Grand Concourse Historic District

Bronx Boro, Bronx County, NY

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Looking South from 1650 Grand Concourse

Photo: Looking South from 1650 Grand Concourse, Grand Concourse Historic District, Bronx, NY.. The Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. Photograph bywikipedia username: siddarth_hanumanthu, 2018, [cc-4.0], via wikimedia commons, accessed December, 2023.

The Grand Concourse Historic District [†] is architecturally significant for its intact concentration of early twentieth century apartment houses and institutional buildings erected along the southern portion of the Grand Concourse, a major speedway and parkway planned in 1893 to connect Central Park in Manhattan with the expansive parks of the north Bronx. Although the parkway itself does not retain enough integrity of its original landscape design to be considered a contributing component of the nomination, its presence was a primary catalyst in the district's development and the broad boulevard lends an important visual quality to the district. The buildings in the district, erected between 1916 and 1941, were designed in a variety of early twentieth century eclectic styles, including the Neo-Renaissance, NeoTudor, Colonial Revival, and Mediterranean styles. Also included in the district is a group of distinguished Art Deco style apartment houses. The vast majority of the buildings were designed by local Bronx architects, including Jacob M. Felson and Horace Ginsbern. Several buildings were designed by Manhattan architects, including Joseph Freedlander, Harry Allan Jacobs, Aymar Eabury, Emery Roth, Andrew J. Thomas, and the firm of Maynicke & Frank. The buildings in the district, set along the edge of a natural ridge, are all related in scale, materials, and use of ornament, and they fora an impressive and cohesive street wall extending the length of the entire district.

The contributing buildings of the Grand Concourse Historic District were erected as a direct result of the planning and construction of the Grand Concourse itself. The Grand Concourse runs north-south through the West Bronx. The West Bronx, formerly a part of Westchester County, was annexed by New York City in 1874. It was referred to as the "annexed district" or as the 23rd and 24th wards. The West Bronx has the hilliest topography in New York City, consisting of hills, valleys, and rock outcroppings that have always made travel through the area difficult. One of the most notable geologic features of the West Bronx was a ridge running north-south across the area approximately one-half mile from the Harlem River. This ridge became the site of the Grand Concourse.

In the late nineteenth century, the West Bronx was still sparsely populated with settlement concentrated in a few old villages such as Melrose and Morrisania. Elsewhere in the West Bronx were a few large rural estates. Since the Bronx remained largely undeveloped, New York City established a commission in 1884 to acquire parkland. Approximately four thousand acres were acquired, primarily in the North Bronx, including the land that is now Van Cortlandt, Bronx, and Pelham parks. After this vast acreage was acquired, it remained relatively inaccessible to people living in the densely populated city since there were no roads or mass transit lines leading to the parks. In 1891, the city established the Department of Street Improvement for the 23rd and 24th Wards. This department's mandate was to lay out streets throughout the West Bronx. One of its finest achievements was the Grand Concourse, which finally linked New York City's population center with the parks.

The first commissioner of the new department was Louis J. Heintz (Heintz is commemorated in a statue done by French sculptor Pierre-Luc Feitu that was erected in 1909 and is now located in Joyce Kilmer Park. He appointed Louis s. Risse as his chief engineer. It was Louis Risse who was directly responsible for the Grand Concourse. Risse (1851-1923) was born in St. Avold, Lorraine, Prance. He came to the United States at the age uf seventeen. In America he studied civil engineering and topography and worked_ as a railroad surveyor before moving to the Bronx where he helped lay out Morrisania and surveyed many areas of Westchester County. He had spent a great deal of time walking and hunting in the West Bronx and was familiar with the topography of the area.

Risse thought of the idea for the Grand Concourse as a response to a campaign by the Rider and Driver Club of New York City for the construction of a speedway on which to run horses and carriages. In ~bout 1891, the club proposed a speedway along the west side of Central Park, but this idea ran into opposition. Soon after this, John De La Vergne, president of the club and head of the De La Vergne Refrigerating Company of the Bronx, suggested to Louis Heintz that a speedway should be constructed along Jerome Avenue (Jerome Avenue is a few blocks west of the Grand Concourse). Heintz asked Risse for his opinion.

Risse felt that the ridge which ran to the east of Jerome Avenue would be the ideal site for as "broad and grand avende" that would serve as both a speedway and as a connection between the Manhattan and Bronx parks.

Of major importance to the success of Risse's plan was his contention that construction of the Grand Boulevard & Concourse would immediately increase the value of land adjacent to it. Risse was not the first to see the importance of a parkway in increasing adjoining land values. Earlier in the nineteenth century, Frederick Law Olmsted had argued that the construction of Eastern Parkway (1870-74; NR listed) and Ocean Parkway (1874-76; NR listed) in Brooklyn would increase land values along their routes. Olmsted believed that one of the positive effects that urban parks had was to increase real estate values on the streets bordering the parkland. This proved to be the case in many instances; in New York City, this is evident on residential streets such as Fifth Avenue and Central Park West bordering Central Park and Prospect Park West adjacent to Prospect Park. Although a rise in real estate values was not the major reason why Olmsted championed parkways, he did anticipate that extending parks along parklike streets would, in effect, extend the edges of the parks and increase real estate values along the parkways as well. Olmsted believed that first class housing would be developed along his parkways. Like Olmsted, Risse believed that his parkway, The Grand Boulevard and Concourse, would increase the value of adjoining land and lead to the construction of large homes. He reported that he told Commissioner Heintz that "the great enhancement in real estate values which the construction of the Concourse must necessarily produce will repay the City many times over the original cost of the undertaking.

As originally constructed, the Grand Boulevard and Concourse consisted of a street that was 144 feet wide and was bounded on either side by twenty-two foot wide sidewalks. The central speedway was fifty-eight feet wide and was divided by a relatively narrow mall. Six-foot-wide malls divided the speedway from thirty-seven foot wide service roads. The service roads allowed for access to buildings on the Concourse and to local streets. The Concourse was planned to "provide walks, sidewalks, promenades, bicycle paths, driveways, etc." Traffic on major cross streets was planned to pass under the Concourse on transverse roads.

Early in 1893, Risse presented his plans for the Grand Boulevard and Concourse to the public and received extensive local endorsement. In 1895, the New York State Legislature passed a bill allowing the land along the Grand Concourse right-of-way to be taken and paid for. Soon aftes the plans were officially filed for the Grand Boulevard and Concourse and condemnation proceedings began. Title to the land was vested to the city in 1897. Construction did not officially begin until 1897. Work on the Concourse was scheduled to take one thousand days, but it actually took seven years due to widespread corruption and problems that arose because of the solidity of the bedrock along the route. The Grand Boulevard and Concourse was officially opened in November 25, 1909.

The Concourse was such a successful road that in July 1924, Logan Billingsley, a West Bronx realtor, suggested extending the Concourse south along Mott Avenue to East 138th Street. This extension runs past the Bronx County Courthouse and along the side of Cedar Park (now Franz Sigel Park). Franz Sigel Park, the courthouse, and several contributing apartment buildings on the east side of the Concourse's extension between-East 153rd and East 161st streets are included in the historic district.

The look of the Concourse has changed since it was originally laid out. In the early 1930s construction of the IND subway beneath the street caused the road surface to be dug up. After subway construction was completed in 1933_, the Concourse was repaved and the central mall removed. The side malls were reduced in size and replanted. At this time, the original trees were removed to Pelham Park. Although the parkway itself does not retain enough integrity of its original landscape design to be considered a contributing component of the nomination, the broad boulevard still lends an important visual quality to the district.

When it opened, the Grand Concourse ran through a sparsely settled area. To the east of the historic district were •the Melrose Yards of the New York City and Harlem River Railroad and the working-class community of Melrose. To the west, towards the Harlem River, were a few scattered buildings. To the south, across the tracks of the Spuyten Duyvil and Port Morris Branch of the New York Central Railroad, was the community of Mott Haven with its frame houses, masonry tenements, and factories. None of these communities bordered on the Grand Concourse and the boulevard was ripe for residential development.

Residential development within the historic district began in 1916 when New York City Building's Department applications were submitted for the construction of ten buildings. The development of the historic district can be divided into two periods. The first period extends from 1916 through 1928. During these twelve years, fifty-seven of the seventy-six contributing apartment houses (approximately 75%) were erected. All of these buildings were designed in the historicist styles popular during the second and third decades of the twentieth century, The earliest buildings in the district—four apartment buildings designed by Charles Meyers in 1916 at Nos. 1220, 1228, 1236, and 1244 (Irving Margon's pair of apartment houses at Nos. 1400 and 1410 (1916-1917), and Springsteen & Goldhamaer's apartment house at No. 1215 (1919), for example are extremely simple five-story walkups. These buildings have brick facades and generally have extremely restrained ornamentation. The limited ornament on most of these buildings, as well as the balanced rhythmic fenestration,is derived from the vocabulary of Renaissance architecture and the style of most of these buildings can be referred to as simplified neo-Renaissance. These buildings were erected for people of modest incomes. At the time these buildings were being erected, the West Bronx was just beginning to be developed with apartment houses. Speculative development in this untried neighborhood was probably seen as being somewhat risky and, as in most New York City neighborhoods, the earliest buildings entailed only a moderate financial outlay. These early buildings were not all erected in one location. but can be found throughout the historic district. Although simple in their exterior design, the early Grand Concourse buildings did not pass without notice in the architecture press. On June 23, 1917, the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide wrote an article on 1400 and 1410 Grand Concourse, commenting both on the character of their design and layout and on the intended tenants.

Adapted from: Merrill Hesch, Filed Office Representative, Mew York State Office of Parks and Recreation, Grand Concourse Historic District, 19u87, nomination document, National Register of Historic Places, Washingtom, D.C.

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