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  4. Washington Heights: 4 Historic
    Landmarks You Need to See

Washington Heights: 4 Historic
Landmarks You Need to See


As you ascend the escalator from the A train and step off into the streets of Washington Heights, you’re thrown into the pounding heart of a dizzyingly diverse corridor of unbeatable Dominican restaurants, kosher bakeries, Chinese food, and fruit stands spilling onto the sidewalk. 

But if you listen closely, underneath all this life are the fascinating echoes of New York City history. As you walk down the streets, you have the chance of walking over the grounds of one of the greatest defeats of the Revolutionary War, spotting the oldest remaining house in NYC, or exploring the burial grounds of some of the most famous New York citizens in history.

If you’re a Lin-Manuel Miranda fan, you also know it’s the playground of his first show In the Heights, as well as the setting for several significant historical events of Hamilton. So whether you’re a musical theatre nerd, a history nerd, or just a native or transplant looking to more deeply appreciate the area in which you live, prepare to explore the fascinating, scandalous, and endearing historical gems of Washington Heights.

washington heights apartments

Revisit the Revolutionary War in Bennett Park (Fort Washington).

We’d be remiss if we didn’t start with the neighborhood’s namesake, the former site of Fort Washington. If you’re just looking for a lovely green space and a bit of fresh air in the middle of the big city, Bennett Park has got you covered. Dog-friendly, with a small playground, it’s a pleasant area to picnic, walk, play with kids, or simply relax on the benches. But underneath this calm city oasis lies a whole heap of important, fascinating history. 

On the western side of the park, you’ll see a stone marker letting you know that you’re currently standing on the highest natural point on the island of Manhattan. At 256 feet above sea level, this was the very reason it was chosen as the location to fortify into Fort Washington during the Revolutionary War. 

Because as we all learned from Revenge of the Sith, once you have the high ground, it’s all over.

Unfortunately, British General William Howe apparently hadn’t seen Star Wars, because in November 1776, he defeated the Continental Army in one of the fiercest battles of the war. Along the eastern perimeter wall of the park, you’ll see a commemorative marble and bronze monument, and along the central pathways, an English field cannon stands sternly as a reminder of the spot’s bloody history, as well as a great Instagram opportunity (#boom).

Today, Bennett Park leans into its remarkable past by hosting a lively array of events throughout the year. The spot hosts an annual Harvest Festival, as well as a truly unmissable Revolutionary War Reenactment, complete with Redcoats and Continental soldiers going at it in order to recreate the Battle of Fort Washington.

Bennett Park (Fort Washington)

Learn the hot historical gossip at the scandalous Morris-Jumel Mansion.

The Morris-Jumel Mansion, located on West 160th Street, has the distinction of being the oldest surviving house in New York. If that wasn’t enough, it also has a delightfully scandalous history, and one closely tied to a favorite politician-turned-murderer of the 19th Century. 

The mansion was constructed in 1765, and was the home of British sympathizer Roger Morris, who made the smart move to peace out in 1776 after he saw the way things were heading.

That explains the “Morris” part of the name. But the “Jumel”… get ready.

Eliza Jumel was born in 1775, and had a hard childhood to say the least. But did she let this tumultuous childhood get her down? No way. In her 20’s, she met a wealthy French-Haitian merchant ten years her senior and put a ring on it. In 1810 they bought the Morris Mansion as their summer retreat, although they spent significant time in France as well. 

Eliza was financially savvy, an art collector, now conversant in French, and a woman constantly looking to work her way up the social ladder. After her first husband died in 1832, she remarried within 14 months…to controversial former Vice President Aaron Burr (yes, that Aaron Burr), her senior by 19 yearsBut turns out our dueling politician was not good with money. Eliza separated from him after only four months. And, and, the sugar in this steaming cup of tea? Her divorce lawyer was Alexander Hamilton, Jr., son of Alexander Hamilton. You cannot make this up.

Today, the mansion is home to a museum that’s been running for over 116 years. The house and grounds are open for tours, and there’s so much more to know. Some even say the mansion may be haunted by Eliza’s ghost, though what she has to be restless about, I’m not sure. That woman got it.

morris jumel mansion

Explore the gorgeous grounds and graves of Trinity Church Cemetery.

Trinity Church Cemetery is located on a beautiful 24-acre memorial park, originally designed by James Renwick Jr., mastermind behind the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. It’s one of the most historically significant cemeteries in New York State, housing such greats as John Jacob Astor and the #queen Eliza Jumel, in addition to writers, scientists, members of the long-ago social elite of NYC, and four different city mayors.

The grounds themselves are substantial, and a pleasure to explore. Criss-crossed by well-maintained paths and beautiful mausoleums, this is the type of cemetery that was designed to be enjoyed while paying respects to the deceased, and features gorgeous views of the river and the George Washington Bridge.

If you’re hoping to find a specific grave, you may have to make a day of it… the place is massive, with several entrances. But if you’re not worried about zombies, the tranquil, lush park can be the setting for a truly lovely day in the city.

Though the cemetery was established in 1842, it has the unique claim of being Manhattan’s only still-admitting burial ground. But don’t confuse it with its sister cemetery down south on Wall Street, which gets to brag about having Alexander Hamilton, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, and Angelica Schuyler Church.

Also notable is the Church of the Intersession, located at the corner of the park, on Broadway and W 155th. It has an interesting history of its own, with an eye-catching combination of the Gothic Revival and Tudor styles on display.

A hidden treasure for the history buff and nature lover alike, Trinity Church Cemetery and its surrounding grounds are well worth a leisurely afternoon of exploration and appreciation.

Trinity Church Cemetery in washington heights

Enjoy the charm of The Little Red Lighthouse (Jeffrey’s Hook Light).

There’s something undeniably quirky and charming about monuments that are named with such unambiguous accuracy. No need to dig deeper, here, folks. This is a lighthouse. It’s small, it’s red, and it won’t apologize. 

Located underneath the George Washington Bridge, this four-story treasure is so cute that it was literally made into a 1942 children’s book called… you guessed it, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.

History time! Jeffrey’s Hook is a spit of land jutting out into the river, creating one of the narrowest places along the Hudson, and during the 1900s had caused several shipwrecks. In 1921, a squat little lighthouse, originally built for the New Jersey Side of the river in 1880, was re-erected on Jeffrey’s Hook, and manned for only ten years until the George Washington Bridge was built, rendering it a tad overshadowed.

In 1948, the lighthouse was decommissioned, but the proposal to auction it off was met with thousands of protesting letters from children across the nation, who had become inordinately fond of the lighthouse due to the 1942 children’s book. Experts (me) say it was probably the “Most Likely to be Written in Crayon” letter-writing campaign in history. But it worked! The lighthouse is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and is the only remaining lighthouse on the island of Manhattan. 

The lighthouse is situated in a peaceful waterfront area of Fort Washington Park. It’s visible briefly when commuting across the bridge or the water, but exploring it by foot or bicycle gives you a chance to appreciate it up close. A few picnic tables are available if you’d like to make an afternoon of it. 

If you can make it out there during Open House New York in October or the Little Red Lighthouse Festival (it has its own festival!), which will hopefully return this year, you’ll also have the unique option of getting to climb up to the top for a lovely view of the Hudson River and the Palisades.

Little Red Lighthouse in washington heights

Washington Heights is incredibly layered.

If any of this makes Washington Heights sound dry and dusty… think again. This vibrant neighborhood has continued to grow and change for hundreds of years since European colonization. It houses layers upon layers of history, on top of which sits bodegas, murals, street markets, incredible restaurants, and plenty of inimitable NYC citizens, making history of their own.

Keep exploring New York, nerds. Who knows what we’ll find next.

washington heights