Breathing Life Into Faded Home for Rich

Stirring of Hope in Bronx Ruins of Millionaire's Odd Dream

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published March 21, 2012, issue of March 30, 2012.
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In an age when a million dollars meant something in New York, Freedman went on to become a millionaire a few times over. By the time of his death, in 1915, he had accumulated assets of more than $4 million, including a 23-room home and 120-acre farm in New Jersey, thousands of dollars worth of fine art and a herd of cows. He even briefly owned the New York Giants baseball team.

How he came to his wealth remains unclear. Freedman, who never married, had interests in real estate and close ties to the leadership of Tammany Hall, the famously corrupt New York City political machine. One biography prepared by New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission suggests that he illegally obtained contracts through his Tammany ties and used Tammany to steer contracts to others.

Still, it seems that he never forgot his family’s brush with ruin. Even during his lifetime, Freedman lacked the self-assurance of a proper millionaire.

An installation by Nicky Enright in the ‘Princess Ballroom.’
nate lavey
An installation by Nicky Enright in the ‘Princess Ballroom.’

If he was something of a shady businessman, he was every bit a thug on the street. In 1896, Freedman punched a sportswriter from a New York paper because he didn’t like the reporter’s coverage of the Giants. At the Democratic National Convention, held in Kansas City, Mo., in 1900, he took a swing at a political reporter for the Kansas City Star. Freedman missed, but the reporter answered, connecting with Freedman’s face.

Later the same month, Freedman started a fight on a train after an acquaintance made the mistake of addressing him as “Andy” instead of “Andrew.”

Freedman could be vindictive, too. In 1899, he sabotaged his own baseball team in order to exact revenge on owners of the league’s other teams. The owners failed to back his effort to punish a player who called him a Sheeny, an anti-Semitic epithet, according to a biography written for the Society for American Baseball Research by Bill Lamb. The Giants had been a major draw at smaller parks, and Freedman’s willful destruction of their record hurt attendance and the rival owners’ bottom lines.

Freedman’s funeral, performed by the rabbi of Manhattan’s famed Temple Emanu-El, attested to the millionaire’s importance, if not to his popularity. Pallbearers included railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, Tammany boss Richard Croker and subway financer August Belmont, who named the famed thoroughbred racetrack in his father’s honor.

After Freedman’s death, Samuel Untermyer, a well-respected progressive lawyer and friend, was named to turn Freedman’s vision of a home for the once-rich into a reality.

Untermyer and his fellow trustees purchased the land for the building, hired prominent architects Joseph H. Freedlander and Harry Allan Jacobs, and broke ground in 1922.

Upon completion the home was in an elegant neighborhood. But over the decades, the Bronx’s demography changed. After World War II, wealthy Jews moved on to the suburbs or to nearby Riverdale, which remains an upper-class Jewish enclave. Working-class Jews remained on the Grand Concourse for a while, but by 1970 even they were mostly gone.

The home, too, was on the decline. In its later years it housed refugees from Europe, but by the 1960s, residents were forced to pay some rent. It finally folded in 1982, and the foundation ceased to exist.

The building was purchased for $1.6 million by a local social service group called the Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council. The council briefly used the space for senior housing, but it soon retreated to the basement, where it continued to run a day care program and offer social services.

“Looking at it from an energy standpoint, this building takes a lot of money,” said Walter Puryear, 41, a Mid-Bronx project manager. “So over the years, we’ve been forced to close down floors.”

Abandoned equipment of indeterminate use — a massive metal thing called a “centrifugal extractor,” a vintage Kodak projector — sit unused on the fourth floor. Rooms are messes of crumbling walls and dust and old magazines.

Two years ago, Puryear decided to try to breathe new life into the building.

On the lower floors, the transformation of the building has already begun. No Longer Empty has set up artists in abandoned apartments on the building’s second floor to create installations for the exhibit opening on April 4. In one room, artist Cheryl Pope has attached peeling gold foil to a room’s ceiling, mirroring the peeling paint on the adjacent wall.

Also set to open on April 4 is a bed-and-breakfast on the first floor, created using vintage furniture scavenged from upstairs. Downstairs ballrooms and sitting rooms have also been refurbished and are ready to be rented out as event spaces.

Sitting in the former billiard room that is now in the process of being renovated and turned into a speakeasy, an exhausted Puryear laid out his ambitious plan for the building.

All five stories will be filled with educational, cultural and social service programming within the next few years. The plan includes a job-training program for green construction work, a business incubator and a media center, among other projects. Puryear said the renovation keeps him busy 100 hours per week.

The new vision for the building will largely serve the working-class community that now lives in the neighborhood.

That might not have pleased the mercurial Freedman, with his offbeat visions of aristocratic grandeur. But it’s hard to imagine that anyone would think that is much of a problem today.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @joshnathankazis


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