Mott Haven Historic District
The Mott Haven Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Mott Haven Historic District is situated in the South Bronx. It is approximately ten blocks, primarily residential in character, but with shopping and service stores on East 138th Street and along Third Avenue, contain four and five-story row houses which are surrounded by high rise housing projects towering above them.
The Mott Haven Historic District consists of an interesting variety of building types which are representative of the best of the second half of the nineteenth century, including handsome residential rows of houses, two churches, a library and a police station. Individual houses on the side streets lend an attractive variety to this area. The Mott Haven Historic District centers around Alexander Avenue and includes only those side streets which best accord with the fine quality of the buildings which extend along both sides of it. The fact that the buildings in this neighborhood retain so much of their fine original character makes it readily recognizable as an Historic District.
Alexander Avenue, between 137th and 141st Streets, is framed at the ends by two tall churches on the east side with low rows of houses between. On the west side, two imposing civic buildings stand out amidst the row houses. On both sides, the block fronts present rows of unified design.
While the houses maintain their individuality, and many of the interiors were custom built to suit the owners, it is clear that the architects generally recognized the fact that they were designing blocks of row houses, not individual residences. Alexander Avenue is a quiet dignified street characterized by handsome architectural details. This is true also of several of the other streets in the Historic District, including East 139th and East 140th Streets between Willis and Brook Avenues. Although construction dates range from the early eighteen sixties to the nineteen twenties, the majority of the buildings were erected in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Despite the fact that a wide variety of architectural styles are represented, including examples of Renaissance Revival, Greek Revival, neo-Grec and Queen Anne styles, in addition to those built in the local vernacular, there are common denominators of scale, materials, and a high degree of craftsmanship, which give the Mott Haven Historic District a remarkable degree of unity.
Mott Haven Historic District, located in one of the oldest settled areas of the Bronx, is an exceptionally homogeneous residential district with buildings dating from the second half of the nineteenth century. It also contains within its boundaries several fine churches and civic buildings. It is important as an uptown area in which row houses were first developed.
The land on which Mott Haven Historic District is situated was purchased from the Indians by the Dutch West India Company in 1639, and two years later the Dane, Jonas Bronck, bought a large tract of land between the Harlem and Bronx Rivers from that Company, becoming the first European to settle in the Borough which bears his name. In 1670, he sold his land to Richard Morris and Lewis Morris, merchants from Barbados. Besides the land obtained from Bronck, the Morrises obtained a second tract from the British Crown. The Morrises became greatly influential as one of the first families of colonial times, holding a number of public offices. Traces of the Morris family still remain in the area and it has been suggested that Alexander Avenue, the central thoroughfare in the Mott Haven Historic District, was named for Alexander Bathgate, the Scottish overseer of the Morris manor lands.
In 1828, Jordan L. Mott, the inventor of a coal-burning stove, established an iron works on the Harlem River at 134th Street. He was the first major industrialist to locate in the Bronx, and his facility was resented as a crass intrusion into the quiet, rural countryside. He built his residence near the foundry and was so impressed by the area that he subsequently purchased a second tract of two hundred acres from the Morris family at $175 an acre, and named the village Mott Haven. The present day streets of Mott Haven were laid out at that time.
In 1850, Mott drew up plans for the lower part of the Mott Haven Canal which followed an underground stream parallel to Morris Avenue and east of the Harlem River. When completed, it enabled canal boats to go up as far as 138th Street, encouraging local industrial development and bringing an influx of large numbers of workers into the area, mostly Irish and German families, for whom tenements were built. A street was subsequently laid to take over the function of the canal (now known as 138th Street), although the canal was not filled from 138th to 144th Streets until 1903. It became one of the most important thoroughfares in the Bronx and the principal outlet for the coal, lumber and building material yards in that locality as well as the approach to the Mott Haven station of the railroad and to the Madison Avenue Bridge.
Some time after 1830, Mott Haven joined with several other villages to form the town of Morrisania which was incorporated in 1885. Morrisania was named after the Morrises, although the area still continues to be known by its original name. The development of Morrisania, the most sparsely settled portion of the County of Westchester at the close of the Revolution, was due primarily to the building of the Harlem Railroad in 1842.
Alexander Avenue is the focal point of the Mott Haven Historic District. While many of the houses on and near Alexander Avenue maintain their individuality, and many of the interiors were designed for the individual owners, the area was conceived and designed as blocks of handsome rowhouses, rather than as individual residences. It is because of the nature of this planning concept that Mott Haven owes its homogeneous residential character.
The two fine civic buildings contained within the Mott Haven Historic District enhance its quality by their excellence of design, their harmonious proportions and low scale which blend into the surrounding environment. They complement the unified character of the adjacent rowhouses and provide, at the same time, through their style and variety of detail, a nice contrast to the neighboring buildings. The Mott Haven branch of the New York Public Library is an imposing building containing many elegant details and is a fine example of its Renaissance Revival style, with, among other things, the symmetry of its tightly contained cubical form and its rusticated quoins (beautifully aligned with the rustication blocks of the main entrance way). The 40th Precinct Police Station, with its simple yet handsome design and fine proportions is also typical of its Renaissance Revival style, with bold details such as the rusticated quoins and rustication blocks of the entrance way.
St. Jerome's Roman Catholic Church, Rectory and School lend dignity of scale to Alexander Avenue and frame the southern end of the Mott Haven Historic District. While preserving the human scale of the Avenue, the rich detailing of the Church, with its imposing high corner tower, lends interest and variety to its surroundings. In scale with its neighbors, the Tercera Iglesia Bautista Church provides a strong visual terminus to the northern end of Alexander Avenue. The simplicity and boldness of its design makes good use of its corner location and creates an appropriate ornament to the Avenue. The Tercera Iglesia Bautista Church and St. Jerome's Church, along with its school, acts as a cultural force and is a center of stability in the neighborhood. St. Peters Lutheran Church, a nice example of the Gothic Revival style, with its simple yet interesting detail, and the Church school, are beautifully integrated within the low scale of the block. They are additional factors for stability in this area which has been able to endure as a community and to retain so much of its fine residential character over the years.
Although construction dates range from the early eighteen sixties to the nineteen twenties, most of the buildings were erected during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The buildings are designed in a number of revival styles of architecture but have common denominators of scale and materials, plus a consistently high quality of craftsmanship, which give the area a remarkable degree of unity.
The Mott Haven Historic District, although containing two discontinuous areas, the main area concentrated around Alexander venue, and the area which includes 139th and 140th Streets from Willis to Brook Avenues, is nevertheless historically and architecturally linked together. The historical development of the block from Willis to Brook Avenues is identical to that of the main area. Architecturally, the principal relationship comes from he homogeneous rows of houses on these almost exclusively residential blocks. While the north side of 140th Street contains some handsome, individually designed houses, the homogeneous character of the block is maintained through the uniform building height and the architectural details.
Traditionally, Mott Haven was inhabited by well-to-do Irish families (Alexander Avenue in the past was known as the "Irish Fifth Avenue," "Doctors' Row," and "Politicians' Row.") However, it contained a wide range of other nationalities as well. At the present time,  its large number of Puerto Rican residents continues to take pride in their fine buildings and the beauty of their residential environment. Surrounded by tall, impersonal housing projects, the Mott Haven Historic District remains a happy oasis and its many fine buildings are reminders of its once elegant character.
"Alexander Avenue-Island in the Bronx," The New York Times, February 1, 1969.
Alexander Avenue Revitalization, New York City, Department of City Planning, New York, 1976.
Freiberg, Peter, "Mott Haven District Fighting for its Future," New York Post, November 10, 1976.
Jenkins, Stephen, The Story of the Bronx - From the Purchase Made by the Dutch from the Indians in 1639 to the Present Day. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1912.
Landmarks Preservation Commission, Mott Haven Historic District Designation Report, New York, 1969.
† Wilson, Susanne J, consultant and Spencer-Ralph, Elizabeth, New York State Division for Historic Preservation, Mott Haven Historic District, Bronx NY, nomination document, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.