Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
Every few years or so, The New York Times dispatches a reporter to write up a feature about the fading grandeur of Bronx buildings.
Without fail, those articles focus on the Grand Concourse, which one writer described as “the Champs-Élysées of the Bronx.”
It’s true that the Concourse was–and still is– grand. But it’s also true that most of that grandness is on the interior of residential buildings, not easily visible to the passerby, and especially inaccessible to the passerby lacking the curiosity and cojones to step in off the street.
The Concourse, though, shouldn’t be the starting and ending point for people who want to see the Bronx’s best architecture.
Throughout New York’s most disparaged borough, there are beautiful buildings, both old and new, that are worth a closer look. Unlike the storied residential buildings of the Concourse, some of the Bronx’s most interesting buildings tend to be stand-alones scattered throughout the borough in what seems to be an utterly random array. Some are far-flung, requiring not only a lengthy subway ride, but often a considerable walk from the station once you’ve arrived.
Still, some of these buildings are so magnificent and so representative of their time, that they make the trek worth your effort.
Take the Bronx Courthouse, seen in the photo just to the right. It’s a majestic building that is in remarkably good condition–at least on the exterior–given that it’s been vacant for at least 35 years. Though a spring 2008 New York Times article reported that a charter school was scheduled to open in the building in the fall of that year, that plan never came to fruition, and the courthouse sits as it has since for two decades before I drove past it every day on my way to work.
Then there’s the Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School, which was built for the princely sum of more than $1.6 million dollars… in 1930. The school, named after labor leader Samuel Gompers (now there’s a guy with an interesting history), is on the corner of Wales Avenue and 145th Street and was designed so that some of its elements, including two towers, mimicked the look of an electric plant.
David Bady, writing about the school for a guide to Bronx architecture that was compiled by the Lehman College Art Gallery (also in the Bronx), characterized the exterior as fairly severe, all straight lines and boxy forms. ” There are no cornices or moldings or visible roofs: planes of brick terminate in sharp edges…,” he wrote.
What Bady didn’t mention, and what I liked the most, were the reliefs and mottos chiseled into the towers. Intended, I suppose, to inspire industriousness, I found myself looking at them and thinking, “They just don’t make buildings like this anymore.”
Which is sad.
Also sad is this: the school closed earlier this year. We didn’t have much time to poke around and ask questions, and subsequent research hasn’t produced any answers as to what the next functional iteration of this building might be.
Given the uncertain futures of these buildings, visit them sooner rather than later if you want to see them for yourself. New York has a surprisingly spotty track record when it comes to preserving architecturally significant buildings, and if the city permitted (as it did) the demolition of the old Penn Station in its highly visible Midtown Manhattan location, then surely it won’t exercise much effort to save outer-borough buildings in blighted neighborhoods.
Looking for some other sights to see in the Bronx? Lehman College Art Gallery’s “Bronx Architecture” guide is a great resource, featuring both historic and modern architecture.