Villa Charlotte Brontė
2501 Palisade Avenue
Riverdale New York
In the Nineteen-Twenties, there was still time left for demi-rural Riverdale to hold out against the encroaching City of New York. Even as its estates along the Hudson were being subdivided, they retained their winding lanes in place of grid-mapped streets. Not for another decade would there be a bridge from the north end of Manhattan. And only in 1937 would the dreaded Henry Hudson Parkway of Robert Moses definitively slice the neighborhood in two, eating away houses and trees and providing a spine for the high-rise development of the postwar era.
Yet it had long been clear that high-density residence was coming to the northwest Bronx. In the first decades of the century, wealthy citizens seeking to defend the character of their neighborhood (while turning a profit) had formed syndicates to buy up land whose development they could personally control. John Jay McKelvey, a lawyer and one of the directors of the Park District Protective League, had been especially active in these purchases. In the twenties, he took the initiative by building what are regarded as the first apartment houses in Riverdale. These were not tenements, but “villas” made up of individually owned duplex and triplex ”studio homes.” McKelvey capitulated nothing to what he derided as “the city ugly.” His Villa Charlotte Bronte of 1926 is probably the most determinedly picturesque set of buildings in the Borough.
It’s site is unmatchable: the extreme southwest point of the Bronx, a cliff one hundred feet above the spot where the Harlem, entering the Hudson, forms the tide rips known as Spuyten Duyvil, the “spitting devil.” (There are other, less trustworthy etymologies.) From this aerie, every apartment has exposures in three directions, including a view of the river and the Palisades beyond. At the foot of the cliff, a station on the recently electrified Hudson Division of the New York Central provided commuters with a half-hour ride to Grand Central (and a wearying climb in the evening).
McKelvey’s architect, Richard Gardner, has built two matching buildings, divided by a central courtyard which thrusts out toward the Hudson. Each wing is a carefully irregular composition of tiled roofs, protruding bays, balconies, and casement windows. Together they house seventeen apartments, no two exactly alike.
There are no common hallways; each apartment has exterior entrances. Since the Villa sits just below the crest of the hill, approaches from the street are difficult, and give the buildings a final touch of Romantic eccentricity. Apartments on the upper level are reached by railed stairways perched on narrow stone arches, or by long balconies that work their way across the facades, while sunken pathways pass through the grotto-like arches to the ground-level entries.
McKelvey’s experiment in housing has something in common with the “garden apartments” which were beginning to appear elsewhere in the Bronx. But unlike those practical enclaves, the Villa Bronte, in an older American architectural tradition, appeals almost entirely to the visual and imaginative sensibilities of its residents. “If you can gaze upon that sight [from the cliff top] without a thrill,” reads one of McKelvey’s advertisements, “you are made for building-canyons and stifling rooms, not for this precious place.”
Lehman College Art Gallery and Kareema Hussein