For those who remember Poe Cottage before its renovation, it was a sorry site. Essentially abandoned, the crackled clapboard building where Edgar Allan Poe wrote Annabel Lee harked back to the borough’s neglected past. Recent renovations of the cottage and the addition of the Poe Park Visitor Center, designed by Toshiko Mori, added a glimmer of hope. But after the Parks Department spent nearly $4 million to build the center, the building remains empty more than six months after completion, leading to vandalism and arson, abuse that the center’s activities were intended to deter from the park.
One of the first projects completed under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s Design and Construction Excellence Program, the Poe Visitor Center sprang from the good-uses-drive-out-bad-acts school of thought. But unlike, say, Bryant Park, neither a well-endowed commercial thoroughfare nor a transportation hub have helped to fuel community attention or spark substantial donor interest. Now, with the center complete and the cottage restored, the Parks Department still does not have the funding to staff it.
Initially, the department anticipated that the Bronx County Historical Society would manage the facility. “Then, as with many of the best-laid plans, the economy got in the way,” said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. “So we had to recalibrate and look for other alternatives.”
Angel Hernandez, educator at the Historical Society, said that while his organization holds historic materials they hope to make available at the center, they didn’t have the funds to run it. “We have to fund our own operations,” he said. “We also have our own museum that’s 250 years old and you can imagine the costs of maintaining that.”
Following incidents such as graffiti on the building’s slate cladding, architect Toshiko Mori began to pursue alternative programs for the space, lobbying Benepe at Parks as well as the Guggenheim’s David van der Leer. At a mid-December meeting with park officials at the Arsenal in Central Park, Mori suggested using this past summer’s BMW Guggenheim Lab as a model, a notion that impressed Benepe, but he still needs another institution to take the reins.
The commissioner is also reaching out to local institutions such as Fordham University, Lehman College, Bronx Community College, the New York Botanical Garden, the Bronx Zoo, and Montefiore Medical Center, as well as Manhattan-based Municipal Arts Society. Mori has stressed how essential it is to keep it local. “The Bronx is a thriving community, but it may not have an identity because there’s so many different ethnic groups. It’s not clear who’s there,” she said, noting the ever-evolving neighborhood makeup. “A top-down-only approach will not work in these situations,” she said. “You need a buy-in from the local community.”
Benepe said that while the Parks Department will retain primary responsibility for the property, it is generally not in the business of programming. A mid-January site visit with Parks officials and Mori is planned in the hopes of enticing an interested institution with a programming track record. With the Certificate of Occupancy pending, who will occupy it remains an unknown, normally a question answered before funding. “It’s totally backwards,” Mori said.