Vol. 11, No. 12 June 11 - 24, 1998



By Matthew Corey

Over the years, through neglect and decay, building facades and interiors on the Grand Concourse have lost some of the lustre that made the giant thoroughfare the envy of the city. But now, a coalition of preservationists is looking to put some polish back onto one of the Big Apple's most valuable architectural assets.

The historic roadway is home to one of the biggest collections of Art Deco architecture in the world. Its buildings are the subject of a photo exhibition, "Art Deco of the Grand Concourse," on display in the Puffin Room, a SoHo gallery, through Sunday, June 14, and to be reinstalled at an as-yet-undetermined location in the Bronx this fall.

Photographer Carl Rosenstein, the Puffin Room's director, also sits on the board of the Art Deco Society, an informal group of Deco fans who are trying to have the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) designate the Grand Concourse a historic district, like existing districts in Riverdale, Mott Haven, and Morrisania.

Other forces pushing for an "Art Deco historic district" on the Concourse are the Historic Districts Council, a private organization that argues for the recognition of historically significant neighborhoods, and the Bronx Landmarks Task Force, an informal grouping of preservationists coordinated by the borough president's office.

What is Art Deco?

From lobby to rooftop, residential buildings on the Grand Concourse teem with the ornamentation and soaring lines of Art Deco, a term coined in the 1960s to refer to the 1925 Exposition of Decorative Arts and Industrial Design in Paris.

The Bronx is second only to Miami Beach in its preponderance of Deco buildings, and Rosenstein said he envisions a preservation movement to match South Beach's 1980s renaissance.

"It's all about beauty," said Rosenstein, when asked about the significance of a particular bare-breasted muse or strapping hunk on the facade of the Bronx County Courthouse. "This style was not shy about beauty or sensuality."

Along with beauty, Art Deco represented mechanization and speed, with its clean lines mimicking the streamlined shapes of automobiles and airplanes. The future-is-now aesthetic matched New York City's hopes for the Concourse, where Bronx architects sought to correct Manhattan's awful tenement housing.

Some of the red-hot designers that got commission after commission to develop the Concourse were Ginsberg and Fine, Israel I. Crausman, and J. Felson, all of whose handiwork are represented in the exhibit. Intended for the new middle class then fleeing lower Manhattan, buildings housed Jewish, Italian, and Irish families who had saved enough money to escape tenements and slums for something better.

"It must have looked spectacular in the '20s and '30s, with construction cranes all up and down the street," Rosenstein said.

Filled with good-natured humor about his subject - "Look, we may not have the Arc de Triomphe, but we do have the 174th Street Arch!" - Rosenstein showed a mix of his own photos, taken this spring on bicycle explorations of the Concourse and adjoining streets. Archival shots show the way things were at the turn of the century, the Roaring '20s, the Great Depression, and the early postwar era, represented by a neon-lit U.S. Army recruiting station, at the corner of the Concourse and Fordham Road, circa 1948.

District to Galvanize Renovation

The Concourse starts on 138th Street in Mott Haven and travels almost the entire length of the borough, bisecting both Fordham Bedford and Bedford Park, and stopping at Mosholu Parkway.

Although Art Deco touches carry all the way into Norwood, they are at their most glorious in the south, particularly the stretch of the Concourse from McClellan Street to East 167th Street, Rosenstein said. That area could be the heart of a restored Art Deco district, itself a spur to exterior restorations.

"It wouldn't take a lot of money to restore basic elements of the lobbies and exteriors," Rosenstein said. "This is not beyond the means of even somebody who's running a rent-stabilized building. It just takes some care and education."

Bronx Landmarks Task Force founder Robert Kornfeld, Sr. is a big believer in the rejuvenating effects of landmark designation, which saved his own pet area, the Riverdale Historic District, from cheap contractors and inappropriate apartment complexes.

Historical districting stops decay in its tracks and makes a gradual rebirth possible, Kornfeld said.

"It anchors an area down, and the people who buy there and live there can have a feeling of stability," Kornfeld said. "One of the greatest threats to old buildings in this city is contractors who say, if there is a leak anywhere, 'Why don't we just paint it for you?' And there goes the ceiling! That is what is so destructive of the original elegance."

"It's hoped that [historic status] will give the landlords pride. People are pleased to fix their places up right," Kornfeld said.

Dan Donovan, an architect in the borough president's office who coordinates the citizen task force founded by Kornfeld, has high hopes for reviving the Concourse's aesthetic glory.

"Our goal would be to be true to the original design of the building in the replacement of exterior doors and windows and finishes, such as terrazzo floors and ceilings and murals in the lobbies," Donovan said. Terrazzo flooring contains marble chips which are set in wet mortar and then polished when dry. "We'd want them to be restored to the same high quality they were done in," Donovan said.

Both Rosenstein and Donovan emphasized the crucial need for active participation among current Concourse residents.

"We're looking for the community to get involved with landmarking," said Rosenstein, a Manhattanite whose parents hail from the Bronx. Without testimony from interested Bronxites, the Landmarks Preservation Commission might not move to designate all the buildings it could, he added.

"It won't depend on wealthy people, but that the people who live there now have an appreciation for the environment they're living in," Donovan said.

"Just look at who rebuilt SoHo," Rosenstein said. "Not Trumps - it was the middle-class people who live here. It happens over time. And it can happen on the Concourse."

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