When the Commissioner’s Plan was drawn up in 1811, planning out the street grid we all associate with Manhattan today, the map stopped somewhere around 155th Street. After all, at the time, hardly anyone lived above 14th Street. It was difficult to imagine people living on 100th Street, let alone 100 blocks up from that. Also, the terrain of the island gets increasingly hilly and difficult to navigate the farther north one travels. In fact, Broadway dead-ended at about 125th Street for decades, as the valley there was too steep for wagons to traverse it.
Separated from the rest of the city by both geography and topography, the northern tip of Manhattan was, for a time, a scenic and rather bucolic refuge for New York’s wealthy. The neighborhood also became home to multiple institutions for convalescence, including hospitals and asylums. It was considered an escape from urban life, with rolling hills, old-growth forests, and stunning views from the cliffs overlooking the Hudson River.
It was exactly this attractiveness and seclusion which attracted the attention (and money) of Dr. Charles V. Paterno in 1905. Paterno had been born in Castelmezzano, Italy in 1876. While still a young boy, his family’s real estate business was virtually destroyed by an earthquake, and they all sailed together to New York to start anew. Their business flourished in the booming city, and Charles was able to go to medical school at Cornell University.
His father died in 1899, however, and shortly after graduating as a doctor, Charles took up the helm of the family business along with his brother Joseph. The two were a highly successful and industrious pair, building dozens of luxurious, ultra-modern apartment blocks along Riverside Drive.
In 1905, flush with financial success, Charles began construction on his dream home high upon a cliff in Washington Heights. The four-story castle cost over $500,000 (roughly $10 million today), with no expenses spared. The New York Times even featured the castle in a 1908 article, discussing everything from its extensive use of white marble to its unique subterranean driveway from Riverside Drive to its massive Italian gardens and imposing stone retaining wall.
The home featured a mushroom cellar, an indoor swimming pool, library, music room, Turkish bath, and a $7,000 organ to be played automatically at certain times of day, including first thing in the morning to awaken him. (He got that idea from Andrew Carnegie who, for years, kept an organist on staff whose sole responsibility was to play music each morning to rouse him from his slumber.)
Dr. Paterno moved into the house in 1909 while its construction was still being finished up. He and his wife hosted lavish parties and welcomed the toasts of New York society of the era.
But ever a business man, Paterno in 1924 began construction of what would be called Hudson View Gardens: the first co-op buildings in Washington Heights. The complex, built in a pseudo-Tudor style, stood just across the street to the east of his home.
By the 1930s, Washington Heights was booming, and in 1938, Dr. Paterno announced that he would be razing his own home and building a complex of five modern apartment towers in its place, now known as “Castle Village.”
Today, all that remains of Paterno Castle are the guest house (Known as the “Pumpkin House” due to its appearance from the West Side Highway, it went on the market in 2010 for $3.9 million.) and some servants quarters.
In 2005, part of Paterno Castle’s century-old 75-foot-tall retaining wall gave way, sending thousands of tons of rock and earth onto afternoon traffic below. Fortunately no one was killed or even seriously injured. The wall has since been repaired and the eponymous gardens of the Castle Gardens towers have been replanted, offering passersby with an imagination a peek into Washington Heights’ days of yore.
Today, Dr. Paterno’s legacy lives on in more ways than just a retaining wall and some apartment towers. A developer and businessman above all else, he brought urbanity to a corner of Manhattan not even considered viable enough to be included in the 1811 grid map. He could be considered crazy for building an extravagant mansion and tearing it down just 30 years later. But practicality brought him the fortune which allowed him to build his castle. And practicality is the reason he tore it down. And now the hundreds of residents of Castle Village can enjoy the breathtaking views of the Hudson that he once enjoyed, savoring their own little escape from everyday urbanity.