Gold for Vancouver’s Green Roofs

This post is the third 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.

Green Roofs are not usually leading the list for what’s on top of most Bronx buildings. The Bronx apparently has 15 green roofs, including the 10,000 square foot of green on the Bronx County Courthouse Building.  A roof tour sponsored by the BOEDC last summer was full by the time I heard about it. I do look forward to seeing the 15,000 plants and 10 different kinds of grasses and flowers the next time the opportunity comes up.

In Vancouver, we could see the sprawling green roof of the Vancouver Convention Centre from our hotel room.  All six acres of it. Over 400,000 indigenous plants and grasses grow on this roof as well as 240,000 bees. It is apparently the largest green roof in Canada and the largest non-industrial green roof in North America. I spotted someone in an orange vest walking atop. No tours allowed though. We went over and asked.

All that green eye candy is so lush and attractive and off limits, yet these roof top meadows are not public parks or gardens.  These are working living roofs.

Vancouver may have the Bronx beat in sheer square footage but I am happy to see some initiatives taking place in the Bronx on existing buildings and on buildings where Bronxites live in affordable and low income housing.

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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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Walls So Thick, So Hairy, but Ghosts Still Get In


The Valentine-Varian House, a solid brick farmhouse on Bainbridge Avenue, has walls 21″ thick.
Walls insulated with a homemade recipe of horse hair, pig hair and mud.

Walls so thick and so sturdy, that when it was dragged from the corner of Bainbridge and Van Cortlandt catercorner across the street, then turned 90 degrees to its current location, nothing was used to brace it nor to belt it.

Hairy insulation in the walls of the Valentine-Varian House.
Valentine-Varian House hairy insulation.

Walls so thick and so well insulated, that the day we visited I had to take my coat off to keep from passing out.
And I was further comforted to learn that the heat wasn’t even on.

Tour guide and Caretaker Marcus Hickman lead us to the cut-a-way in the wall exposing the home’s layers of hairy insulation.

What else is so special about the Valentine-Varian House?
It survived the American Revolution for one.
Built in 1758, it is the second oldest home in the Bronx. (The oldest is the Van Cortlandt House built in 1748).
And it has all its original wood plank flooring and nails (probably forged right there in the blacksmith shop).
It is the Museum of Bronx History.
Isaac Valentine, the original owner, was a blacksmith and owned the surrounding 300 acres with slaves to help run the farm.
The blacksmith shop is gone, but the original door leading to it from the house is still in place.
Valentine was a neutralist during the Revolution and the house was occupied by American, British and Hessian soldiers.
The road running in front of the house was a major thoroughfare (Van Cortlandt Avenue) which led to Boston.

The Varian family bought the farm in 1792 and kept it in their family until 1905.
Issac Varian, the 63rd mayor of New York City, was a grandson of the original Varian owner.

The house is not furnished (they are working to change this) and the current featured exhibit is a tribute to Yankee Stadium.

As The Museum of Bronx History, the permanent collection has photographs and objects of the Bronx early years. We’d come at the tail end of the Black History Month exhibit on the history of Bronxites of African descent. Many of the early Bronx landowning families had black slaves working on their estates (the first enlaved blacks arriving to the Bronx were from Barbados) and African Burial sites were situated nearby. The exhibit displayed historical maps to show the location of those burial sites–long since built over with no marker to indicate their existence.
I believe that exhibit should be absorbed into the museum’s permanent collection. Not much light is given to the early history of blacks in the Bronx.

The Valentine-Varian house itself has a feeling that evokes a different period. It actually has a lot of rooms on the ground floor. It was not considered a luxurious residence, in comparison to the Van Cortlandt House for example, but it is clearly the size home of a farmer with some means.

Marcus, as caretaker, has the Valentine-Varian House as his home address. He reminded us that historic homes often have a full time resident. I do remember hearing a baby crying from the upper floors of the Bartow-Pell Mansion the day we visited.
And yes, Marcus did confirm the house has ghosts.
“Friendly, ones. If you live in an historic home, you have to respect that they’ll be here.

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Afterward, we went around the back of the house to the Williamsbridge Oval. What a great park! With tennis courts, soccer fields, a running track and playgrounds. And all along I thought it was a fenced in reservoir.

Williamsbridge Oval Park.
Williamsbridge Oval Park.

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Wish You Were Here…Postcards From The Bronx

Boating in Pelham Bay.
Boating in Pelham Bay. (I've done this.)

Lover's Lane in Bronx Park vintage postcard.
Lover's Lane in Bronx Park. It reads: Dear Eva! Thank you very much for the postal. Best Regards from Roger Olsen (I believe it says "postal", and not "pastel", which would be more romantic.)

New York Botanical Garden vintage postcard.
New York Botanical Garden. The women at left are walking along what is now called "Ladies' Border". The NYBG describes this area as "Southern beauties thriving in the North." And that's on the garden website.

Poe Cottage and Park.
Poe Cottage and Park. Former home of Edgar Allan Poe.

Van Cortlandt House.
Van Cortlandt House, which still stands in Van Cortlandt Park.

Orchard Beach Pavillion.
Orchard Beach Pavilion.

Camping at Pelham Bay Park.
Pelham Bay Park Campsite. It reads: Am camping here for a few weeks having the time of my life. Lou

This last one is my personal favorite!

All postcards on view in the entrance hallway of The Valentine-Varian House in The Bronx.

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The Andrew Freedman Home: Palazzo di Bronx

Andrew Freedman Home front gate entrance.
Andrew Freedman Home front gate entrance.

I have been curious about the Andrew Freedman Home since I first saw it last summer. Its quirky history as a “poorhouse for old rich folk” and its elegant architecture drew me in.

It was open and functioning for almost 59 years. How was it viewed by its surrounding neighbors on the Grand Concourse–over time and through the years–as the complexion of the neighborhood changed? With resigned acceptance? With envy? With disdain? Or maybe those were the shared sentiments inside or outside the Home’s walls.

I think too of its meaning given our current economic mash up — with the proposed cap on bank execs salaries. Just last week, The NY Times, ran an article about how difficult it’s becoming to eke out a living in Manhattan on a measly $500,000 a year. Brokeness is relative. One person’s five hundred grand could mean hitting the jackpot, for another it’s akin to the horror of using food stamps.

A man I know, garment district veteran and instructor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and his school teacher wife, told me his retirement savings plunged six figures last fall. Such stories are being told by the second these days.

Does a modern version of the Andrew Freedman Home exist?
In the meantime, here’s what I found out about it.

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Andrew Freedman: Dying Wish
Before Andrew Freedman died from a stroke of apoplexy in 1915, he had a fresh new philanthropic idea for his millions and put it in writing.
The whole thing was sealed shut and placed in the vaults of the Hanover Trust Company.

He wanted half of his millions to go to his mother, sister and brother.
And with the other half, he wanted to build a home.
A home for people like him.
People who knew fine wines and went to the theatre, but for whom, by some unfortunate twist of fate found their finances on a downward spiral landing them in the poorhouse to live out their old age.

He would offer them a haven to live out their twilight years in the utmost of cultured and refined surroundings with amenities to match — free of any charge — rescuing them from the disgrace and shame and the inconvenience of rubbing shoulders with the “unwashed masses”.

He left an estate worth $7 million and 29 pairs of shoes.
Cornelius Vanderbilt was one of his pallbearers.

Andrew Freedman: The Man
Andrew Freedman was a self made millionaire.
A bachelor.
A New Yorker.
Born in Manhattan in 1860.
He attended elementary school on 13th Street and was a CUNY grad.

He invested in real estate and Shubert theatres.
He was a bondsman for city contractors and a Tammanyite — at one time the head of that org’s finance committee.
His closest and life long friends were city politicians and leaders in the Tammany Hall Democratic machine.

He was fiercely loyal to them.
And couldn’t be moved.

At the close of a Kansas City convention, he barred a certain local reporter from interviewing Tammany big boss Richard Croker.
Those that wrote unfavorably about Freedman in the papers did not go unchecked.
He told the newspaperman, “You cannot come in here; you are nothing but a dirty bum.”
A few hours later, he would be arrested for punching the man.

(Freedman left his set of $500 pearl shirt buttons to his good friend Croker when he died. Croker would live out his golden years at his “baronial estate” and stud farm, Glencairn, back home in Ireland).

But Freedman never ran for office himself.

He was a connector.
A builder.
The original IRT subway line was constructed because he financed it.
Or rather he and a few other wealthy men, two he’d introduced, formed the Interborough Rapid Transit Corporation.
[Today that route would run from City Hall along the 4-5-6 line to Grand Central, then cut over to Times Square following the 1-2-3 line along Broadway to 145th Street.]

At 34, he became owner of the New York Giants baseball club.
“Why did I go into baseball?,” he said, “…because I am fond of outdoor life and outdoor sports…I like the game.”

Under his eight year tenure, the club had 23 managers.
Only reporters writing glittering stories were allowed to see the games.

He docked the pay of his star pitcher, Amos Rusie, for not trying hard enough.
Rusie responded by sitting on the bench for one full season.

Tower Hill in Red Bank, New Jersey was Freedman’s place in the country.
His ice yacht, “Haze”, took the 1st class prize in a North Shrewsbury pennant race there.

He drove Miss Elsie Rothschild to Tower Hill, in his “high powered machine,” a Mercedes, and proposed to her.
She answered “yes” by the time they were back in New York.
He was 45.
But their wedding never took place.

Apart from his spot in Red Bank, he owned parcels of land in New Hampshire and in the Bronx (at 149th Street and Southern Boulevard), well before the area was settled.

Andrew Freedman, The Home
The Andrew Freedman Home grand opening was delayed.
First, the war.
Then the posh applicants were simply, not posh enough.

Membership was open to all regardless of race, faith and gender.
(Though all races were welcome, it is not clear if the membership showed any variety.)

Husband and wife were allowed to come as a couple.
A major coup — as many benevolent institutions of the time separated them.
(That married couples must remain paired was stated clearly in Mr. Freedman’s will.)

Potential members didn’t have to be American.
They didn’t have to be from New York.
But they had to be at least sixty but not past eighty.

The Home finally opened in 1924 with 17 members.
And an interior filled with the stuff Ralph Lauren ads are made of.

Overstuffed sofas and thick pile carpets.
Arched windows and high ceilings.
A log fireplace in the main lounge.
A billiard room.
A card room with movable walls to “ensure privacy.”
A library with bookshelves against oak paneled walls.
Red and black dining room chairs in the Chinoiserie style.
Oil paintings of at least one of the Freedmans in every room.
And marble showers.

The wait staff had been plucked from Cunard liners and from the finest yacht clubs and private clubs. So too had the chef and the pastry chef.

The staff of fifty, including three nurses, an in-house infirmary, elevator operators and a dietitian, gave them more care and attention than they could have anywhere.

For all of this the members would pay nothing.

It was a deal and they knew it.
Some tried to buy their way in.

They could show up for dinner in a suit jacket and tie or an evening gown.
Nasty behavior toward the staff was strictly forbidden.
As was tipping.

At its peak, the Home was home to 130 members.

For the most part they were not the filthy rich, but “professionals” –doctors, lawyers, a nurse, a teacher, businessmen, engineers, journalists, as well as some creative types — actors and an opera singer– and a former Russian czarist general. French born and Belgian bred, Jules Buoy, designer of the Home’s interior decor, was a member there.

They were a social lot–with parties, weekly dancing and monthly movie screenings of new releases from Columbia pictures on the calendar. Even a Christmas party to shower gifts on orphaned children.

They had to maintain a monied appearance.
Single members were not allowed to marry an “outside” lady or gentleman, so as not to attract gold diggers.

They were in charge of the expenses for their cigars, bridge lessons, clothing and vacation travel.

And they had to have enough to pay for their own funerals.

Even with all this splendor, some members still suffered.
One 84 year old widow, a former Brooklyn society figure and animal rights activist (against cruelty to horses), was eager to meet her death and inhaled chloroform fumes.
She wrote of her chronic arthritis in a note left to a fellow member:
“I am glad to end it all, this miserable annoyance, forever. If I am successful in my efforts, goodbye all.”

By the mid 1980’s, the Andrew Freedman Foundation money had run out and the the home was closed. And in 1983, It was bought and is still owned by the Mid Bronx Senior Citizens Council.

The millionaire requirement is long gone and the current residents represent a much broader range of situations.

The Mid Bronx Council family support programs are housed on the main floor of the building with the residents occupying rooms on the upper floors.

Andrew Freedman: The Architecture
If the flavor of architecture on the Grand Concourse is Art Deco and Art Moderne, the Andrew Freedman Home is striking because it is not.
It is not curvy with rounded corners.
It does not have a zig zag facade, but a clean and simple one.
Its cool elegance is rectangular and symmetrical.
And meant to give an air of “repose and stability.”
It does.

The Home occupies an entire square block.
The Grand Concourse on the front.
McClellan and East 166th Streets on the north and south ends respectively.
And Walton Street at the rear.
The land underneath the building slopes downward from the front to back.
And a stone wall support runs along the south end and the rear.

One of the most striking features of the building is the great and deep lawn that separate the front from the street.
No other building sits like this along the Grand Concourse.

On the Concourse side the building is three stories high and on the rear side it is four stories high.
The building is of yellowy limestone.

Construction took two phases.
The original building, designed by architects Joseph Henry Freedlander and Harry Allan Jacobs went up in 1924. Four years later, wings were added expanding the Home to its current size and layout. Architect David Levy designed them. Construction was completed in 1931.

The architects, Freedlander and Jacobs, were native New Yorkers and attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. They knew European architecture and had visited and studied many classic monuments abroad and brought those details to the Andrew Freedman project.

The building has many features characteristic of Italian Renaissance design.
And the architects were surely influenced by many structures with this style. Overall, the Freedman Home recalls the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome.

Windows of the Home have an interesting detail — the pediments over each alternate from triangular to arch. This detail is seen in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome.

And the pattern of the limestone arching over other windows resemble the same detail on the Palazzo Gondi also in Rome.

The front facade bears the simple inscription “The Andrew Freedman Home”.
And the back facade is impressive with triple arches over a recessed terrace in the middle. Wintertime is great to see these details as all the trees limbs are bare.

The Andrew Freedman Home acquired landmark designation in 1984.

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