Mar 29, 2023, 06:27AM

Norwood Noodlings

Quiet neighborhoods and great brick clock towers.

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Bedford Park and Norwood are two quiet neighborhoods to the west of the New York Botanical Gardens (in Brooklyn, we have Botanic Gardens, but in the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, they get an extra –al). Bedford, England inspired the name of the Bedford Park neighborhood when it was conceived and laid out in the 1880s. The British town also inspired the neighborhood’s use of Queen Anne architecture, and some of these grand old homes can still be seen amid the area’s now-predominant multifamily apartment buildings. Norwood was originally part of the Varian family’s dairy farm. The Varians, who produced a New York City mayor, owned the oldest house in the area, which is still standing.

One of the city’s great brick clock towers, ranking with Woodhaven’s Lalance and Grosjean’s kitchenware factory, is found at the police station house shown above at Webster Ave. and Mosholu Parkway. The clock’s surrounded by colorful terra cotta. The tower’s design is based on Tuscan villas. Nearby is Frisch Field, named for the baseball’s Frankie Frisch, the “Fordham Flash” who starred with the New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals from 1919 to 1937. 

When I first became aware of Mosholu Parkway in the 1970s, I saw its name on a map and assumed it was a Japanese name and Mr. Mosholu was a prominent Japanese-American honored by a street name. The reality is no less colorful; it’s among the many Native-American place names woven into the city’s fabric. Mo-sho-lu, or “smooth stones” was the Algonquin name of a rural brook running through the heart of what became the Bronx’ Spuyten Duyvil and Riverdale neighborhoods. The land through which the brook ran was acquired by settler George Tippett in 1668, and the waterway was subsequently renamed Tibbett’s Brook, in a corruption of the spelling. The brook was rerouted into the sewer system when the area was built up in the early-20th century. A new plan calls for the brook to be “resurfaced” in spots as it flows through Riverdale.

In Norwood, Mosholu Parkway was laid out as a true parkway, a relatively narrow carriage road lined with trees and foliage, along another former waterway, known to the Dutch as Schuil (anglicized as School) Brook. Mosholu Parkway originally ran only between Bronx and Van Cortlandt Parks, with through traffic running in the center and local and commercial traffic on the service roads. The general concept of the parkway system, devised by urban architect Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1860s, was to extend large parks by making the roads that connected them into parks. Olmsted’s vision can be seen in Brooklyn’s Ocean and Eastern Parkways, and in the Bronx’ Mosholu Parkway and Pelham Parkway (whose official name is the Bronx and Pelham Parkway because it connects Bronx and Pelham Bay Parks).

Mosholu Parkway was built in 1888 and was originally known as Middlebrook Rd. because of its route along School Brook. In its original stretch between Bronx and Van Cortlandt Parks, it ranks along with the other parkways built in the Olmsted vision among the country’s most beautiful roadways. The parkway was somewhat compromised in the late-1930s when the city’s traffic czar Robert Moses linked Mosholu Parkway with the Henry Hudson Parkway in Van Cortlandt Park in the northwest and the Bronx River Parkway at the east. Moses, however, was rebuffed in his efforts to make the Mosholu a controlled access road and sink it in a trench in its most gorgeous stretch.

The Bronx and Byram Rivers water system was built between 1880 and 1889 to supply those sections of the Bronx not served by the Old Croton Aqueduct via pipeline from the Bronx River, which bisects the borough in two from north to south, and the upstate Kensico Reservoir. Water was stored in the Williamsbridge Receiving Reservoir, built in 1888, in Norwood northeast of Bainbridge Ave. and E. 207th St. By 1925, this reservoir was no longer needed, and it was drained and filled in. In 1937 Robert Moses, who was also NYC Parks Commissioner, constructed a new playground and park in the space vacated by the reservoir, containing a running track, football and baseball fields, basketball and tennis courts, a horseshoe pit, a large wading pool, a cinder running track, a field house, and two children’s playgrounds.

At Reservoir Oval and Putnam Place you’ll find the old reservoir keeper’s stone house, built in 1889. After the reservoir was drained, it became a private residence for five decades, and is now under the protection of the Mosholu Preservationist Corporation. East Gun Hill Rd., a couple of blocks east of the reservoir, crosses the Bronx River on a stone bridge marked with the letters “BRPR” and the date 1918. According to the late Bronx historian Bill Twomey, the letters stand for “Bronx River Parkway Reservation.” The Reservation parallels the Bronx river from the New York Botanical Gardens north to Kensico Dam, Valhalla, in Westchester County. It’s a 15.5-mile swath of parkland designed in the early years of the 20th century by the Bronx parkway Commission; architect Charles Stoughton designed many of the bridges and other architectural elements, including this one.

Though Brooklyn has the lion’s share of pre-Revolutionary War houses, there’s one in Norwood that qualifies, just barely. In 1758 blacksmith Isaac Valentine purchased property from the Dutch Reformed Church at today’s Bainbridge Ave. and Van Cortlandt Ave. East, and, depending on what account you read, built this fieldstone cottage either in the 1750s or as a successor to a previous home in 1775.

Like the Old Stone House in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the Valentine cottage was the scene of a Revolutionary war battle, though not major. By 1777 the home was occupied by British and Hessians but was recaptured by General William Heath after a brief but fierce battle which left the house surprisingly intact. By 1791 the house and land had been sold to an Isaac Varian, whose grandson, Isaac L. Varian, became NYC mayor between 1839 and 1841. After changing hands several times the house became home to the Bronx County Historical Society in 1965. The house was moved across the street from its original location the next year. It is open to the public, featuring historic and archeological exhibitions. Call 718-881-8900 or surf bronxhistoricalsociety.org for details.

Interestingly, Van Cortlandt Ave. East, near where the cottage stands, was the original post road to Boston, which ran from Spuyten Duyvil east and northeast. 

The New York Botanical Garden and New York Zoological Park (known to all as the Bronx Zoo) are the two main divisions of Bronx Park, which was acquired by the city in late-1888 and early-1889. By 1891, the city had allocated 250 acres for a botanical garden, which has developed into one of the world’s premier gardens, with visitors drawn year-round to its collection of temperate and tropical plants and perennials, with acres of groves and gardens. The Bronx River, which is generally a grimy, industrial flow of sludge south of the park, is here transformed back into the pristine fresh water brook it was before the Bronx was settled. A hemlock forest deep in the Botanical Gardens is left over from the pre-colonial era. The Gardens’ architectural marvels include the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a group of connected greenhouses built in 1902, described in the AIA Guide to New York City as a “glass fairyland.” It’s named for the woman who helped save it from demolition. The Garden is no mere carnation on NYC’s lapel: ongoing research here has proven valuable in developing new medications.

Every Christmas, there’s a model train show that incorporates dozens of famous NYC architectural highlights, constructed from twigs, leaves, bark, berries and other natural materials by Paul Busse and his team at Applied Imagination at Alexandria, Kentucky. The show takes months to prepare and build—work for next year’s show begins almost immediately after this year’s is dismantled.

The Lorillard Snuff Mill was built in 1840 along the river, whose swift current was intrinsic in the formation of the industry that would spring up alongside it and ultimately pollute it. The Lorillard family was, and still is, prominent in the tobacco industry and owned vast acreage in the mid-Bronx in the 1800s. Roses that grew naturally in the area contributed petals to add aroma to Lorillard’s tobacco products. The mill’s secluded area made it a natural setting for weddings after the Botanical Garden acquired it, and a succession of catering halls, and then a restaurant, have made the snuff mill a popular venue. Two picturesque stone bridges can be seen spanning the Bronx River immediately north and south of the snuff mill, as well as a waterfall and forestland.

—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)


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