Motorists traveling on East 161st Street wishing to avoid the intersection with the Grand Concourse can travel under a tunnel running between Gerard and Sheridan Avenues. Meanwhile, the area above the tunnel between the Concourse and Walton Avenue is occupied by the newly landscaped Lou Gehrig Plaza, named for the Yankees’ “Iron Horse” who fashioned a 2,130-game participation streak between 1925 and 1939, the year he was forced to retire as he had contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a fatal disease of the nervous system.
Born in Yorkville, Gehrig attended Columbia University for two years until signing with the Yankees in 1923. He began his streak in 1925, the year incumbent Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp supposedly had a headache one day and manager Miller Huggins put Gehrig in. The true story is that in 1925 the Yankees were playing poorly—Babe Ruth sat out much of the season with various problems—and Huggins wanted to give the team a spark. Gehrig had come off the bench for parts of two years and was doing quite well in that role until Huggins decided to shake things up.
Gehrig performed well, but didn’t find his power until 1927, the year of the Yankees’ “Murderers’ Row”; in 1927, Gehrig hit .373/.474/.765 with a 1.240 OPS, a year that looks superhuman today. He kept this up year after year until 1939, when his disease manifested itself.
Lou Gehrig Plaza for many years has been marked by a marvelous bronze sign showing Larrupin’ Lou taking a cut. For decades, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth shared the plaza, and the Babe had his own sign in the shape of a baseball diamond. When the new Yankee Stadium was built between 2007-2009, Babe Ruth Plaza was moved to East 161st Street near the Stadium front entrance, and the sign followed it.
The old Yankee Stadium once made a giant backdrop on the scene looking west from Lou Gehrig Plaza and the Grand Concourse on East 161st Street, but beginning in 2011, when the old Stadium was finally torn down, the viewer can see Manhattan in the background, with the new Yankee Stadium taking its place on the right side of the scene.
I have been walking the Grand Concourse or “The Conk,” as I call it, since 1999 when I was a wee-er lad than I am now. The intersection with East 161st provides you with very interesting art and architecture on all four corners.
The NE corner of Grand Concourse and E. 161st is dominated by the massive 500-room Concourse Plaza Hotel, #900 Grand Concourse, designed by Maynicke and Franke and opened in 1923, the same year as the original Yankee Stadium. It has served as a gathering place for family reunions of Grand Concourse residents, and used to play host to the New York Yankees and visiting teams.
In The Bronx in Bits and Pieces, the late Bronx historian Bill Twomey reported that when the Concourse Plaza opened the rate for one night was $3.00 for a single room and $4.50 for a double. Even in the 1920s, the Bronx was a tourist mecca, with Yankee Stadium, the Botanic Gardens and the Bronx Zoo. You could honeymoon in the Bronx in those days and the hotel was always booked for bar mitzvahs and wedding receptions in the enormous grand ballroom, which had a 2,000-plus capacity, on what was then the heavily Jewish west Bronx.
As New York City and the Yankees went downhill in the Swingin’ '60s, so too did the Concourse Plaza Hotel. By 1968, it was a welfare hotel. In 1974, it was converted to a senior residence.
Solid, stolid, weighty, implacable. That’s the impression the passerby gets from Joseph Friedlander and Max Hausle’s 1931 Bronx County Courthouse, the seat of borough business. The building used to be a familiar sight over the old Yankee Stadium outfield fence. It's enlivened by friezes, sculpted by Charles Keck, depicting classical scenes with toga-wearing men discussing Important Things, half-clad women, and bovines, as well as gold colored spandrel panels above and below the windows. Free-standing sculptures at the entrance were realized by Adolph Weinman, who also created the gilded Civic Fame statue that caps the Municipal Building at City Hall, and the “Walking Liberty” Half Dollar in circulation from 1916-1947 (succeeded by the Franklin and then Kennedy half dollars).
The interior features a mural by James Monroe Hewlett depicting the arrival in the 1620s of Jonas Bronck, considered the first European resident of the borough that would bear a name derived from his. It was unfortunately damaged in 2013, while interior work was going on.
On the northwest corner of East 161st and the Concourse, Ernst Herter’s 1893 fountain statue in honor of Heinrich Heine, author of Die Lorelei, was originally rejected by Düsseldorf, the German city of Heine’s birth. A coterie of affluent German-Americans purchased the work and offered to place it in Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan. That site, too, was rejected, and the fountain was ultimately placed in Joyce Kilmer Park around the turn of the 20th Century. In the early 2000s, the fountain was fully restored to a brilliant white, given a new iron railing and moved to East 161st Street across from the Bronx County Courthouse.
The Lorelei was a German folkloric figure, and the statue shows her seated on a rock (which is an actual rock overlooking the Rhine River) surrounded by dolphins, seashells, and mermaids. Heine’s poem depicts the maiden innocently sitting on the rock combing her hair and distracting sailors, some to their death as they crashed on the rock.
#888 Grand Concourse, on the southeast corner of East 161st, is just one of many Art Deco apartment house masterpieces built on “The Conk” in the 1920s and 1930s. #888 was designed in 1937 by Emery Roth, a Hungarian immigrant who had designed New York’s fanciest hotels—he had earlier drawn plans for the Central Park West hotels the San Remo and the Beresford. The circular entrance, with thin metal banding and a ceiling mosaic, is catercorner to Joyce Kilmer Park. Note the undulating curves; the building has no sharp corners on the exterior.
—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens.