Our First Walking Tour – Following the Croton System from High Bridge to the 119th St. Gatehouse

In the wake of a blizzard, Team Croton headed up to Washington Heights on Thursday, January 27 to follow the path of the aqueduct from High Bridge Park (Manhattan) to the 119th Street Gatehouse. Many thanks go to Meisha Hunter, a preservationist specializing in historic aqueducts, for leading the tour. An intrepid Canadian, Meisha seemed unfazed by the frigid, slushy conditions, although the same cannot be said of all team members. Unfortunately, the frigid finger factor resulted in relatively few pictures being taken, a condition we will definitely seek to correct in future postings. Those few that we did take are posted here and above.

Upon arrival at the rendezvous point at Highbridge Recreation Center, we walked over to the base of High Bridge Tower, where Meisha introduced us to the Croton System, and various team members gave short presentations on the structures and sites in the vicinity. This area is particularly significant to the Croton System, both in terms of how it functioned when it was built and how it can be represented and interpreted today. This is, after all, the place where the aqueduct leapt over the Harlem River on the back of the majestic High Bridge—initial construction completed 1848; modified throughout the 19th century; central arcade replaced with a single steel arch in the 1920s—and entered Manhattan. Another nearby building is the High Bridge Tower, completed in 1862 and designed to hold at its top a tank that would provide water pressure to those recently-settled parts of upper Manhattan with elevations too high to be adequately serviced by the existing pressure in the gravity-based system. Also built around this time was a reservoir, which was demolished and replaced in the 1930s with a public swimming pool, the centerpiece of a larger park. The bridge and the tower are two of a relatively small number of above-ground structures related to the Croton system that remain in Manhattan. They are definitely among the most architecturally ambitious and, given their setting and scale, some of the most inherently dramatic. Therefore, any interpretive scheme that we dream up will inevitably involve these structures. And the pool, in spite of a troubled history that involves racial segregation, is a great illustration of the benefits of a public water system. On those steamy August days when this pool and others like it all over the city are packed with throngs of grateful and exuberant New Yorkers, we wonder if there isn’t perhaps an echo of the great celebrations that attended the opening of the Croton System in 1842.

After High Bridge, following the approximate path of the underground aqueduct, we trudged down Edgecombe Ave., past the Morris-Jumel Mansion (Manhattan’s oldest house, built 1765), and stopped at 155th St., where we could look toward the Harlem River and see near the approach to the Macombs Dam Bridge the John Hooper Fountain, another structure linked to Croton. Taking the form of a lamp and column sitting atop an ornamented pedestal and horse trough, this fountain was built in 1894 from the bequest of wealthy businessman John Hooper, who wanted to provide a place where people and animals could get a drink. Damaged by vandals in the 1980s, the pieces of the fountain languished in storage until 2001, when it was finally restored and reconsecrated in a ceremony in which mounted police officers had their horses ceremonially drink from the troughs.

Images of solemn horse drinking ceremonies on our minds, we walked a block west on 155th, and then turned south onto St. Nicholas Ave. Here, at the corner of St. Nicholas Ave. and 153rd Street, Meisha showed us something that blew our minds. On the northwest corner of this intersection, a tenement had been built in an odd shape, with a whole section of the corner missing, creating an exaggerated chamfering effect. Although this irregular construction produces a nice little triangle of open space, an indisputable amenity for the residents of this densely populated area, we who know a thing or two about the history of building in New York City know that no developer in his right mind would have willingly sacrificed even an inch of rentable space for something like parkland. What could have been the reason for building in this way? The answer, naturally, is Croton. Meisha informed us that the aqueduct made a soft turn west at this point, and that it was illegal to erect buildings on top of it. Indeed, this rare open space continues as a corridor running through the neighboring block. Here we have something of a negative image of Croton, the opposite of High Bridge and High Bridge Tower. It is a fascinating brick-and-mortar illustration of the way in which this largely-invisible system makes such a profound impact on our lives.

Walking up 153rd, we then turned South on Amsterdam Ave. Slushy curb moats of profound depths had formed at the intersections, but they did not deter us, and those of us whose boots’ waterproofing had failed just gritted our teeth and suffered in silence.

The next stop, a block off Amsterdam on Convent Ave., was the wonderful 135th Street gatehouse. Built between 1884 and 1890 to serve the New Croton Aqueduct, this structure seemed to continue an architectural theme that seems to have unified just about all of these older Croton structures: they were designed to look massive, sturdy, and safe. The 135th Street gatehouse exemplifies these characteristics, with its battered ashlar granite foundation, thick stone walls, and heavy Romanesque arches composed of large voussoirs. Looking at this structure, one can easily read the connection between the water system and a militaristic sense of defense: much as walls had historically protected cities from attack, the fresh waters of Croton would protect the city from the ravages of thirst and disease. This structure is also a magnificent example of adaptive reuse, as it was recently restored and converted into the home for theater group Harlem Stage. We were supposed to have gotten a tour of the building, but it turned out that Harlem Stage took a snow day, so this will have to be the subject of a future posting.

Returning to Amsterdam and walking down into and then out of Manhattan valley, our next and final stop was the 119th Street gatehouse. This incongruous, nearly windowless single story granite structure with a hipped roof was built in 1894 as part of the New Croton system, but replaced an earlier structure from 1842 that stood in the middle of Amsterdam Ave., then Tenth Ave. Well known to every Columbia preservation student as “that building that someone should really do something with,” this building is technically Columbia property, although the University has shown little interest in restoring the structure, and one gets the impression that they would be happy to get it off their hands if the right offer were to come along. Potential buyers are perhaps dissuaded by the building’s utter lack of services and reputation as the home to a large and thriving rodent community. And although its current function as a sort of Rorschach test for preservationists and armchair real estate developers is of some intellectual interest, we believe that action must be taken on this building before it falls into ruin.

That wraps up the report from our first walking tour. Stay tuned for more postings as our research into the Croton system continues. And be sure to check out the other tabs in this blog, which will soon be populated with all sorts of useful and interesting postings.

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About crotonaqueduct

Aqueduct System located in NY
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