In 1915, give or take a year, a young woman from one of the new fashionable apartment buildings in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan brought a speckled hen to the mansion-turned-clubhouse-turned roadside inn-turned police station on West 177th Street. The hen was set loose among the dozen or so other hens that lived in a broad field behind the station. She spent the rest of her years living in rural luxury with the 207 policemen of the brand-new 42nd Police Precinct of New York City.
Lady Alice, as the men called her, loved spending time with the policemen, and in fact, she preferred being with them than with her fellow hens. She enjoyed sitting on their shoulders and eating out of their hands.
Lady Alice also enjoyed the company of Sir Tom, the police station cat. They would drink out of the same water bowl and play together in the kitchen garden behind the station, where the men had planted vegetables to conserve food during the war years (Lady Alice reportedly never nibbled on the vegetables, preferring to dig for worms.) On cold nights along the Hudson River, cat and hen would lay side by side in front of the station’s wood stove.
For Lady Alice, Sir Tom, and the men of the 42nd Precinct, life was good in the old Rathbone mansion at 177th Street and Haven Avenue. According to articles in The New York Times, the large, rambling frame structure on the banks of the Hudson River was surrounded by tall fruit and shade trees. The old-fashion kitchen garden had box hedges around the beds, and the grounds featured fine lawns.
The view from the house “was a very fine one, and extended for miles up and down the Hudson River.” The five-acre parcel also featured large sheds and stables that once accommodated up to 100 horses. (The New York Police Department may have used the stables for its new police dogs in the 1910s.)
The ground floor of the building served as a dormitory with about 30 beds for the police reserves. On the floor above was another dormitory for the men on duty. Every day, the men awoke to the sounds of birds. They spent their leisure time swimming, fishing, boating, gardening, watching cows graze in an adjoining field, and playing with Lady Alice and Sir Tom.
The New 42nd Police Precinct
In June 1912, Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo created two new police precincts to serve the northern end of Manhattan. The new 37th Precinct, stationed at 407 Lenox Avenue, was bounded by 110th and 145th streets. The new 42nd Precinct, stationed at 1389 St. Nicholas Avenue, was bounded by 165th Street, the Harlem River, Dyckman Street, and the Hudson River. It also included the Harlem River Speedway, between 155th and 165th streets.
In June 1912, the city leased a new two-story brick store with cellar and loft at 1389 St. Nicholas Avenue for $6,000 a year. The plan was to use this building as a temporary police station for the 42nd Precinct until a permanent building could be constructed.
The problem with this building was that it was stuffy and hot in summer months, so the men on duty could not get a good night’s sleep. Newly elected Commissioner Arthur Woods promised them better quarters, and, after a short search, selected the old Rathbone house, or what was by then called the old Arrowhead Inn. The owner of the property at this time was Benjamin Altman, of department-store fame.
The Home of William Howe Guion and Robert C. Rathbone
In 1889, Robert C. Rathbone, a Civil War veteran, volunteer firefighter, and insurance broker (he was called “the dean of the insurance business in New York City”), purchased the house and property on what was then called Depot Lane (or Depot Road). This home was reportedly built in the 1860s by William Howe Guion, of the shipping line Guion and Company.
I’m not sure whether Robert Rathbone ever lived in the house — in the early 1900s, his son, R. Bleecker Rathbone, resided in another home on the other side of Depot Lane — but I do know that in 1897 the home was leased by the Suburban Riding and Driving Club, a popular organization for horsemen established in May 1894 (the blog, My Inwood, has a great article on the Suburban Riding and Driving Club with lots of photos.)
The club added a new wing to the home that featured open glass sides, which, along with a spacious piazza and open fireplace, was quite inviting to visitors on sunny winter days after a sleigh ride. The club also featured a café and main dining hall finished in rich red, and a ladies’ parlor with velvet carpeting, green walls, and big easy chairs and divans.
In 1904, Robert Rathbone sold all of his property along Depot Lane to Roxton Realty. The real estate syndicate’s plan was to develop the 105 lots, but for some reason the plans fell through.
Robert, who was about 80 years old at this time, moved into an apartment building at 118 West 130th Street.
By 1908, development in Washington Heights was in full swing. All the streets were opened, sewers were installed, and the large rock formations had been removed from the more prominent plots to make way for apartment buildings.
Despite all the surrounding development, the area around the old Depot Road remained bucolic.
That year, Benjamin Riley, an inn keeper from Saratoga, New York, leased the former Rathbone property and opened a roadhouse inn called the Arrowhead Inn in the former horsemen’s clubhouse.
For the next five years, the crowds came to the Arrowhead Inn to feast on Ben’s specialty — frogs’ legs (Ben liked to boast that more frogs legs were consumed at the Arrowhead than at any other place in America). The crowds also came to participate in Ben’s famous four-in-hand road races, which he started in October 1908 to tie in with the horse show at the Madison Square Garden.
The idea was to have all the participants race from the inn to the Garden, where the horses would then be judged in the ring at the National Horse Show. The winners received a $500 cup called the Arrowhead Inn Challenge Trophy.
When his lease on the Rathbone house was up in September 1913, Ben Riley decided to build a new and even better inn across the street on the former property of John M. Hopkins and Augusta Haven Hopkins, pictured below. He purchased the two-acre plot, which included a large estate then occupied by W.H. Summerville, for about $160,000.
In Part II, I’ll tell you about the final years of the old 42nd Precinct police station and Arrowhead Inn (as is typical for Old New York stories, devastating fires and development are involved)…