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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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..

Art Behind the Pleated Facade

The Bronx Museum of the Arts
The Bronx Museum of the Arts

Two architecture students from Poland were telling the woman at the front desk that they almost didn’t get to see The Bronx Museum of the Arts during their New York visit — the museum was not listed in any of their guidebooks. They discovered the museum on the internet, and standing in the lobby, they were stunned at the architecture. It’s good they did not miss it because there is a lot to see here.

The Bronx Museum of the Arts
The Bronx Museum of the Arts

The Bronx Museum’s exterior is striking. And inside, four exhibitions are currently on view. I too was shocked. Really, I had expected a converted apartment building or a greying nondescript building, a bit of a rag tag structure.

Intersection of the Grand Concourse and 161st Street
Intersection of the Grand Concourse and 161st Street

Approaching the museum from the Grand Concourse builds momentum. The Grand Concourse itself feels grand. I felt that the minute I turned off of 161st Street. Walking along towards the Bronx Museum doesn’t feel unlike being on Park Avenue walking toward, say, the Asia Society. I think the Grand Concourse may be wider than Park Avenue (the GC is an eight lane thoroughfare) and the apartment buildings are lower so it appears more open with more sunlight.

Approaching The Bronx Museum of the Arts
Approaching The Bronx Museum of the Arts

The exterior of the Bronx Museum is pleated like an accordion. From top to bottom. Blocks away, it gleams white but it is silver, made of brushed matte steel.

The Bronx Museum windows
The Bronx Museum windows

In the depths of the pleats are glass windows, narrow ones, that too, run from sidewalk to rooftop. The museum was designed by a Miami based architecture firm, Arquitectonica and opened in 2006. The museum used to be housed in the corner building, a former synagogue, and before that, it was in the rotunda of the Bronx County Courthouse down the street.

The Bronx Museum of the Arts 2nd floor space
The Bronx Museum of the Arts 2nd floor space

The second level is available for special events and public gatherings. The terrace has three human scale sculptures by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres. The work is inspired by actual Bronx residents. The leaves and branches of a very large and very old apple tree rise over the terrace checkerboard wall.

Sculptures on Terrace of the Bronx Museum
Sculptures on Terrace of the Bronx Museum

The third level is home to the museum’s education department, classrooms and media lab. The museum, I learned, is still expanding. The rest of the permanent collection is in storage awaiting proper exhibition space. The museum will expand further back, one block over to include additional galleries and a Children’s Art Garden. They will, however, build around the apple tree. (See the finished Bronx Museum Project: Arquitectonica –> Projects–> Cultural / Institutional –> Bronx Museum of the Arts)

Ok now for the art. Three of the four shows close on Monday, August 4th. Only How Soon is Now is open until August 18th. So get there soon. A word of caution, the museum notes that the work exhibited in the front gallery may be unsuitable for younger viewers due to its subject matter and visual imagery.

The lobby is a spacious two story gallery space. You step in and the viewing begins. Activism is Never Over, a fabulous wall mural painted by Lady Pink, the best known female graffiti writer, Doña, Muck and Toofly. The mural honors the women on the front lines of women’s history. Respect is given to an incredible range of woman from Yuri Kochiyama to Uta Hagen to Shirley Chisholm to Martina Navratilova, amidst lotus flowers and even a painting of Gloria Steinem with a Playboy bunny over her shoulder.

The mural is part of the exhibition Making It Together: Women’s Collaborative Art and Community featuring women artists from the 1970s who challenged the art world’s leading venues by exposing the near absence of art by women. These artists formed coalitions and collectives, fostered inclusiveness, creating databases of women artists and presented their work in woman infused spaces. I totally remember the The Guerilla Girls posters, the woman’s head hidden within the gorilla mask while holding a peeled banana. A lot of artist’s names were new to me and a few were new to me in their roles as activists: Faith Ringgold and her daughters Michele and Barbara Wallace. Judy Chicago. Ah yes, The Dinner Party. Probably my first exposure to “feminist art”. I remember my high school humanities class trip into downtown Chicago to see her “V-a_g-i_n-a Plates”. The anatomical likeness completely eluded me, I think I remarked, “They’re very colorful.” Only years later did I realize, “Oh. That’s why I needed the permission slip from my parents.”

A counterpart to the Making It Together exhibit is Highlights of the Permanent Collection: Women Artists featuring photographs by artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Ana Mendieta and Adrian Piper. This exhibition felt too small to me. I was happy to see these artists right here in the Bronx, but hopefully the museum has more of their pieces packed away in their collection.

The Bronx Museum’s Teen Council curated a small exhibition of photographs by Jamel Shabazz who captured much of the hip hop scene, as well as everyday life and people on New York City streets in the 1970s and 80s. They also interviewed him for the museum’s DVD series of artists interviews. You can sit at one of the iMacs and watch the entire interview.

The featured exhibition How Soon Is Now? is the work of 36 emerging artists selected from a pool of 600 applicants to the museum’s Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program. There is a lot of work here and a lot of different media. I was surprised at the number of works requiring headsets. I do not pretend to understand everything that I see when looking at contemporary art. I have to feel something and to respond to some human element in a work and even better if it makes me laugh. I hate leaving a gallery or museum feeling the weight of the world from what I’ve seen.

That given, one of the most memorable pieces is Living Room from artist Jeanne Verdoux who uses line drawings and shadow. Tacked to the wall is a folded sheet of white ruled paper, maybe ledger paper, that becomes both screen and stage for an animated line drawing of a woman, in her bra and panties, who rises from a chair and turns on a lamp. It’s an absolutely quotidian task, but I could not stop watching it. The only audio is the sound of the lamp clicking on. The projector and dvd player are set up on a black folding chair a few of feet from the wall. It is all very clever and very simple.

Another piece of note is Michelle Frick‘s Avian Intensive Care Unit. A big pile of clear tubes, sacs, pouches, glass vials, the outer wrappings and packaging from various medical equipment, is surrounded by small white birds hooked up to IVs through their beaks. Or are they IVs morphing into birds? The accompanying sound of chirping birds and a thumping heartbeat fills the space. It is both a fragile and disgusting display.

I appreciated the seating accompanying those works with video. That way I could sit through the entire piece Still from Sing Along by artist Ra di Martino. A man and woman sit facing each other while listening to Percy Sledge belt out When a Man Loves a Woman. The two do not know each other. They say nothing the entire length of the song, but their facial expression and body movements do. It’s nearly impossible not to sing along to that song.

I remember the colors of Cosme Herrera‘s Frost, a painting on wood with images of trees routed into the surface, figures in various interactions with the trees: dragging trunks or tearing the bark.

Brendan Carroll‘s piece Black Coffee–No Sugar is a series of 98 Polaroids of Jersey City, with a typewritten anecdote, in italics, across the bottom of each photo. The photos evoke a small, rural deserted town of yesteryear and the anecdotes appear random in no sequential order and not from the same voice. But looking at all the photos made me want to hold on to my Polaroid One Step even longer and ferret out a few packs of film–before there are none left.

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