See how this historically significant neighborhood came to be

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

When the Dutch first arrived in the Melrose Commons project area vicinity in the early 1600s they found it occupied by Native Americans. During the Contact Period from 1614 through 1655 one group of Indians occupying the region, including the project area, were known as Siwanoy. This group occupied the shore of Long Island Sound from the Bronx to Fairfield County, Connecticut. They were speakers of the Munsee dialect of Lenape. It is also possible that members of the Wiechquaesgeck were occupying this section of the Bronx during the seventeenth century. They inhabited southern Westchester County, northern Manhattan and the Bronx, extending as far as Fairfield County, Connecticut.The Wiechquaesgeck were also Munsee speakers.

 

In 1639, Jonas Bronck was granted a purchase of 500 acres between the Harlem and Aquahung (Bronx) Rivers from the Mohegans or another group of Indians. The 1639 land grant was then part of Westchester township. Bronck died in 1643 and his wife eventually sold the property. In 1664, New Netherlands was surrendered by the Dutch to the English and became known as New York. Also in 1664, a royal patent for Bronck’s land was issued to Samuel Edsall. In 1670, Edsall’s land was issued to Captain Richard Morris and his brother Lewis. The property was to stay in the Morris family until the mid-nineteenth century. The manor house of Morrisania was initially established at the former house of Jonas Bronck. This was located in the south of the Melrose Commons project area, near the East River and Mill Brook. In 1670, the new Morris Manor house foundation was laid, also near the Mill Brook and East River.

 

In 1683, Westchester County was established. It included the former Town of Westchester which contained the manor of Morrisania. By 1697, both Lewis and Richard Morris had died and their property was inherited by Richard’s son Lewis. On May 8, 1697, Lewis Morris received a royal patent incorporated Morrisania into a township.

 

The Honorable Lewis Morris was elected as a representative to Westchester County in 1733 and appointed as the first Governor of New Jersey in 1738. When Lewis Morris died in 1746, his will divided Morrisania along Mill Brook. The western part, including the majority of the Melrose Commons project area, went to his wife. The eastern part, which included land east of the present Brook Avenue, went to his son Lewis. Upon the death of his mother in 1752, the second generation Lewis Morris owned all of Morrisania. Morrisania Manor was recorded as containing 3000 acres in 1769.

 

The major occupation of Bronx residents in the mid-eighteenth century was farming. Even the skilled craftsmen generally ran farms. The British discouraged most industrial development. However, the specific use of the project area as farmland during the mid-eighteenth century is not known.

 

The Morris family took the side of rebels during the Revolutionary War period. General Lewis Morris, the third generation with this name, went to the Continental Congress in 1775 and was there II appointed to confer with the Aborigines and to bring them over to the American side”. During the War, Lewis Morris was appointed a Brigadier General. He also became a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His son, also named Lewis, was a Colonel during the War. During the war years, Morrisania was generally well forested and therefore it provided cover for hiding troops. There are reports of royalist refugees hiding in Morrisania. While the southern part of Westchester County “suffered severely during the Revolution”, no reports of incidents within the Melrose Commons project were found. However, the British were stationed at Morrisania during the evacuation, under the command of Colonel John DeLancey. His headquarters were at Colonel Morris’ home. When inevitable conflict arose, Morris’ house was burned down and the British troops moved to Fordham.

 

In 1788, the Bronx was incorporated into townships. The township of Morrisania included what is now the Melrose Commons project area. At that time “Morrisania was the most sparsely settled section of the whole county”. It was due to the influence of the Morrises that Morrisania township was created. Brigadier General Lewis Morris briefly campaigned to have the capital of the United States at Morrisania. However, in 1790 the capital was decided elsewhere.

 

Morrisania ceased to be even a separate township in 1791 when it was annexed to the town of Westchester. The township was eventually reformed in the mid-nineteenth century.

 

The Harlem River Bridge, built over the Harlem River to provide easier access to Morrisania, opened in 1798 and Coles Road, intended to shorten the distance of the Old Boston Post Road, opened in about 1800. Coles Road went through the project area.

 

Upon arriving upon the mainland, after crossing Harlem Bridge, the Coles Road followed the line of the present Third Avenue then called Fordham Avenue, to the neighborhood of East 163rd Street, where it turned to the eastward and followed approximately the line of the present Boston Avenue to West Farms.

 

Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

The Coles Road was one of the early man-made divisions of the Melrose Commons project area. The Mill Brook was a natural division. As discussed above, the Mill Brook divided Morrisania in half according to the will of Lewis Morris. Old Morrisania was bounded on the east by Mill Brook. Mill Brook also divided East and West Morrisania and over time “served as boundaries between various heirs of the Morrisania Manorlands”. After the death of Lewis Morris, the signer, in 1798 and his half brother Gouverneur Morris in 1816, much of the former Morris family property became subdivided between numerous family members. Gouverneur Morris’ property was surveyed and laid out in farm lots along the Mill Brook, mainly southeast of the Melrose Commons project area.

 

The incorporation of the New York and Harlem Railroad also caused further property division. The railroad company was formed in the early 1830’s. The first tracks were laid during the late 1830’s and early 1840’s along the western part of the Melrose Commons project area from the Harlem River and extending northward, further dividing Morrisania. A deed from Gouverneur Morris II to the• New York and Harlem Railroad Company is recorded on November 10, 1840. This property began at a “stake in the center of a Bridge across Mill Brook” and extended southward. By 1852 “there were six switches and a turntable at Melrose and four passenger trains were run daily to and from Port Morris. This refers to the extension of the railroad called the Port Morris Branch. The Port Morris Branch ran from the Melrose Rail Yard, formerly located to the west of the project area at what is now East 162 Street and Park Avenue, looped around to the north of East 163rd Street and extended through the eastern part of the project area toward Port Morris. This branch railroad was nicknamed the “Pocahontas Branch.” This undoubtedly refers to the fact that Mrs. Gouverneur Morris was a lineal descendant of Pocahontas.

 

In addition to Boston Road and the railroad tracks, the only other transit route through the project area by 1847 was Fordham Avenue. This road is now called St. Ann’s Avenue and is part of the eastern boundary of Melrose Commons.

 

The current block bounded by East 158th Street, Brook Avenue, East 157th Street and Third Avenue contained a school house as indicated on a map dated 1847. The location has been used for children at least since that time, either as a school throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and part of the twentieth century, or as a playground currently. This site will not be affected by the proposed development project.

 

On May 13, 1846, West Farms Township was formed out of Westchester Township. West Farms included Morrisania and the Melrose Commons project area. West Farms retained a rural quality while being in close proximity and commuting distance to New York City. The fact that there was rail service caused some to think of West Farms, particularly the Morrisania area, as suitable for development.

 

The immediate effect of this type of thinking was to begin with a partitioning of the Melrose Commons project area between the late 1840’s and early 1850’s as the Morrises sold property. During these years, the project area became divided into three pieces. The east and west were divided by Mill Brook and the eastern portion was separated by Boston Road.

 

Early in 1848, a village association purchased 200 acres of land from Gouverneur Morris II in Upper Morrisania and called the area New Village. However, within two years the appellation of Morrisania was reapplied. The parcel was “then a wild rugged tract”. It included the northeast part of the Melrose Commons project area bounded by the current streets of East 163rd Street to the north, Third Avenue to the east and south, and Brook Avenue to the west (Frisbee and Coles. In 1848, there were only two dwellings in all of New Village: 1) a frame house owned by Mr. Georgi and 2) an old stone house on Fordham Avenue. Mr. Georgi’s house was located within the project area near the current intersection of East 162nd Street and Third Avenue. The location of the Fordham Avenue stone house was north of the project area in another part of New Village.

 

In the summer of 1848, New Village was surveyed by Andrew Findlay who later had Findley Street (now East 160th Street) named for him. The survey laid out avenues and streets and divided the rest of the property into one acre lots. Lot ownership was determined by a random drawing. All of the deeds from the subdivision of 1848 specified that “each lot owner should erect a dwelling on his lot within three years”. Within two years, there were 961 people and 149 dwellings in this development. Many were obviously within the project area. New Village developed rapidly within a short period of time as did the Bronx as a whole, whose population increased almost threefold between 1850 and 1860.

 

In addition to the above developments in New Village, there are records regarding the survey of streets and the development of the Village of Melrose in 1850. Melrose Village originally encompassed the part of the project area from the current Park Avenue on the west to the Mill Brook on the east. The only structure shown is a stone house at the intersection of the present Washington and Third Avenues. This is the current location of the Police station. Documentary sources indicated that this “Melrose” part of the project area was also developed in a brief span of time during the mid-nineteenth century. Many of the settlers of this time period were immigrants from Germany and Ireland. Courtlandt Avenue was soon nicknamed “Dutch Broadway” because it had beer gardens and a Teutonic population. In 1852, the German immigrants established a place of worship at Bruckner Hall, located at what is now the corner of East 161st Street and Elton Avenue. Within a few years, they established their church. The Dutch Reformed Church of the Village of Melrose was incorporated in 1857. Charles L. Georgi was one of the deacons.

 

The remaining land within the Melrose Commons project area was purchased from Gouverneur Morris II by Benjamin Benson in 1853. This included the portion east of Mill Brook and south of Boston Road. Figure 3.5-6 depicts the project area and its vicinity as it was in 1853. The village names of the three Melrose Commons subdivisions are easily identified; Bensonia (from Benson’s purchase), Melrose and Morrisania.

 

At the end of 1855, Morrisania became a township once again with its northern boundary being at the current East 164 Street. It was essentially carved out of the West Farms township. During the next twelve years, the number of houses in the Village of Melrose increased over eighty percent to 189. Nearly all of the current streets had been laid down by that time. Just about all of the project area was subdivided into lots and most of the lots contained buildings.

 

The annexation of the Bronx to New York City was a process begun in the 1860’s until the general election of November 1873, when the issue was voted on by the public. During the late 1860’s, streets in the Bronx were numbered in the Manhattan pattern. An act of the State Legislature in 1.869 gave the authority for Harlem River Bridges and their approaches to the New York City Parks Department. In 1870, they received the street mapping function for these approaches. The following year, the Parks Department authority was extended east to the Bronx River.

 

In 1872, an annexation bill was passed by both branches of the State Legislature. The general population voted for annexation in 1873, and in 1874, the Bronx (west of the Bronx River) became part of the 23rd and 24th Wards of New York City. This added 33,000 people to New York City’s population.

 

The annexation of the project area to New York City led to certain advantages and developments. Brook Avenue opened in 1876 following the approximate bed of the Mill Brook. “The stream disappeared within a great sewer under Brook Avenue”. The New York City sewer system was installed within the project area around 1893 (Bronx Bureau of Sewer files). The project area was connected to the public water supply around 1878 (New York City Bureau of Water Supply files). In 1880, the Suburban Rapid Transit Company was organized “for the purpose of constructing several elevated routes through the Annexed District”. The Third Avenue ‘ EI’ was opened in 1891 within the project area. This same year, Melrose Avenue was opened. The decade of the 1890’s also showed vast road improvements throughout the Bronx. There• was “blasting, grading, cutting down of hills, and filling in low places and quagmires … in all portions of the borough”. The 1894 Bronx Topographic Survey shows that the roads within the project area were all laid in by that time. The 1890’s also showed an increase of 127 percent in the population of the Bronx. By 1891, virtually all of the lots within the Melrose Commons project area contained buildings.

 

In 1898, New York City was chartered and the annexed area became known as The Borough of the Bronx. Louis Haffen was the first borough president. His administration lasted for ten years. One of the lasting impacts of his tenure on the Melrose Commons proj ect area was the construction of the Bronx Borough Courthouse at East 161 Street and Brook and Third Avenues. This building is now a New York City Designated Landmark. This is the only designated landmark within the Melrose Commons project area (Department of City Planning 1989; Landmarks Preservation Commission).

 

Once The Bronx became a part of New York City, it continued to grow and develop. The streets and avenues crossing the railroad tracks were raised so that the trains would cross below grade in 1905. Between 1904 and 1905, the number of hotels, stores and offices increased by 37 percent. The number of dwellings was up sixteen percent. The number of municipal buildings and public places as well as the number of tenement buildings increased by 56 percent. By 1906, the lower section of this district (Morrisania) was devoted to business and manufacturing, and the remainder was almost solidly built up on side streets and avenues with five and six story brick flats, most of them erected under the New Tenement House Law.

 

The early twentieth century cartographic evidence indicates many blocks of the Melrose Commons project area were covered with these types of buildings. Some of these tenements are likely those standing today. The growth in the Bronx during the early twentieth century was phenomenal. Between 1908 and 1909, 635 apartment houses were planned and 3,097 building plans filed. The population had increased some 1200 percent since annexation. In 1912, Bronx County was formed.

 

Known Historic Resources

The proposed Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Area includes only one designated landmark. The Bronx Borough Courthouse, located at 161st Street and Third Avenue is a New York City Designated Landmark.

 

According to a report prepared by Bert Salwen in late 1987, the courthouse was designed by Michael J. Garvin, architect, and was built between 1905 and 1915. This imposing Beaux-Art style structure is constructed of granite and is presently vacant. This building has also been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

The following three church buildings have tentatively been deemed eligible for landmark designation in the “Bronx Survey” prepared by the staff of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1978, according to a report prepared by Bert Salwen in late 1987. He states that these three buildings are probably also eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

  1. Elton Avenue M.E. (Methodist) Church. 790 Elton Avenue at 158th Street. John Rogers or H.S. Baker, architect, 1878-79. A modest Victorian Gothic style brick church;
  2. Reformed Church of Melrose (currently called Great Eternal Baptist Church). 744 Elton Avenue at 156th Street (Block 2378E, lot 46). Henry Piering, architect, 1879. A red brick victorian Gothic style building, similar, but slightly more sophisticated than the Elton Avenue M.E. Church; and
  3. Church of Saints Peter and Paul (Roman Catholic). Brook and St. Ann’s Avenues at 159th Street. This complex consists of a neo-Gothic style church (c. 1932) and a school (c. 1910), both facing onto Brook Avenue, and a particularly handsome neo-Gothic style rectory (M.J. Garvin, architect, 1900) that faces onto St. Ann’s Avenue.

 

In addition to the three churches, three other structures are included in the list of buildings seen as potentially eligible for New York City Landmarks and National Register of Historic Places listing.

 

  • Former YMCA. 470 East 161st street, at the southwest corner of Washington Avenue (Block 2382, Lot 48). This structure is post 1912 and pre 1932. Salwen suggests a date of circa 1920 for this four-story red brick neo-Renaissance style structure. Current uses is as a State Detention Facility known as Pyramid Residential Center;

 

  • Criminal Court of the City of New York. East side of Washington Avenue between 161st and 162nd Streets. Constructed 1928. Four-story red brick NeoRenaissance style similar to nearby YMCA. Building presently vacant;

 

  • 36th Precinct Station House. Northeast corner of Washington and Third Avenues. Constructed 1904. This Neo-Renaissance style palazzo-like police station was designed by Charles Volz, architect. Currently the 42nd Precinct. Precinct number has changed several times but the use of the structure remains unchanged.

 

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission raised questions regarding two other structures in a memorandum dating to 1 October 1990.

  • Engine Company #71. 3134 Park Avenue (Block 2419, Lot 1). Constructed after 1891 and prior to 1912, and

 

  • Viaduct spanning railyard. 163rd to 165th streets. This structure is not within the Melrose Commons project area which ends at 163rd street.

 

In summary, the TAMS Consultants report identified seven historic architectural resources within the Melrose Commons project area listed as New York City Landmarks or potentially eligible for such listing. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission staff suggested two additional structures, one of which is not within the project area. This leaves eight structures, one designated landmark and seven potentially eligible buildings.

 

Potentially Historic Resources Remaining

The documentary research found six main locations within the URA which may be historically significant: 1) the school house from at least 1847; 2) the Georgi homes from prior to 1848; 3) the stone house from at least 1850; 4) the Mott residence from about 1850; 5) and 6) the nineteenth century breweries. None of these structures are currently in existence.

 

There were seven breweries in the Bronx by 1900. Two of them had property within the Melrose Commons project area: Bruckner’s Brewery and Hupfel’ s Brewery. Bruckner ran a brewery there for at least 15 years. Hupfel’s brewery itself was east of Melrose Commons; however, the property was owned by Hupfel’s for at least 55 years. It was used as a brewery store yard for at least 16 years. Both of these properties may provide significant information regarding this industry.