Archive for the ‘Bronx and City Island’ Category

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.

Edgar Allan Poe on New York’s “inevitable doom”

October 23, 2017

New Yorkers tend to agree on one thing: any change in the look and feel of the city is never good.

Modernization, development, improvement—all are buzzwords for the end of Gotham as we know it.

In the 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe felt this way too.

Poe may have died in Baltimore, but in the 1830s and 1840s, Poe hopscotched around New York, living on Greenwich Street, West Third Street, today’s West 84th Street and then a cottage in the Bronx, where his young wife, Virginia, died of tuberculosis.

Like many residents, he eased his mind with long walks and wanderings.

His outings gave him a unique view of New York’s charm (and its noise, grime, Sunday alcohol laws, and the ugliness of Brooklyn houses, but lets save that for another post).

In an 1844 letter, he bemoaned the way the city was urbanizing before his eyes—which he saw after he rowed out to Blackwell’s Island and was able to see New York from the water. [Above right, the Beekman Estate in the East 50s]

“The chief interest of the adventure lay in the scenery of the Manhattan shore, which is here particularly picturesque.”

“The houses without exception are frame and antique. Nothing very modern has been attempted—a necessary result of the subdivision of the whole island into streets and town-lots.” [Above left, the David Provoost Mansion at East 57th Street]

“I could not look on the magnificent cliffs, and stately trees, which at every moment met my view, without a sigh for their inevitable doom—inevitable and swift.”

“In twenty years, or thirty at farthest, we shall see here nothing more romantic than shipping, warehouses, and wharves.”

In another letter that same year, he described the villas along the East River. [Above right, the Riker estate at East 75th Street]

“These localities are neglected—unimproved. The old mansions upon them (principally wooden) are suffered to remain unrepaired, and present a melancholy spectacle of decrepitude.

“In fact, these magnificent places are doomed. The spirit of Improvement has withered them with its acrid breath. Streets are already ‘mapped’ through them, and they are no longer suburban residences but ‘town-lots.'” [Above left, the Rutgers mansion in Yorkville]

“In some thirty years every noble cliff will be a pier, and the whole island will be densely desecrated by buildings of brick, with portentous of brownstone, or brown-stonn, as the Gothamites have it.”

Was Poe right or what? [Above, East River at 86th Street in the 1860s, by Currier and Ives]

[Images: Wikipedia, NYPL Digital Collection]

A view of New York’s oldest and loveliest bridge

October 9, 2017

The Brooklyn Bridge is a beauty, yes, but for architectural grace and historical enchantment (and as a place for long late-night walks, as Edgar Allan Poe discovered), you just can’t beat High Bridge—the 1848 span built to bring city residents fresh water from the Croton Reservoir upstate.

Standing 84 feet above the Harlem River, the High Bridge’s 15 arches were an elegant sight for people on ships below or on the Bronx or Manhattan side above.

A pedestrian walkway was added in the 1860s—and it’s open again after being closed to the public for 40 years.

Stan’s sprawling sports empire at Yankee Stadium

May 25, 2017

It all started with Stan’s Sports World on River Avenue in the Bronx, across the street from Yankee Stadium (the Yankee Stadium built in the 1920s, that is).

Then came Stan’s Sports Bar, right next door, in 1979. This once rough and tumble place still has its wonderful old-school neon sign, shadowed by the elevated subway tracks.

Stan was Stan Martucci, a Staten Island family man who was more of a sports memorabilia kind of guy than a bar owner, his son (who owns the place now) told a reporter in a 2009 New York Times article.

The Stan’s empire expanded. There’s also Stan the Man’s Baseball Land and Stan’s Pro Cap Dugout, for official fitted MLB caps.

The newish stadium might be a little farther away, but for millions of Yankee fans who went to games in the gritty Bronx of the 1980s and 1990s, Stan’s is synonymous with Yankee baseball greatness.

The haunting beauty of a brick Bronx factory

May 8, 2017

A century or so ago, red-brick factory buildings in every borough of New York City hummed with the sounds of workers and machinery — producing everything from ketchup to wallpaper to pianos to candy.

These days, the red-brick factory is an endangered species.

If they haven’t been bulldozed or turned into luxury apartments (a Lifesaver factory in Chelsea has been rebranded the “Lifesaver Lofts“), they sit empty and forlorn — the company name barely discernible on the facade.

The Marcus Brush Company building is one of these factories.

The hauntingly beautiful structure is on Willow Avenue and East 135th Street in Point Morris, a South Bronx neighborhood three stops from Manhattan on the 6 train that was once a manufacturing hub.

Marcus Brush moved here in 1925, according to Walter Grutchfeld’s well-researched photo website.

The company went bankrupt five years later, but another brush company called Acme took over and remained there, possibly through the 1970s.

Perhaps the old factory is in use today. But on a recent visit, it seems as deserted as the rest of Willow Avenue, a building with no pulse and a smattering of graffiti on one side.

Considering that Point Morris is making something of a comeback these days — a brewery and distillery occupy nearby spaces — the Marcus Brush factory will probably come back to life soon.

It would be wonderful if the faded lettering on all sides isn’t wiped clean, and that it remains a reminder that in a different city, people made “high-grade brushes” and a living behind these faded brick walls.

Edgar Allan Poe’s haunted walks on High Bridge

October 7, 2016

Like so many other New Yorkers, Edgar Allan Poe was known to take long, contemplative walks.

poeonhighbridge

After he moved from a farmhouse in today’s Upper West Side to a wooden cottage in rural Fordham (below), Poe regularly journeyed across the High Bridge, opened in 1848, two and a half miles from his home.

A graceful feat of engineering, the High Bridge carried fresh Croton Aqueduct water from Westchester to Manhattan.

poecottage“During Mr. Poe’s residence at Fordham a walk to the High Bridge was one of his favorite and habitual recreations,” wrote Sarah Helen Whitman, a literary contemporary who Poe tried and failed to court.

The dramatic views of the Harlem River and the rocky shores must have suited Poe’s mood. After all, his life was in free fall.

His wife, Virginia Clemm, succumbed to tuberculosis in 1847. And though he would write some of his best work during his Fordham years, including “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee,” Poe’s literary career was falling apart.

He was broke, he drank a lot, and his behavior was becoming increasingly erratic.

poehighbridge1900nypl“In the last melancholy years of his life—’the lonesome latter years’—Poe was accustomed to walk there at all times of the day and night; often pacing the then solitary pathways for hours without meeting a human being,” continued Whitman.

The 1930 lithograph by B.J. Rosenmeyer (top) captures Poe crossing the High Bridge.

There’s some contention that the dates and image don’t line up. The lithograph depicts a winter scene; Poe wasn’t in New York much during the winter of 1848-1849, the last winter of his life, according to this High Bridge website.

poehighbridgetodayAlso, the pedestrian span of the bridge hadn’t been built until 1864, the site explains. (Above, High Bridge around 1900.)

On the other hand, another witness decades after Poe’s death gave a colorful and distressing chronicle of his High Bridge walks.

“With a faded old army cloak over his shoulders, a relic of his old West Point life, he was a familiar object to the staid villagers as he went loitering by through the lanes and over the fields,” a former Fordham acquaintance of Poe’s told a New York Times writer in 1885.

“His favorite route was the aqueduct road, leading over the High Bridge.”

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: NYPL]

Taking the 3rd Avenue El to the Botanical Garden

September 30, 2016

We can’t be sure that these genteel New Yorkers actually took the Third Avenue El to get to the New York Botanical Garden, a 250-acre cultural treasure founded in 1891.

botanicalgardenpostcard1-1

But after the turn of the century, when this image was likely taken, there was no easier way to get from Manhattan to the Gardens or the new Zoo opened nearby in 1899.

You could say that the El, the Botanical Garden, and the Bronx or New York Zoological Park, as it was called, are all products of a great late 19th century push to improve city life and its offerings, making New York easier to transverse and giving it world-class cultural institutions—all of which we continue to benefit from.

Two enchanting views of New York’s High Bridge

August 8, 2016

It’s New York’s oldest bridge—a Roman-inspired graceful span completed in 1848 as a crucial link of the Croton Aqueduct, the engineering marvel that brought fresh upstate water to city spigots.

Highbridgelawson

At 140 feet above the breezy Harlem River, it was (and is—it’s now open to the public) a favorite place for strollers as well as artists.

Ernest Lawson was one of those artists. “High Bridge—Early Moon” (above) from 910 “dates from Lawson’s early period . . . when he lived for a time in Washington Heights, at the northern tip of Manhattan,” states the website for the Phillips Collection, which owns the painting.

Highbridgeharlemriver

“Having left the area in 1906 when he moved to Greenwich Village, the artist often returned to paint his favorite sites until about 1916.”

“High Bridge—Early Moon” looks toward the Bronx side of the bridge. In the more somber “High Bridge, Harlem River,” Lawson looks toward Upper Manhattan, the site of the circa-1872 High Bridge Water Tower.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcover“The motif of the bridge . . . takes on added significance in American art as a symbol of movement and change. As cities grew, bridges were often among the first structures built, their spare designs helping to transform the face of the American landscape from rural to urban.” continues the Phillips Collection caption.

“Lawson’s carefully observed paintings documenting this change conveyed his delight in commonplace views and objects—an old boat, a frail tree, grasses growing along the river’s edge.”

Read more about the High Bridge and how the bridge and the riverfront below it became a favorite recreation area in the late 19th century in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.