Ever since Howard Cosell famously declared that “the Bronx is burning” during the 1977 World Series, New York’s northern borough has been associated more with the destruction of its architecture than its conservation. The Landmarks Preservation Commission worked to right that history today, as the commission considered a clutch of Bronx buildings from a range of eras for designation; proposed a mile-long stretch of the Grand Concourse for protection; and made the Perry Avenue Historic District, in the borough’s Bedford Park neighborhood, the city’s 100th historic district.
“It’s just a big break for the Bronx,” commission chair Robert Tierney said in an interview. “The Bronx has been overlooked, but not anymore.”
While the Bronx, like the other outer boroughs, had been underrepresented at the commission for years, a particular problem is that barely a dozen landmarks were designated in the borough during the Giuliani administration, thanks in part to a personal spat between the mayor and then-Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, whose wife had been a commissioner. “Freddy was very good about landmarks,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, who noted that Ferrer had pushed through a number of new landmarks before coming up against Giuliani. It was not until the Bloomberg administration that designations resumed.
Part of the reason for this latest round of interest in the Bronx is the Grand Concourse’s centennial, which is being celebrated this year. Laid out by Alsatian-born engineer Louis Aloys Risse with inspiration coming from the Champs-Élysées, the roadway was meant to connect Manhattanites with the Bronx’s ample parks. Soon it became a hub of Art Deco and Art Moderne apartment buildings for Jewish immigrants fleeing the squalor of the Lower East Side, and then a haven for Puerto Rican immigrants as their predecessors moved to the suburbs.
With the highest concentration of Deco and Moderne architecture in the city, the commission has calendared 73 buildings stretching from 153rd Street to 167th Street along the concourse and some side streets. Hearings are expected in the coming months for the well-known roadway. The area has been especially active this year, including a rezoning of the Lower Concourse, a competition to re-imagine the entire roadway, and of course the opening of the new Yankee Stadium.
The other reason the commission took up the Grand Concourse, as well as eight individual landmarks scattered throughout the borough and the Perry Avenue district, was a recent survey completed by commission staff of some 800 buildings, part of Tierney’s efforts to expand landmark designations in the Bronx. Beyond the nine Queen Anne style row houses of Perry Avenue, there is the Beaux Arts Haffen Building in the South Bronx; the Greyston Dodge Estate Gatehouse in Riverdale, which dates from the Civil War; and the Gothic Highbridge Community Church from 1890.
“Our focus may be on the Grand Concourse,” Tierney said, “but this is also a testament to the great resources of the Bronx, which we want to protect.”