Recently we profiled ten pre-war apartment houses in Washington Heights. Now, we cross the Harlem River to the South Bronx to check out ten more pre-war gems and highlight the details in a borough that is often overlooked in terms of architecture.
Similar to Washington Heights, the neighborhoods of the South Bronx went through a development boom when subway lines providing direct service to Manhattan were extended into the borough in the early decades of the twentieth century. As they developed, these neighborhoods were populated by varying strata of the middle class, with much of the new population living in apartment houses.
Macombs Rd., Bronx, by Phil Stanziola, NY World Telegram & Sun, ca. 1964, via Library of Congress A scene near Riva Apartments, one of the buildings profiled.
By the 1970s, however, the “South Bronx” had become synonymous with urban decay in its most acute form, with poverty, crime, and countless building fires. Among other things, the fires destroyed many pre-war apartment houses. During the 1970s and 1980s, the City took ownership of thousands of buildings, including some profiled here, due to non-payment of taxes by property owners through a process called In Rem foreclosure
Fortunately, the story of of the South Bronx did not end there. The City resold the In Rem properties to new owners and the area has been experiencing a revival in recent years. Many old buildings have been renovated and vacant lots have been redeveloped with new buildings. The designs of the some of the new buildings have payed homage to the pre-war architectural styles. With relatively little fanfare, government, non-profits, and increasingly the private sector, have reinvested in the South Bronx and brought it back from a downward spiral.
According to a study by the Furman Center, from 1987 to 2003, city capital funding helped to construct or rehabilitate over 75,000 housing units in the Bronx. Although not a historic preservation program per se, this saved many South Bronx pre-war apartment houses from further decline and likely eventual demolition.
Given this up and down and up again history, the pre-war apartment houses of the South Bronx are remarkable symbols of endurance and rebirth. The ten pre-war apartment houses featured here are both architecturally impressive and historically important as they, like the South Bronx, survived and now face better days.
Locations of the featured apartment houses. Map courtesy of Michael Curley
This list covers several sections of the South Bronx but has skipped one street in particular – the Grand Concourse, which is the part of the Bronx most strongly associated with pre-war apartment houses. We decided to omit the Grand Concourse to show that outstanding pre-war apartment houses can be found throughout the South Bronx, although the Grand Concourse should not be overlooked for those wishing to see the Bronx’s pre-war architecture–and we have a guide to it already.
Here is our list of ten pre-war apartment house gems of the South Bronx.
10. 1360 Merriam Avenue, Mission Revival
The South Bronx is full of architectural surprises and it seems every building has a story waiting to be told.
Consider 1360 Merriam Avenue. Located one block east of the Bronx entry point to the High Bridge, it is a 6-story Mission Revival style apartment house built about 1926. This style is popular in California, but New York City has relatively few Mission Revival structures.
At 1360 Merriam Avenue, where New Yorkers expect to see cornices there are red tile roofs and corner towers rising above the roof line. Other elements that reference Mission Revival include spiral columns located at the building entrance and arched lintels above the top floor windows. Nevertheless, the building does provide a New York spin on the style. Instead of using stucco or another material meant to resemble it, as found in many Mission Revival buildings, 1360 Merriam Avenue has a predominantly brick facade comprised of a mix of yellow, orange, and brown bricks.
The building’s attractive condition belies a past that has not always been smooth. In the 1980s, 1360 Merriam Avenue was abandoned and in City ownership through In Rem foreclosure. It was one of several vacant properties in the Highbridge neighborhood that the City transferred to the Highbridge Community Development Corporation. With public funds and help from other partners including the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Highbridge CDC rehabilitated the buildings and more broadly helped to reverse the neighborhood’s decline.
Today, in addition to apartments, 1360 Merriam Avenue also houses Highbridge Voices, a non-profit music and academic program for neighborhood youth.