This article has been reprinted with permission and originally appeared in the Bronx County Historical Society Journal, Volume LV, Numbers 1 & 2 Spring/Fall 2018.

When the 227-foot tall Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary held its dedication ceremony on December 23, 1888,[1] the New York World proclaimed it the “largest and finest building of its kind in the Annexed District.” In fact the new Roman Catholic parish church on E. 150th Street between Melrose and Courtlandt avenues was one of the tallest buildings in all of New York City.

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It was exceeded by only a few in Manhattan including St. Patrick’s Cathedral, whose 330-foot tall twin spires were installed just two months earlier, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church (286 feet), Trinity Church (284 feet), the Tribune Building (260 feet), Church of the Holy Redeemer (250 feet), and the Western Union Telegraph Building (230 feet).

In Manhattan, skyscrapers would soon eclipse church spires and in turn newer skyscrapers would rise ever higher, but in what became, from 1898 onward, the borough of the Bronx, the Immaculate Conception Church of Melrose[2] continued to be the tallest building for decades.

Immaculate Conception today, minus the spire

Although none of the borough’s early skyscrapers were taller than the church, several were named the tallest in the Bronx in press reports which overlooked the church’s soaring spire. It was not until the postwar period that a succession of large scale residential towers could finally make a rightful claim to the title of the borough’s tallest even if they did so with little or no fanfare.

Since the end of the era of large-scale housing projects in the 1970s, no new buildings have come along to break the borough’s tallest barrier. As a result, the current holder of the tallest in the Bronx title, the 428-foot tall River Park Towers of 1974, has held the top position for over 40 years.

This article traces the holders of the superlative title “Tallest Building in the Bronx” from the late nineteenth century until the present day — 2018. After first establishing the criteria for defining what constitutes a “building” and how height is measured for this purpose, each of the holders of the title are identified, described, and placed into the broader historical context.

In addition, since the definition of “tallest building” has not always been a matter of unanimous consensus, there are several Bronx buildings that have been described as being the borough’s tallest, but which based on the criteria outlined herein do not qualify for the accolade. Nevertheless, such “pretenders” to the title are also acknowledged given their presumptive status.

The Bronx has not been known for its tall buildings. This is especially true compared to neighboring Manhattan, which is celebrated the world over as one of the great skyscraper meccas. Yet even Brooklyn and to some extent Queens are known for their distinctive high rises.

Co-op City

In the case of the Bronx, however, its built environment has been identified largely by being the opposite of Manhattan. Little consideration has been given to the Bronx’s tall buildings. Indeed a primary purpose here is to fill in a gap in the literature — while historical lists of the tallest buildings are readily available for not only Manhattan but many localities, no such tabulation seems to have been compiled for the Bronx. For the record, this study offers the definitive answer to the question: what have been the tallest buildings in the Bronx?

Methodology

Determining the “tallest building” for a given area and time period requires a definition of terms and sources. First, what is a building? Second, how is building height measured? Finally, what sources should be considered authoritative for stating a building’s height? This study follows the criteria established by the Center for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) and its affiliated Skyscraper Center, with an important modification to the definition of building, the inclusion of churches, based on historical precedent dating back to the dawn of the skyscraper age in the late nineteenth century.

Defining Buildings

Founded in 1969 by a structural engineer, the Chicago-based CTBUH promotes the study of high rise architecture and its list of world’s tallest buildings is considered the international standard. CTBUH defines a building as “a structure that is designed for residential, business or manufacturing purposes. An essential characteristic of a building is that it has floors” and a majority of its vertical space must be occupiable for continuous use for activities such as residences or work spaces but excluding observation decks.[3]

Accordingly, bridges, television towers, and monuments are not counted, even if they are publicly accessible. For example, the Eiffel Tower and the Washington Monument are not considered buildings by CTBUH and historically, these type of structures generally were not considered in press reports on tallest buildings.

CTBUH’s definition also excludes religious buildings such as churches with their soaring steeples and spires. While churches are only publicly occupied at the base, they were the world’s tallest buildings in the pre-skyscraper era and as skyscrapers emerged starting in the 1870s their height was often compared to the tallest churches.

For example, in 1875 when the Tribune Building was completed in Lower Manhattan, its occupant, the New York Tribune, reported that its new building was second in height to the spire of Trinity Church on the list of “highest buildings on Manhattan Island.”[4] Likewise, while CTBUH/Skyscraper Center identifies the 348-foot tall Manhattan Life Insurance Building of 1894 as being the world’s tallest building upon its completion, news reports of the time were more qualified in their descriptions.

“Tallest office building in the world and one of the tallest buildings for any purpose,” one article reported, in deference to taller churches in Europe. Noting that the new building was taller than Trinity Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the article stated that “there is not even a church spire on this continent within 20 feet of its height.”[5],[6]

Clearly churches were considered in lists of the tallest buildings and they served as the benchmark against which skyscrapers were compared.[7] Even CTBUH has acknowledged the historical role of churches as tall buildings; an article on its website states that Trinity Church was “the city’s tallest building until 1890.”[8]

Although this statement is factually incorrect, it is a recognition that churches were considered tall buildings.[9] Accordingly, in light of the historic attention paid to church heights vis-a-vis early skyscrapers in general and the specific circumstances of the Bronx, where a tall church spire was constructed prior to any skyscrapers, this study includes churches in its definition of buildings.

As documented in this study, the difference between the Bronx and Manhattan is that in the northern borough a nineteenth century church remained the tallest building well into the twentieth century.

Defining Height

Without modification, this study follows CTBUH’s criteria for measuring building height, which are applicable to both skyscrapers and churches. This definition measures building base as being the “level of the lowest significant, open-air pedestrian entrance.” As such, entries located below-grade, used for service or freight, or via parking areas are excluded.

Height is measured to “architectural top” which can be a roof, parapet, or spire, but which excludes antennae, mechanical equipment, signage, and flagpoles. For example, the spire of the Chrysler Building is considered an architectural element, but the television antennae atop Chicago’s Willis Tower (originally known as the Sears Tower) are not considered an architectural element and therefore not included in the building height measurement.

While CTBUH also recognizes that there are two other means for measuring height, including to the highest occupied floor or to the tip of the building inclusive of non-architectural elements, it is the architectural top which is the primary definition used.[10]

Height Sources

Where available, height information from CTBUH/Skyscraper Center is used in this study. However this information is only available for some buildings. For others, information is taken from the one of the following sources: NYC Department of Buildings documents, press reports, the website SkyscraperCenter.com, or fire insurance maps.

Building Tall and the “Tallest Building”

There are several reasons why buildings rise vertically. Until the last third of the nineteenth century, great height was the exclusive domain of churches and other buildings with religious and cultural significance.

Churches were built up primarily for symbolic, not functional purposes; to reach toward the heavens and for visual prominence. Beginning in the 1870s and ‘80s, a convergence of trends made skyscrapers physically feasible and economically desirable in dense urban centers.

Advances in building technology included the use of steel frame structures in place of load bearing walls and passenger elevators that facilitated upper floor occupancy.

Other changes included new mass transportation services, such as elevated trains and street trams, enabling the conveyance of large numbers of workers to central business districts, and the growth of the industrial economy with large corporations that needed space to house substantial numbers of office workers. With rising land values in central business districts such as Lower Manhattan and Chicago’s Loop, it became more cost-effective to build vertically than horizontally.

Height offered other benefits, such as views and being above the congestion and noise of the streets, which eventually spread the appeal of skyscrapers to hotels and residences. As a result, skyscrapers started to compete with and eventually surpass church steeples on many city skylines.

Yet, for there to be a “tallest building” title there not only have to be tall buildings, but also a messenger to promote the concept and an audience to be receptive to it.

As such, long before CTBUH established formal criteria, the notion of the tallest building was originally popularized by newspapers and magazines to inform and entertain their readers.

This superlative captured the public imagination because it is easily defined in quantitative terms and can be experienced, at least vicariously, simply by viewing a tall building from a public street.

The Tallest Building in the Bronx: 1888 to the Present

Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1888): 227 feet

While Lower Manhattan boomed with a forest of skyscrapers, the Bronx of the latter half of the nineteenth century was gradually evolving from a rural mix of small villages, farms, and country estates, to a collection of urban neighborhoods.

Likewise, a population that had once been dominated by descendants of colonial era Dutch and British Protestant settlers, was being supplanted in large part by waves of immigrants from diverse backgrounds. An indication of these social changes was that the first church in the Bronx to reach heights similar to those already found in Manhattan was not built by an old line Protestant congregation but for Catholic immigrants.

The 227-foot tall Immaculate Conception Church was designed for its German Catholic parishioners in the Romanesque Revival style by architect Henry Bruns and built by S. Niewenhous Inc.[11] The church included a 56-foot tall vaulted ceiling flanked by turrets at the front corners but it was the central tower above the main entrance which was the signature feature.

It reached a height of 125 feet above the street and was surmounted by a spire with a gold cross at the pinnacle, reaching a height of 227 feet above the sidewalk.[12] The New York Sun called it “one of the handsomest and most imposing church edifices in the upper part of the city.”[13] The spire could be seen for blocks around and symbolized the impact of the large German-American community in Melrose and surrounding areas. (Refer to Figure 1.) Its German connection was accented with the installation of stained glass and statues specially crafted for it in Munich.[14]


Figure 1, Immaculate Conception Church, View from E. 149th Street & Bergen Avenue (1926)
Source: Brown Brothers, via Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library.

The parish was founded in 1853 as German Catholics moved to Melrose and its first church building was erected on E. 150th Street (then known as Denman Street) near Courtlandt Avenue.

In the 1870s a second church facing onto E. 151st Street was constructed behind the original building, which was then demolished,[15] but by the late 1880s a new, larger facility was needed to serve Melrose’s burgeoning German Catholic community. Thus, the Immaculate Conception Church completed in 1888 is the third (and current) home of the parish and, just as the second church was built behind the first, the third was built behind the second and as such returned to E. 150th Street.

What started as a relatively small parish in what was then suburban Westchester County, had 35 years later constructed an edifice that more resembled a cathedral than a neighborhood church in an increasingly urban area, which had been annexed to New York City in 1874.

That it was a German parish which built the tallest spire in the Bronx may not be merely happenstance but rather a reflection of the spirit of the times, or to use the German word, the zeitgeist.

Germans of that time had a strong association with tall churches; in the late nineteenth century Germany was home to the two highest steeples in the world, both completed following the establishment of the unified German Empire in 1871 when national pride was on the rise.[16]

Although no direct evidence has been identified to corroborate this hypothesis, it is plausible that Germans of Melrose, inspired by the soaring spires of their ancestral homeland, deliberately sought to make a similar mark in their new country.

After the construction of the 1888 church, the preceding church building on E. 151st Street was removed and in the following years its site and other church land on the block was filled with a complex including a school, rectory, and convent.

As the neighborhood changed demographically and economically, particularly after World War II, the second language of the parish shifted from German to Spanish and the church’s budgets became increasingly stretched as it served a low-income congregation.

As a result its resources in recent decades have been focused on social rather than structural needs. These constraints became manifest in 1996 when the spire was removed as “wear and tear finally took their toll” and the church lacked the money for repairs.[17]

Hopes to replace the spire remain unrealized and therefore as of 2018 the church is approximately 125 feet tall; it remains a neighborhood landmark though not an official one.[18]

“Pretenders”: Buildings Identified as Tallest in the Bronx

Immaculate Conception Church remained the tallest building in the Bronx until 1968, but there were some buildings that to varying degrees were identified as the borough’s tallest in the decades following the church’s completion, despite being shorter than the church’s spire.

The Smith Building

The first skyscraper in the Bronx,[19] the 7-story, 86-foot tall Smith Building, was completed in 1899 on a triangular parcel bounded by Third Avenue, E. 148th Street, and Willis Avenue.

Skyscrapers were already well established in Lower Manhattan and even Downtown Brooklyn had followed with a few of its own starting in the early 1890s. By the decade’s end, with developing transportation networks, it was the northern borough’s turn to build up.

Real estate investors W.F. and C.H. Smith initially intended to construct a 4-story office building on the site,[20] but the plans soon shifted to a taller tower designed by architect John De Hart.

Described as being “far ahead in appearance and appointments of any building in the Bronx” upon its completion, it was occupied by a bank and several high profile Bronx companies.[21]

The Smith Building on the left and the Haffen Building on the right.

The Smith Building was surpassed vertically, albeit only slightly, by the neighboring 7-story, 88-foot tall Haffen Building, which opened in 1902 on the property located immediately to the south. It was developed by Matthias Haffen, Jr., scion of a prominent German-American family in Melrose and head of the family’s brewing company. The building’s architect, Michael J. Garvin, was closely associated with Haffen’s brother Louis, who was then serving as the Bronx’s first borough president.[22]

A 1909 article in the New York Evening Post labeled the Smith Building as the tallest structure in the Bronx, ignoring not only the Immaculate Conception Church but the Haffen Building, a particularly egregious error given that the two buildings stand side-by-side.[23]

Similar mistakes were made by the New York Times in 1911 and New-York Tribune in 1912, which both named the Smith Building the Bronx’s tallest office building.[24]

A possible explanation is that the newspapers confused the Smith and Haffen buildings or considered them as one complex though it appears they remained under separate ownership.[25]

Alternatively, antipathy toward the Haffen Building’s namesake family and its architect may be the reason for its omission; Borough President Louis Haffen was removed from office in 1909 due to misconduct involving Garvin’s role in the Bronx Borough Courthouse project and press coverage was generally critical of both men.

The two pioneering skyscrapers of the Bronx still stand side-by-side, the Haffen still slightly taller than the Smith, which is now called the Hub Centre Building.

Mount Hope Court (Bronx Flatiron)

The Bergen Building at E Tremont and Arthur Avenue

In 1912 the Bergen Building, a 7-story, 95-foot tall office building at the corner of E. Tremont and Arthur avenues, was built by William C. Bergen, a former police officer nicknamed the “Millionaire Cop.”

Although taller than the Smith and Haffen Buildings it was not widely characterized as the Bronx’s tallest building. For example, the New York Times referred to it as the second tallest structure in the Bronx, presumably an allusion to Immaculate Conception Church.[26]

In fact, it was not a new office tower, but a residential high rise that would next be hailed as the tallest building in the borough, namely Mount Hope Court, a 10-story (plus penthouse), 110-foot tall apartment building which was completed in 1914.[27]

As with the Smith Building before it, Immaculate Conception Church was ignored by many in the real estate and building press who were more interested in touting new development than giving deference to a church from the previous century.

The New York Tribune praised Mount Hope Court as “a most imposing structure”[28] and the New York Times admired how “its wide facade of light terra cotta stands out prominently from its high elevation.”[29]

Mount Hope Court: The Bronx’s own Flatiron Building

Given the building’s location on a triangular block bounded by the Grand Concourse, Mount Hope Place, Monroe Avenue, and E. Tremont Avenue and its resemblance to a noted downtown edifice, Mount Hope Court was also dubbed the “Bronx Flatiron,” a term used even in its own advertising.

A luxury building, each apartment consisted of six or seven rooms and building amenities included a rooftop garden with a pergola. Among its residents was its developer Otto Schwarzler.[30]

By the 1950s it was known as the Medical Arts Building, reflecting its use by doctors for residential and professional purposes. In the wake of the South Bronx’s struggles, it was abandoned during the early 1970s[31] but in 1982 was renovated and converted back to residential use as a publicly-subsidized affordable housing development and renamed the Concourse Flatiron.

Other Tall Buildings

In the years before the Great Depression there were other tall buildings developed in the borough which were not widely proclaimed as the Bronx’s tallest building but which could have made such a boast if the Immaculate Conception Church was excluded from consideration.

One example is the Lewis Morris, a large luxury apartment building completed in 1923.

Lewis Morris Apartments /Image Courtesy of Joe Raskin

It is 13 stories tall facing onto the Grand Concourse, but is 17 stories tall facing Walton Street due to the site’s steep topography. At approximately 170 feet tall on Walton Street, it may have been the tallest building in the borough apart from Immaculate Conception Church, but it does not appear to have claimed or received the distinction.

Incidentally, it was developed by Albert J. Schwarzler, who assisted his brother Otto in developing Mount Hope Court.

Tallest of its Type

In some cases, claims to the being the Bronx’s tallest were qualified as being limited to within a building type. A prominent case of this is the 12-story, 130-foot tall Bank of Manhattan Trust Company building of 1930, which was described as the tallest office building of the Bronx.[32]

Given the building’s location on E. 149th Street west of Melrose Avenue, one block directly south of Immaculate Conception Church, the bank may have been chastened in its boasts of vertical supremacy.

The former Bank of Manhattan Trust Building

The work of architect Morrell Smith and builder Charles T. Wills, Inc., who collaborated on several other regional offices for the bank, what distinguishes this building as much if not more than its height are the many ornate details elegantly incorporated into its facade, lending “dignity and solidity to the design.”[33]

These include reliefs of eagles, fish, and classical figures, as well as a bronze panel featuring Oceanus, the Greek god of water, a symbol used by the bank as a reference to its origins in the Manhattan Company, which was a waterworks founded by Aaron Burr and which also involved Alexander Hamilton.

This was one of several bank buildings in and around the Hub; another is the Smith Building which housed and was later bought by Knickerbocker Trust Company. Now known by its address, 369 E. 149th Street, the former Bank of Manhattan Trust Company building still houses a bank and offices.

Although this building was not characterized as the overall tallest in the Bronx, a 1954 New York Post article retroactively described it as being so upon its completion.[34]

Postwar: The Gap Closes

Until 1968, no building rose above Immaculate Conception Church’s 227-foot mark. However, in the years leading up to the late 1960s, several high rise residential buildings inched closer to the church’s gold cross topped spire.

Executive Towers as seen from The Bronx Museum

These included two market-rate cooperative apartment buildings, the 23-story, 203-foot tall Executive Towers completed in 1963 on the Grand Concourse and River Point Towers, a 26-story tower in Spuyten Duyvil built on a sloped site with only 20 of the levels above the street entrance, which was completed in 1965.

River Point Towers

Applying the criteria that heights should be measured from the lowest, significant, open air, pedestrian entrance to the building, River Point Towers is approximately 180 feet tall.

Also, there were publicly-supported affordable housing projects that reached similar heights, including St. Mary’s Park Houses, consisting of six 22-story, 194-foot tall public housing towers developed in 1959, and Concourse Village, consisting of six 25-story, 211-foot tall privately-managed affordable housing buildings built over the Mott Haven Yard of the New York Central railroad (now MTA Metro-North), which were completed from 1965 to 1967.

It appears none of these buildings made a claim to or were characterized as being the Bronx’s tallest. In these years, the emphasis was on affordability, for subsidized housing, and amenities, for market-rate housing (for example, advertisements for River Point Towers touted its “two delightful swimming pools”).

Co-op City (1968): 338 feet

Immaculate Conception Church was finally topped, after eight decades of Bronx vertical dominance, when Co-op City, which included fifteen 33-story, 338-foot tall buildings, was completed in phases from 1968 to 1972.

Not only for the Bronx, but for all of the United States, Co-op City represented the grandest expression of the towers-in-the-park concept, an approach to residential architecture and site planning that was widely implemented in many American cities after World War II.

Co-op City / Courtesy of the author

In New York City, under Robert Moses, from the late 1940s through the 1960s, numerous publicly-funded and publicly-subsidized developments of this type were constructed for lower- and middle-income families.

Based on the ideas of Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, the typical towers-in-the-park development featured mid or high rise apartment buildings designed in a Modernist architectural style with unadorned brick or concrete facades, separated by open space and walking paths on large “superblocks” with streets spaced further apart than in a conventional urban grid.

In plan, building footprints were cruciform and other geometric shapes, with walls rising up to flat roofs, rather than the characteristic wedding cake designs and tapered spires of pre-war skyscrapers. Typically, commercial uses were excluded to provide a purely residential character or put in separate buildings.

At Co-op City, where construction started in late 1965, these concepts were applied on a massive scale as the project included 15,372 units of housing in 35 high rises and 236 townhouses spread across 300 acres, divided into several large superblocks. (By comparison, St. Mary’s Park Houses contains approximately 1,000 apartments in six towers on 13.5 acres.)

The developer was the United Housing Foundation (UHF), a non-profit organization with ties to labor unions and a long track record of developing housing for union families and others of moderate to middle incomes. UHF was led by Abraham Kazan, a leftist Labor leader who forged an alliance with Moses predicated on both men’s emphasis on building big projects, despite notable political differences.

Co-op City received public subsidies as part of the state’s Mitchell-Lama housing program and, as its prosaic name indicates, the units were cooperatives. The architect was Herman J. Jessor, who had worked with UHF and related organizations throughout a career that spanned from the 1920s to 1970s.[35]

Prior to Co-op City, Jessor’s largest development for UHF was Rochdale Village in Queens, also a cooperative, which was completed in 1963. Following the Corbusian template, that project included twenty 14-story red brick towers, cruciform in plan, with 5,860 apartments on a 130-acre superblock, along with other buildings containing shops, schools, and a community center.[36]

For Co-op City, with almost three times as many dwelling units, Jessor diversified slightly and used three different types of residential towers and even included the aforementioned townhouses in several clusters (each townhouse contained two units). The high rises included ten 24-story “Chevrons,” ten 26-story “Triple Cores,” and fifteen 33-story “Towers.”[37] (Refer to Figure 2.)

It was this last group that became the new tallest buildings in the Bronx. “High-rise buildings were chosen because up to a certain height there is economy in their construction,” Jessor explained, and the corollary was that “with a limited area, the taller the buildings, the greater the open spaces for a required number of housing units.”

As for Co-op City’s unprecedented size, Jessor concluded, “the larger the project, the greater the economy.”[38] In other words, for UHF and Jessor, building tall and big was seen purely in terms of offering the most rational means for achieving the goal of delivering affordable housing for working families.

Figure 2, Co-op City Site Plan
Source: Published in Progressive Architecture, February 1970.

The development was built in the northeastern Bronx in a former marshland that included the site of the failed Freedomland amusement park and, although accessible by highways, was otherwise remote as it was not served by subway or train stations; in 2018 plans for a train station still remain as something promised for the future. Retail development, community facilities, and parking are provided in stand-alone low rise buildings.

With its well-proportioned apartments, central air conditioning, and open spaces, it offered an antidote to the urban ills – crime, unsanitary conditions, and crowding – that were increasingly becoming associated with densely developed neighborhoods in other parts of the Bronx.

In keeping with UHF’s priorities, the buildings were clad in brick and gray concrete blocks without ornament, but with rows of balconies providing views from the apartments. The grounds, designed by landscape architects Zion and Breen, included lawns, thousands of trees, and some modest slopes but avoided more costly features. “I quite agree there should have been a fountain and a marina,” Jessor acknowledged, “but where is the money?”[39]

The architectural and urbanistic qualities of Co-op City sparked a range of reactions, from excoriating attacks to qualified approval. Among the harshest critics, of which there were many, Time magazine condemned it as “relentlessly ugly: its buildings are overbearing bullies of concrete and brick”[40] Criticism even came from within the Modernist architecture camp, which might be expected to defend it.

For example, critic Sybil Moholy-Nagy decried its “deadly antiurbanism” while architect Ulrich Franzen lambasted “Co-op City’s coarsely scaled and lifeless community.”[41] A more measured critique came from architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable; “its size and scale are monumental,” she observed in 1968, but “its environmental and social planning is minimal.”[42]

In fact, three years later, Huxtable moderated her tone, conceding “today Co-op City is neither the purgatory nor the heaven that its critics and champions predicted. It is a functioning community.”[43]

Architects and urban theorists Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi saw unrealized potential rather than failure.

They argued that “Co-op City is not all right, it is almost all right,” (emphasis in the original) and offered suggestions for improvements that would not require much additional cost.[44]

For their part, UHF and its architect unapologetically defended the design on efficiency grounds. “We are willing to pay for something practical,” Jessor explained, “but we are unwilling to pay for art.”[45]

Besides Co-op City’s aesthetic character, an array of other concerns have been scrutinized at one time or another, including its finances, affordability, class and racial mix, infrastructure planning, environmental conditions, community services, and effects on other neighborhoods. Yet, there has been little comment on its position as tallest in the borough, which was the by-product of UHF’s priorities not a goal in itself.

As it turned out, Co-op City’s position atop the Bronx was fleeting; it was soon outdone by another publicly-subsidized housing development, but one designed by a nationally renowned architect who sought to break the mold that Co-op City epitomized.

Tracey Towers (1973): 400 feet

At the end of 1973, the title of tallest in the Bronx passed to another publicly-subsidized apartment complex, with the opening of the Tracey Towers.[46]

Located at the intersection of W. Mosholu Parkway and Jerome Avenue, this two-building development includes the 400-foot tall, 41-story Tracey Towers I and the 380-foot tall, 38-story Tracey Towers II. As such, both towers surpassed the 338-foot height of Co-op City’s tallest towers. Early plans for the inclusion of 36 low-rise townhouses did not come to fruition.

Tracey Towers/courtesy of the author

The project team included design architect Paul Rudolph, architect-of-record Jerald L. Karlan, and developer The DeMatteis Development Corporation and its construction affiliate Leo DeMatteis & Sons.

A rental development with approximately 870 units under the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program, it received public funding and was constructed on an 8-acre publicly-owned site. Most of this property is built above a portion of the Jerome Yard, a large subway train storage facility, which extends nearly a quarter-mile within the block bounded by W. Mosholu Parkway, Jerome Avenue, W. 205th Street, and Paul Avenue.

Though the site plan for the Tracey Towers resembles Co-op City and other postwar residential high rises built in the Bronx, with tall buildings covering only a small portion of a superblock, this was less a deliberate choice than a practical solution based on site conditions.

“The economics of the situation prevented us from building on the 1,000-foot long deck which covers the railroad tracks,” Rudolph noted, “these towers are placed at the end of the tracks in order to avoid them.”[47] The deck over the tracks was used as a parking lot for residents and also served as a noise abatement measure, addressing complaints by residents of Scott Towers, a co-op apartment building at the other end of the block, that the “noise [from the subway yard] was intolerable 24 hours a day.”[48]

As such, going up 400 feet enabled the project to accommodate a large development program while avoiding costly structural supports over an active rail yard. The result was not so much towers-in-the-park as it was towers on the edge of a parking lot.

But, besides the site conditions, there were other urban design rationales for building tall on a site where no building in the surrounding neighborhoods was even half as high.

In addition to the rail yard-covering parking surface to the south, the building complex faces onto Mosholu Parkway, an approximately 600-foot wide right-of-way with roadways and park areas, and Jerome Avenue, a wide street with an elevated subway.

To the west are DeWitt Clinton High School’s athletic fields and beyond it Jerome Park Reservoir.

Tracey Towers responds vertically to the wide horizontal context, as smaller and shorter buildings could be overwhelmed visually by their surroundings. The residential density is also warranted by the site’s proximity to the Mosholu Parkway subway station.

The towers provide dramatic views for upper floor residents, an amenity that is often limited to those of elevated incomes but here available to those of much more modest means.

One Rudolph biographer has described the Tracey Towers as “an important landmark silhouette on the skyline of the Bronx.”[49] However, it is less their height than the building shape that has attracted attention.

Rather than being conventionally rectangular or cruciform in their massing, the two towers consist of a mix of curved and flat exterior walls.

The curved sections are windowless and extend outward like the rounded corners of a castle, while the recessed flat wall sections contain windows and balconies. As was typical of high rise New York architecture of that time, the buildings do not feature setbacks at the upper floors or a tapered spire.

But, instead of terminating at a flat roof, the curved and flat sections of the towers end at varying heights in a configuration rarely used in any era. The curved facade and jagged rooflines add visual interest and, contends Robert A.M. Stern, makes this “perhaps New York’s ultimate example of futuristic design” during the period of Modernist ascendancy from 1945 to 1976.[50] (Refer to Figure 3.)

Figure 3, Tracey Towers/ Source: Photo by author

Rudolph was chairman of the architecture program at Yale and a leading practitioner of Modernism and its offshoot Brutalism, styles that emphasize functionalism and “honest” design. Nevertheless, he acknowledged and defended the rounded walls whose only purpose was symbolic.

“One looks out and sees these walls, which seem like huge columns, closely rising from the ground. However, they are not columns, but walls, but they are read as columns, which is as intended for psychological reasons.”

In other words, he created the illusion of a strong structure by adding rounded walls to the exterior, while “the actual structural members of this tower are so small that they would never read from a distance.”[51]

Likewise, the rounded exterior brought no functional or aesthetic benefit to the interior as the apartment layouts use standard rectangular rooms; “square closets are shoe-horned into the curves.”[52]

On the other hand, much more in keeping with Brutalist minimalism, the entire development is faced in gray concrete with thin white vertical bands expressing each floor slab.

Although Rudolph applied his trademark grooved “corduroy concrete” to inject texture into the facade, the building can seem quite severe, particularly where a windowless wall lines the sidewalk. Consider the contrast with Bronx buildings of other architectural styles that engage the pedestrian on the street with ground level ornament, color, plantings, windows, or shops.

Tracey Towers has long evoked a wide range of responses. In 1969, even before its construction started, the architectural press embraced the design with Progressive Architecture opining that “Tracey Towers are remarkable departures from the drab sameness” of other Mitchell-Lama buildings[53] and Architectural Record concluding “the varied shape of the towers enlarges the vocabulary of housing in New York City.”[54]

A 2010 New York Times op-ed article lauded the buildings for being “as intricate as a Gothic Church,”[55] while, in contrast, the AIA Guide to New York City describes them as “resembling sand castles with overactive thyroids.”[56]

Regardless of Tracey Towers merits or flaws, its reign as the tallest building in the Bronx was short and relatively unacclaimed. Soon after its completion, it was outdone by one last tall building complex of the mega-project era.

River Park Towers (1974): 428 feet

Hot on the heels of Tracey Towers, in 1974 tenants started moving into the 428-foot tall River Park Towers, which supplanted Paul Rudolph’s project as the tallest buildings in the Bronx.

On a site along the Harlem River that had been a derelict industrial zone, the Harlem River Park project, as it was initially known, was a major initiative of Governor Nelson Rockefeller.[57]

It features 1,654 apartments in four buildings, two that are 44 stories and two that are 41 stories. They are arranged in two clusters, each with a 44-story building attached to a 41-story building. They are literally towers-in-the-park,[58] as they are set within the 25-acre Roberto Clemente State Park, which includes a gym, swimming pools, waterfront esplanade, playgrounds, and other facilities.

Designed by landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, it was the first state park in New York City and as such the project not only provided housing but a major public resource for its own residents and nearby communities.

The site had been separated from the adjacent Morris Heights neighborhood by commuter rail tracks and the Major Deegan Expressway, but the project also included a new street bridge spanning the railroad and highway.

This project was undertaken by the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), a state agency established in 1968 to address urban problems in the wake of riots and middle class flight from urban areas. UDC was led by Edward J. Logue, a city planner brought to New York from Boston by Gov. Rockefeller to implement this and other major development projects across the state.

A New York Times article labeled him “Mr. Urban Renewal” and there were inevitable comparisons with Robert Moses whose career was ending as Logue arrived in New York.[59]

Although scaled back from early plans that included a third cluster of apartment buildings, Logue and UDC advanced it relatively quickly for a public project of its size.

The first phase of Harlem River Bronx State Park opened in 1973, though the following year it was renamed in honor of Roberto Clemente, a reflection of the growing importance of the borough’s Puerto Rican population.

The complex, which also included retail shops and parking, was developed in partnership with The DeMatteis Development Corporation (the same firm that built and owned Tracey Towers). A new school, built above the railroad right-of-way, opened in 1977.

While UDC originally intended River Park Towers to be primarily a middle-income Mitchell-Lama rental complex, over the years it transitioned into a low-income community, a reflection of the socioeconomic characteristics of those seeking housing in and around Morris Heights.

The architect for River Park Towers was Davis, Brody and Associates. Whereas Tracey Towers presented an alternative to the standard 1960s towers-in-the-park design that was distinctive but not replicated, River Park Towers was part of a larger body of work by Davis Brody that created a new prototype.

This new approach accepted the basic concept of the brick slab tower, but modified it. Most notably, many building corners were recessed at the lower floors and extruded on the upper floors. The level at which these changes occur varies across the different sides of the buildings. (Refer to Figure 4.)

This not only provides visual variation, but practical benefits. Unlike Tracey Towers, in which “all apartments of the same size have identical layout, – i.e., no variety for differing needs and tastes,”[60] the recesses and projections at River Park Towers resulted in a wider range of apartment floor plans and sizes.

This also inverts a classic architectural form dating back to church spires such as Immaculate Conception; instead of narrowing as it rises it broadens.

Figure 4, River Park Towers/ Source: Photo by author.

The vertically articulated corner became a signature feature for Davis Brody housing developments built across New York City in the 1970s. While the firm tailored the prototype to the specific conditions of each site, River Park Towers has clearly recognizable siblings at 2440 Boston Road in the Bronx, and Waterside, Ruppert Towers, and Cathedral Parkway Towers in Manhattan.[61]

While Waterside is more prominent, given its site along the FDR Drive near E. 23rd Street, in 1975 architecture critic Paul Goldberger described River Park Towers as “a taller, more majestic Waterside on the Harlem River in the Bronx” which is “scaled to the surrounding landscape” formed by the horizontal expanse of the park and the river.[62]

A quarter-century later, Goldberger’s successor at the New York Times, Herbert Muschamp, was even more fulsome, singling out Waterside and River Park Towers jointly as “the finest high-rise contributions to the New York skyline” during the 1970s. “With their notched corners and flaring upper stories, these clustered towers are triumphs of scale.”[63]

However, the praise for River Park Towers has not been universal. For example, when asked if any Bronx buildings feel out of place from their surroundings, Ed Garcia Conde, editor of the website Welcome2TheBronx, replied that “two developments stick out like sore thumbs. Tracey Towers in Bedford Park and River Park Towers in Morris Heights.”[64]

Associating River Park Towers with Tracey Towers highlights the many similarities the two share, notwithstanding aesthetic differences. Both were built on large properties at the periphery of neighborhoods and reached new heights for the Bronx in order to provide a substantial amount of new housing with a minimum of ground coverage.

After the quick succession of Co-op City, Tracey Towers, and River Park Towers, the era of large-scale, publicly-sponsored high rise residential projects came to an end, leaving the final of these developments as the Bronx’s tallest building for four decades and counting.

All three of these projects were conceived during the 1960s, when there was widespread concern about urban housing problems and a sense that government could and should respond with ambitious solutions.

By the 1970s, when these projects were completed, times had changed.

There were a variety of reasons for this, including rising construction costs, sharply reduced federal funding for housing, New York City’s fiscal crisis, and changing politics.

By the time City and State governments began to undertake major housing development initiatives again in the 1980s, new approaches for low- and middle-income housing were being pursued, including rehabilitation of existing buildings and construction of low and mid rise buildings.

For the most part, this smaller, contextual model continues to be followed for both affordable housing and for market rate apartment buildings, which are starting to be constructed again in the borough.

Conclusion

The story of the Bronx’s tallest buildings reveals more than a list of buildings and their heights. It also illustrates how some historical trends have physically shaped the borough.

The impact of German immigration is reflected in the construction of Immaculate Conception Church, the activities of the Haffen family, and builders such as Otto and August Schwarzler.

The Smith Building, Mount Hope Court, Lewis Morris Apartments, and Bank of Manhattan Trust Company building exemplified boom times when the borough developed commercial centers and affluent residential enclaves.

Likewise, Co-op City, Tracey Towers, and River Park Towers were products of their times, as government and groups like UHF attempted to respond to demand from various segments of the housing market in the face of changing demographic and economic conditions.

The building designs reflected the ascendance of different architectural and urban planning approaches, from the traditional church spire, which was followed by early skyscrapers built in the urban settings of the Hub and the Grand Concourse, to the Modernistic towers-in-the-park.

Equally revealing about the list of tallest buildings of the Bronx, is the absence of record setting commercial high rises. Historically, the borough’s office buildings generally have been limited to occupancy by local concerns such as the Bank of Manhattan Trust Company’s regional offices.

While that building was 12 stories, three months after its opening the same company debuted its new headquarters on Wall Street, a 71-story, 927-foot tall building that was briefly the world’s tallest.[65]

This dichotomy is illustrative of the path the Bronx followed in contrast to Manhattan, as a home to low and mid rise buildings, until government sponsored projects finally pushed the envelope. If a Bronxite wanted to see the world’s tallest buildings they were merely a subway ride away.

In fact, while interest in the tallest building in the world or in all of New York City has remained relatively constant since the dawn of the skyscraper era, in the Bronx interest in the borough’s tallest building has waxed and waned.

In the early twentieth century, when the Bronx was growing and prospering, newspapers were eager to crown new holders of the tallest title, undoubtedly to the delight of their builders, even as it required overlooking a taller church.

The Immaculate Conception Church and the Smith Building were completed only eleven years apart, yet one belonged to a tradition dating back centuries and the other represented a new age in which machines were replacing craftsmen and steel frame structures had made old construction methods obsolete.

Ironically, in the postwar era when Co-op City, Tracey Towers, and River Park Towers soared above the 227-foot tall Immaculate Conception Church, there was little mention or public interest in a new tallest building for the Bronx.

These developments built tall because they reflected a mindset of their times, namely that height was necessary to achieve a certain set of objectives: provide a substantial number of housing units but retain open space for light and air. There is no evidence that the developers or architects of these buildings were trying to set a new borough record.

In the Bronx of those years, building tall was a means not an end. Today, the Bronx is on the rebound and “super tall” buildings are rising in Manhattan and being planned for Brooklyn.

As of the writing of this article in 2018, there are no proposals for a new tallest building in the Bronx, but when it comes, as it inevitably will, what type of building will be proposed and what will be the reaction? Will its height excite little interest, or has the Bronx entered a new period in which a new tall building will elicit public attention, whether excitement over achieving a new milestone, debates over its design, or opposition over concerns such as shadows or gentrification? Stay tuned.

About the Author:

Jeff Reuben is a city planner and writer based in Washington Heights. His writing has included articles about The Bronx for Untapped Cities and The Bronx County Historical Society Journal.

Bronx County Historical Society & Journal

This article was originally published in The Bronx County Historical Society Journal, Volume LV, Numbers 1 & 2, Spring/Fall 2018 and is published here with permission.  

The Bronx County Historical Society, chartered in 1955, was founded for the purpose of promoting knowledge, interest, and research in The Bronx and New York City. The Society administers The Museum of Bronx History, Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, a Research Library, and The Bronx County Archives. 

The Bronx County Historical Society Journal is published yearly and sent to members. It is available by subscription to institutions.

For more information, including membership and to order copies of the Journal, please visit: http://bronxhistoricalsociety.org/

NOTES


[1] The cornerstone ceremony took place on September 25, 1887 and the dedication was originally planned for December 8, 1888, to coincide with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. However, according to a report in the New-York Daily Tribune of December 9, 1888, work on the church was not finished in time and the dedication was rescheduled for later in the month.

[2] The Bronx is also home to an Immaculate Conception Church on E. Gun Hill Road in Williamsbridge.

[3] “Height: The History of Measuring Tall Buildings,” by Gerometta, Marshall. December 2009. Available on the CTBUH website <www.ctbuh.org>

[4] “The Tribune’s New Home.” New-York Daily Tribune, 10 April 1875.

[5] The article quoted is “Tallest in the Word: A New Office Building in New York Higher Than Trinity Steeple.” Its origin in unclear, but it appeared in multiple newspapers in 1893 while the building was under construction, including Buffalo Evening News, 23 May 1893 and Lebanon Express (Oregon), 29 September 1893. See also, “Manhattan’s Home: Highest Office Building in the World.” Syracuse Daily Journal, 11 July 1893.

[6] The article reported St. Patrick’s as being 325 feet tall, making it 23 feet shorter than the Manhattan Life Insurance Building, however most other sources, including historic articles and the Cathedral’s website, list it as 330 feet tall, indicating only an 18-foot difference.

[7] “Old and New Buildings of New York.” Scientific American, 13 October 1894. Refers to Trinity’s spire as a “bench mark” for New York’s proliferating skyscrapers.

[8] “Trinity Church Reveals Plans for Office Tower to Rise Behind Historic Church.” CTBUH website. 25 October 2016.

[9] The Pulitzer Building of 1890 is nearly universally described as being the first skyscraper to be the tallest building in New York City by virtue of it being taller than the spire of Trinity Church. However, the Pulitzer Building did not exceed the spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, erected in 1888. Furthermore, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church of 1875-1876, has a slightly taller spire than Trinity.

[10] “CTBUH Height Criteria.” CTBUH Website <www.ctbuh.org>. Undated; accessed 27 July 2017.

[11] “Buildings Projected.” The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide, 25 June 1887.

[12] Some sources identify the height to the top of the cross as 215 feet, but this appears to originate with a 26 September 1887 New York Times article published at the time of the cornerstone ceremony. Articles in the New York World and New York Herald of 24 December 1888, covering the dedication ceremony, report the height as 227 feet, the measurement used here.

[13] “A New Church Beyond the Harlem: The Building of the Immaculate Conception Almost Completed.” The Sun (New York), 2 December 1888.

[14] “A New Catholic Temple: The Archbishop Blesses the Edifice in the Annexed District.” New York Herald, 24 December 1888.

[15] For a brief history of the church’s early building activities, see Minutes of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment of the City and County of New York. 1887, pages 811-817.

[16] These include Ulm Minster, 530 feet (spire completed 1890 but under construction in the 1880s); and Cologne Cathedral, 518 feet (spire completed 1880).

[17] “Melrose Church Desires New Spire.” Daily News (New York), 15 November 1996.

[18] Immaculate Conception Church and the Archdiocese of New York opposed efforts to designate the church complex a City landmark in 1980 and again in 2015-2016, concerned that the requirements of the Landmarks Law would impose unbearable financial hardship. On 13 December 2016, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to take “No Action” on landmarking.

[19] “Trust Company Buys Bronx Building.” New York Times, 17 November 1912.

[20]New York Journal, 2 October 1898, page 49.

[21]Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide, 21 October 1899, page 595.

[22] “Haffen Building.” Designation Report, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, 22 June 2010.

[23] “Tallest Building in Bronx.” Evening Post (New York), 30 November 1909.

[24] See: “Bronx Has New Crosstown Trolley Line Entering Manhattan Through 149th Street.” New York Times, 22 October 1911; and “Tallest Bronx Apartment.” New-York Tribune, 8 October 1912.

[25] “Trust Company to Take Title.” The Sun (New York), 10 November 1912.

[26] “Ex-Policeman to Build.” New York Times, 10 August 1911.

[27] See: The Building Age, December 1914, page 30; and “Tallest Building in the Bronx.” New York Press, 17 December 1913.

[28] “Along the Grand Boulevard and Concourse.” New-York Tribune, 14 March 1915.

[29] “Ten-story Apartment in the Bronx Being Erected on Grand Concourse: Tallest Structure in the Borough on Flatiron Plot Facing Tremont Avenue.” New York Times, 21 June 1914.

[30] “O.J. Schwarzler, Bronx Realty Promoter, Dead.” New York Herald Tribune, 21 March 1929.

[31] Hermalyn, Gary and Robert Kornfeld. Landmarks of The Bronx. The Bronx: Bronx County Historical Society, 1989.

[32] “New Bank Office Opens Today.” New York Times, 7 February 1930.

[33] “Tallest Bronx Building Ready.” New York Evening Post, 8 February 1930. Despite the headline, the article clarifies that “it is the highest office building in the Bronx.”

[34] “Bronx Bandwagon.” New York Post, 3 May 1954.

[35] “Labor and Housing in New York City: Architect Herman Jessor and the Cooperative Housing Movement,” by Schuman, Tony. 86th ACSA Annual Meeting and Technology Conference, 1998.

[36] Eisenstadt, Peter. Rochdale Village: Robert Moses, 6,000 Families, and New York City’s Great Experiment in Integrated Housing. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.

[37] “Mass Housing, Late Modernism, and the Forging of Community in New York City and East Berlin, 1965-1989,” by Sammartino, Annemarie. American Historical Review, April 2016.

[38] “Herman J. Jessor, Co-op City Architect, Comments Upon the Authors’ Text.” Progressive Architecture. February 1970. Written in response to an article by Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi (see note 44).

[39]Ibid.

[40] “The Lessons of Co-op City.” Time, 24 January 1969.

[41] “Your Point of View: Co-op City Controversy.” Progressive Architecture. April 1970.

[42] “A Singularly New York Product,” by Huxtable, Ada Louise. New York Times, 25 November 1968.

[43] “Co-op City’s Grounds: After 3 Years, a Success,” by Huxtable, Ada Louise. New York Times, 26 October 1971.

[44] “Co-op City: Learning to Like It,” by Scott Brown, Denise and Robert Venturi. Progressive Architecture. February 1970.

[45] Quoted in Eisenstadt, 2010.

[46] The completion date of the Tracey Towers is variously listed as 1972, 1973, and 1974. 1973 is used here based on an advertisement that appeared in the New York Times on 4 November 1973, which announced: “Now Renting! Occupancy December 1, 1973.”

[47] Quoted in Cook, John W. and Heinrich Klotz. Conversations with Architects: Philip Johnson, Kevin Roche, Paul Rudolph, Bertrand Goldberg, Morris Lapidus, Louis Kahn, Charles Moore, Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown. New York: Praeger, 1973.

[48] “Harlem Housing Approved by City.” New York Times, 22 November 1968. Although most of the article describes another project, the final paragraphs discuss City approval of Tracey Towers.

[49] Monk, Tony. Art and Architecture of Paul Rudolph. Chichester: Wiley-Academy, 1999.

[50] Stern, Robert A.M., Thomas Mellins and David Fishman. New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial. New York: The Monacelli Press, 1997.

[51] Cook, op. cit.

[52] “Second Look: Tracey Towers by Paul Rudolph, 1972,” by Bernstein, Fred. ArchNewsNow.com. 13 October 2005.

[53] “No Drabness in Rudolphian Twins.” Progressive Architecture. January 1969.

[54] “Tracey Towers: Wider Design Vocabulary for High-rise Housing.” Architectural Record. January 1969.

[55] “Beautiful Brutes,” by Strand, Oliver and Knickerbocker. New York Times, 24 April 2010.

[56] White, Norval, and Elliot Willensky with Fran Leadon, AIA Guide to New York City, fifth edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[57] Although it is best known as River Park Towers, the name used when it opened, it is also sometimes referred to as Harlem River Park Towers and is now formally called River Park Residences.

[58] Typically in towers-in-the-park development, the open spaces are not official parks and their maintenance is the responsibility of the entity that owns or manages the apartment complex they surround.

[59] “New York’s Mr. Urban Renewal.” New York Times. 1 March 1970.

[60] “Architecture With Inner Meaning: Notes Toward a Definition of Urban Design,” by Mayer, Albert. Architectural Forum, 1971.

[61] “The Evolving Urban Architecture of Davis, Brody & Associates.” Architectural Record, August 1972.

[62] “Waterside Design Builds Reputation,” by Goldberger, Paul. New York Times, 12 March 1975.

[63] “The Ominous Message of a Box on Union Square,” by Muschamp, Herbert. New York Times, 2 January 2000.

[64] “The blogger behind “Welcome2TheBronx” dishes on the REAL Little Italy, why the borough shouldn’t be “colonized,” and more.” Brick Underground <www.brickunderground.com>. 15 November 2016.

[65] The Manhattan Trust Company Building at 40 Wall Street was the world’s tallest building for a few weeks before the Chrysler Building unveiled its spire, secretly assembled inside the under construction building, in the ultimate example of tallest building one-upmanship.

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