Independence Avenue at W. 249th Street.

“Wave Hill” (north house), 1844; north wing, 1890; armor hall, 1928, Dwight James Baum and Bashford Dean; south wing, 1933, Oliver Perry Morton. “Glyndor II” (south house), 1927, Butler and Corse

The names we associate with Wave Hill are not those of architects, but of residents. The oldest building belonged to William Lewis Morris, a New York jurist, who bought country property on what was originally part of the Phillipse manor.  There he had constructed, in 1843-44, the first “suburban” villa of what is now Riverdale, but was then South Yonkers. The builder is unknown, and amid later additions and wings it’s hard to distinguish the elements of the original house, a three-story, hip-roofed building of local stone with a protruding bay at the entrance. (Today’s elaborate Georgian doorway is much more recent, as is everything above the second-story, including cornice and dormers.)


Morris’ rural retreat anticipated by four years the railroad tracks along the Hudson that would make commuting to New York’s business district convenient, and bring development and downtown notables to the area. When ownership passed in 1865 to William H. Appleton, a most important New York publisher, he was able to draw a stream of visitors to Riverdale, including William M. Thackeray and the famous debating philosophers, Herbert Spenser and Thomas Henry Huxley. The house, now called “Wave Hill,” was sometimes rented—in 1870, to the family of Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. (including his young son), in 1901 to Mark Twain.


Along with a mansard roof and covered veranda, Appleton added a dining wing to the north end, a narrow stone building, with windows on its curved ends, set at right angles to the axis of the original house. Major changes came with the next owner, George W. Perkins, who had been a neighbor since 1895. In 1903, Perkins, a banker and partner of J.P. Morgan, joined his property to “Wave Hill” and several other parcels, creating a large enclave to which he added terraces, greenhouses, an underground recreation building, tennis court, and swimming pool. Perkins chose to live in the southernmost mansion, which he rebuilt as “Glyndor”(1905); in 1909, “Wave Hill” was leased for life to Columbia zoologist Bashford Dean. The remarkable Dr. Dean was a collector of arms and armor, and designed a wing for their display at the north end of his house, a stone nave with an arched-beam ceiling and pointed windows, ending in an apse (1929, in collaboration with architect Dwight James Baum). This surprising medieval addition (whose interior—with ceiling bosses and carved stone fireplace—should not be left unvisited) is harmonized by its irregular stone exterior with the Morris-Appleton buildings.


But the Perkins taste for the Georgian Revival ultimately came to dominate the estate. When Glyndor burned in 1926, it was replaced by today’s smaller, elegant Glyndor II (by Butler and Corse), in red brick with a white pediment over Ionic columns, fanlights and sidelights at the doorways, and other characteristics of the style. After the death of Bashford Dean, members of the Perkins family reclaimed Wave Hill, and in the 1930’s renovated it too in the neo-Georgian manner: the mansard was replaced; a roof balustrade and swagged frieze appeared; the dining wing lost its chandeliers and Victorian carvings; a balancing wing was added to the south.


The true importance of the Perkins tenure at Wave Hill was not architectural. George Perkins was an enthusiastic nature conservationist, a planner of the Palisade Interstate Park we can see, across the river, from his lawns and terraces. The arboretums, gardens, and greenhouses at Wave Hill have made the grounds, today owned by New York City, a center for the study of ecology and landscape. And by personally consolidating several estates in the western Riverdale area, Perkins started a movement of resistance to the subdivision which inevitably would have followed imposition of the grid street plan by the turn-of-the-century Department of Street Improvement. Frederick Law Olmsted had earlier argued that the northern Bronx be kept in a natural state through careful planning, only to be dismissed by those interested in maximizing commercial development. In 1906, Perkins—along with the Dodges at Greyston, and other rich neighbors—formed the Park District Protective Agency, dedicated to maintaining the outlines of the original holdings around selective new building and renovation. If the motive was exclusivity, the effect has been to save the ancient trees and narrow byways that make Riverdale (now in part a Landmarked Historic District) a unique New York experience. 


Under the Perkins’ ownership, the Wave Hill-Glyndor complex finished out its lifetime as host to the famous. From 1942 to 1945, musical exile Arturo Toscanini lived there. Later, it housed the British UN delegate, receiving visits from international figures such as Konrad Adenauer and Britain’s Queen Mother. In 1960, donation of the Perkins estate gave every New Yorker the opportunity to become Wave Hill’s most recent guest.  


David Bady



Lehman College Art Gallery and David Bady