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In the Bronx, a Push to Save Cass Gilbert’s Train Stations

The majestically moldering Bronx stations of the old New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad are, in the words of one architectural historian …

In the Bronx, a Push to Save Cass Gilbert’s Train Stations
28.01.2022 19:12

The majestically moldering Bronx stations of the old New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad are, in the words of one architectural historian, like a broken string of pearls. Some have been lost, while “others are being slowly crushed by the boot of time.”

Only three of the stations, built in 1908 to designs by Cass Gilbert and shuttered in 1937, survive with their roofs intact; a fourth lies in picturesque ruins in the woods surrounded by Pelham Bay Park.

But after decades of malign neglect, two beguiling stations in the South Bronx are now the subjects of an ambitious effort to bring them back to life in new ways. One is envisioned as a for-profit events venue and the other as a combined community space and grand entrance to a city park. While the projects are very different, both aim to polish up an antique architectural gem to bring renewed vigor to a geographically strategic site in a down-at-the-heels section of the Bronx.

In 1904, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, known as “the Consolidated” because of all the railroads it had swallowed up, initiated a major upgrade of its Harlem River Branch, from its Harlem River terminal in the South Bronx up to New Rochelle, in Westchester County. The line was expanded from two tracks to six, and 13 architecturally distinguished stations were planned.

The Westchester Avenue station, designed in the style of an Italian palazzo, in 1915. The Sheridan Expressway chopped off the station’s handsome hip-roofed porch in the early 1960s.Credit…Library of Congress

Under J.P. Morgan, “Everything was grandly built to show off the company’s power,” said Wayne Drummond, a former president of the New Haven Railroad Historical and Technical Association.

But not all the architectural showpieces were constructed, he added. In places where landfill had not sufficiently settled to support a major building, more commonplace stations were put up.

In the Bronx, the surviving grand stations were designed by Gilbert, who had come to prominence by winning the 1899 design competition for the Custom House at Bowling Green, now the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. For the Harlem River Branch, he planned stations in a variety of styles, including Flemish and Mission — more like an eclectic charm bracelet, truth be told, than a string of pearls.

In 1908, The Architectural Record called the Gilbert stations “great fun” and “examples of conscious art,” noting that “the architectural pilgrim who gives a whole day to the Branch will find himself not only repaid but rewarded.”

The Bartow station, where travelers once transferred to a monorail to continue their trip to City Island, was a low-slung building of rough stone whose eaves were supported by heavy timber, the station’s rustic materials befitting its woodsy setting. Today, it is a roofless wreck ablaze with colorful graffiti, and a great uprooted tree has ripped out a beefy joist at the entrance.

The Morris Park station originally looked something like an elaborate masonry barn — perhaps an allusion to the nearby Morris Park Racecourse.Credit…Library of Congress
Previously used by a gun club and now vacant, the station has been crudely painted to resemble a giant American flag.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The Morris Park station, formerly used by a gun club and now vacant, has been crudely painted to resemble a giant American flag. But it originally looked something like an elaborate masonry barn — perhaps an allusion to the nearby Morris Park Racecourse — its broad, segmentally arched windows and doors trimmed with colorful terra-cotta bands that also ran under its eaves.

Gilbert was notable as a very early user of polychrome terra cotta, first on the 1900 Broadway-Chambers Building, and then on the 1907 West Street Building at 90 West Street. For his 60-story, flamboyantly neo-Gothic 1913 Woolworth Building, he reached for the heavens with gargoyle-encrusted tourelles, or towers, of blue and yellow terra cotta.

The Hunts Point station is a dramatically dormered, ramshackle beauty whose original red-slate roof once boasted a contrasting patinated verdigris copper cornice. Majora Carter and James Chase plan to convert it into a multipurpose event hall called Bronxlandia.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The two Gilbert stations currently proposed for rehabilitation, which sit on bridges straddling sunken Amtrak rails at Westchester Avenue and Hunts Point Avenue, were also vividly accented with colorful terra cotta. In both cases, the material was produced by the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, which later provided the ornament for the Woolworth Building.

Both stations were featured in a 1914 Atlantic Terra Cotta bulletin, which asserted that its product was popular for train stations because it was fireproof and its “impervious glazes” were resistant to soot and gave “little opportunity to the ubiquitous juvenile artist and author to use walls for the inspired efforts that mar so many public rooms.”

Glazed terra-cotta logos of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad adorn the Westchester Avenue station. The terra cotta used for that station and the Hunts Point station was produced by the same company that later provided the ornament for Gilbert’s terra-cotta-clad masterpiece, the Woolworth Building.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The elegant, decaying station at Westchester Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard, cloaked in ivy that is either glorious or spooky, depending on the time of year and quantity of leaves, is rendered in the style of an Italian palazzo. Featured in a 1909 Architectural League exhibition, Gilbert’s station design was “universally admired,” The New York Times reported.

To the south, the Hunts Point station, on Hunts Point Avenue near Garrison Avenue, is a dramatically dormered, ramshackle beauty whose steep-peaked, red-slate roof once boasted a contrasting patinated verdigris copper cornice. “French Renaissance in style, it might have been the royal stable of a French king,” Christopher Gray, an architectural historian and former “Streetscapes” columnist, wrote in 2009.

Majora Carter, who grew up in the area, has bought an easement from Amtrak with her husband, James Chase, for one dollar, which allows the couple to develop the station. They plan to convert it into a multipurpose event hall called Bronxlandia with money raised in part by a crowdfunding effort open to those with $250 to invest. They are working closely with the State Historic Preservation Office in the hopes of qualifying for tax credits.

Most of the polychrome terra cotta on the south facade, facing the street, was ripped out decades ago for storefronts. But the terra-cotta north facade, where stairs once went down to train platforms, is largely intact, including a lovely frieze below the cornice featuring a red diamond against a blue background. The developers plan to rehabilitate that historic fabric.

A new station is planned just north of the old one, one of four Metro-North stations to be built in the Bronx as part of a $2.87 billion project that will enable New Haven Line trains to reach Penn Station. When that new Hunts Point station opens in 2027, “everyone arriving will be looking right at the back facade” of the old station, said Jay Valgora, the principal of Studio V Architecture, which is designing the project. “And that will become the front door of the neighborhood.”

On the Hunts Point Avenue side, beneath the remaining original terra-cotta frieze, he plans a contemporary storefront of glass and steel “that is open to the street to support Majora’s mission to transform the building into a cultural hub.”

The Westchester Avenue station seen from the east. The clattering elevated railway that carries the No. 6 train curves around and above it; Amtrak rails run beneath it.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Unlike the Hunts Point station, which was chopped into ragged little shops by the early 1940s, the beleaguered Westchester Avenue station has been vacant for decades, a forgotten civic palazzo resting regally amid a loud and ugly tangle of infrastructure.

In the shadow of the clattering elevated railway that carries the No. 6 train, the entry tower of the station sits on land just east of Sheridan Boulevard, whose predecessor, the Sheridan Expressway, chopped off the station’s handsome porch in the 1960s. The long, one-story waiting room, its battered tile roof supported by rusting steel trusses, sits on a bridge over the tracks of Amtrak’s Boston-to-Washington line.

But community activism and the resultant government support over the past two decades have created an adjacent green respite from the urban cacophony. Just east of the station lies Concrete Plant Park, opened in 2009 on seven acres reclaimed from a former industrial facility along the Bronx River.

The park is part of the Bronx River Greenway, a planned series of linked parks and trails along the 23-mile Bronx River; 19 miles have been built, with major new sections currently under construction to connect Concrete Plant Park to parks both north and south.

Local nonprofit groups and Amanda Schachter and Alexander Levi, the principals of SLO Architecture, have long nurtured the dream of restoring the derelict Westchester Avenue station as a northern gateway to Concrete Plant Park, and two rounds of funding from the federal Environmental Protection Agency have given that dream renewed momentum.

An EPA-funded report by Inner City Fund and Vita Nuova, to be released early next month, lays out a restoration road map for how community groups, including Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice and the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, known as SoBro, might buy or lease the station from Amtrak.

The report provides technical advice to the groups on how to prepare a detailed offer to Amtrak and recommends that Youth Ministries and SoBro first form a new nonprofit development corporation with the city Parks Department and with two staunch supporters of renovating the station for community use: Loving the Bronx, a community activist group, and the Bronx River Alliance, a public-private partnership that works to improve the Bronx River corridor.

Dan Kastanis, a Parks Department spokesman, said that his agency recognized the architectural significance of the railroad building and had explored acquiring and renovating it in 2018. But, he added, “we have not received any recent proposals regarding the station.”

Bronx groups have long dreamed of restoring the Westchester Avenue station as a gateway to adjacent Concrete Plant Park. In one version, the station’s entry tower would be restored in place as a park entrance. A lightweight, enclosed bridge would take visitors into the park, where the waiting room would be rebuilt as a community space.Credit…SLO Architecture

Based on community feedback, the EPA-funded report said that the preferred redevelopment concept would be to restore the historic tower and waiting area in their original locations for public use and to add a pedestrian bridge and ramp from the station down to Concrete Plant Park. Much-needed bathrooms could be put in the tower.

The concept preferred by Youth Ministries would be to rehabilitate the tower in place as an ennobling park entrance, while providing a lightweight, enclosed bridge and walkway into the park, where the waiting room would be rebuilt as a year-round events and education space. This and other concepts have been developed by SLO Architecture with private grants.

Another concept has the station’s tower and waiting room rehabilitated for public use in their original locations, adding a pedestrian bridge and ramp from the station down to Concrete Plant Park.Credit…SLO Architecture

Youth Ministries sees the acquisition of the station by a nonprofit group as “an anti-gentrification strategy” that prevents a “predatory developer” from taking the station, said David Shuffler, the group’s executive director.

Among other uses, Youth Ministries hopes to employ the revamped station as a place where children can be taught how the local environmental justice movement improved conditions in their own neighborhood.

This is a story Mr. Shuffler knows firsthand. When he was growing up in Soundview, near the Gilbert station, in the 1980s and ’90s, the Bronx River was a dumping ground. As a teenager, he joined other volunteers pulling tires out of the polluted river for the organization he now heads. A coordinated activist effort by dozens of groups ultimately resulted in the removal of 700 tons of garbage, 89 cars and 21,500 tires from the river since 1997, according to the Bronx River Alliance.

A coordinated grassroots movement also beat back a state plan to expand the Sheridan Expressway, while Youth Ministries waged a successful fight to create Concrete Plant Park instead. And in 2019, capping an environmental victory for a community long plagued by pollution and asthma, New York State completed a $75 million transformation of the Sheridan Expressway from an interstate highway into a more pedestrian-friendly boulevard. The state has since begun a massive, $1.7 billion project to transform the neighborhood by reconstructing the interchange of Sheridan Boulevard and the Bruckner Expressway.

Given its strategic and symbolic location between the Sheridan and the park, the old Westchester Avenue station “is the nexus, and also the next step of waterfront revitalization,” Mr. Shuffler said. “This will be a dedicated space for environmental education and stewardship.”

Amtrak is open to proposals, but the clock is ticking.

More than a decade ago, Amtrak wanted to demolish the station, but after the Bronx River Alliance conveyed the community’s interest in using it, the railroad agreed to postpone the demolition and work with the group. Amtrak met with local stakeholders and the Parks Departmentto discuss the station in 2013.

Champions of redeveloping the Westchester Avenue station, from left: Amanda Schachter, of SLO Architecture; Nilka Martell, of Loving the Bronx; David Shuffler, of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice; and Alexander Levi, of SLO Architecture.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

“Amtrak remains receptive to whatever plans the B.R.A. (or any other group) has for the station and is willing to entertain proposals from interested parties for restoration of the station under the condition the recipient must renovate the building, so it no longer poses a safety and structural threat to Amtrak,” Jason Abrams, an Amtrak spokesman, said in an email.

He added that Amtrak remained “very concerned” about the station’s structure, and that the railroad had received no concrete proposals.

“While we would like to work out a solution for the future use of this historic station,” he said, “our primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of our employees and passengers, and we may have to resort to demolition if plans are not received in the near future.”

As with most dreams hatched by nonprofit groups, one of the thorniest challenges is how to pay for any station revitalization. A private 2018 feasibility study estimated project costs at $10 million to $15 million, but Mr. Shuffler said he believed the work could be done for $8 million to $10 million, funded by private grants, financing and public money.

“One of my priorities for the new year is to advocate for the inclusion of Cass Gilbert’s Westchester Avenue station for listing on the National Register of Historic Places” to “lay the groundwork for the refurbishment of the station” by qualifying such a project for tax incentives, said Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat who represents the South Bronx in Congress.

He added that he suspected that money from the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress in November could be allocated toward the station’s rejuvenation.

If the project succeeds, footsteps will echo daily off the station’s terrazzo floors for the first time in more than 75 years.

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