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Breathing Life Into Faded Home for Rich

Video: Nate Lavey

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.”

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.? Image by nate lavey

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 n[email protected] or on Twitter @joshnathankazis

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