A decade ago, Alexander Scheirle accidently became a member of Manhattan’s secret uptown society.
He was browsing listings, hoping to land a bigger home for his growing family, when he stumbled upon a yellow-painted wooden townhouse, accented with pine green shutters, in Washington Heights.
“I thought, ‘Oh, it’s a scam’ … and I didn’t even want to pursue it,” said Scheirle, now 52, who’s the executive director of the Grammy-winning Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. “I’m from Germany, and for me Manhattan was … skyscrapers, big apartment buildings, that sort of stuff. You would never expect a street that looks like something from the Netherlands from 1880.”
Without knowing it, Scheirle had discovered Sylvan Terrace, a restored row of 20 three-story townhouses located next to the 1765-built Morris-Jumel Mansion — Manhattan’s oldest house — and tucked away from the neighborhood’s surrounding grid.
Once a carriage lane leading from the mansion, and developed in 1882 for working-class residents, it’s known as one of the city’s “secret streets” with charming — and coveted — properties that hardly ever seek new residents.
But now, history buffs and cooped-up apartment dwellers have a rare chance to join this secret real estate club.
The cobblestone lane has one home for sale and another — which belongs to Scheirle — for rent. Last week, a third one hit the market, whose opportunities include renting a duplex for $4,195 per month or the whole 1,700-square-foot shebang for $6,090.
“It’s really a rarity that we have [these listings] right now,” said Scheirle, who bought his home, No. 7, for $913,000 in 2012 — which he shared with 45-year-old wife Liz Hall and his kids Amelia, 11, and Leo, 9.
Their two-bedroom spread is listed with Lori Huler Glick and Wendy L. Richardson of Brown Harris Stevens for $6,300 per month following a family move to Connecticut.
“I don’t want to let go of it,” said Scheirle, who added that he will never sell his real estate gem.
Only four homes have sold along Sylvan Terrace since 2018, records show. In 2020, another house listed for rent, though it was taken off the market. That means whenever the rare chance arrives, prospective residents flock to the block.
“We do have a lot of interest in the property,” said Erin Whitney, a salesperson at Bohemia Realty Group, who alongside colleague Raymond Werdane represents 17 Sylvan Terrace — a 1,500-square-foot home listed for $1.5 million. It hit the market in late March and already has “multiple offers,” said Whitney, though she couldn’t disclose how many. The main lure is the unique chance of living there.
“This is like it just fell out of the Midwest in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ” she said of the home. “It has that feeling that it’s out of time.”
In addition to its modern comforts — such as a washer/dryer and a private outdoor retreat with space for a grill — this home’s old-world touches include beamed ceilings. Scheirle’s second floor features wooden floorboards from 1882, as well as some original doors.
But beyond the secluded location and historical inclusions, residents praise the small town-like atmosphere that still shines through.
“There were a bunch of us kids on the block,” said 51-year-old Afua Preston, an associate director at the Center for Applied Liberal Arts at NYU’s School of Professional Studies, who grew up visiting her late grandmother, Sylvan Terrace resident Mildred Preston, every weekend. (The younger Preston inherited her grandmother’s home after she passed away, and has lived there since 2008.)
“We all played here in the middle of Sylvan Terrace and at the [Morris-Jumel] mansion — the mansion was a great place to play.”
Back then, and more than just children playing, Preston’s grandmother — an advocate for restoring the block to its original uniform appearance in the 1980s after each house took on its own design — cooked for elderly neighbors, made tea sandwiches for the mansion and even planted flowers around the block. (A garden at the end of the street is named Miss Millie’s Garden in her honor.)
Today, residents continue being involved with Morris-Jumel and the beautification of the area, but they also keep neighbors’ packages guarded in their own homes after they’re delivered and host block parties — even once in the earlier months of COVID-19.
“One day last year in the summer we had a potluck and we all brought tables out and we all had our masks and everyone brought something to eat,” said Preston. “It just felt good to have some kind of normalcy.”
But what’s most noticeable among residents is their sense of pride for owning standout property in the city.
“[My grandmother’s house] reminds me how important it was for a black woman to own property in Manhattan back then, and for me to own it now,” said Preston.
“I’m more proud than ever.”