When the attention of real estate speculators diverts, sometimes old neighborhoods have time to acquire a majestic patina. The Washington Heights section of northern Manhattan has been neglected for some time, but is now getting a fair share of spillover interest from Columbia’s Manhattanville project and the university’s nearby hospital campus. In 2009, the Audubon Park Historic District was created to protect the area just behind Audubon Terrace, home to the Hispanic Society and the Academy of Arts and Letters. But just north of the district, years of landlord neglect has unwittingly preserved row after row of early 20th century apartment buildings festooned with ornate cornices. But the cornices are now in danger of disappearing.
Provided you look up, there are still vistas in Washington Heights that recall the area’s heyday. In the early part of the last century a striving middle class made up of German Jews, Irish, and Greeks walked beneath striped fabric awnings perched at apartment windows, all topped with fanciful cornices.
Most know that when Robert Moses plowed through the Bronx to build the Cross Bronx Expressway, neighborhoods were severed and died a slow death. But little attention is paid to the Cross Bronx’s connection to the George Washington Bridge, which severed Washington Heights too, providing easy access for suburbanites to swoop in and out of the neighborhood to buy drugs. Eventually, like the South Bronx, the area regained its footing. Now, the Pier Luigi Nervi-designed Port Authority Bus Terminal at the base of the bridge is set to undergo a $285 million restoration. And Starbucks, the ever present harbinger of gentrification, is just a few blocks north.
But just as Washington Heights begins its reemergence, several building owners are stripping away the architectural features that make the area unique. Just next door to the bus terminal sits 4195 Broadway at the corner of 178th Street. Two weeks ago, the decorative lion heads that once reigned atop the 1920 edifice were stripped, thrown into a dumpster and replaced with corrugated metal. It’s indicative of a neighborhood trend. Over the past several years the cornices of Washington Heights are finally getting much needed maintenance attention. But instead of restoring them, many building owners are ripping them off and replacing them with steel, aluminum, and concrete.
Photographer Trish Mayo noticed the latest affront on a bus ride home from the library. The shapes in a dumpster registered as something familiar to her. She got off the bus to investigate. Mayo said the dumpster was almost full with terracotta lion heads taken from 4195. The dumpster has since been carted away. “I think that after so many years of neglect the decorative details have become a safety hazarded and it’s just cheaper to destroy all the beauty that’s in these buildings,” she said.