By Justyna Malota
In 1909, the architecture critic of the New York Times hailed the new train station on Westchester Avenue, calling it “exquisite.” Designed by an architect who was soon to become world-famous, it resembled a Florentine palace, painted in an array of colors.
Today, the abandoned building, near the newly-opened Concrete Plant Park, sags. Untamed vines creep across broken windows and down the crumbling terra-cotta walls, which are covered with graffiti.
The station is on the Landmarks Conservancy’s list of endangered masterpieces and on a wish list of a number of local organizations that would love to see it restored. However, it may be too far gone to be rescued.
The building could become a gateway to Concrete Plant Park, said Joan Byron, director of the Pratt Center’s Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative and chair of the Bronx River Alliance.
“Wouldn’t it be neat to have a bike rental there or some kind of café? It could be great.”
For preservationists, the station represents a milestone in the career of Cass Gilbert, who was already well known as the designer of the U.S. Custom House on Bowling Green in Manhattan and was to earn enduring fame as a pioneer designer of skyscrapers and the architect of the United States Supreme Court.
The Westchester Avenue station was completed in 1908; five years later, Gilbert designed the Woolworth Building in lower Manhattan, a gothic skyscraper that was the tallest building in the world when it opened.
His train station is an “architectural treat,” said Melissa Baldock of The Municipal Art Society of New York. “Restoration and preservation could be great for the rejuvenation of the community.
“It could make a community come together and make them take pride, even if the people don’t know the history of the building,” continued Baldock, a Kress Fellow for Historic Preservation and Public Policy.
An M.I.T.-educated engineer, Gilbert designed 13 train stations in the Bronx. Only four survive. The stations were abandoned in 1937, when the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad ceased to operate. Since then, the Westchester Avenue station has been victimized by time and weather.
“Time is not on our side here,” said Byron. “Buildings are live things. If they are not taken care of, water gets into every crack, the walls expand, shattering the terracotta blocks.”
Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice joined Byron in a hands-on-exploration of the gated station, with the aid of a building restoration specialist. The building is too small and the necessary repairs too extensive to make restoring the station commercially feasible, they concluded.
“Even if this were midtown Manhattan, it would be hard as a developer to make the numbers work,” said Byron. “It wouldn’t bring enough income.”
Yet she clings to the vision of a visitor’s center for the park, saying it could tell the area’s story, including “the environmental justice struggles, the creation of the Bronx River Greenway, the pre-settlement to the Native American presence and to the start of infrastructure.”
Linda Cox, executive director of the Bronx River Alliance, would also love to see the building attract visitors to the park. “It could provide an entrance from Whitlock Avenue, with an elevator to bring people into the Concrete Plant Park,” she said.
“It is very charming looking. It has beautiful lines. It has this look to it,” Cox added.
Like the Park, creating a center for the divided communities of Hunts Point would bridge the gap and unify residents, said Divad Durant, a youth organizer at Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice. Transforming the station into a museum would “document the history of our efforts to changing our urban landscape,” said Durant. We want to ensure that long term residents would be the recipients of this long awaited project, said Durant, a Bronx Filmmaker, currently working on a documentary on Bronx gentrification.
Amtrak, the government-owned operator of the nation’s passenger railroads, owns the station. Starved for money, it isn’t eager to fund a restoration project, Byron said. It spends its funds “running trains and keeping the system in good repair,” she said. “This is not a life or death matter for the railroad system.
Only community pressure could bring the building back to life, she says. “Every project has its challenges. Someone needs to take lead.”
A version of this story appeared in the November issue of The Hunts Point Express.