When we think of mansions in Manhattan, we generally think of buildings sitting on one or two or maybe a few lots in the numbered street grid. By the end of the nineteenth century, you had to be extraordinarily wealthy to buy enough land to have a free-standing house on open land. The free-standing houses that exist are either so old that they date from the era when there were farms in upper Manhattan, like Hamilton Grange, or were built by people so rich that no rules applied, like Carnegie and Frick.
It used to be different. In the mid-1800s, a number of wealthy-but-not-Carnegie-wealthy people built free-standing mansions in upper Manhattan. The 1937 picture above, taken by Berenice Abbott as part of her Changing New York project, shows the Wheelock House, a few years before it was demolished. Officially, the house was at 661 West 158thStreet, except that it was built in 1870, ten years before West 158th Street was formally opened. This was a large free-standing house on a large piece of land. It was obviously not at its best when Abbott photographed it, but it looks bad to our eyes, in part, because the French Second Empire style has become a cliché for horror movies.
In terms of the isolation of that location, it should be noted that the original street grid ended at 155th Street because the commissioners who laid out the plan didn’t see a need for more, that New York would not grow so far north in the foreseeable future. It was less than 70 years from that plan to when 158th Street was opened. Here’s what the site looks like today, via google maps:
In short, one of the many differences between New York and other US cities, starting in the late 1800s, is that rich people did not have free-standing houses with grounds. They lived in houses immediately next to other houses or, increasingly, apartments.