The Audubon Mural Project: Birds in the Orchard

Photo: Mike Fernandez/Audubon

Over the course of an overcast and rainy week this last month, the newest installment in the Audubon Mural Project—the most ambitious yet—took shape on the west wall of the “Stella” near the corner of Broadway and 155th Street. The five-story-high Swallow-tailed Kite by Newark-based artist Lunar New Year flies a few yards from the Audubon Monument in Trinity Cemetery and is the first of the series inside the footprint of Minnie’s Land, the farm that was Audubon’s home from May 1842 until his death in January 1851. Lunar New Year filled the outline with twelve birds that, like the kite, are threatened by climate change: Scarlet Tanager, American Kestrel, Black-and-white Warbler, Tree Swallow, Northern Harrier, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Golden Eagle, White-throated Sparrow, Ring-billed Gull, Common Raven, and Baltimore Oriole.

Watch Lunar New Year’s mural take shape: https://vimeo.com/141862051

The gas station that sits beneath the mural belies the bucolic setting the Audubons enjoyed more than a century and a half ago. Here, on a relatively flat part of their farm’s highest elevation, and extending west down the hillside, Audubon’s younger son John Woodhouse planted an orchard of more than forty fruit trees, including a special peach Audubon asked his protégé Spencer Baird (later the Smithsonian’s first curator) to send him from Pennsylvania. A spring originating near this spot flowed through the orchard and down the hill on the way to the flower gardens adjacent to the Audubon’s house.

Audubon family correspondence in the 1840s is full of reports on the farm’s progress. In May 1844, while Audubon was traveling in New Bedford, elder son Victor reported that “everything looks well in the field & Garden, except the fine nectarine tree, which has been nearly killed by grubs, Henry [Mallory, Victor’s brother-in-law] and I dug them out yesterday, and examined the roots of all the trees that appeared sickly. One of the nectarine trees has about two dozen fruits on it as large nearly as the end of a finger – The peaches and pears look tolerably well. John is busy at the upper fields [east of the orchard] and the potatoes &c are up, the peas in blossom, and the carrot, up!”

Orchard to Filling Station

In its century-long journey from orchard to gas station, the hundred-foot-square lot passed through several owners and multiple uses. In late 1850, a few months before Audubon’s death, Lucy Audubon and her sons agreed to sell the entire plot of land bounded by present-day 155th and 156th Streets, Broadway, and Amsterdam—including the orchard and open fields. Dennis Harris bought the property and in the same transaction sold the 25-x-100-foot lot where the spring originated—approximately the area where gas pumps now sit—back to Lucy Audubon.

Over the next few years, while Minnie’s Land evolved into Audubon Park, a suburban neighborhood with curvilinear drives and Italianate villas fitted into the rock-studded topography, Harris divided his property into rectangular building lots aligned to Manhattan’s grid. In May 1864, when Lucy Audubon sold her last remaining Audubon Park property to lawyer Jesse Benedict, the “spring lot” went along with it, though Benedict seems to have had little use for it. A couple of years later, he sold the lot to his Audubon Park neighbors Charles Kerner and Frederick Kirtland, who were investing in neighborhood real estate.

In 1868, Kerner and Kirtland sold the hundred-foot-square lot on the corner of Broadway and 155th Street to the property’s most colorful, if most elusive, owner: twenty-five-year-old Lavinia Hawley, whose father Seth was Chief Clerk for the New York City Police Department. Neighborhood lore held that Miss Hawley had been engaged to George Vanderbilt, favorite son and heir presumptive of Cornelius Vanderbilt. When George died during the American Civil War (without ever seeing combat), his father gave the house to Miss Hawley in his memory. Or so the story went. Vanderbilt’s name does not appear in the deed, but his involvement seems likely given that the $24,000 purchase price was far beyond Seth Hawley’s financial circumstances and salary. More telling, the property was registered in Lavinia Hawley’s name. Northern Manhattan proved salubrious for Miss Hawley, or perhaps water from the spring in the back yard had restorative powers: whatever the reason, the 1870 Federal census taker recorded that she was twenty-eight years old; a decade later, she had only reached thirty-one.

When Seth Hawley died in 1884, of pneumonia contracted when he insisted on going to the office with a heavy cold, the New York Police Department staged a splendid funeral for him, complete with police escort from his house to the Church of the Intercession (then at Broadway and 158th Street) and back to Trinity Cemetery, where he was buried.

A few years later, after Lavinia Hawley finally married, she sold her property to Moses Solomon, a realtor who quickly resold it to William Oscanyan, son of Hatchik Oscanyan, a multilingual author, opera librettist, world traveler, and from 1868—1874, New York City’s Turkish consul-general.

The Audubon Park Apartments circa 1910, with the Hospital for Incurables in the background. (Photo: Museum of the City of New York)
The Audubon Park Apartments circa 1910, with the Hospital for Incurables in the background. (Photo: Museum of the City of New York)

When rapid transit prompted interest in property along Broadway in the early years of the Twentieth Century, builder Henry Bulman bought the lot from the Oscanyans and considered building an apartment building there. Instead, he rethought his plan and built his Audubon Park Apartments on the adjacent lot to the north. Bulman then sold the “orchard lot” to the Sisters of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an Episcopal order founded in 1893 to care for terminally ill girls. They had begun their work in a building on West 94th Street, then moved to West 152nd Street, and finally to the corner of 155th Street where they built a four-story brick-and-stone “Hospital for Incurables.” The Sisters continued their merciful work there until 1924, and even after they ended their ministry, held onto the property for another decade. In 1936, the NY Times reported that the Trinity Corporation had bought it and might build a “twenty-story apartment house” there.

A rare image of the
A rare frontal image of the “Hospital for Incurables” in the background (right) seen from The Hispanic Society Museum. The Audubon Park Apartments sit to the left of the hospital. (Photo: Museum of the City of New York)

Any effects a twenty-story building might have had on its five-to-eleven-story neighbors became moot when Trinity erected a brick gas station on the spot in 1940, replacing it with new structures in 1945 and 1947. Various owners since 1940 have rebuilt or remodeled the location, but the property has continually served as a service garage and gas station—a drab, if functional spot surrounded by architecturally interesting buildings in all directions.

While the Audubon Mural project can’t erase the effects of decades of urban development on this one city corner, Lunar New Year’s dazzling bird mural facing west and a companion piece by Italian muralist Hitnes scheduled to begin this week on the adjacent south-facing wall of the Audubon Park Apartments will now remind us that once, this spot was hospitable to many bird species—as well as the final home of the most famous American who painted them.

How to Get There

You can view Lunar New Year’s mural and watch the companion piece by Hitnes take shape from any of the corners where Broadway crosses 155th Street.

Subway:
Take the 1 to 157th Street and walk south two blocks.
Take the C to 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue and walk west two blocks.

Bus:
Take the M4 or the BX6 to Broadway and 155th Street.