For Art Deco — The Gold Goes to The Bronx

This post is the first part of a short series covering similarities between Vancouver, British Columbia and the Bronx — noted while I was vacationing there last summer. I introduced the series, through the remaining days of the 2010 Olympic Games only — here.

This is a tough category for Vancouver to beat out the Bronx.
And it did not.
The Bronx has more examples of Art Deco and Art Moderne architecture than most cities on the planet. This has been chronicled a lot recently, here and here— as 2009 marked the 100th year of the Grand Concourse. In fact, the NYC Landmarks and Preservation Commission has turned its attention to designating a historic section of the Grand Concourse between 153rd and 167th streets.

So what does Vancouver have. Vancouver has the Marine Building which is the only remaining Art Deco skyscraper in the city. At one time, it was the tallest building in the entire British Empire and once owned by the Irish brewer Guinness. The Marine Building is easily noticed — it is red brick while the surrounding downtown buildings are glass. And the front entrance is completely adorned with seashells, ships, waves, various sea urchins — all aspects of a bustling port town such as Vancouver.  Regrettably, I did not go into the lobby, which is apparently decked out.  The “Vancouver” Rough Guide notes that builder J.W. Hobbs envisioned the lobby as a “27m-long ‘Grand Concourse’ adorned in the manner of a Mayan temple laden with treasure”. Grand Concourse?!! I am taking that comparison literally here!

Almost any building along the entire stretch of the Grand Concourse is a profound Art Deco specimen though I’ll toss in a couple of Off-Concourse examples. One is the building housing Burger King on 161st opposite the Bronx Courthouse. I noticed it by accident — among the waving BK banners are lovely images of horse heads along the top edge.

Another is the irresistible and spooky old Westchester Station on Westchester Avenue at the Bronx River — best seen from above on the 6-Train as it makes the turn near the Whitlock Avenue station. I don’t know if this crumbling station qualifies as Art Deco. Its facade is still gilded and I love the slices of citrus(?) motifs. The station was closed to passengers in 1931, but the entrance resembles the front of the Marine Building which was completed in 1930.

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10 Things to Do During Lunch Break While on Jury Duty in the Bronx

Executive Towers at 165th Street and the Grand Concourse.
Executive Towers at 165th Street & the Grand Concourse. Notable curved balconies and the only circular driveway on the boulevard. It was the last luxury building built on the Concourse in 1963.

The spring before last I was called for jury duty and spent those gorgeous hour and half lunch breaks chatting on my phone in the park across the street from the Courthouse.  What a waste!  If only I’d known then what I know now about that area and The Grand Concourse. I could have taken a short stroll in any one direction to find something of interest.

So here are 10 Things To Do During Your Lunch Break While On Jury Duty at the Bronx County Courthouse:
(To maximize your time “sightseeing” I suggest bringing your lunch. That way, you don’t have to spend precious time waiting for and paying for lunch).

1. Stroll around the Courthouse itself. {built 1931-1935} The statues that flank each staircase are related to the images on the frieze, around the top edge of the courthouse.

Bronx Time Capsule Marker at the Bronx County Building
Bronx Time Capsule Marker at the Bronx County Building

2.  Time Capsule – buried on the courthouse grounds in 1989 — imagine what the Bronx will look like in 2089 when it is opened up.  Fernando Ferrer contributed his cigarette lighter in an effort to stop smoking. I wonder if he misses it/replaced it. What would you put in the Bronx Time Capsule?

3.  Walk in Joyce Kilmer Park:  bring your sneakers and get your heartbeat up by taking an energizing power stroll around the park.  I saw a couple of women doing this in business dress and their sneaks.  As you’re walking, memorize Kilmer’s famous poem:

“Trees”
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

4. The Tree Museum:  brilliant creation by artist Katie Holten who has tagged over 100 trees along the Grand Concourse — each with an accompanying audiocast by Bronxites who live(d) along or near the Concourse speaking their thoughts of the grand boulevard.  Trees in the museum can be identified by a marker on the sidewalk bearing a phone # to call to hear the audiocast. Maps available at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.  The Tree Museum was scheduled to “close” October 12th, but will remain open until January 3rd, 2010.

5. Bronx Museum of the Arts (165th and the GC) It is a great space — modern and open and the zig zag facade follows that of many of the art deco buildings along the Concourse. Check out the current exhibit in honor of the 100th Anniversary of the Grand Concourse.

6. Andrew Freedman Home (166th and the GC) — the grand palace of the Grand Concourse, the only building on the boulevard with a lawn, built in 1925 as a retirement home for poor rich folks.

7. Yankee Stadium(s) — you can relax and sit on the benches here at Babe Ruth Plaza, taking in the new stadium and reminiscing on the old, catch yourself between two stadiums. I am no baseball fan but the enormous banners and photos of the players do give you the feeling of walking in a canyon.

8.  Find the Statue of Liberty — on 161st between the Courthouse and Jerome Avenue is a small Statue of Liberty, see if you can spot it. Hint: look on the rooftops.

"Fish House" built in 1936 by Horace Ginsburg. The ultimate example of art deco -- rounded corners, angled windows and the fish mosaic.
"Fish House" the ultimate example of art deco -- rounded corners, angled windows and the fish mosaic.

9.  The Grand Concourse — This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Grand Concourse. It was modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris for all its art deco and art moderne buildings —  the mosaics, the rounded curves, the zig zag facades — the most found on any boulevard in the country. “Fish House” at no. 1150, is the ultimate example — including angled windows, designed to maximize sunlight streaming into the interior.

10.  Bronx Walk of Fame — Follow it from the courthouse going downtown, to where it ends at Hostos Community College on 149th Street. A lot of greats here. My childhood favorites Rita Moreno (“HEY YOU GUYS!”) and Sonia Manzano (aka Maria on Sesame Street) are here. For me, Rita Moreno was famous for Electric Company waaay before Westside Story.

Rita Moreno's marker on the Bronx Walk of Fame.
Rita Moreno's marker on the Bronx Walk of Fame.

Bonuses for those jury duty days ending at 2 o’clock:
11Ben Shahn murals at the Bronx Main Post Office (149th & GC) — lobby filled with large murals painted by artist Ben Shahn and his wife Bernarda Bryson Shahn, during the Roosevelt administration. The panels depict the American worker of the 1930s and include one of Walt Whitman speaking to a crowd of people.  In 1933, Diego Rivera asked Shahn to be an assistant on his infamous mural at Rockefeller Center and Bernarda Bryson was a reporter from Ohio who’d come to New York to interview Rivera.

Ben Shahn mural at Bronx Main Post Office.
Ben Shahn mural at The Bronx Main Post Office.

12.  Longwood Art Gallery at Hostos (149th & GC) — directly opposite the Bronx Main Post Office, check out whatever is on exhibit there, it is a bright airy gallery space.

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Podcast: Professor Lloyd Ultan, Bronx Borough Historian (Part 1)

Early last summer, two high school seniors told me that Professor Lloyd Ultan made them cry. These were not wimpy looking guys, but they clearly wore their feelings closer to the surface than I would have guessed. They had interviewed Professor Ultan for their film project about the Bronx River. One of guys said, “It’s the way he tells a story.  He makes tears come to your eyes. I was holding the camera and wiping my eyes…He’s the man!”  They both nodded their heads in agreement.

A couple of months later, I literally bumped into Prof. Ultan in the hallway of the Bronx Historical Society and we started talking.  I asked him if he could help me fill in some gaps in my understanding of Bronx history in an interview for my blog. He graciously agreed. I realized the moment he started talking that a written interview would not capture him best. It is certainly true that he is a gifted story teller.  His knowledge of Bronx history seems endless and his eagerness to share what knows is equally tireless. Plus he’s entirely engaging. I would have enjoyed history in school if I’d had him as my history teacher.

I am happy to share with you Part 1 of my interview with Professor Lloyd Ultan, Bronx Borough Historian. I’ve divided the interview into segments. This is the first half hour segment. I will post the remaining interview in half hour segments over the next month.

Enjoy…

Click the link below to download the podcast as an mp3.:
Bronx Bohemian Podcast Interview 1, Part 1

Show Notes

00:00 = Bronx Bohemian walking along Bainbridge Ave en route to interview

Professor Lloyd Ultan in the Bronx Historical Society Library.01:59 = Professor Lloyd Ultan at the Bronx Historical Society

02:26 = 209th Street has disappeared

03:06 = Prof. Ultan on how he became the borough historian and what his duties are

04:43 = Prof. Ultan is a Bronxite to his core!

05:56 = The Grand Concourse, inspired by the grand boulevard the Champs-Élysées in Paris, designed by Louis Risse

08:18 = The Grand Concourse was a symbol of success

10:37 = Thomas Jefferson Descendants are Neighbors on the Grand Concourse. NY Times Article: An American Family

11:20 = What is “The Bronx”? A county? What is a borough exactly?

12:03 = Role of the Borough President

13:05 = How the Bronx got its name

17:07 = The court case about the “The” in the Bronx

18:53 = Jonas Bronck: Who was he and why did he come here?

29:51 = Outro

30:25 = End of Part 1

Credits:

Music: “Que Pena / Tanto Faz featuring Tamy (scmixer regrooved mix)” by s.c.mixer

Tech: Colin Turner, Chief urbologist, urbTek, LLC

Professor Lloyd Ultan with book.  (President Carter's trip to the South Bronx).Books by Professor Lloyd Ultan

“The Bronx In The Innocent Years, 1890 – 1925”, with Gary Hermalyn (1991 2nd ed).
“The Beautiful Bronx, 1920-1950” , (1979).
“The Bronx: It was Only Yesterday, 1935 – 1965”,  with Gary Hermalyn (1992).
“Bronx Accent: A Literary And Pictorial History of the Borough”, with Barbara Unger (2000).
“The Northern Borough: A History of the Bronx”,  to be released this year.  It is the first single volume on the history of the Bronx since 1912.

Additional Resources for topics discussed in this podcast:

Intersections The Grand Concourse beyond 100

New York Public Library: The Bronx on the Web

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The Grand Concourse and Boulevard at 100 Walking Tours led by Lloyd Ultan
Part 1 – The Lower Concourse — Saturday, May 9th at 1:00pm
Meeting Place: 161st Street on the steps of The Bronx County Courthouse Building

Part 2 – The Upper Concourse — Saturday, May 30th at 1:00pm
Meeting Place: Loew’s Paradise Theater, 188th Street and the Grand Concourse

Reservations must be made with the Bronx County Historical Society 718.881-8900
$15 for non-members of the historical society, $10 for members

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Bronx Time Capsule

Bronx Time Capsule Marker at the Bronx County Building
Bronx Time Capsule Marker at the Bronx County Building

Time Capsules strike me as small townish and a bit old fashioned.  Maybe my second grade drawings are buried in one somewhere in the prairie town where I grew up outside of Chicago.  So I was quite surprised to discover a time capsule marker on the grounds of the Bronx County Courthouse. It was buried there during a ceremony on December 19, 1989 to commemorate the 350th anniversary since Jonas Bronck first arrived. And it is scheduled to be unsealed in 2089 after 100 years in the ground.

Bronx Life Time Capsule Ceremonies Program
Bronx Life Time Capsule Ceremonies Program

What are among the books, newspapers, posters, photographs, letters, video tapes, audio cassette tapes and lapel buttons buried there?

Autographed copies of World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow. Inside Billy Bathgate, Mr. Doctorow had written, “Dedication: Is there still reading? And will you understand this? Or will you read it all too well and smile for the primitives we were.”

Drawings from children at P.S. 83 in the Bronx on the topic “What I like about The Bronx.”

A Bronx telephone and address directory.
A list of churches, schools, funeral directors and hospitals in existence for up to 100 years in 1989.

A 30cc syringe with articles and texts reflecting the concern for drug abuse, spread of AIDS and the improper disposal of such medical devices with respect to protecting the environment.

A subway token.
A quarter, dime, nickel and penny.

Letters from President George Bush, Colin Powell, David Dinkins (then Mayor Elect) and Arne Thoren, the Swedish Consulate General congratulating the Bronx on its anniversary .

Oral histories and impromptu interviews with the Bronx people, community leaders and elected officials.

A New Yorker cartoon with caption:  “Hear this. The new ‘in’ place is the Bronx.”

The bill for the Time Capsule and a brochure on how it was made.

Borough President Fernando Ferrer’s business card and his cigarette lighter, donated upon his cessation of smoking December 1, 1989.

Newspaper clipping about the burial of the Bronx Time Capsule
Newspaper clipping about the burial of the Bronx Time Capsule

The marker is on the northeast corner of the Bronx County Courthouse Building on the Grand Concourse side near East 161st Street..