After changing the course of ornithology and art in the young republic with his colossal portfolio, “The Birds of America,” John James Audubon found a new home. It was certainly not in Haiti, where he was born; nor in France, where he spent his childhood; nor in Pennsylvania, where his family owned a large homestead; nor anywhere else he’d lived.
No, John James Audubon settled at 155th and the Drive. (Of course, neither the street nor Riverside Drive existed in 1842, when the Audubons moved to Upper Manhattan.)
He named his new home Minniesland after his wife, Lucy Bakewell, who was called Minnie by her family. And though Audubon traveled widely as he worked on “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America,” he spent enough time at Minniesland to refer to it as “my dear home” in a journal entry for Sept. 12, 1842.
Audubon died in 1851 and was buried in Trinity Cemetery, leaving his family land poor. As they began selling off tracts in Minniesland, they were astute enough to understand the benefit of association with the famed naturalist and woodsman. “Audubon Park” was born.
“I really think the reason the name was changed to Audubon Park was marketing,” said Matthew Spady, the creator and producer of the Audubon Park Historic District Web site, a trove of Auduboniana. ” ‘Birds’ never did bring in any money. The one thing they had was land.”
The term first appeared in The New York Times on May 20, 1854, in an account of the death of “James Hall, (of the firm of Hall & Bro.,) at his residence in Audubon Park, 157th-st.” His daughter Caroline was married to Audubon’s son John Woodhouse.
Mr. Spady, 60, has lived in Audubon Park for almost a quarter of a century — far longer than Audubon did — and he speaks of it knowledgeably, though he confesses frustration that Audubon’s house itself falls off the map somewhere between the end of 1932 and early 1933, when it was reported as demolished.
Though a great deal of romance attaches to the legacy of John James Audubon, including a notion advanced by one of his granddaughters that wild birds caroled near his tomb, Mr. Spady will have none of it. While Audubon made study drawings from life, the only way he could render birds with such exacting detail was by killing them and wiring their bodies into poses.
“We tend to think of him as St. Francis of Assisi,” Mr. Spady said, “but the whole process of capturing the birds was pretty gruesome.”