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Bronx County Courthouse


The Bronx County Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.

Description

Sited at the southern end of the Grand Concourse and just to the north of Franz Sigel Park, the Bronx County Courthouse, with its massive scale and monumental design, is a visually imposing civic structure. The freestanding building fills an entire block between 158th Street, 161st Street, the Grand Concourse and Walton Avenue and its four identical facades are all visible.

The Bronx County Courthouse is raised upon a rusticated granite podium, which enframes and elevates the building. Stairways lead to the vast balustraded terrace which surrounds the courthouse on all four sides. The simple silhouette of the building is broken only by the monumental hexastyle porticos which are centrally placed on each facade. The building is constructed of limestone and rises nine stories above its two mezzanines. The facades are divided vertically into three sections analogous to the sections of the classical column. Each is composed of a rusticated base, a shaft with vertical bands of windows, and a cornice. The spandrel panels between the windows are of copper and enhance the contrast between the smooth light limestone walls and the vertical strips of the fenestration. At the lower floors the copper panels are inlaid with nickel. The relief on all the spandrels is a stylized foliate ornament reminiscent of motifs used in the contemporary Art Deco style. The porticos, with their great fluted columns supporting massive, block-like entablatures, are simplified interpretations of classical forms. They are adorned with the seals of the city and the state of New York, carved in low relief, which flank inscriptions extolling the virtues of Administration of Justice, Government, Law and Order, and the Rights of Man. The doorways screened by the porticos have elaborate bronze and glass doors with eagles and winged hourglasses. The low relief frieze at cornice level is also adorned with eagles which alternate with foliate ornament.

Above the rusticated base is a low relief frieze, divided into panels by windows, which encircles the entire building. It depicts, in classic style, the activities of the universal working man. Themes of agriculture, commerce, industry, religion and the arts as well as war and enslavement are all shown. Generalized scenes of plowing, harvesting, shepherding and the like contrast with specific historic allusions to the Revolutionary, Civil, Spanish American, and first world wars. The variety of subject matter is welded into a cohesive whole through the homogeneity of its classical style. A notable element of the composition is the convergence of figures at the corners of the building toward a single figure placed directly at each corner angle. Near the southeast corner, a seated figure displays an elevation drawing of the courthouse itself — labeled the "Bronx Unit Building."

Flanking each entry are two monumental freestanding groups of figures carved in pink marble. They rest on simple bases and are placed at the edges of the terrace. "The Song of Achievement" and "Progress" stand at the Grand Concourse side of the courthouse. At the 161st Street entrance are "Civic Government" and "The Majesty of Law;" at the Walton Avenue side are "Victory and Peace" and "Loyalty, Valor and Sacrifice," at the 158th Street side "Triumph of Government" and "Genius of Administration." The figures in all the groups are well over life size, carved in a classic style in very high relief and imbued with a sense of energy and strength.

In addition to courtrooms, this building contains jury rooms, court offices, the offices of the borough president, district attorney, sheriff, the corporation counsel and the Bronx County Bar Association.

An interior court provides light and air to the large center space on the main floor which presently houses the Bronx Museum of Arts. Other features of the interior public spaces include a vaulted and marble-paneled hallway which follows the periphery of the building. Each of the main entrances leads directly to separate banks of elevators for easy interior circulation. The grand terrace, which enframes the building on the exterior, serves functionally to enclose a lower level garage.

Significance

The Bronx County Courthouse is architecturally significant as an imposing example of American civic architecture of the 1930s. Designed in 1931 by locally prominent architects Joseph H. Freedlander and Max Hausle, the Bronx County Courthouse is the only known example of their collaboration. The success of their design can be attributed to the combination of dramatic siting, bold, modern massing and the use of classically derived elements and heroic sculptural embellishments. In addition, the design is enhanced by a series of large-scale sculptures by nationally known sculptors which flank the entrances to the courthouse on all four sides. The entire composition combines modern concepts of planning and scale with the traditional use of classical forms to recall the highest standards of design for American civic architecture of the period.

During the Depression of the 1930s, government-funded projects such as this courthouse provided architects and artists with numerous important commissions. This building, including all structural and ornamental work, was under construction from 1931 until 1934. To mark its completion, and in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the county of the Bronx, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia officially transferred the seat of municipal government for three days from City Hall to the Bronx County Courthouse.

The architects of the Bronx County Courthouse, Freedlander and Hausle, had received many important commissions individually, but it appears that this building was their only joint project. Joseph H. Freedlander (1870-1943) received his architectural training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His New York architectural designs include the Museum of the City of New York, the Harlem Hospital, and the French Institute Building. Max Hausle (1879-?) studied architecture in his native Switzerland. After an initial association with a locally prominent Bronx architect, Hausle received commissions for the Municipal Courthouse and the Magistrates' Courthouse in the Bronx.

The simple lines of the building are enhanced by numerous sculptural elements, both on and near the structure. Charles Keck (1875-1951) designed the frieze above the base of the building which enriches the monumental structure. Keck studied with the sculptors Philip Martiny and Augustus Saint-Gaudens and received public commissions from all over the United States. In New York City his works include a portal figure at Columbia University, the figure of Islam on the facade of the Brooklyn Museum, and the Times Square statue of World War I chaplain Father Duffy.

Eight freestanding, marble sculpture groups embellish the building, two flanking each entrance. Each group of two was designed by a different sculptor. Those on the Grand Concourse side were the work of Adolf A. Weiman (1870-1952). Like Keck, he had been a student of both Martiny and Saint-Gaudens and had also worked with Daniel Chester French. Notable New York examples of his work include the crowning stature "Civic Fame" and the facade sculpture of the Manhattan Municipal Building, and the pediment of the Brooklyn Museum. Edward F. Sanford (b.1886) studied in New York, Munich and Paris and is responsible for the sculptures on the 158th Street side of the building. His most notable commission was for the architectural sculpture of the library of the California State Capitol. The sculptures on the 161st Street side of the courthouse were by George H. Snowden (b.1902) who was a pupil of Weiman. Other architectural sculpture by Snowden includes the pediment of the Drinkhall in Saratoga Springs (National Register listed, 1974) and the Yale Memorial of Pershing Hall in Paris. Joseph Kiselewski (b.1901) did the two sculptural groups on the Walton Avenue side of the courthouse. A student of Lee Lawrie, he has had many important architectural sculpture commissions, including the Fishery pediment of the Commerce Department building in Washington, D.C., and a limestone panel for the New York City and Municipal Courthouse.

All of these sculptors contributed an essential element to the highly successful design of this building. The Bronx County Courthouse can be characterized as an American version of a style which was also popular in Europe at the time: bold geometric massing on a monumental scale combined with ornamental detail and sculpture derived primarily from ancient Greek and Roman models. Such classical models are evocative of a period of high achievement, both intellectual and artistic. The Bronx County Courthouse sculptural program depicts universal and ennobling themes for which the neo-classic style is highly appropriate. Moreover, classical styles had long been considered the most suitable for large government buildings. Thus the architects successfully combined a modern twentieth century design with traditional neo-classic figural ornament.

References

New York Landmarks Preservation Commission. Research Files: Bronx County Courthouse.

New York Landmarks Preservation Commission. Designation Report, "Bronx County Courthouse," (LP-0928). July 13, 1976.

  1. Gobrecht, Larry E., New York State Historic Preservation Field Services Bureau, Bronx County Courthouse, Bronx NY, nomination document, 1983, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Bronx County Courthouse Map

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