Bronx Borough Hall
|Bronx Borough Hall|
|Former names||The Bronx Municipal Building; Old Bronx Borough Hall|
|Location||Tremont Park; Third Avenue at Tremont Avenue, The Bronx, New York City, New York|
|Design and construction|
|Architect||George B. Post|
|Designations||New York City Landmark 1965. Released from Landmark Status 1966|
The Bronx Municipal Building, eventually known as Bronx Borough Hall, and later as Old Bronx Borough Hall (1897-1969), was the original administrative headquarters of the Bronx Borough President and other local civic leaders in Bronx, New York. Considered an architectural accomplishment of its era, it was located atop the rocky plateau of the northwest section of present day Tremont Park, which was originally an extension of Crotona Park, southeast of the intersection of East Tremont Avenue and Third Avenue. The elevation of the building allowed for exceptional views from distances at many angles, and it was the converging point for civic affairs. The IRT Third Avenue Elevated Train, the first of its kind in the borough, strategically ran along the bustling neighborhoods and made stop in front of the building at the Tremont Avenue-177th Street station, where a hub of trolley lines met.
Designed by George B. Post (1837-1913), a prominent New York City architect of the period, the three-story building facing west was picturesque, stylized in a Renaissance decor, with light yellow brick and brown terra-cotta trim contrast. Post's most famous accomplishments include the main building of the New York Stock Exchange at 8 Broad Street and the long gone Western Union Building, which stood at Broadway and Dey Street in Manhattan. Russell Sturgis, writing in Architectural Record in 1896, lauded the design as a 'common sense building with pleasant architectural results.'
In 1874, the western section of present day Bronx was annexed to New York City as the Northern annex. By then the area had approximately 40,000 people. The region was growing rapidly as by 1890 the population grew to nearly 90,000. City officials saw the demand and necessity to create a location for civic use to cater to the region. In 1891, the first district-wide official was elected, a Commissioner of Street Improvements. His agency and others developed required space. By 1895 the eastern section of present day Bronx was annexed to the city. These expansions, along with the influx of immigrants of the period, more than doubled the population of the city to approximately 200,000. In 1895, Commissioner Louis F. Haffen, serving since 1893, lead a successful campaign for a new building. The Bronx Municipal Building was completed in 1897. In 1898, the building was renamed Bronx Borough Hall when the other three boroughs were finally annexed to New York City. Louis F. Haffen became the first Bronx Borough President and was inaugurated in a second floor office in the same year.
Expansion and debate
In 1899, A grand stairway was added down the steep slope to Third Avenue. It was perhaps designed by Post, or possibly by the chief engineer of Bronx, Louis Risse, who had mapped the concept of the Grand Boulevard and Concourse in 1890. After World War I, Victory Park, a formal garden with paths radiating from a large circular fountain, was beautifully landscaped near Borough Hall to celebrate the Allied victory over Germany.
Contrary to the building's architectural appeal, surroundings, and the efforts taken to construct Borough Hall, opposition from civic leaders arose with regards to its capacity and usage. In 1909, Louis Haffen, president of the borough since its formation, called the building he championed "entirely inadequate" and "impossible to enlarge or adapt" to the needs of the new borough. By 1928 the fifth Borough President Henry Bruckner was advocating for a New Borough Hall. The Bronx Board of Trade was proposing to construct the new Bronx Borough Hall adjacent to the current on the site of Victory Garden. They considered this to be a solution to allow for the razing of the original Borough Hall which was seen as "a non-fireproof building entirely in-adequate and out-of-keeping with the size and importance of our Borough".
By 1930, in only thirty years time, the Bronx population had grown to more than 1.25 million residents, an increase of over a million people. In response to the vast growth, between 1931-1934, amid the great depression, the City erected the Bronx County Courthouse (Supreme Court building) on the Grand Boulevard and Concourse to replace the comparably smaller Bronx Borough Courthouse (1905-1914). With space made available within the nine-story building, by 1934 most borough offices and government services from Borough Hall gradually relocated to the new edifice. And by 1964 only the Marriage License Bureau remained behind in the former building where space was given to veterans and community programs. As years went on, Bronx Borough Hall was referred to as Old Bronx Borough Hall, while the parkland area of Crotona Park where stood was called Old Borough Hall Park.
During the third quarter of the 20th Century, the new Cross Bronx Expressway was constructed. Built between 1948 and 1972, it was laid out in stages. One of the stages constructed in 1960 between Boston Road and Webster Avenue included the passage through Crotona Park, through the existing 175th Street separation of the northern end park extension where Borough Hall stood, from the larger park. The expressway widenend the separation of this northern section from the main part of Crotona Park. Old Borough Hall Park was then redesigned to include a baseball field at the south west end, and other sports and recreation on the east end, partly compensating for the lost parkland.
Proposal for demolition
Reports started to surface in the city and throughout Bronx communities that a proposal was being made to demolish Old Bronx Borough Hall. The Parks Commissioner at the time, Newbold Morris supported the idea of tearing down the building to create more park space, possibly to replenish what was lost during the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway. In addition, the East Tremont Neighborhood Association was seeking to either convert the building for a recreation center or to replace it entirely with a new community center, to be built here rather than elsewhere in the park or nearby. Both Newbold Morris and the East Tremont Neighborhood Association claimed that the building was unsafe.
Amid reports of impending demolition, members of the Bronx County Historical Society, Theodore Kazimiroff, Lloyd Ultan, John McNamara, Roger Arcara, and William Romkey - all Bronx residents -, along with the full support of then Bronx Borough President Joseph F. Pericone, began efforts to save the structure.
On September 21st, 1965, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public hearing on the proposed designation of the Old Bronx Borough Hall. Eight witnesses, including the Borough Historian and representatives of the Bronx County Historical Society, testified in favor of designation of the building. A sole representative of the Parks Department opposed the designation. The East Tremont Neighborhood Association wrote the Commission pleading that Old Borough Hall be razed and the site be used for a new indoor recreation center. Community Planning Board number Six and three other local groups supported the view of the East Tremont Neighborhood Association. In a letter to the Commission, Bronx Borough President Pericone said that he would like "to reiterate my support of the designation of the Old Bronx Borough Hall as a historical landmark and urge your Commission to approve this designation."
With historical facts and testimony in hand the Landmarks Preservation Commission defined the following:
- "The Borough Hall is designed in monumental terms. It stands as a good example of public building through the nobility and scale of the architectural elements employed.
- The Old Borough Hall is an especially important building for the Bronx because it is intimately identified with the history of the Borough from the times of its incorporation into the City of New York at the end of the 19th century. No other building in the entire Borough has more historical associations for the period concerned. For many years, life in the Bronx centered around this building. The Commission's attention was drawn to this building by the great interest shown by many different segments of the Bronx community. Over recent months, this interest has continued to mount appreciably. It is apparent that the retention of the Old Borough Hall is a matter of great concern to the citizens of the Bronx.
- On the Basis of careful consideration of the history, the architecture and other features of the building, the Landmarks Preservation Commission finds that the Old Borough Hall as a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City.
- The Commission further finds that, among its important qualities, the Old Bronx Borough Hall is a monumentally planned and executed building by a noted architect of the period and that it is closely associated with the history of the Bronx since it became a part of New York City.
- Accordingly, pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 8-A of the Charter of the City of New York and Chapter 8-A of the Administrative Code of the City of New York, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designates as a Landmark the Old Bronx Borough Hall, Tremont Avenue and Third Avenue in Crotona Park, Borough of the Bronx and designates as its related Landmark Site that part of Borough of the Bronx Tap Map Block 2943 which contains the land on which the describe building is situated".
In October of 1965 the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the building its 23rd landmark in New York City. Old Bronx Borough Hall officially became the first Bronx landmark.
Landmark status removed and building demolished
The landmarks law gave the New York City Board of Estimate 90 days in which to veto or modify any designation. In December, Commissioner Newbold Morris continued to write the board, calling the building rundown, unsightly and of no architectural importance. Borough President Joseph F. Pericone had emphatically supported the designation through his tenure. In January 1966 he was succeeded by new Borough President Herman Badillo. On January 27th, 1966 - the final possible day of review - the Board of Estimate deferred to Mr. Badillo and his view, and voted to overturn the designation.
In 1968 there was a major fire in the building, by then completely vacant. Continued efforts by the Bronx County Historical Society and others to renovate the hall for civic use were destroyed when the building was deemed structurally unsafe and demolished on January 12th, 1969. Only the grand staircase survives, though in poor state. Despite all claims through the years that the building was a fire hazard, an article in 1969 by Professor Lloyd Ultan in the Bronx County Historical Society Journal, reveals that the interior of Old Bronx Borough Hall had both gas and electric lighting and fireproof document vaults on each floor. Ironically, after the demands from the East Tremont Neighborhood Association, Bronx Borough Hall was never replaced by a sports center nor was one built in proximity.
Over the years, the park has been renamed to Highland Park (1987) and more recently Tremont Park (1999). It has seen different renovations, but investments have yet to rehabilitate the stairway that now leads to an empty top and to commemorate an iconic chapter in Bronx and New York's preservation history.
The Bronx is presently the only borough in New York City without a proper stand-alone administration building for the Bronx Borough President's office and other civic agencies, as the other four boroughs of the city each have. These offices continue to operate out from the Bronx County Courthouse.
There are currently no plans or location discussed for a future Bronx Borough Hall.
- List of New York City Borough Halls and municipal buildings
- Bronx Borough Courthouse
- Bronx County Courthouse
- Historic preservation in New York
- New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
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