Archive for the ‘Bronx and City Island’ Category

Upper Manhattan once resembled a country town

February 11, 2019

It looks like a country scene: a slender iron bridge, green bluffs across the river, groups of women strolling while shielding themselves with straw hats and sun umbrellas, a couple wheeling a child in a stroller, two men in a carriage led by a single horse.

A Midwestern village? Actually it’s 155th Street on the Harlem-Washington Heights border circa 1900, after the Macombs Dam Bridge opened in 1895 and before this section of Manhattan attracted industry, traffic, and a tidal wave of new residents looking for space and better housing.

The wonderful thing is that Macombs Dam Bridge still stands today, flanked by the same stone sentry towers.

Walking Macombs Dam Bridge in Upper Manhattan

November 26, 2018

Completed in 1895, Macombs Dam Bridge is the third oldest bridge in New York City—a graceful metal truss swing bridge over the Harlem River linking West 155th Street in Manhattan to the South Bronx.

A walk across it doesn’t take long. But as you stroll along the pedestrian pathway at the edge of the span, past its 19th century stone towers, finials, and decorative lighting fixtures, you’re treated to a unique panorama of a city waterway few New Yorkers ever see.

It’s a view early 19th century residents who lived in the sparsely populated areas on both sides of the Harlem River knew well. They’ve been crossing the river at this point for more than 200 years.

The first Macomb’s Dam Bridge—it originally had an apostrophe—went up in 1814. (Above and below, about 1850.)

A few years earlier, a Bronx miller and landowner named Robert Macomb sought permission to build a dam here to help power his new grist mill on the Harlem side, states nycroads.com.

The state legislature gave the okay (the Bronx was in Westchester County at the time) with two stipulations: the dam had to allow ship traffic, and it couldn’t flood the salt meadows along the river.

So Macomb built his bridge, but it was a huge headache for local people. They didn’t like the toll they had to pay to cross it, first of all (half the toll fees were supposed to help the poor). Also, the bridge hindered other vessels.

In 1838, fed-up neighbors reportedly paid the crew of a coal barge to hack the dam with axes. Another story has it that one local resident used his own ship to sabotage the dam in 1839.

A court later determined that the dam and bridge were a “public nuisance,” and New York and Westchester County were told to build a new free bridge.

The second bridge was constructed in 1861 (above). Made of iron and wood, it was technologically advanced.

But the wood planking on the roadway wore out quickly, and it had to be repaired and partially rebuilt many times.

This was a major problem in part because upper Manhattan and the lower Bronx were rapidly filling up with people, hence more traffic.

“Macomb’s Dam Bridge, over the Harlem River, is a rickety old structure, and its vibrations when crowded with vehicles and people are alarming,” wrote the New York Times in 1883.

“On days when there are races at Jerome and Fleetwood Parks, between 3,000 and 4,000 carriages cross Macomb’s Dam Bridge,” another Times article from 1885 stated, referencing popular racetracks in the Bronx.

“If there is a more awkward, dangerous, and disreputable bridge across any stream within the city limits, an effort should be made to find it.”

Ultimately, the city decided that it would cost too much to fix the second bridge. The new one—the current bridge—made its debut 12 years after the Brooklyn Bridge opened.

Today, walking Macombs Dam Bridge can make you feel very exposed. Before you stroll high across water, you walk above what was once the Polo Grounds, and today is the Polo Houses.

Once you’re a hundred or so feet over water and closer to the Bronx side, the view is astounding. There’s Yankee Stadium straight ahead, and the glorious High Bridge, which leaps across the Harlem River about 20 blocks north.

[Top photo: Wikipedia, 2014; third image: MCNY 58.300.44; fifth image: NYC Bridges; sixth image: New York Times 1885; seventh image: N-Y Historical Society; eighth image: MCNY 2010.11.8556]

Italian food stores have New York’s best signs

July 23, 2018

Most of them are in the city’s faded Little Italy neighborhoods—white, green, and red store signs with 1970s-style letters spelling out an Italian surname and the choice delicacies they sell.

Mozzarella, ricotta, tortellini, gnocchi: Whatever the vintage sign says, you know you’re in good hands. So many of these old-school Italian food stores have closed up shop, it’s good to celebrate the ones that remain.

Like Piemonte Ravioli on Grand Street. Established in 1920. Reading the “Made Here Daily” sign in the window makes my mouth water.

Same with Russo’s, making mozzarella and fresh pasta since 1908 on East 11th Street—once the center of a mostly defunct Little Italy in today’s East Village.

Italian cakes and pastries are baked on the premises at Caffe Roma on Mulberry Street, going strong since 1891. I like this painted ad better than their actual store sign.

Park Italian Gourmet was unfortunately closed when I walked by on a weekend. Hopefully because it’s on 45th Street in Midtown and the office lunch crowds weren’t there, not because this Italian hero joint has shuttered permanently.

It’s too late for this Italian bakery with a different kind of sign in the Bronx’s Little Italy centered on Arthur Avenue. RIP.

All that remains of a now-defunct Bronx hospital

June 18, 2018

With their many rooms and spacious lobbies, many hospitals from early 20th century New York City have been repurposed into co-ops and condos.

Think St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village, the former French Hospital on West 30th Street, and a turn of the century hospital devoted to cancer on Central Park West.

But Union Hospital (above in 1970), founded in 1911 in the Bronx “for the treatment of all ailments,” continued its mission as a health facility even after closing in 1997.

The 1920s-era building the hospital once occupied still sits on East 188th Street and Valentine Avenue. Stripped of prewar details, Union was remade into Union Community Health Center, part of nearby St. Barnabas Hospital.

A few remnants of the old hospital remain. First, there’s the entrance sign, in a typeface that feels more Victorian than Roaring 20s.

Then there’s a cornerstone with the hospital name engraved on it, as well as the year the building opened: 1922.

That’s just a decade after Bronx County was formed, and in the middle of a time of enormous urbanization and expansion in what was once a rural part of the city.

[Top photo: Union Community Health Center]

An old Bronx phone number on a wood milk crate

March 5, 2018

It was up for sale at a New Jersey antiques market: a vintage wood milk crate stamped “Hygrade Milk,” a Bronx milk company founded in 1914, according to data from Bloomberg.

But the best part of the crate is the phone number beneath it, with the old two-letter phone exchange “LY.” But what’s LY?

The Hygrade Milk and Cream Company apparently existed at 2350 Hermany Avenue, in the southeast Bronx.

This in depth guide to old phone exchanges only lists a LY in Manhattan; it stood for “Lyceum” and covered part of the Upper West Side.

Longwood? That’s a nearby Bronx neighborhood. Or Lafayette Avenue, a street not far from Hermany? Someone must be able to solve this vintage phone exchange mystery.

In the meantime, here are more of these old timey two-letter phone exchanges spotted on signs and in ads around the city, which were all replaced by digits in the 1960s.

The Bronx is the land of faded old movie houses

February 19, 2018

New York City has many grand old theaters and movie houses. These hearty survivors have been typically rebranded as a drugstore, Starbucks, or some other store that has none of that show biz grandeur or charm.

But it seems like the Bronx has more than its share of old theaters than other boroughs. Two recycled movie houses are on Southern Boulevard, a busy shopping stretch in the South Bronx.

Behold the Spooner Theatre, above and at right, which opened in 1910. Seating 1800, the Spooner would soon be purchased by Loews and renamed the Loews Spooner Theatre, according to Cinematic Treasures.

Cecil Spooner (below) was an actress and director who built the theater so her stock company could have a place to perform.

Spooner and her players give “performances twice a day to audiences which fill the house,” wrote the New York Times in 1913.

Interestingly, later that year Spooner was arrested for staging what was called a “vice” play—a dramatization of a novel called “The House of Bondage.”

The audience rose in protest when the cops came in. (The novel was about the then-hot topic of white slavery.)

At some point the Loews Spooner got a marquee . . . and then became a furniture store, per this photo below from Cinema Treasures.

Today the theater is weathered but still holding up. It’s occupied by a couple of cell phone stores, a Burger King, and a Children’s Place.

Not far from the majestic Spooner is the shell of the Boulevard Theatre, which opened in 1913, reports Cinematic Treasures. This Beaux-Arts beauty started out as a vaudeville house seating 2,200 people.

“When [the Boulevard] is finished this block . . . will be an amusement and business center second to none in the Bronx,” wrote the New York Times.

It soon opened as the Loews Boulevard and featured “‘small time’ vaudeville and moving pictures,” according to another Times article.

Like the Spooner, the Boulevard has since been repurposed into a shopping strip with a cell phone store and gym. Its Beaux-Arts touches are still faring well after more than a century fronting a busy Bronx street.

[Third photo: Cinema Treasures]

Decayed shells of two lovely Bronx train stations

February 12, 2018

It’s a strip mall that has seen better days—a long, two-story shell of a building housing a chicken joint, a pizza and gyro shop, and a couple of other businesses in the shadow of the Bronx’s Bruckner Expressway.

But a closer look reveals some curious details—like the pointed dormer windows set inside a barn-like sloping roof. This stretch of retail had to start out as something more majestic.

Turns out it did: It was the Hunts Point Avenue railroad station, built in 1909 by the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad—which anticipated a huge demand for train service in the once-bucolic Bronx, thanks to subway development and a population boom.

An even biggest surprise than seeing the remains of such a lovely station is the name of the architect behind it: Cass Gilbert, better known as the genius behind the Woolworth Building and the Custom House at the foot of Broadway, among other architectural beauties.

The station is one of several that Gilbert designed in the Bronx, and he  seemed to have a lot of fun with this one.

The Hunts Point station was French Renaissance in design,” states this Lehman College site. “It had a wide overhanging hipped roof with pointed lacy dormer windows, spires, tiling and crenellations.”

The station connected commuters to Grand Central until the 1930s, when a lack of passengers made it financially impossible to keep open. At some point, it was repurposed for retail, its ornaments stripped off or obscured beneath 1970s-style roll-down gates and a hulking freeway.

Another of Gilbert’s Bronx railroad stations also pretty much lies in ruin: the Westchester Avenue station.

This terra cotta jewel was built in 1908 by the same railroad and it too shut down in the 1930s. Today it remains under the Bronx’s Sheridan Expressway and besides Concrete Plant Park, abandoned.

[Second photo: MCNY/Wurtz Bros., x2010.7.1.1841; fourth photo: Architectural Record, 1908; fifth photo: MCNY/Wurtz Bros., x2010.7.1.1842; sixth photo: Wikipedia]

The bizarre 1916 plan to fill in the East River

February 12, 2018

“At first glance, a project to reclaim 50 square miles of land from New York Bay, to add 100 miles of new waterfront for docks, to fill in the East River, and to prepare New York for a population of 20 million seems somewhat stupendous, does it not?”

That’s the lead sentence in a fascinating article published in Popular Science in 1916, written with great enthusiasm by an engineer, Dr. T. Kennard Thomson.

Thomson had big dreams for New York City, and he laid them out in this article—his vision of making Greater New York a “Really Greater New York.”

The craziest idea? To turn the East River into a landfill extension of Manhattan, so “it would not be much harder to get to Brooklyn than to cross Broadway.” A new East River from Flushing Bay to Jamaica Bay would then be built.

Also nuts is the plan to lengthen Lower Manhattan so it just about touches Staten Island, and rework the Harlem River so it extends in a straight line from Hell Gate to the Hudson.

The point of his Really Greater New York? To rake in more money.

“Imagine the value of this new land for docks, warehouses, and business blocks! The tax assessments alone would make a fortune!” Thomson writes.

But like moving sidewalks, a West Side airport, and 100-story housing developments in Harlem, and an even weirder 1934 plan to fill in the Hudson River, this is another bizarre plan for the city that never came to pass.

[Images: Popular Science]

The “Fish House” is the Bronx’s Art Deco jewel

January 29, 2018

It looks like it belongs in Miami Beach, not the Bronx.

But what’s been dubbed the “Fish House” or the “Fish Building” for the colorful aquatic-themed mural on the facade is on the Grand Concourse, not far from Yankee Stadium.

It’s one of dozens of Art Deco and Art Moderne apartment residences built on the Bronx’s most famous thoroughfare in the 1930s.

Why a fish facade in the Bronx? It’s unclear why architects Horace Ginsburn and Marvin Fine had the glittering mural made when they designed the building in 1937—or if it wasn’t their doing, who did have it installed.

The Grand Concourse—originally the Grand Boulevard and Concourse—supposedly started out as New York’s answer to the Champs Elysees, a majestic road of wide sidewalks, rows of trees, and contemporary architecture.

By the 1930s, it may have been clear that the Champs Elysees comparison wasn’t panning out, so perhaps the designers decided to have a little fun.

In any case, the inspiration for the fish mural is just one of the many mysteries behind New York City’s most iconic buildings. It’s a delightful bit of tropical undersea life with iridescent angel fish, amoebas, and sea anemone in the middle of an often overcast, grimy city.

The interior lobby is an explosion of Art Deco magnificence as well.

[Top photo: New York Times; fourth photo: MCNY 2014.3.2.1006]

A lonely Bronx monument to a World War I battle

January 22, 2018

The Bronx Supreme Court Building is an enormous Art Deco totem of justice—a limestone and copper fortress with a magnificent terrace featuring marble figures representing law, victory, and sacrifice.

But off to a corner on the terrace near the Grand Concourse and in sight of Yankee Stadium is a humble monument commemorating a century-old battle.

It’s a keystone marking a crucial episode during the Great War—the July 1918 battle of Chateau Thierry. In this French village northeast of Paris, American forces helped the French beat back the German offensive.

The keystone “is from an arch of the old bridge at Chateau Thierry, gloriously and successfully defended by American troops,” the plaque on the granite base reads.

The monument looks like many other modest, mostly forgotten memorials around the city. But there’s a story behind how it ended up here, and it has more to do with the threat of World War II than honoring bravery in World War I.

“In 1938, the French government feared the intentions of Nazi Germany and gave the keystone as a gift to the United States in an attempt to gain American sympathy,” writes Lloyd Ultan and Shelley Olsen in The Bronx: The Ultimate Guide to New York’s Beautiful Borough.

“Using the auspices of a New York City American Legion post, this was ultimately decided to be the site of the gift. It was installed with parade, pomp, and ceremony in 1940, but by that time, World War II had begun and the French Republic was in great jeopardy.”

But why the Bronx? Perhaps it had to do with the World War I hospital and Army training camp then located farther north in the borough, on the site of today’s Montefiore Medical Center.

The hospital and camp was called Chateau Thierry, after the famous battle, according to Northwest Bronx by Bill Twomey and Thomas X. Casey.

Interestingly, there’s also the Chateau Thierry apartments on Union Street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn—built in 1923.