Ornate Cornices Disappearing in Washington Heights

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The lion's heads that once graced the cornice of 4195 Broadway. (Courtesy Trish Mayo)

The lion's heads that once graced the cornice of 4195 Broadway, now in a dumpster. (Courtesy Trish Mayo)

When the attention of real estate speculators diverts, sometimes old neighborhoods have time to acquire a majestic patina. The Washington Heights section of northern Manhattan has been neglected for some time, but is now getting a fair share of spillover interest from Columbia’s Manhattanville project and the university’s nearby hospital campus. In 2009, the Audubon Park Historic District was created to protect the area just behind Audubon Terrace, home to the Hispanic Society and the Academy of Arts and Letters. But just north of the district, years of landlord neglect has unwittingly preserved row after row of early 20th century apartment buildings festooned with ornate cornices. But the cornices are now in danger of disappearing.

The decorative cornices of Washington Heights are dissapearing.

Most of the decorative cornice at 4181 Broadway (right) was replaced with concrete, and the cornice at 4195 was replaced entirely with corrugated metal.

Provided you look up, there are still vistas in Washington Heights that recall the area’s heyday. In the early part of the last century a striving middle class made up of German Jews, Irish, and Greeks walked beneath striped fabric awnings perched at apartment windows, all topped with fanciful cornices.

More dumpster lions.

Most know that when Robert Moses plowed through the Bronx to build the Cross Bronx Expressway, neighborhoods were severed and died a slow death. But little attention is paid to the Cross Bronx’s connection to the George Washington Bridge, which severed Washington Heights too, providing easy access for suburbanites to swoop in and out of the neighborhood to buy drugs. Eventually, like the South Bronx, the area regained its footing. Now, the Pier Luigi Nervi-designed Port Authority Bus Terminal at the base of the bridge is set to undergo a $285 million restoration. And Starbucks, the ever present harbinger of gentrification, is just a few blocks north.

Planned renovation of the Nevi-designed GW Bridge Bus Terminal. (Courtesy STV Inc.)

Planned renovation of the Nervi-designed GW Bridge Bus Terminal. (Courtesy STV Inc.)

But just as Washington Heights begins its reemergence, several building owners are stripping away the architectural features that make the area unique. Just next door to the bus terminal sits 4195 Broadway at the corner of 178th Street. Two weeks ago, the decorative lion heads that once reigned atop the 1920 edifice were stripped, thrown into a dumpster and replaced with corrugated metal. It’s indicative of a neighborhood trend. Over the past several years the cornices of Washington Heights are finally getting much needed maintenance attention. But instead of restoring them, many building owners are ripping them off and replacing them with steel, aluminum, and concrete.

The metal replacement.

The metal replacement.

Photographer Trish Mayo noticed the latest affront on a bus ride home from the library. The shapes in a dumpster registered as something familiar to her. She got off the bus to investigate. Mayo said the dumpster was almost full with terracotta lion heads taken from 4195. The dumpster has since been carted away. “I think that after so many years of neglect the decorative details have become a safety hazarded and it’s just cheaper to destroy all the beauty that’s in these buildings,” she said.

4 Responses to “Ornate Cornices Disappearing in Washington Heights”

  1. RoughAcres says:

    This is awful! One of my favorite things in NYC is photographing cornices and architectural flourishes…. I’m not sure I ever captured this beauty before she was destroyed. I hope someone else has, for I surely would have liked to see it.

    So MUCH of Washington Heights is being destroyed, architecturally… and so much of it is eligible for Landmark status. My own building is now over 100 years old; the GWB Bus Terminal, a one-of-a-kind architectural treasure, is blocks away and will soon be “renovated” for more retail space and better bus coordination.

    All is not doom and gloom; a determined group of citizens — now nearly 700 strong, and growing each day — is gathering steam to Save the Coliseum, an RKO Theater from 1920 on 181st Street that still has much of its original facade and is now vacant after being converted into 4 small theaters and retail. Much of the building is salvageable, and residents hope to turn this into a community arts center and reclaim its special memories for the whole community.

    Join us!

    FB: https://www.facebook.com/groups/WHAMNYC/
    Web: WHAMNYC.org

  2. Jeff Hoppa says:

    I can’t believe they’d just toss the lion heads! I want one – or two! Tragic, thoughtless and sad.

  3. RBB says:

    Robert Moses lost his first battle when a bunch of upper middle-class moms said enough is enough–he wanted to pave over a Central Park Playground to give more *parking spaces* to Tavern on the Green, so suburbanites could drive and dine there. Previously, he had plundered the neighborhoods of working class people who were too busy actually working to fight him. A sad reality that changed NYC in many ways good and bad.

    The same thing could easily happen in Washington Heights–people can take their eye off the ball and we could many of our treasures.Especially now, when times are tough, it’s hard to keep track of such community issues. But as Rough Acres notes, there is a group that’s out to Save the Coliseum–and it should inspire rescues of all kinds. We really only have one shot at it, after all. When they’re gone, they’re gone.

  4. WizardOfID says:

    I’ve lived in WH for 20 years; it’s been rediscovered, rent and condo prices are rising steeply, and younger, more upscale people are moving in. I may spend a day at a time walking and taking pictures of the architecture as the sun illuminates one side and then the other.

    Of course the parapets age and must be fixed or removed for safety reasons but there must be a reasonable alternative to cement or aluminum. They’re hideous. I would never rent or buy an apartment in a building where the owner has been so callous as to leave the building in such a state. If he does this to the outside what else does he not care about on the inside?

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