The Glorious Ginsbern Building on the Grand Concourse

photos from HDC (we sent LPC an RFE for this building in February 2005).

From The New York Times

July 15, 2007
Streetscapes 1150 Grand Concourse, the Bronx
What the Future Looked Like Yesterday
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
HOW do old buildings disappear? Sometimes all at once, under the wrecking ball. But more often they fade away on little cat’s feet, first the cornice, then a doorway, then the windows, then a balcony … leaving behind nothing but an architectural zombie.

At the moment that’s what seems to be happening with one of the most astonishing apartment houses in the Bronx, indeed in New York City: Horace Ginsbern’s fantastical but neglected 1937 art moderne essay at 1150 Grand Concourse.

At the Grand Concourse and McClellan Street, just north of the present Bronx Museum of the Arts, Mr. Ginsbern and Samuel Cohn, a developer, let loose on what Mr. Cohn called Grand Towers, probably because of its sweeping views south and west. There are four towers — that is, four seemingly separate blocks of apartments — with light courts in between. Each one has a rounded corner, and the parapet wall once formed a sort of windbreak made of strips of glass block.

The wall itself was originally topped with big metal railings in a circular futuristic pattern that resembled a ray gun. From a vantage point across the street, you can see peculiar latticework structures on the roof. These look like little Eiffel Towers with globe shapes on top.

The rooftop structures might have been Martian fortresses in a Buck Rogers episode, although period advertisements suggest a more terrestrial use: roof gardens.

Flanking the ground-floor entrance is what stops people in their tracks: a brightly colored glass-tile mural of an undersea scene in brilliant, sometimes iridescent colors. Two marine creatures the size of Great Danes — perhaps colossal angelfish — wiggle through the water, both of them chaotic whirls of pink, orange, gold, green and blue.

They are swimming toward some kind of undersea plant (a sea anemone?), itself surrounded by watermelon-size amoeba shapes with long, fingery edges. In the background are long, lazy currents of gold, silver and blue tile and some feathery underwater plants rocking back and forth.

The ends of the murals curve in to meet the doorway, and the entire assembly is set into a 15-foot-high field of speckled cast stone the color of a pencil eraser. It is decorated with rows of small square recesses that mimic classical coffers like those on the ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome. Each recess originally had a bottle-green glass disk at its center.

It is doubtful that any graffiti artist has ever had such a wildly colorful inspiration as the unknown artist who conceived the fish mural, which is unsigned. Miraculously, it is untouched by vandalism or any other kind of damage.

The drama continues in the lobby: exuberant painted chevrons on the elevator doors; partitions made of frosted glass tiles; highly figured red marble walls; and a terrazzo floor with random polygons of silky black stone floating on a green field.

Two painted murals of nominally classical inspiration depict a faun, nude dancers and a bearded man playing a fiddle with Cubist shrubbery and a distinctly menacing cactus. The murals are signed Renée Graves and C. D. Graves, but neither name can be pinpointed in directories or census records.

Grand Concourse real estate is mostly just no-frills housing these days, and at No. 1150, Buck Rogers is long gone. The parapet has been stripped down and covered with brown aluminum capping. Most of the green glass disks within reach have been pried out of their little coffers. The outer doors, which appeared to be a mix of nickel, brass and steel, were removed a few years ago. In the lobby, the signatures of the Graveses have been joined by others — “Junior,” “Dark Cide” and “DRD” — scratched into the plaster. A work crew covered the Art Deco elevator doors with brown paint a few years ago, although a skilled tenant volunteer stripped it off.

Another tenant, Beverly Beja, calls the building her “magnificent obsession.” She said she tried to save the doors, but the $20,000 it would have cost to rehabilitate them was far too much for the tenants to bear.

She lives in a two-bedroom apartment with a sunken living room and two original bathrooms — one with cobalt blue fixtures and yellow and blue tile, the other with plum-colored fixtures and rose-colored tile.

Ms. Beja says the current owner, a company headed by Labe Twerski, “has worked very, very hard” trying to repair problems that developed under previous owners. Mr. Twerski did not respond to three calls and two letters seeking comment about the entrance doors and the building.

Ms. Beja says that she hopes that her focus on a few small details might spark a larger restoration movement.

“Just buff the floors, and give the security guard a doorman’s hat, and it would be nice,” she said.

“Every day, I walk home and I think, ‘Dear God, let no one have damaged the mosaics.’ ”

E-mail: streetscapes@nytimes.com

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