University Woods is a forested area situated on a steep slope overlooking the Harlem River. It commands an impressive view of Upper Manhattan, and a glimpse of the Hudson River and New Jersey Palisades. During the American Revolution, the site proved strategically important for British forces in their efforts to maintain control of New York City. Several small forts lined the river and formed part of the British stronghold. British Fort #8 occupied the crest of the ridge now known as University Woods. This obstinate fort defied assault until the end of the war.
University Woods and the surrounding neighborhood are named for the prominent campus formerly occupied by New York University. In 1892 the undergraduate college was moved from Greenwich Village to the quiet, rural community of Fordham Heights, later renamed University Heights. School trustees commissioned architect Stanford White of McKim, Mead and White to design “an academical village” suitable to the stately institution. Classical and Renaissance-inspired buildings, including the library, research center and university residence, distinguished the landscape.
One of the most striking features of the campus is the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Stanford White’s semicircular vaulted colonnade is an icon of American architecture. In 1901 Henry Mitchell MacCracken, chancellor of New York University, dedicated the structure to the country’s most outstanding citizens. The Hall of Fame was the first monument of its kind, relying on the public and a panel of experts to choose its members. Those celebrated include inventors Samuel F.B. Morse and Robert Fulton, authors Walt Whitman and Washington Irving, and philanthropist Peter Cooper. In 1966 the Hall of Fame was entered in the National Register of Historic Places. After NYU decided to concentrate its campus in Greenwich Village, the entire site was sold to the City in 1973 and is now the campus for Bronx Community College, part of the City University of New York.
The park property from Sedgwick to Cedar Avenues north of West 180th Street was acquired by condemnation in 1899 and named University Park by the Board of Aldermen. The original design included a comfort station, tool shed, and pipe rail fencing. Long diagonal paths traversed the steep ridge, and a stairway led up the northern boundary to the university. In 1935 Parks landscape architect Gilmore D. Clarke added pathways and an overlook to the gorge of the Harlem River. An additional half-acre was acquired in 1950, expanding the park to its present size.