Does this Riverside Drive mansion really have a tunnel to the Hudson River?

In the early 1900s, Riverside Drive almost eclipsed Fifth Avenue as New York City’s most opulent millionaire’s row. Many free-standing mansions were built along this breezy, leafy road for Gilded Age business barons and titans of industry, with unspoiled views of Riverside Park and the Hudson River.

More than a century later, only two of those free-standing mansions still stand. One is at West 107th Street. Stand might not be the right word; its pristine white marble facade glistens like a jewel.

This is the Schinasi mansion at 351 Riverside Drive. A French Renaissance mini-palace, it was built in 1909 for Morris Schinasi, an immigrant from Turkey who made a fortune importing Turkish cigarettes with his brother, Solomon.

(Solomon also moved into a palatial mansion on Riverside Drive and 89th Street, which was originally built for the Rice family. Coincidentally, Solomon’s house is the second surviving free-standing mansion on Riverside.)

The exterior of the Morris Schinasi mansion was and is stunning. Designed by William B. Tuthill, the architect behind Carnegie Hall, the house features fancy dormer windows, a green tiled roof, and bronze balcony grills, according to Landmarks of New York, Fifth Edition.

The Schinasi mansion in 1909, just completed

But there’s one feature inside the house that’s truly unique, even for a Gilded Age millionaire’s mansion: a tunnel from the basement that supposedly leads to the Hudson River.

The tunnel isn’t mentioned in newspaper articles or in the Landmark Preservation Commission report designating the mansion as a historic landmark. But apparently, it really does exist.

Morris Schinasi, Turkish tobacco baron

In 2007, the New York Times mentioned the tunnel in a writeup about the mansion, which at the time was put on the market for $20 million by a Columbia University professor. (The professor bought it for an astounding $325K in 1979.)

“Its three floors included an Egyptian marble hall inlaid with Turkish glass, a Louis XVI drawing room, a library, a smoking room and a reception hall,” wrote Lily Koppel in the Times piece. “The pineapple, a traditional symbol of hospitality, is found throughout the house, set into the moldings in gold and bronze. Among the house’s unusual features is an underground passage to the Hudson River, now sealed.”

A second Times story in 2012 by Constance Rosenblum even featured a photo of what might be the tunnel or perhaps a basement passageway leading to it.

Schinasi mansion in 1932

When the tunnel was built, however is puzzling—as is the tunnel’s purpose. The Times wondered as well.

“The mansion’s most beguiling feature is a tunnel in the basement that was thought to have extended west to the Hudson River,” wrote Rosenblum. “But exactly what had the tunnel been used for? To smuggle in Turkish tobacco, or perhaps alcohol or hashish? Or as a conduit for ladies of the evening?”

Every house in New York has its mysteries.

Curious about the Gilded Age mansions that once lined Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side? Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour Sunday, August 29 that explores the history of Riverside Drive and the short period of time when Riverside rivaled Fifth Avenue as New York City’s millionaire colony. Click the link for more details.

[Third image: MCNY, 1909; x2010.28.118; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: NYPL]

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14 Responses to “Does this Riverside Drive mansion really have a tunnel to the Hudson River?”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    Cool houses! Grateful that this is still standing as a single-family dwelling. Long may it do so.

  2. Greg Says:

    Very interesting. Here is the 2012 Times story in full if anyone is interested

  3. Michael Padwee Says:

    An article written by the architect in The New York Architect, V.3, No.7, July 1909, “Residence of Morris Schinasi, Esq.” and the accompanying ads, gives a fairly full account of the exterior and interior and includes many photos and drawings of the building, but no mention of the tunnel.

  4. TomF Says:

    I live on the block. The current owners, a retired Goldman Sachs partner and his wife, have done a spectacular job of restoring the exterior with all new Vermont marble, copper for the roof and gorgeous plantings in the yard. Since it’s an LPC-designated landmark, every ornamental detail of the original 1909 structure has been faithfully duplicated. As to the legend about the tunnel from the house to the Hudson, the fact that the site is about 120 feet above sea level makes the story quite doubtful.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Big kudos to the current residents, because they have done an impressive job, as you wrote; the house is like a jewel box. I do wish they could investigate the tunnel and report back!

  5. Michael UWS Says:

    Conjecture is a little inflated. How did (wealthy) folks travel in bygone days; land -and sea. The tunnel is an obvious pro forma structure as an intended convenience jetty for direct nautical perigrination access. I’d certainly build something akin in in a coastal property.

  6. Glenn Krasner Says:

    Aside from the possible illicit uses mentioned for a tunnel in the article, the tunnel might have simply been a way for the family to inconspicuously access a docked boat that they used for recreational purposes. Glenn in Brooklyn, NY.

  7. Edward Says:

    Quite the mystery! The earliest (1924) aerial photo I can find of the area does show a rather small dock on the Hudson at 107th St, seemingly to unload freight to the nearby NY Central railroad tracks. On the other hand, besides a very steep drop to the riverfront, the tracks would (and still do) block any direct access to the Hudson River, not to mention the sewer and gas mains on Riverside Drive, and Riverside Park itself. I have to ask myself for what purpose would a tunnel exist? A wealthy person would have no problem taking a carriage or motorcar down to the nearest boat basin or dock, and no doubt the Preservation Commission report would have made even a casual mention of such an interesting feature if it actually existed. Ephemerites, it may be time to start digging!

    • countrypaul Says:

      Just a thought – RR grade crossings were more casually regarded 100 years ago than they are now; there could have been a private grade crossing. Of course, I have no proof. Has anyone found a western portal, or tried to trace the tunnel from inside the house?

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        To my knowledge, no one has. There’s no mention of it in any of the research I’ve found.

  8. Jack Schatz Says:

    In the book Upper West Side Story, it mentions that the tunnel was built to facilitate access to the family’s boat dock.

  9. Carla Golden Says:

    Any chance the house has an indoor pool? The Paterno Castle at 182 Northern Avenue (now Cabrini Blvd) had an indoor pool that was reportedly filled with filtered water from the Hudson River.

  10. A sculpture on a Gilded Age mansion pays tribute to the owners’ six beloved children | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Riverside Drive mansion for about four years. More than a century later, it’s one of only two surviving freestanding mansions on a curvy former carriage drive that once featured dozens of them. Through all the changes over […]

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