those questions. The exhibition, entitled “The Ground Beneath Our Feet,” tells the story of the half-acre triangle of land numbered 800 Riverside Drive, from the Lenape people of the 1600s through the Grinnell’s co-oping in the late 20th Century. It explores the individuals who have owned this unique half-acre during the last three centuries, and examines the political and economic events that inserted a triangle in the midst of the grid pattern that dominates New York’s street plan.

“The Ground Beneath Our Feet” opens Sunday, September 26th (2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.) in the Grinnell Community Room, 800 Riverside Drive. The exhibition is open to the public free of charge.

Additional hours:

  • Wednesday, September 29th: 7:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
  • Tuesday, October 5th: 7:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, October 10th: 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  • Tuesday, October 12th: 7:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, October 17th: 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Detail from an 1873 map showing Audubon Park, three decades
before construction of the Grinnell

SAVE THE DATE: The Grinnell’s 100th Birthday Party
Sunday, Octobert 17th, 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
800 Riverside Drive: Courtyard and Community Room
Birthday cake and beverages / Readings by Grinnell authors / Exhibition in the community room

1810 Federal Census showing Elizabeth Maunsell and Lydia Watkins two of the
six “lovely daughters” of New Yorker Richard Stillwell. These sisters once owned
the property where the Grinnell now sits.

Operetta diva Christie MacDonald, who was living at the Grinnell
in 1917 when she gave birth to her daughter
Christie MacDonald Gillespie in her Grinnell apartment.

The Grinnell in 1950 when it appeared on the cover of Grace Magazine.
At the time, the evangelist Sweet Daddy Grace owned 800 Riverside Drive.

Edward M. Morgan (left), New York City Postmaster who lent
his name to the street that marks The Grinnell’s eastern boundary.