What if I told you that the same architectural designs one may find in the iconic Chrysler or Empire State buildings can be found in the designs of most residential buildings in the Bronx? The skyscrapers of the Boogie Down might not be as high up as that of Manhattan, but the two boroughs share more than slabs of concrete and connecting subway lines.
Tasked with exploring the history of Art Deco in the Bronx, honestly, I didn’t have the slightest idea where to begin. I know nothing about architecture. I mean, I think buildings are pretty, and I like taking photos of them, but to explore the angles and curves of why the architect chose one design over another and their motivations, I’m completely at a lost! I figured I’d start the way I’ve always did with a paper: go to the library (you thought I was going to say wikipedia or Google...shout out to the old school crew who know what the Dewey Decimal system is).
So what is Art Deco? Art deco is a “style of decoration used for both the interior and the exterior design of buildings”, including the product design of both useful and decorative objects such as appliances, clothing, posters, and advertisements. The term “Art Deco” was introduced at the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs (Exposition of Decorative Arts) from which the style derives its name. The 1920s and 30s saw much advancement in modern innovative design in America, and architecture was not one to be left behind. Art deco, in some ways, celebrates an array of influences from which it pulls. Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman in their book, Architecture: From Prehistory to Post-Modernism, define art deco as “an amalgam of Cubist-inspired European Modernism, with streamlined, rhythmic machine forms, exotic Pre-Columbian and Navajo zigzag imagery, and a love of gaudy colors and shiny materials such as plastic, aluminum, and stainless steel along with sumptuous wood and stones.” (Insert long inhale.)
There are many buildings on the Manhattan island which exemplify this description to the tee: as mentioned above, the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, Radio City Music Hall, and Rockefeller Center. But in the Bronx? Well, it’s actually a lot more visible to us then we realize.
Enter in Mark. I met him a few Saturdays ago while on a visit to the Bronx County Historical Museum. I figured if there were any place that would have anything archival about Art Deco in the Bronx, it had to be here! Our meeting was all the more serendipitous: I had failed to realize that one needed to make an appointment at the museum to review their archives, but Mark, a Bronx native, happened to be at the museum that day, and took the time to speak with me about art deco and toured with me along the Grand Concourse to where a majority of this style can be seen.
“Art Deco was the hot scene in Europe,” he began. “Many immigrants from that time migrated from Germany, and brought with them the architectural design with them. Sleek lines, detailed brickwork [with] different color bricks, or maybe they’ll have a little bit of an outcropping on the edge sticking out so as to break up the surface [plane of the building]. The interiors had sunk in living rooms, some with one or two steps leading into them; parkay floors, metal railings. Levers in the bathroom so you can hang your laundry so that they’ll drip over the sink. Modern state of the art, 1920s, and that was a big draw. Near the Grand Concourse was the place to be.”
The Grand Concourse, formerly known as the “Grand Boulevard and Concourse”, per Mark, was designed by French immigrant, Louis Aloys Risse. His vision of the Grand Concourse mirrored that of the Champs-Élysées but would include bicycle paths, pedestrian sidewalks and “three distinct roadways split by lush landscaping”. Currently along this boulevard stands some of New York’s most beautiful art deco co-op buildings. (To learn more about what makes the Grand Concourse so “grand”, check out this article in Brick Underground featuring the Bronx’s own Ed García Conde, founder of Welcome2theBronx.)
There are many distinctive features and benefits to Art Deco buildings. One feature/benefit Mark highlights are how thoughtful these buildings were designed. “The buildings were put up to allow for maximum light and to accommodate efficient living: the bathroom is right next to the bedroom, the kitchen is off to the side, usually a galley kitchen, and then the dining area. And then you would step down into your living area. These apartments were made with a lot of thought on how people live and function.”
In thinking about my own apartment, which I love dearly, and receives a wealth of light all around and throughout, I recall my initial process when looking for an apartment; and how adamant all my friends were about having a “prewar building” (when really I just needed A BUILDING!). I paused Mark in our discussion to inquire about the difference between the terms “prewar” and “art deco”: “One is a realtor’s term, the other is an architectural term”, Mark defined. So be careful out there, my fellow apartment seekers!
We talked more about the influence of art deco in Syracuse, Nashville, and many other American cities, and as appreciative I was of Mark’s time, I needed to make my way to the “Grand Boulevard and Concourse” to take in what I had learned. “I’ll come along with you!” Mark exclaimed. Our walk began at E 204 and E Mosholu Pkwy where stood two residential buildings facing one another. “Look at the curved edges,” Mark pointed out. This was another unique quality of art deco buildings. “Art deco buildings either had curved or straight edges, which could be a nightmare for interior designers! Let’s see if we can go inside!”
We walked into the entrance of 200 E 204 street. The floor was covered with multicolored tile, the faces of the steps that of cracked marble. Mark points to the walls. “Check out this design. This design, and the coloring, is typical in front areas of some art deco buildings.” We stood in the front entrance, admiring the lobby from behind another set of doors we couldn’t get through. Mark immediately points out the heat grate, the design resembling that of sun rays. As Mark began to talk about the design of the elevator door, a mailman and a resident of the building came in behind us. “Oh! Great, we can get a better look!” The building was warm, and a door somewhere on the first floor was open blasting loud party music which felt rather contrast to the mission at hand. Looking at the elevator door, I’m reminded of Batman. Actually, all things art deco remind me of Batman and the Gotham aesthetic. We round a corner and Mark points out a defunct trash shoot, its door painted bright orange. Another heat grate with the sun rays design comes into view, this time the rays looked to be sprayed painted off-white to match the adjacent wall.
Getting our fill of art deco from our first location (and I growing nervous that someone might think us as loiterings), we leave the building and try our luck with the one across the street at 190th. Immediately, the building is at sharp contrast to the one we just left. And I mean SHARP! Shiny silver metal doors greet you as you walk up along the rounded grey carpet underneath the exterior outcrop. These first set of doors led to another set of shiny silver doors. We were barred from entering, but didn’t stop ourselves from pressing our faces against the glass to see the lobby. Eggshell white walls with vertical stripes of red and soft yellow; the infamous art deco floor design ran all the way out of view from where we stood, designed with various geometric shapes in black, yellow, white and grey. A mirror hung above what resembled a curved fireplace, simply reflected the egg shell white opposite it. Another heating grate, which appeared more modern than the two others at the adjacent building was painted that same soft yellow, the outline of the sun and its rays more apparent.
Standing there, there was something poetic about the design, and not being able to touch it frustrated me a little. We waited a little longer to see if anyone would let us in, my money on the mailman. No one came, and so we left.
Eventually, I parted ways with Mark, so happy to have spent the afternoon exploring together. He waited for me at the bus stop and urged me to sit somewhere on the bus where I could take in all the art deco that lines along the Grand Concourse. The entire ride I looked at the Grand Concourse with almost new eyes: outcropping brickwork with alternating colors, curved edges, straight edges, mosaic designs, large windows that took in lots of light. Many public institutions reflected the design of art deco as well. The more obvious sites like the Bronx County Building still hold fast to this design, including the Emigrant Savings Bank. As I continued my route back home, I wondered if the people who walked this boulevard day in and day out appreciated the beauty of this part of the Bronx. It definitely has helped me to love it even more.
To learn more about art deco in the Bronx, including that beyond the Grand Concourse, I recommend checking out the Art Deco Society of New York’s website. They have an online registry of every borough. You can view the Bronx registry here.