3. The Saloon | Bronx Documentary Center

“The Second Empire and Italianate architectural features fused into the design of 614 Courtlandt Avenue make it stand out from other buildings in the surrounding Melrose neighborhood of the South Bronx. Tenzing Chadotsang of the Landmarks Preservation Commission notes that most people who see a picture of the building think it is located in the Lower East Side. It was actually the migration of German immigrants away from the overcrowded Lower East Side that inspired billiards hall owner Julius Ruppert to open a saloon and meeting rooms in the building in 1871. At that time, the South Bronx was a newly urbanized and rapidly growing community. After Ruppert’s death, his widow and heirs held onto the property until 1927. After a short run as a lunch counter and apartment building in the 1960s, the building was home to an after-hours club on the ground floor called “Le Freak.” The upper floors were also the center of the neighborhood drug trade, and the top floor was used as a brothel for many years in the 70’s and 80’s.

In 1987, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the structure an individual city landmark based on its aesthetic quality and for its significance as a symbol of “the first stage of urbanization within what had been the previously rural south Bronx.” Still, the structure remained vacant and in 1997 was seized by the city. In 2006, the non-profit group Neighborhood Housing Services of New York City bought the property and installed new customized windows, replaced the grey slate roof, rebuilt chimneys, and mended the brick facade. When photojournalist and Bronx resident Michael Kamber returned to the neighborhood after time spent photographing war and conflict in Afghanistan, he partnered with arts administrator Danielle Jackson to bring new life into the abandoned Melrose building by turning the 1,000-square-foot storefront into the Bronx Documentary Center (BDC). Kamber wanted to provide the South Bronx with “much needed access and exposure to high-quality documentary work.” Today the BDC hosts “25 major exhibitions and hundreds of public programs, including film screenings, lectures, workshops, free guided exhibition tours for students, and community-based service projects for South Bronx residents.”