This piece is something of a spinoff from the original research that I did several years back, and reported on this blog, about the last few Queen Anne-style Victorian houses along Woodycrest Avenue in the neighborhood known as High Bridge. Sadly, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission declined a proposal to preserve these last few detached gingerbread houses on the NYC street grid (that is, the one begins in Manhattan and continues north to the Westchester County line), and many have now fallen to the wrecking ball.
Several people have expressed interest in this topic. In addition to the ones on Woodycrest Avenue, I tried to document the handful of other remaining houses like these that are on the Commissioner’s Plan-Risse Plan streets of the West Bronx. I documented the research several years back, and most of it can be found here: http://www.legaltowns.com/category/the-bronx/
Keep your eyes on the Bronx. That’s the next borough. They’re ready for it. They have land available, and that’s the primary factor.
— Louis Coletti, CEO, Building Trades Employers Association, in TRD.
Today would have been my grandmother’s 99th birthday. She grew up in the Bronx, mainly in the 1920s, and like so many city kids of her generation, she moved out of the city as soon as she moved out of her mother’s house — first to upstate New York, then to northern Westchester, and eventually to a tiny apartment in New Rochelle, where she grew old. But what happened in, and to, the Bronx was not lost on her, or on the other family members or friends who started life there. And if they were living today, I’m certain that they would be pleased to see the old neighborhoods beginning to recover.
Shakespeare / Anderson avenues, New York 52, N.Y. Image: Google.
Crain’sNew York Business has some recent rent data showing that the West Bronx continues to heat up — albeit slowly and maybe inequitably. What’s really interesting about this report is that it doesn’t seem to find outright gentrification so much as the solidifying of a moderate-income housing market, which is beginning to displace the neighborhood’s poor.
Much of the West Bronx was developed in the early 20th century for market-rate, middle-class urban housing; now, the housing stock seems to be aligning with that market sector, again. Here’s an old image of the early phase of Bronx and upper Manhattan development at the end of the 19th century, as the large lots of detached houses were being replaced by mid-scale apartment buildings:
Notably, the patterns of the West Bronx (between Manhattan and the Bronx River), including street layout, lot sizes, and early architecture, were built, simply, as a natural extension of New York City, which could no longer be contained in Manhattan. Unlike the other boroughs, which were developed independently of New York City, there was no distinction between Manhattan and the Bronx (other than the Harlem River) until the five boroughs were established in 1898.
This is why street numbering and house numbering in the Bronx are continuations of the same in Manhattan; and why you will never find the same two digits at the end of a Manhattan ZIP code as you will at the end of a Bronx one. The latter fact is because, in the days of postal codes, the post office treated both boroughs as, simply, “New York,” due to their shared history. Thus, a building in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan would have had the address, “New York 10, N.Y.,” while a house in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx would have been, “New York 63, N.Y.”
My cousin recently found an apartment near this surviving NYC detached Victorian-type house. The Victorian sits on an oddly shaped corner lot at Briggs Avenue and East 201st Street. The owner seems to like gardening, and there is at least one well-fed cat living in the yard. It’s two blocks down from the Grand Concourse, and it’s in much better shape than most of the similar houses on Woodycrest Avenue in High Bridge. Unfortunately, it’s not part of a cluster. There are some other detached houses nearby, but they’re not of the same style or period.
Update: I’m using Google Maps Engine now to create a database of these houses. Since there are thousands of examples of Victorian architecture in New York City, here are the criteria, for now:
1. The structure must have been built within the legal boundaries of the pre-1898 City of New York. That is, the present-day borough of Manhattan, or the portion of the present-day Bronx that lies west of the Bronx River.
2. For the time being, I’m going to cut off the year of construction (if determinable) in 1910, because there was a burst of this type of construction around the turn of the century. (So, we’re actually looking for Victorian and Edwardian-era houses.) I don’t want to exclude structures that were part of an organic phenomenon, simply because the city’s legal boundaries were expanded to include other, non-NYC-proper phenomena (e.g., Brooklyn, Flushing, etc.). But at some point, I may create separate categories for pre-1898 and post-1898 houses.
3. The structure must be (or show evidence of having once been) a fully-detached house. Evidence could include side-windows and façades, and side yards that are (or clearly were) more than mere alleyways.
4. Finally (the fun part), the structure must show evidence of Victorian-era (especially, American Queen Anne-style) architectural details, such as cones, turrets, towers, stained-glass windows, bays, wraparound porches, asymmetrical façades, and the like — or strong evidence that such features were originally incorporated into the structure, but have since been modified or removed.
And, by all means, please send along any new finds that meet the criteria!
I thought this Britannica map of the New York Harbor area in 1885 was pretty interesting. It shows how the West Bronx had been incorporated into the city long before Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, or the East Bronx would be — and why the remaining detached Victorian houses in that area are significant to New York City‘s urban history, as opposed to the separate histories of Brooklyn or Flushing or other towns that were unfolding during the same time period. Mainly because of its shape, the map also gives a good look at where the larger cities in North Jersey were at the same time.
I like the inebriate and lunatic asylums on Ward’s Island. And also the way that the cartographer jumped the gun on the first Hudson Tube (showing a “Tunnel” between Greenwich Village and Jersey City). That’s not entirely wrong — it actually was been being attempted in 1885, and the mapmaker probably didn’t want to leave off an important project. But due to legal, financial, and engineering challenges, it wouldn’t be finished until 22 years later, in 1907.
Update: I found a companion plate that shows the details of Manhattan below Central Park. It includes the names of the ship lines on the Hudson River and East River piers, and Thirteenth Avenue.
The Atlantic has some incredible photos of the East Side Access (ESA) project. When you see too many good ideas mired in legalities and politics, it’s easy to forget what humankind is capable of achieving; and then you see images like these, which are really quite inspiring. Because sometimes meaningful things actually do get done. (Just not in New Jersey.)
If the ultimate cost of service can be kept reasonable, then the service upgrades supported by this project will pay dividends through transit-oriented development around Long Island Railroad stations in Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk. There’s also a serious proposal that was discussed last year to add direct Metro-North service via the ESA project to the affordable housing markets of Parkchester and Co-Op City in the Bronx. What’s happening today under the East River will likely support the next generation of neighborhoods in metro New York.
(Here, an Art Deco residential building and a Gothic-style stone church stand beside one another on the edge of a steep hill, where East Tremont Avenue drops to meet Valentine Avenue in the Tremont section of New York City. Note the intricacy of the relationship between the buildings and their respective contexts: The architects of the apartment house clearly designed their building for this parcel, following the curve of East 176th Street for the contour of their façade, and taking advantage of the adjacent church tower’s five-foot setback to create double-exposed corner windows. Meanwhile, the church, though suffering a location without southern exposures, is located on a parcel opposite a park, whose perpetual open space has maximized the amount of sunlight that illuminates the large, stained-glass windows.)
2. There is a good number of large, (possibly) Victorian-era detached houses on either side of University Avenue, just south of 183rd Street, near the old N.Y.U. campus. Presumably, most of the houses here date from either the very-late-Victorian period or after 1900. (Note that the architectural detailing is not very elaborate on most; and that N.Y.U. arrived in 1894.)
3. There are random extant detached Victorian houses throughout the Bronx and Marble Hill. They are frequently sandwiched between more recent apartment buildings, and their original details have often been neglected or obscured by modern siding, roofing, pavement, or other modifications.
4. The houses on Woodycrest Avenue are unique. They combine (1) large houses and lots, (2) green, spacious landscaping, (3) distinct architectural details, and (4) an uninterrupted series of original structures. Together, these qualities preserve a small but remarkable slice of New York City’s suburban Victorian fabric.
5. This fabric deserves legal protection. Here’s a spreadsheet that I put together. It lists the land parcels that might comprise a small historic district. It also provides a photo of each. Not every one of these houses is individually noteworthy, but some are. And those that are not are included because they remain part of the historical context, and play an interstitial role in the cohesion of this small but noteworthy district.
Detached Victorians on Woodycrest Avenue, around W 164th St., New York City.
Earlier this year, I wrote about a cluster detached Victorian houses along Woodycrest Avenue, around 164th Street, in the High Bridge section of the Bronx. In doing so, I explained why I thought they might be the last significant group of this type of architecture that remains in the Manhattan-Bronx street grid– a geography that roughly corresponds to the pre-1898 City of New York. Tonight, I found a graphic at Big Map Blog that adds some context to the Woodycrest houses: an 1897 bird’s-eye view of the urban fabric that surrounded the then-developing Grand Concourse:
It’s an unusual perspective. The core of Manhattan, to the south, would lie far to the left of the framed perspective. The land in the foreground is what’s now called the Bronx, and the narrow, horizontal strip of water that runs behind it is the Harlem River. Beyond that are the bluffs of upper Manhattan, and in the far background, the New Jersey Palisades rise above the Hudson River. Basically, this image shows the northern frontier of New York City’s urban growth at the end of the Victorian period.
It’s hard to know how accurate the details are. It would take a good amount of work to determine, for instance, just how precisely they depicted what was on the ground in 1897. Based on the presence of a number of landmarks (viz., the Croton Aqueduct, the Broadway Bridge, the tower in High Bridge Park), and the accuracy of its major-streets pattern, it would be fair to conclude that this is a relatively faithful snapshot of the city. On the other hand, I don’t think there was ever a suspension bridge that connected Inwood Hill with Spuyten Duyvil. So, you have to take the given visual data with a fair degree of skepticism.
Look at Harlem: the gridded blocks on the far left, beyond the Harlem River. You can see that the boxy, attached row houses and apartment buildings are beginning to fill in the landscape. Rapid development may be indicated by the completely vacant land that is being gobbled up by sudden density. That is, it doesn’t look as if there was ever a phase of detached house development in these blocks– they just went straight from greenfields to urban density. For example, here’s a close-up of Seventh Avenue at 145th Street:
In another three decades, this level of density would come to cover nearly the entire scene of this drawing. But moving right, circa 1897, you see trees, fields, and detached houses with traditional pitched roofs. Did these all exist? Probably, in some form. Most of the components of this low-density scene are gone today, but at the end of the 19th century they were still, apparently, typical of the uptown landscape, on either side of the Harlem River. Even if this image were ambitiously forward-looking, it wouldn’t present any less density than what actually existed at its time. So this close-up view of development along the Concourse near Tremont Avenue is illustrative:
If this depiction is accurate, it provides an interesting context. A lot of these houses, especially those in the foreground along East 177th Street and Mount Hope Place, appear to have been ornate, turreted, large homes. The low density of these blocks at that point in time fits with some research I did in grad school which indicated that most of the large apartment buildings above City College (Broadway/137th) were built after 1900. Of course, the entire uptown scene depicted in this image might have been an ideal setting for the construction of many spacious, airy Victorian houses, if the rapid march of tenements hadn’t borne down on the new lots as quickly and persistently as it did. But we do see a scattering of detached Victorians in the snapshot of 1897, including the ones that still survive on Woodycrest Avenue:
This is a reverse perspective of the modern one, above, but it’s absolutely the same block, in spite of the fact that the old map, interestingly, calls the street Bremer Avenue, rather than Woodycrest. And if you look around the rest of the image, you’ll see other houses here and there that are either clearly detached Victorians, or possibly detached Victorians. Some even have details, like wraparound porches, mansard roofs, and conic towers. (Significant clusters can be found in the blocks around Claremont Park, around 183rd Street west of Aqueduct Avenue, and along the steep bluffs that rise above the Harlem River.) Again, the accuracy of the specific details would take a good amount of legwork to verify, but their very presence suggests that they were representative of at least some portion of the area’s architecture. Today, the vast majority of these types of houses are gone from the blocks of uptown New York City, long since replaced by the large apartment buildings that are now, themselves, becoming historic.
I think maybe the most interesting aspect of this image is its suggestion that such houses in New York City may even have been rare in their own time. That is, only a handful were built, before they went out of style, before the rapid march of dense apartments filled in the empty canvases of the newly platted blocks. They are rarer still, today, since so many of the original detached structures of all types in the Bronx and upper Manhattan have been demolished. It would be reasonable to think that the presence of a Euclidean zoning scheme in 1897 might have saved more of these houses, and encouraged the development of others like them in the upper part of the city. But such laws would also have prevented the development of the apartments on the same blocks that have since served as homes for generations of immigrants and working-class New Yorkers. Land use decisions are often trade offs– another reason to take note of the houses that remain on Woodycrest Avenue. These structures are relics of a New York City that might have been, but never was: a city, visually, more like San Francisco, Boston, or even New Orleans.
Update: The New York Public Library has a 1909 insurance map, shown below, which corroborates the presence of a large collection of detached Victorian houses in the vicinity of Woodycrest Avenue and West 164th Street, including the extant structures and a number that are now gone. A similar map, dating from 1900, confirms that there was once a similar cluster of architecture in the vicinity of Mount Hope Place and the Grand Concourse: These houses have nearly all been replaced. Note that the building footprints seen in both maps include wraparound porches, rounded turrets or towers, and other distinctive features of this type of architecture.