I have been promising my Bronx Forgotten Fans some new material, and the fulfillment starts now. In fall 2006 I walked through Norwood, a triangle-shaped Bronx neighborhood defined by Woodlawn Cemetery on the north, the New York Botanical Garden on the east, and Mosholu Parkway on the south; Reservoir Oval, delineating a former Williamsbridge Reservoir, approximately limns the center.
Norwood was originally part of the Varian family’s dairy farm. The Varians, who produced a New York City mayor, owned the oldest house in the area, which is still standing. The name either comes from “North Woods” or from Carlisle Norwood, a friend of Leonard Jerome, the grandfather of Winston Churchill who owned the nearby Jerome Park Race Track in the 1860s. The neighborhood was laid out in 1889 by entrepreneur Josiah Briggs.
For a couple of decades in the late 20th Century, Norwood and its immediate neighbor to the south, Bedford Park, were major Irish enclaves, after immigrants from Northern Island during the era of The Troubles fled the auld sod and settled here, in Woodlawn Heights to the north, and in Queens’ Woodside. For a time Norwood became known as “Little Belfast” and was a hotbed for supporters of the Irish Republican Army, which sought to sever Northern Ireland’s ties with the United Kingdom by violent means. Eventually the Irish influence in the area lessened, as many Irish returned home to participate in the homeland’s roaring economy in the 1990s and early 2000s. Traces of Little Belfast, though, can still be found along Bainbridge Avenue. Norwood was where the Irish-American band Black 47 first attracted notice. Today Norwood attracts Hispanics, Indians, Asians, and New Yorkers looking for apartment bargains: some are still available for three figures!
Art Moderne apartment building, E. 204th near Mosholu Parkway
When I first became aware of Mosholu Parkway in the seventies, I saw its name on a map and immediately assumed it must be a Japanese name and Mr. Mosholu was a prominent Japanese American – a Bronxite that had been honored by a street name. Of course the reality is no less colorful; it’s among the many Native American place names that have been woven into the city’s fabric. Mo-sho-lu, or “smooth stones” was the Algonquin name of a rural brook running through the heart of what became the Bronx’ Spuyten Duyvil and Riverdale neighborhoods. The land through which the brook ran was acquired by settler George Tippett in 1668, and the waterway was subsequently renamed Tibbett’s Brook, in a corruption of the spelling. Ultimately the brook was rerouted into the sewer system when the area was built up in the early 20th Century.
In Norwood, Mosholu Parkway was laid out as a true parkway…a relatively narrow carriage road lined with trees and foliage… along another former waterway, known to the Dutch as Schuil (anglicized as School) Brook. Mosholu Parkway originally ran only between Bronx and Van Cortlandt Parks, with through traffic running in the center and local and commercial traffic on the service roads. The general concept of the parkway system, devised by master urban architect Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1860s, was to extend large parks by making the roads that connected them into parks themselves. Olmsted’s vision can be seen in Brooklyn’s Ocean and Eastern Parkways, and in the Bronx’ Mosholu Parkway and Pelham Parkway (whose official name is the Bronx and Pelham Parkway because it connects Bronx and Pelham Bay Parks).
Mosholu Parkway was built in 1888 and was originally known as Middlebrook Road because of its route along School Brook. In its original stretch between Bronx and Van Cortlandt Parks, it ranks along with the other parkways built in the Olmsted vision among the country’s most beautiful roadways.
Rose’s Luncheon, East 204th near Mosholu Parkway
The parkway was somewhat compromised in the late 1930s when Robert Moses linked Mosholu Parkway with the Henry Hudson Parkway in Van Cortlandt Park in the northwest and the Bronx River Parkway at the east. Moses, however, was rebuffed in his efforts to make the Mosholu a controlled access road and sink it in a trench in its most gorgeous stretch.
The Parkway should not be confused with Mosholu Avenue, a few miles north in Riverdale. Since Mosholu Pakway is bisected by Jerome Avenue, which divides East and West Bronx streets, a rather confusing nomenclature is used for the service roads, North and South Mosholu Pakway. West of Jerome, they’re called West Mosholu Parkway North and West Mosholu Pakrway South, and east of Jerome, they’re East Mosholu Parkway North and East Mosholu Parkway South.
Alighting from the subway at Bedford Park Boulevard and the Grand Concourse, I photographed some scenes from northern Bedford Park before entering Norwood proper:
Above left: one of the many leftover ancient buildings still to be found in the area, Valentine Avenue and East 204 Street; at right, tiny Lisbon Place, running for a few feet between a curve in East 205th Street and Mosholu Parkway. In 1884 Lisbon Place was named by the original owner of the land through which it runs, George Opdycke, and he may have enjoyed traveling in Portugal since St. George’s is a famous castle in Lisbon; St. George’s Crescent is a couple of blocks away off the Grand Concourse.
Though Brooklyn seems to have the lion’s share of pre-Revolutionary War houses, there is one in Norwood that qualifies, just barely. In 1758 blacksmith Isaac Valentine purchased property from the Dutch Reformed Church at today’s Bainbridge Avenue and Van Cortlandt Avenue East, and, depending on what account you read, built this fieldstone cottage either in the 1750s or as a successor to a previous home in 1775.
Like the Old Stone House in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the Valentine cottage was the scene of a Revolutionary war battle, though nothing so major as what happened in Brooklyn. By 1777 the home was occupied by British and Hessians but was recaptured by General William Heath after a brief but fierce battle which left he house surprisingly intact.
By 1791 the house and land had been sold to an Isaac Varian, whose grandson, Isaac L. Varian, became NYC mayor between 1839 and 1841. After changing hands several times the house became home to the Bronx County Historical Society in 1965. The house was moved across the street from its original location the next year. It is open to the public, featuring historic and archeological exhibitions. Call (718) 881 8900 or surf bronxhistoricalsociety.org for details.
In June 1965 the Valentine-Varian House was moved from its previous location across Bainbridge Avenue to Reservoir Oval.
The Bronx and Byram Rivers water system was built between 1880 and 1889 to supply those sections of the Bronx not served by the Old Croton Aqueduct via pipeline from the Bronx River, which bisects the borough in two from north to south, and the upstate Kensico Reservoir. Water was stored in the Williamsbridge Receiving Reservoir, built in 1888, in Norwood northeast of Bainbridge Avenue and East 207th Street. By 1925, this reservoir was no longer needed, and it was drained and filled in. In 1937 NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses constructed a new playground and park in the space vacated by the reservoir, containing a running track, football and baseball fields, basketball and tennis courts, a horseshoe pit, a large wading pool, a cinder running track, a field house, and two children’s playgrounds.
A dam, as well as one of the Bronx’ major colonial-era roads (Williamsbridge Road), a train station, and a major intersection, was named for a bridge operated by farmer John Williams crossing the Bronx River at today’s Gun Hill Road in the early 1700s (see below). The settlement that sprung up near the bridge became known as Williams Bridge, later spelled as one word.
The old reservoir is still described by the curving roadways, Reservoir Ovals East and West, which surprisingly interrupt the area’s rough grid. A huge Gothic apartment complex was built at Reservoir Oval West and Wayne Avenue.
At Reservoir Oval and Putnam Place you will find the old reservoir keeper’s stone house, built in 1889. After the reservoir was drained, it became a private residence for five decades, and is now under the protection of the Mosholu Preservation Corporation.
The original Gun Hill is still in the Bronx, in nearby Woodlawn Cemetery. According to signage along the road, in 1777 a small party of patriots dragged a small cannon to a hill west of the Bronx River and fired on the Brits from there.
Between Jerome Avenue and the Bronx River, East Gun Hill Road is dominated by large apartment buildings and on the south side, by the Montefiore Hospital complex, established in 1913. This ancient candy store sign I photographed in 2005 seems to have vanished, however.
The Henry and Lucy Moses Research facility, finished in 1966 by Philip Johnson, dominates the southeast corner of East Gun Hill Road at Bainbridge Avenue.
Three Bronx musicians who called themselves Gunhill Road briefly had a hit in 1973 with nostalgic anthem calledBack When My Hair Was Short, written and sung by Glen Leopold on Kama Sutra Records, produced by The Gambler himself, Kenny Rogers.
One of the casualties of the mp3 age is the 45RPM label. Kama Sutra’s, with its Adam and Eve theme, was a classic.Here’s a closer look.
East Gun Hill Road, about 9 blocks east of Montefiore, crosses the Bronx River on a stone bridge marked with the letters “BRPR” and the date 1918. According to Bronx historian Bill Twomey, the letters stand for “Bronx River Parkway Reservation.” The Reservation parallels the Bronx River from the New York Botanical Gardens north to Kensico Dam, Valhalla, in Westchester County. It’s a 15.5-mile swath of parkland designed in the early years of the 20th century by the Bronx Parkway Commission.
Architect Charles Stoughton designed many of the bridges and other architectural elements, including this one.
The Bronx River, New York City’s only true river, begins as a trickle in Westchester County and empties into the East River (which is actually a tidal estuary). It formerly turned west and met the Hudson River, but a glacier impeded its progess there during the last Ice Age and the river was thereby diverted south. When Swedish pioneer Jonas Bronck settled in the area of the river in the mid-1600s, the river, which had gone by several Native American names, became known as “The Broncks’ River,” and the “the” has stubbornly remained as a prefix for Bronx borough, as well. Indistrialization of the 1800s and 1900s turned the water brackish and unsustainable for life, but groups such as Bronx River Restoration and Bronx River Alliance have helped bring it back. Kayakers can now regularly be seen there, and it looks as wild as it must ever have been on its course through the Bronx Zoo and New York Botanical Garden.
One of the Bronx’ major colonial-era roads (Williamsbridge Road), a train station, and a major intersection, were named for a bridge operated by farmer John Williams crossing the Bronx River at today’s Gun Hill Road in the early 1700s. The settlement that sprung up near the bridge became known as Williams Bridge, later spelled as one word.
Norwood’s street grid, modified by Mosholu Parkway, forces some streets to angle in irregular fashion and creates unusual intersections.
That forced architects to come up with novel solutions, like triangle-shaped buildings with rounded corners. A number of Bronx apartment buildings still sport their original brightly-colored porcelain signs indicating vacancies.
The named streets in this area bear names of foreigners who helped the patriots during the Revolution: DeKalb (Germany), Rochambeau (France), Steuben (Germany) and another, Lajos (Louis) Kossuth, the Hungarian revolutionary hero.
There was something so right, to steal Paul Simon’s phrase, about this apartment building at Tryon Avenue and West 211th, facing Woodlawn Cemetery, that I had to snap it. Apartment buildings, constructed in the 20s and 30s, their golden age, have a succinctness that modern Fedders specials can never hope to achieve.
Woodlawn Cemetery’s star power is staggering. Here you will find Herman Melville, who died in humble circumstances unaware of the resonance his fiction would acquire after his death; railroad tycoon and hotelier Austin Corbin, responsible in large part for the importance of the Long Island Rail Road in the lives of NYC commuters; and investigative reporter Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochrane), who blew open the doors to abuses in mental hospitals and prisons. Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World and a founding father of crusading journalism; Frank Woolworth, whose stores dominated the five and dime business for decades; and Robert Moses, whose ambitious programs over five decades redrew the map of New York City, all permanent residents of Woodlawn.
A through FNY look at Woodlawn Cemetery will be forthcoming sooner or later.
A head-scratcher in the Bronx gazetteer might be little Kings College Place, running between zigzagging East 211th and East Gun Hill Road. You might be aware that colonial-era Kings College, founded 1754, later became Columbia University. But, the closest big school to Norwood is a mile or two south on Webster Avenue, Fordham University at Rose Hill. Why the Columbia reference? The aforementioned Tryon Avenue was named for Tory general William Tryon, whose HQ was at Kings College. Even the British loyalists are remembered in the Bronx street atlas.
Perry Avenue, named for War of 1812 admiral Oliver Perry, has a few secrets of its own, such as the non-aluminum sided ancient dwelling opposite Holt Place and the clock-faced bank building at East 204th.
But the undisputed king of Perry Avenue is St. Brendan, whose parish was established here in 1908 and spectacular, curved-facade church arrived in 1966. Most Irish know that St. Brendan (484-573) was the real “discoverer” of America (though it can’t be proven whether he sailed west to the Americas nearly 11 centuries before Columbus.) He is patron saint of navigators and indeed, the design by Belfatto and Pavarini was meant to evoke the curved prow of a ship.
It’s hard to get a good picture of the NYPD 52nd Precinct, at Webster Avenue and the Mosholu Parkway overpass. You have to get there in the morning, or on an overcast day, preferably in the winter when the vegetation isn’t obscuring it. One of the city’s great brick clock towers, ranking with Woodhaven’s Lalance and Grosjean’s kitchenware factory, can be found at this police station house at Webster Avenue and Mosholu Parkway. The clock is surrounded by colorful terra cotta. The tower’s design is based on Tuscan villas.
Nearby is Frisch Field, named for the baseball’s Frankie Frisch, the “Fordham Flash” who starred with the New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals from 1919 to 1937.
In the Mosholu Parkway median at Hull and Marion Avenues is the Bronx Victory Memorial, sculpted by Irish-born Jerome Connor, resting on a granite pillar craftedby Arthur George Waldreaon, commemorating Bedford Park and Norwood servicemen who perished in World War I. It was unveiled November 11, 1925.
©2006 Midnight Fish