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demolition by neglect

From The New York Times:

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The railroad station at Westchester Avenue was designed by Cass Gilbert and is considered endangered. Credit Left, Library of Congress; Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Built in 1908 and designed by Cass Gilbert, those that have not been demolished are near collapse, like the Westchester Avenue station. It is a sublime glazed terra-cotta temple, its little tragedy now exposed on all four sides with the opening of the new Concrete Plant Park.

A dozen stations were projected in 1904, when the railroad began upgrading the Harlem River Branch from the southern Bronx up to New Rochelle. But not all were built and, in addition to Westchester Avenue, three survive today: Morris Park, Hunts Point Avenue and City Island, which is a ruined shell. (The historian Joseph Brennan has closely investigated the stations and has posted his research at columbia.edu/~brennan.)

Gilbert, newly minted as a starchitect with the 1899 commission for the United States Custom House at Bowling Green, got the job of designing the stations, and gave them widely different styles.

The Morris Park station was chunky and low, with arched windows framed by brightly colored terra-cotta bands that also ran under the eaves. Oddly shaped iron torchiers gave it something of the feel of the Secession style as practiced contemporaneously in Austria, although Gilbert was anything but adventurous.

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The Morris Park station as it appeared in 1915 and today. Credit Top, Library of Congress; Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

That said, his Westchester Avenue and Hunts Point Avenue stations are particularly striking. At Westchester Avenue the station projects out over the tracks, and so floats on a frame of steel. At street level, high above the rails, the main tower is a little display case of glazed terra cotta, cream-colored panels set off by colored floral medallions, lozenges and crisscross bands in gold, azure and dark red.

It is hard to decipher from old photographs and present conditions, but the portion over the tracks looks as if the terra-cotta panels were framed in iron straps. These must have been painted, but are now pure rust, giving the building a strange, skeletal aspect.

The Hunts Point Avenue station, just visible from the northbound Bruckner Expressway, bridges the tracks from one side to the other, along the avenue. French Renaissance in style, it might have been the royal stable of a French king. The delicate copper roof cresting had spikes big enough to impale an ox, and below run lines of little scalloped dormers.

In 1909, The Real Estate Record and Guide noted the “marked architectural beauty” of the new stations. John A. Droege, in his 1916 book “Passenger Terminals and Trains” (McGraw-Hill) noted that “the ordinary wayside passenger station is not the proper field for the architect who wishes to rival the designer of the Paris opera house.” But he reviewed Gilbert’s stations in depth, apparently with approval.…

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