If a robber baron went bust in New York in the 1930s, there was a place he could go where servants would still make his bed and waiters would still serve his meals. All he needed was a little cigar money.
Endowed by an eccentric and volatile Jewish millionaire named Andrew Freedman, the imposing limestone refuge for the washed-up wealthy opened in 1924 in what was then an upper-class Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, near Yankee Stadium.
After a half-century run, the foundation that managed it went belly-up in the early 1980s. The building has sat half-empty ever since.
Jumbles of battered chairs and torn mattresses crowd abandoned apartments on the upper floors. Pigeon droppings pile beneath doorknobs. Stacks of files and photographs sit forgotten.
All this is set to change — and soon. A major transformation is under way at the Andrew Freedman Home. The building’s not-for-profit owners have started a multiyear project that they say will fill the home with cultural and social service programs, beginning with an art exhibition set to open on April 4.
“It was very eerie to see how the paint had crusted and how some of the objects were still there, [covered] with dust,” said Naomi Hersson Ringskog, executive director of No Longer Empty, the arts group organizing the April installation. “Time had stood still here.”
The home is a study in excess, a baronial monolith standing sentry amid a neighborhood of low-slung brick apartment houses. Running the length of an entire city block at 166th Street and Grand Concourse, the limestone mansion is as wide as the majestic New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue.
The building’s corridors stretch a football field and a half long.
The address is nondescript now. But at the time of the home’s official opening, the Grand Concourse was a trendy address for upwardly mobile New York Jews.
“Grand Concourse in the 1920s is a neighborhood for really affluent second-generation Jews who have moved out and up from the Lower East Side and are moving to a new neighborhood with wide thoroughfares, with modern apartments, elevator apartments, fire escapes,” said Jeffrey Gurock, professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University and author of the forthcoming “Jews in Gotham: New York Jews and Their Changing City, 1920–2010.” “It’s a really good place for Jews to live.”
In its heyday, in 1933, the home had furniture imported from Belgium and a pastry chef who made table centerpieces in the shape of little houses that lit up from the inside, according to a contemporary account in The New Yorker. An inspector visited prospective residents in their homes, then sent them before a committee that included executives from Goldman Sachs Group and Chase. About 40% of the home’s occupants were Jews.
Freedman’s motivation to create this free, gilded safety net remains hard to grasp. At the opening ceremony, Freedman’s sister, Isabella, tried to explain the project. Isabella — after whom the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, in Falls Village, Conn., was named — told The New York Times that her brother “believed that the worthy habits and traditions of affluence and refinement deserve recognition and respect, and that people possessing them should not be allowed to live in penury.”
Freedman wasn’t born into traditions of affluence, but he certainly acquired the habits. His parents were relatively well-off German Jews who moved to New York from Chicago in the 1860s to open a dry goods importing business.
That business appears to have collapsed in 1884, according to a New York Times story printed that February. The financial disaster may have taken Freedman by surprise. Then just 24, he returned home from a trip to Europe to find his father deep in debt. A lawyer blamed the mess on “despondency caused by domestic sorrow.”