888 Grand Concourse has seen better days. But even in decline, the curvaceous Art Deco landmark is striking and memorable. The bold corner treatment, in particular, stands out for its concave gilt and mosaic entry.
The Emery Roth-designed apartment building stands at E 161st Street, across the “Boulevard of Dreams” from the old Bronx County Courthouse. In 2009, The New York Times called 888 “a particular stunner, a medley of curves, scallops and concave spaces executed in black granite, bronze, stainless steel, marble mosaic and gold stripes.”
Since then, the building has fallen on hard times. In 2013, the Daily News reported that the apartment house had 341 open violations and was one of the Bronx’s ten worst buildings. In February 2016 tenants staged a rent strike, and the building is in foreclosure, according to The Real Deal. The New York Real Estate news site described the building as “rat-infested.”
One can only hope that the landmark emerges from foreclosure with an owner that can rehabilitate the building.
Park Plaza Apartments is one of the first Art Deco apartment houses to be built in the Bronx. It was designed by the prolific team of Horace Ginsberg and Marvin Fine, who built dozens of buildings on and around the Grand Concourse, including the Fish Building and Noonan Plaza Apartments. Bold, colorful glazed terra cotta enlivens the 365-foot-wide facade.
Ginsberg (who later changed his name to Ginsbern) specialized in the design and layout of apartments, while Fine specialized in the elevations – the facades. Fine began his career working for Cass Gilbert, the architect of the Woolworth Building, among other landmarks. But while working for Ginsberg – in the midst of the Park Plaza project – Fine broke with his classical training and experience to embrace “modernistic” design. Fine credited the work of William Van Alen (Chrysler Building) and Raymond Hood (American Radiator Building) as his inspiration.
The Park Plaza Apartments is on an L-shaped site with its long side on Jerome Avenue; the base pokes through the block to Anderson Avenue. The eight-story building, viewed from the front, has five blocks or wings separated by courtyards. Initially, the building was to have 10 floors. During construction, fire destroyed the building, and the Department of Buildings imposed a lower height for the rebuilt apartments.
When built, Park Plaza Apartments promoted its quiet views of Jerome Park. Part of the park remains (Mullaly Park), but the New Yankee Stadium occupies what was Macombs Dam Park, across the street. So much for quiet.
(At this writing, facade repairs spoil the picture; I hope to re-photograph the building when the scaffolding is removed.)
Park Plaza Apartments Vital Statistics
Location: 1005 Jerome Avenue at E 164th Street and 1000 Anderson Avenue (Bronx)
Fish Building is “one of the most astonishing apartment houses in the Bronx, indeed in New York City,” wrote Christopher Gray in his July 15, 2007 New York TimesStreetscapes column. The six-story building, aka 1150 Grand Concourse, is an Art Deco delight designed by Horace Ginsbern and Marvin Fine. This Grand Concourse landmark gets its name from the aquarium motif mosaic at the main entry.
But Mr. Gray decries the structure’s decline. “HOW do old buildings disappear? Sometimes all at once, under the wrecking ball. But more often they fade away on little cat’s feet, first the cornice, then a doorway, then the windows, then a balcony … leaving behind nothing but an architectural zombie.” And indeed, historical photos that accompany the Streetscapes column show an even more fantastic Fish Building existed some 50-odd years ago. The original cornice, roof railing, windows and door have been replaced with unimaginative substitutes.
At least one aspect of the building’s design is permanent: Its adaptation to the irregular street grid.
The Grand Concourse was designed as a scenic boulevard, and as such it meanders to follow the terrain, often at an odd angle to the street grid. Such is the case at Mc Clellan Street. The Fish Building accommodates the boulevard’s zig with a stepped western facade that artfully hides the skewed grid, and keeps apartment walls rectangular. See the floor plans from Columbia University’s New York Real Estate Brochure Collection.
If the outside of 1150 Grand Concourse is exceptional, the inside is absolutely stunning. The terrazzo floor, murals, light fixtures and boldly decorated elevators are a joy to behold.
If the Fish Building leaves you wanting more, you can visit nearby Park Plaza Apartments. It’s located at 1005 Jerome Avenue, across the street from Yankee Stadium. This grander-scaled apartment building was also designed in Art Deco style by Ginsbern and Fine. It features bold, colorful terra cotta details definitely worth the trip.
Fish Building Vital Statistics
Location: 1150 Grand Concourse at Mc Clellan Street
Year completed: 1937
Architect: Horace Ginsbern and Marvin Fine
Style: Art Deco
New York City Landmark: 2011 (Grand Concourse Historic District)
Bronx County Hall of Justice reverses centuries of tradition: The aluminum and glass facades are designed for openness and transparency instead of monumental intimidation.
According to the architects, “The image of the courthouse in society was of primary concern in the design of the building. The program is organized in a linear manner around an open civic space and layered from public to private, with the public circulation, animated by a series of cantilevered stairs, facing the open space. Within the courtyard sets a free-standing public building that serves as the jury assembly room, gives scale to the space, and is the symbolic as well as formal focus of the project. The exterior wall design responds to the various functions within and orientations of the building. The curtain wall facing the south and west takes the shape of a folded plane with integrated light shelves that reflect light into the courtrooms and shade the adjacent corridor. The intent is to express the building as open and inviting, a metaphor for the transparency of the judicial process.”
The building is a dazzling contrast to the Bronx Criminal Court, next door, and the Bronx County Building (originally Bronx County Courthouse) at Grand Concourse, just two blocks west.
Despite its openness, the Hall of Justice was built with security in mind: The glass walls are bullet- and blast-resistant.
While the building’s design was exceptional, the construction was anything but. The construction site was contaminated, the low-bidding contractor was disqualified for suspected mob ties, the underground garage was deemed unsafe, and air conditioning for the court computers didn’t work. The four-year, $325 million project stretched accordion-like to six years and $421 million, opening in 2008.
Bronx County Hall of Justice Vital Statistics
Location: 265 East 161st Street between Sherman and Morris Avenues
Bronx County Building (originally Bronx County Courthouse) is a monumental landmark of limestone and marble that blends modern and classical forms. It is made more prominent by its siting, raised on a granite podium between two parks – Joyce Kilmer Park to the north, Franz Sigel Park to the south.
The podium, most visible on the west and north facades, is functional: It contains a garage, among other things.
The design is symmetrical, each side almost identical except for the sculpture. A six-columned portico is centered on each side, flanked by a pair of pink marble sculpture groups. The north and south facades are broken by 13 lines of windows; the east and west facades have 15 bays. Polished copper spandrels separate the windows; the first-floor spandrels have nickel inlays.
The county’s judicial needs have outgrown the building – at one point the building was so crowded that there were reports of juries deliberating in storage rooms. Larger courts have since been built to the east on E 161st Street and to the north on Grand Concourse. The building now serves as the Bronx County municipal building.
Bronx County Building Vital Statistics
Location: 851 Grand Concourse at E 161st Street
Year completed: 1935
Architect: Joseph H. Freedlander and Max L. Hausle
Sculptors: Charles Keck (frieze), Adolf A. Weinman (Grand Concourse sculpture groups), George H. Snowden (E 161st Street sculpture groups), Joseph Kiselewski (Walton Avenue sculpture groups), Edward F. Sandford Jr. (E 158th Street sculpture groups)
Although part of the Bronx, City Island has a distinct personality that seems imported from New England, reflected in the island’s architecture.
City Island Avenue is the island’s main north-south thoroughfare; side streets are one or two blocks long east and west. Rule of thumb: The most interesting homes are at the ends of the street, overlooking the water.
It may seem that the most interesting homes are all at the southern end of the island; not necessarily. I must confess, the sun was getting low in the sky, forcing me to rush a bit – I didn’t explore every block.
Getting There: Take the number 6 to Pelham Bay (end of the line), transfer to the Bx29 bus, which goes all the way to the southern end of the island.
Originally known as the Eighth Coastal Artillery Armory, Kingsbridge Armory was built in 1912-17 with what was then the world’s largest drill hall, to accommodate artillery.
According to “Guide to New York City Landmarks,” the armory was designed by Pilcher & Tachau and inspired by a medieval French castle at Pierrefonds.
The main hall has been unused by the military for more than a decade, and New York City now controls the building. (A National Guard unit still uses the north annex, adjacent to the armory.) The Bronx Borough President has endorsed a proposal to turn the armory into an ice skating center with nine rinks.
Kingsbridge Armory Vital Statistics
Location: 29 W Kingsbridge Road between Jerome and Reservoir Avenues
You’ll find historical societies in all five boroughs of New York; as you’ll see, they are architecturally interesting in themselves, and are valuable resources for learning more about the boroughs’ history.
Here are some capsule reviews of each, with contact info. Be sure to get current visitor and exhibit information – some sites have very limited hours of operation.
New York Historical Society
The New York Historical Society is both the oldest and among the youngest museums in New York. It was founded in 1804, but the building was renovated and reopened in November 2011. It now includes state-of-the-art interactive displays on three exhibit floors and a spectacular multimedia show – “New York Story” – which by itself is almost worth the price of admission. (The 18-minute show screens every half hour.) The Society is also young in its approach to history – it has a sense of humor that pops up and keeps the exhibits fresh. Where else would you find a “Beer Here” exhibit?
The permanent collection is displayed on the fourth floor (which has its own mezzanine); changing exhibits are on the first and second floors; a children’s museum, library and classrooms are on the lower level. The first floor also contains the auditorium, gift/book shop and cafe. New York Historical Society goes to great lengths to make its collection accessible to all – mobility, sight and hearing impairments are all accommodated.
The New York Historical Society museum and library covers all of New York City – unlike the other societies, which focus on single boroughs. Consequently, there’s some overlap between this museum and the Museum of the City of New York on Fifth Avenue.
Note that the Society’s library closes earlier than its museum – 3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 1 p.m. on Saturday (closed Sunday).
Address: 170 Central Park West (at 77th Street), New York, NY 10024
The Museum of Bronx History operates out of the Valentine-Varian House, a fieldstone farmhouse built in 1758. The Society also maintains a separate archive/library and the nearby Poe House (see below). In addition, the society operates tours.
Address: The Valentine-Varian House/Museum of Bronx History, 3266 Bainbridge Avenue, The Bronx, NY 10467
This is where Edgar Allan Poe spent his last years; where his wife died and where he wrote some of his most memorable works. The docent gives an excellent talk about Poe, his life and times; there’s also an informative video shown in an upstairs bedroom. In the adjacent park, the Parks Department operates an educational center.
And if you need another reason to visit, the immediate neighborhood is rich in architectural treasures – including Kingsbridge Armory, two blocks west.
Address: 2640 Grand Concourse (at East Kingsbridge Road), The Bronx, NY 10458
Founded as the Long Island Historical Society in 1863; changed its name to Brooklyn Historical Society in 1985. The building is still going through restoration – the main floor gallery is the current (as of September 2012) project; most other areas, inside and out, are stunningly beautiful. In addition to the exhibit galleries, the Society houses an impressive research library.
Address: 128 Pierrepont Street (at Clinton Street), Brooklyn, NY 11201
The Queens Historical Society operates out of Kingsland Homestead in Flushing, next to the historic Bowne House (currently closed for restoration). It’s a small operation, open only a few hours on just three days a week. But they do have a good selection of publications – books and pamphlets – about other historic sites in Queens. And, it’s a part of the Flushing “Freedom Mile” walking tour that includes 10 other significant buildings. (Kingsland Homestead was a part of the “Underground Railroad.”)
Address: Weeping Beech Park, 143-35 37th Avenue, Flushing, NY 11354
Historic Richmond Town is a score of restored/reconstructed homes, farms, businesses, schools and churches, dating from the 1700s and 1800s. It’s quite rural compared to the rest of the city and very popular for school outings. There are several themed tours – consider this an all-day trip – or several trips!
If you’re very ambitious, there’s a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home (see “The Wright Stuff” gallery.) and a lighthouse at the top of the hill overlooking Historic Richmond Town, and a beautiful church and cemetery across the street.
Address: Historic Richmond Town, 441 Clarke Avenue, Staten Island, NY 10306
Tracey Towers* are the Bronx’s tallest buildings, at 38 and 41 stories. The concrete-block buildings are composed of tubes extended from squarish cores. Each brown-grey story is punctuated by a white concrete floor slab, so the effect is like 400-foot piles of neatly stacked asterisks. The Paul Rudolph-designed apartments were erected as a Mitchell Lama development in 1972.
Though appealing from a distance, the mass of ribbed concrete blocks [photo] seems oppressively somber close up. The term for this architectural style, brutalism, is derived from the French term for raw concrete, béton brut. You’re forgiven if you thought it was derived from brutal.
Oddly enough, the tubes’ interiors are all squared off and window free – unlike the glassed-in tubes of Manhattan’s Corinthian condominiums.
Love them or hate them, Tracey Towers’ design is a huge leap from the typical plain red-brick boxes associated with public or subsidized housing.
In recent years, Tracey Towers has been in the news twice: In 2005, a Chinese Restaurant deliveryman got trapped in an elevator for three days [The New York Times: Three Days Stuck in an Elevator]. In 2012, residents were hit with a 61.5% rent increase [New York Daily News: Record Rent Hike].
* Not to be confused with Tracy Towers on E 24th Street in Manhattan.