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Carmansville, quaint architecture bookmarks an old Washington Heights enclave

Former 32nd Precinct Mounted Police Station House, Washington Heights, NYC
©2010 Eric K. Washington

The name posted on a public playground at the southeast corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 152nd Street stirs few local memories today. But a quaint building across the street bookmarks the once distinctive enclave of 19th-century upper Manhattan known as Carmansville.

"Trans-Harlem" area of upper Manhattan

Built in 1871, the former 32nd Precinct Mounted Police Station house is a holdout from the days when this area was a largely residential country district. Carmansville. The areawas referred to as a “trans-Harlem” sector of upper Manhattan, where mounted police were a substantial part of its force. The old four-story precinct house is built in the French Second Empire style, its mansard roof with iron cresting still conspicuous above the relatively low-scale streetscape.

The former police building--and today's playground--sit along what was Carmansville's main street. The area's namesake had situated a railroad depot, a wharf and a hotel at the foot of 152nd Street at the Hudson River.

But who was this Carman fellow?

Richard F. Carman

Richard F. Carman held several public offices including Alderman and School Inspector. But he may be best remembered for rebuilding much of New York City that fire had destroyed.

Born in 1801, Carman learned carpentry and building as a boy while making packing boxes for merchants. His reputation won him building contracts at a critical time for the city. The Great Fire of 1835 consumed the city from December 16-17 of that year, its blaze visible from as far away as New Haven and Philadelphia. In the fire's aftermath, Carman's rebuilding of much of the “burnt district” is said to have brought him enough wealth to continue building and investing in real estate, which grew in value.

While a city Alderman in 1842, he sold Trinity Church 24 acres of his remote property for a cemetery, which is today Manhattan's only active burying ground. In 1847 he offered the new Church of the Intercession its first home in “a small building opposite the grounds” east of the cemetery, on West 154th Street, and facilitated in having that street de-mapped from the city’s street map on the burial ground site. Concurrently he set about building up the surrounding area into a village.

Naming Carmansville

It could be said that it takes a son-in-law to raise a village, or at least to name it. In nearby Trinity Church Cemetery, a black granite monument to Carman’s right belongs to city surveyor Gardiner Avery Sage (1813-1882). The latter was married to one of Carman's daughters. Sage’s detailed maps remain invaluable chronicles of the city’s mid-19th-century growth from lower Manhattan to its upper reaches. There is a likelihood that, as a mapmaker, Sage contributed to codifying the flourishing new village as "Carmansville" in deference to his father-in-law.

In 1865, Carman was a pall-bearer for his famous Washington Heights neighbor, Madame Eliza Jumel, also laid to rest in Trinity Church Cemetery. As he helped to bury her here, he might easily have observed the cemetery’s growth during the recent Civil War. He might have reflected upon the imminent changes unfolding over the adjacent tracts of his Carmansville, or Audubon Park.

Upon Carman's own death in July 1867, a New York Times obituary read, "Mr. Carman dispensed his wealth liberally, and his ear was ever open to the appeals of the needy and friendless."

Carman was interred in the grounds that had once belonged to him. The city he had helped to rescue from the ashes was still thriving, imminently poised to overtake his doorstep in upper Manhattan.

The old mounted police station house now belongs to a local church. But the building, which the city designated an official landmark in 1986, still calls the area's history to attention.

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