It’s About Time!
In October of 2011, after almost two years from being calendared for consideration, of community meetings, historical studies, and testimonies from residents, homeowners and landlords alike, the New York City Landmarks Commission created the Grand Concourse Historic District stretching from 153rd Street and the Grand Concourse, all the way up to 167th Street.
Now, over 3 years later since that designation, the terracotta colored street signs with white lettering which mark a historic district, are finally being installed with signs at 161st Street and Grand Concourse and west on 161st and Walton.
The district consists of 78 buildings various architectural styles from differing decades which can be found along the Grand Concourse as well as side streets such as Walton, Gerard, River, and Sheridan Avenues and Concourse Village West and Carroll Place.
New York City Landmarks Commission writes a fascinating history about the Grand Concourse Historic District (for the entire document, check out the PDF file here):
“The Grand Concourse Historic District consists of 78 properties located along, or on the streets adjacent to, a one-mile stretch of the Grand Concourse between East 153rd and 167th Streets. In addition to 61 apartment houses, constructed between 1917 and 1959, the historic district also contains two parks and several public institutions, including the Bronx County Courthouse and Andrew Freedman Home, both designated New York City individual landmarks.
The “Grand Boulevard and Concourse,” later shortened to the Grand Concourse, was conceived in 1891 as a means of supplying a link between the park systems of Manhattan and the sparsely settled region of the Bronx. At the time of its completion in 1909, the boulevard featured bicycle paths and pedestrian sidewalks in addition to a central vehicular speedway. In 1924, the boulevard was extended south from East 161st Street to East 138th Street, and the roadway soon became the major north-south artery of the West Bronx.
Though residential construction along the Grand Concourse lagged behind the rest of the Bronx at the turn of the century, the completion of the Jerome Avenue subway line in 1918, which made the West Bronx more accessible to Manhattan, and the passing of a 1921 state law allowing 10- year real estate tax exemptions for apartments constructed between 1920 and 1924, helped spark a period of intensive residential development. Prompted by the Tenement House law of 1901, which mandated more fire protection, light, and air, thereby making it unprofitable to build multi-family dwellings on small lots, the five- and six-story apartment house became the dominant building type along the Grand Concourse, and within the borough as a whole.
Nearly half of the apartment houses within the historic district were built during the first period of development, between 1922 and 1931. The buildings of this era typically reflected the fashions of Manhattan, characterized by revivalist architectural styles such as Tudor, Renaissance, and Colonial Revival. The largely brick and terra-cotta buildings were evocative of faraway places and featured decorative elements such as corner towers, faux half-timbering, elaborate brickwork, and classically decorated main entry porticos.
A second wave of development was precipitated by the 1933 opening of the northern leg of the IND Subway, which provided much improved access to the Garment District and other parts of Manhattan’s West Side. Once again influenced by Manhattan tastes, Art Deco and Moderne became the residential styles of choice for the Bronx – as evidenced in the 27 apartments within the historic district constructed between 1935 and 1945. In the Bronx, the Art Deco style was marked by streamlined elements such as curving walls, recessed spandrels creating an effect of continuous window strips, brickwork arranged in vertical or horizontal patterns, wrap-around corner window openings, and materials suggestive of the “Machine Age,” such as steel-and-glass casement windows. The related Moderne style was also characterized by streamlined geometry, but with more minimal ornamentation, and by a fascination with aerodynamics. The Art Deco and Moderne style buildings of the historic district, which utilized materials including terra cotta, cast stone, beige brick, and mosaic tile, are typically found in small clusters interspersed among the apartment houses of the earlier boom.
Among the architects who designed buildings within the historic district are several prolific local firms (some more well-known than others), including Charles Kreymborg, Gronenberg & Leuchtag, Springsteen & Goldhammer, Horace Ginsbern, H. Herbert Lilien, and Jacob M. Felson. Many of the firms were responsible for buildings constructed in both the earlier and later waves of development. Kreymborg, and the successor firm Charles Kreymborg & Son, are credited with the design of the greatest number of apartment houses within the district, totaling 10, followed by Felson, credited with the design of eight apartment houses. Emery Roth, one of New York City’s most renown apartment house architects, is credited with the design of the striking Art Deco-style apartment house at 888 Grand Concourse.
Several of the apartment houses within the historic district are representative of the garden apartment, an innovative housing form that took shape in the late 1910s and 1920s. The type was 5 characterized by low-rise apartment buildings on large lots organized around an interior and/or exterior courtyard. The Thomas Garden Apartments (840 Grand Concourse) was designed in 1926- 28 by Andrew Jackson Thomas. Credited as the innovator of the garden apartment, Thomas had already made a name for himself designing garden apartments in Jackson Heights, Queens when John D. Rockefeller hired him to design Thomas Garden. The garden apartment type was so influential that even the less-grand apartment houses of the historic district are typically built to lot lines and feature large light courts, thereby giving the effect of the garden apartment on more constricted sites.
For nearly half a century, having a residential address on, or in proximity to, the Grand Concourse was a strong indicator of success. By the late 1950s/early 1960s, however, the Bronx had entered into a period of profound transformation. Numerous forces, including heavy-handed urban renewal policies, disinvestment by area landlords, accelerated turnover of tenants, and the redlining of much of the Bronx by local banks, all contributed to an economic downturn. Areas like the Grand Concourse came to be seen as old, poor neighborhoods with cheap rents, and over time, owners stopped investing in the maintenance of their buildings.
In the late 1980s, the Bronx began to see a resurgence as landlords began to work successfully with community organizations and tenants towards the moderate rehabilitation of multifamily housing. By the end of the 20th century, a new wave of building activity had come to the boulevard, and the Grand Concourse had become home to a vibrant mix of working- and middleclass residents, including immigrants from the Americas, the Caribbean, and Africa. Due to the solid construction of the buildings within the historic district, they survived largely unscathed through decades of owner neglect, retaining the architectural details and distinctive character that first attracted residents to them in the 1920s and 1930s. Though the boulevard itself underwent unsympathetic physical changes over the decades, it too remains, as the backbone of the great apartment houses, grand civic structures, and bucolic parks of the historic district, and an important visual element that contributes to the district’s powerful sense of place.”
As usual, things tend to get delayed in The Bronx but better late than never. Now let’s work on preserving the entire Grand Concourse and surrounding buildings of great architectural and cultural value.
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