Minniesland was the name of the Harlem, New York estate that John James Audubon, his wife Lucy, and sons built for themselves in 1842 with the funds they were realizing from subscription sales of Audubon’s octavo edition of The Birds of America.
The name derives from a Scottish endearment for mother that Audubon’s sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, had begun using during the family’s residence in Scotland in the 1830s when Audubon was collaborating with William MacGillivray on his Ornithological Biography.
Minniesland was Audubon’s home from 1842 until his death in 1851. As their families grew, his sons built separate houses for themselves near the original house. Both sons died at Minniesland, Victor in 1860 after several years of debilitating illness, John Woodhouse in 1862 after a short illness. The sons’ wives and children and their mother Lucy continued to live in the immediate area for several years after John’s death, but over time the various branches of the family relocated.
The estate was on Manhattan Island, north of New-York (as New York City was then called), and can be seen on a map published by Matthew Dripps in 1851, the year of Audubon’s death. Audubon’s grave was originally close to his home, but was eventually relocated to a tomb on the eastern side of the cemetery.
Below are some early prints and photo showing the Audubon home, from the days when the Audubon family lived in the house to a time in the 1920s when the house, much altered, was being slated for demolition.
The extended Audubon family lived at Minniesland from 1842 to 1863. These two decades were marked by many significant family events, including the continuing publication of several octavo editions of The Birds of America, the publication of the Imperial Folio edition of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845-1848), and the continuing publication of octavo editions of The Quadrupeds of North America.
In 1858, John Woodhouse Audubon began publication of a second folio edition of The Birds of America with the help of the lithographer, Julius Bien. The Bien edition was discontinued in 1860 as a result of financial difficulties. Much of the family’s residence was marked by trouble and loss, including the dementia and death of John James in 1851, and the early deaths of Victor Gifford (his house is pictured above) in 1860 and John Woodhouse (his house is pictured below) in 1862. In 1863, Lucy was forced to sell the property in order to satisfy family debts.
I have corresponded with sisters Alice Ross and Kathleen McKenna, two members of the McGrath Family, the last family to live in the Audubon house. Alice has written a short description of the family’s experience in the Harlem house that she was kind enough to share:
Many of our ancestors, all members of the McGrath family, were the last people to live in what had been the home of John James Audubon in New York City’s Washington Heights, Minniesland.
The McGraths took up residence sometime after 1910. The elders were our great grandparents, Patrick McGrath and his wife, Margaret Flynn McGrath. The circumstances regarding their living in the home are not clear; they were possibly caretakers or simply renters. The McGraths had emigrated from Ireland and bore numerous sons and daughters who also had families that eventually inhabited the house.
At one time, many McGraths lived within the rambling structure which had been divided into apartments. McGraths died there, and McGraths were born there. One of those babies was our mother, Helen McCullough. Although it was little more than an aged house, she and her cousins often referred to it as “Audubon’s Mansion.”
Quite a few McGrath birth and death records, military documents and censuses establish them as living at 4 Audubon Park. We have ascertained #4 was Audubon’s home, as one of the residents achieved infamy. A biography of Audubon describes our great uncle as ‘a railroad worker named McGrath…” and goes on to mention how, on the walls in his apartment, he painted and wallpapered over drawings and paintings of birds Audubon had created.
McGraths lived in the house up until it was in the hands of the final owner, or scheduled to be demolished. The individual families would relocate to various apartments in the city. Our mother recalled having to dispose of much of her grandmother’s china, which had been brought to New York from Ireland. And so a sad note closed the story of the last family to inhabit Minniesland, “Audubon’s Mansion.”
Through a tip from Alan Gehret (now director of the Audubon Museum in Henderson KY), I located an illustrated article in the February 1932 Bird-Lore that includes one of the last photos of the John James Audubon home before it was moved from its original site. Below are thumbnails of the three pages of the article, written by Harold E. Decker, who stepped in to save the house just as demolition had begun. (Click the thumbnails if you wish to read the article.) According to the Bird-Lore article, the house was moved to New York City property at 161st Street, west of Riverside Drive, and work on the foundation was “already well advanced.”
The bare outlines of the see-saw fight to preserve the house can be found in the New York Times Index covering the period of October 1931 to January 1932. On December 2, 1931, the Times reported the beginning of wrecking, but just four days later, the Times reported that the house had been saved and moved to a nearby park. Subsequent mentions in the Index are too sketchy to draw conclusions about what happened to the house. It was the Great Depression, and funds for preservation would have been difficult to raise. Kathleen McKenna provided anecdotal information from an elderly relative that the lumber from the house eventually rotted away. Christopher Gray, in his New York Times Streetscapes column of Nov 27, 2005 responded to a query as to whether the house had been knocked down as part of construction of the Henry Hudson Parkway (the northerly continuation of the Westside Highway), “No, the house – between 155th and 156 Streets just a bit west of Riverside Drive – stood well inland of [the] Henry Hudson Parkway, completed in 1937. The house was torn down in 1931 by an apartment developer, after a last-minute salvage attempt. It was moved piecemeal to a nearby city lot, but funds for reconstruction fell short, and the whereabouts of the fragments of the great naturalist’s last home are unknown.”
What is there now, where the Audubon family once lived? Lou Claudio (who lived for many years in a building located on the site of the Audubon home at Minnie’s Land) has kindly provided us with some photos. The turn-of-the-century apartment buildings, river views, and areas of green are typical of Washington Heights.
Photo credits: 1) The Audubon Estate on the Banks of the Hudson. Foot of 156th Street at Carmansville. Lith. of Major and Knapp, 444 Broadway, N.Y. For D. T. Valentine’s Manual, 1865. The Audubons named their home Minniesland. 2) From Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist, 1917. Herrick, among others, championed the cause of the house, believing it deserved preservation. The buildings visible behind the house are still standing today. 3) From the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection. Used with permission. Detail showing Minnie’s Land and most of Trinity Church Cemetery. The cemetery was (and is today) divided by Broadway. The red dot (not part of the map) shows the approximate location of Audubon’s tomb just east of the Church of the Intercession located at Broadway and W. 155th Street. The tomb (which includes both family and non-family members) is marked by a large Celtic cross. 4) The Audubon House before it was demolished. 5). Victor Gifford Audubon’s home at Minnie’s Land. From Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist, 1917. 6). John Woodhouse Audubon’s home at Minnie’s Land. From Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist, 1917. 7-10) AUDUBON HOUSE ON RIVERSIDE DRIVE, NEW YORK CITY, AS IT APPEARED NOVEMBER, 1931 JUST PRIOR TO BEING TORN DOWN AND REMOVED IN SECTIONS TO NEAR-BY CITY PROPERTY. HOME OF JOHN JAMES AUDUBON IN “MINNIE’S LAND,” NEW YORK CITY, AS IT APPEARED IN THE FIFTIES OF THE LAST CENTURY. MRS. JOHN JAMES AUDUBON AND HER TWO GRANDDAUGHTERS, LUCY AND HARRIET.