Usually neighborhood guides focus on sites that are accessible, but part of the intrigue behind this particular landmark is its impenetrability. This tall, gray-ish eyesore in the Riverdale skyline is operated by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If you’re interested in Cold War history, the first place to look for Russian operatives might be the Russian Mission Residency, home to Russian diplomats and their families. When the USSR existed, American kids could see Soviet children up-close-and-personal at the Russian Mission School (housed in this very building). Though the regimes have since changed, the Russian Mission Residency remains equally forbidding: think hushed voices, few visitors, and a tall white fence blocking the entrance.
Feeling adventurous? Maybe you can solve the mystery of the house right in front of the Mission, rumored to be a spy house (for the F.B.I., or so people think).
Society for Ethical Culture and Fieldston School
Riverdale houses two major institutions of the Ethical Culture movement, a secular humanist movement with origins in turn of the century. Founded in 1877 by German-Jewish intellectual Felix Adler, the New York Society for Ethical Culture advocated a morality separate from religious doctrine that nevertheless could be expressed in congregational organization, behavioral codes, and rituals. Many of the New York Society’s activities were devoted to social justice and education programs, and local societies devoted to social betterment sprang up around the country as well. The Ethical Culture movement currently counts over 22 societies and fellowships around the country.
One of the New York Society for Ethical Culture’s first projects was the establishment of a free kindergarten, the Workingman’s School, in 1880. In 1895 it was reorganized as the Ethical Culture School. To accommodate the upper grades, Fieldston School was built in 1928. By 1933 the Fieldston Lower School (second elementary) joined the Riverdale campus, and in 2007 grades 6-8 were added as part of the Fieldston Middle School. Just across from the Fieldston School is the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture, founded in 1948. As is typical for an Ethical Culture society, this society has an “Ethical Leader” and holds regular Sunday meetings, in addition to hosting various educational and volunteering programs.
John F. Kennedy’s Childhood Home
You wouldn’t know it by the dirtied stucco and grimy windows, but the three-story house on 5040 Independence Avenue was once John F. Kennedy’s childhood home. With 20 bedrooms and a roomy backyard, this mansion had plenty of space for the future president to play. JFK lived in Riverdale from 1927-1929, attending the nearby Riverdale Country Day School.
Nowadays the house stands neglected: half-wrapped desks lie abandoned in large rooms, and a long-nosed vintage car in the driveway looks like it’s been parked there since the ’60s. Only a quick peek through the windows of Western wing reveals what appears to be newly renovated kitchen cabinetry. Is this a sign of life or a recently failed attempt at revival? Only the neighborhood squirrels know.