The case of the mysterious Riverside house, and why someone built it
People go to Riverside Park for three reasons: to feel like they’re in “nature,” to jog, or to smoke weed. The nature revelers, speedy joggers, or high Columbia students might not notice the finer details of one of Manhattan’s few expansive green spaces on their jaunts down the hill from campus, but I am of a more observant type.
The first time I went into Riverside Park, I too enjoyed the grass, trees, and lovely view of the Hudson. On my way back to my dorm, though, I noticed a house sitting inconspicuously off to the side near 108th street. Off-white and just a couple stories high, it practically blended in with the tall wall behind it. In my first two years of college, I glanced at this building many times and each time wondered who the heck was living in Riverside Park.
Before this mysterious landmark was renovated, it was a rundown one-story limestone shed used to store tools. It couldn’t fit more than a few people inside at a time. There was graffiti on the walls and debris surrounding it. The backside of the house was commonly used as a bathroom for homeless people. It stood like this for 100 years.
On September 14, 2003, the building reopened as the Peter Jay Sharp Volunteer House. The building could not be expanded horizontally without killing nearby trees, so an extra story was added on top and the original structure was renovated. Though it looks like a comfortable cottage, no one actually lives there.
In a New York Times article published in 2003, James T. Dowell, president of the Riverside Park Fund and commissioner of the building, said that the house is meant to be an “architectural folly.” By this, he means that it is designed to be an unexpected visual experience that is semi-hidden in the landscape. My surprise and vague confusion at the building (and perhaps yours, tool) is actually well placed.
Illustration by Yotam Deree
The renovation project in total cost $1.3 million. It was financed by the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation. Peter Sharp was a hotelier and developer who dedicated most of his life to building high-priced buildings in Manhattan. Additional financiers were the LuEsther T. Mertz Advised Fund of the New York Community Trust, the Booth-Ferris Foundation and Peter Sharp’s mother. The architect was Jeffrey Murphy of Murphy, Burnham & Buttrick.
The first design for the house, according to the Landmark West preservation group, was not appropriate. “The precipitous height of the proposed building,” said Landmark West, “gives it the appearance of a ski chalet in Vail, Colorado, rather than a park structure in New York City.” After this criticism, the designs were redrawn to the structure as it stands today.
Once a mere shack, the building now has heat and water year-round. The first floor remains a storage room. The mezzanine is used for plant propagation. A bathroom and small kitchen make the building livable even though no one occupies it. The newly-added second floor is home to the Evelyn Sharp Meeting Room, which has an 18 feet ceiling and is lined with pine and Douglas fir timbers. Picture windows look out into the trees in the park, giving the room the feeling of a treehouse.
The most significant use of the Peter Jay Sharp Volunteer House is, fittingly, the center for the Riverside Park Fund’s Grassroots Volunteer Program. It is the only building in New York City dedicated to volunteer park work.
So on your next excursion to Riverside, slow your jog (if it isn’t already slow), or take hike before you light up, and take a gander at the house among the trees.