Getting to Know The Bronx: HGAR Holds First Ever Historical Bronx Tour
Mary Prenon | October 11, 2022
NEW YORK—Did you know that The Bronx is the oldest borough in New York City, or that it’s also home to the oldest golf course in the country—Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course? Historical sites are scattered throughout The Bronx as well, including the Edgar Allen Poe Cottage, Van Cortlandt House Museum, Woodlawn Cemetery and the culinary world-famous destination of Arthur Avenue.
For the first time ever, HGAR offered an Historic Bronx Tour event to its members, visiting seven sites and concluding at Enzo’s of Arthur Avenue, a long-time staple for homemade Italian delicacies. Close to 50 people boarded the bus for the two-and-a-half-hour tour.
“The tour was important to showcase a sample of the many wonders that exist in The Bronx,” said Eliezer Rodriguez, HGAR Director for the Bronx Chapter and tour organizer. “The Bronx Zoo is one of the best in the world and there’s no place more beautiful than the New York Botanical Gardens. In fact, The Bronx houses the largest park in New York City—Pelham Bay Park, which is three times the size of Central Park!”
In addition, The Bronx includes Co-Op City, the largest housing complex in the nation with 15,000 apartments in 35 towers and three shopping centers. The world-famous Haagen-Dazs ice cream originated in the Bronx during the 1960s, and the borough has also been the birthplace of many celebrities including Ralph Lauren, Regis Philbin, Jennifer Lopez, Anne Bancroft, Calvin Klein and Penny Marshall.
More than 1.4 million people live in this 42-mile borough, which is now the third most densely populated county in the U.S. The Bronx is named for Jonas Bronck, a Scandinavian who settled in a Dutch colonial province in New Netherland in 1639. The borough was created in 1898 and became a county in 1914.
The Valentine-Varian House, dating back to 1758, was the first stop along the tour, conducted by Roger McCormack, Director of Education for The Bronx County Historical Society. The home has the distinction of being the oldest remaining farmhouse and the second oldest house in The Bronx. It survived the Revolutionary War and was occupied throughout the time by both American and British forces.
Woodlawn Cemetery, the next stop, opened during the Civil War in 1863 and at 400 acres, is one of the largest cemeteries in New York State. It is the final resting spot of more than 300,000 people including Rowland Macy, the founder of Macy’s Department Stores, James Cash Penney, the founder of JC Penny, composers Irving Berlin and George Cohan, musicians Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, former New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and many more.
“Before the local population swelled, families would bury their deceased relatives in small family plots on their personal properties,” explained McCormack. “As the population grew, so did the need for larger cemeteries. Today Woodlawn is still a working cemetery but it’s also a beautiful setting for walks with a park-like experience.”
The Van Cortlandt House Museum is located on the grounds of the 1,000-acre Van Cortlandt Park, which was once the Van Cortlandt family’s plantation. Built in 1748, the estate was occupied by both the British and the Patriots and was host to General George Washington in 1776 and 1783.
At the end of the 19th Century, the house was sold to the City of New York and became a museum in 1897. Today it’s a National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The fourth stop, the Bartow-Pell Mansion, can be found in the northern portion of Pelham Bay Park. Also, a National Historic Landmark, the mansion is said to have one of the nation’s best Greek Revival interiors. Built in 1654, the house was later enlarged, renovated and remodeled in the Federal style. It was sold to New York City in 1988 by descendants of the Bartow family and is used today for various programs or private events.
The Andrew Freeman home, the next stop, is the brainchild of the man who once owned the New York Giants and was also behind the construction of New York City’s subway. After Freeman’s death in 1915, he left behind a trust to build a retirement home for wealthy New Yorkers who had fallen on hard times. Today, this New York City landmark has been renovated and transformed into an artists’ hub, incubator space, workforce development and community services.
The Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, the sixth stop on the tour, dates back to 1812 and was the home of one of our nation’s greatest writers from 1846 to 1849. It’s in this cottage that Poe created some of his most memorable works including “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells,” and “The Cask of Amontillado.”
“I have two favorite places in The Bronx—The Poe Cottage and the Valentine-Varian House because they were both working men’s homes,” said McCormack. “Poe’s cottage, the author’s last permanent home, was originally built for farm laborers.” The cottage is currently undergoing renovations to the roof as well as landscaping updates.
The last stop on the tour was the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, one of The Bronx’s most beloved attractions, spearheaded by former New York City Mayor LaGuardia. The Italian indoor food bazaar features nine restaurants, six bread stores, five pastry shops and delis, four butchers, three gourmet coffee shops, and two fish markets.
Enzo’s Restaurant, just across the street, hosted the HGAR tourists after the event with homemade spicy meatballs, rice balls, and other Italian delicacies. Located in the Belmont section of The Bronx, “Little Italy” has become home to thousands of immigrants from Italy and all over the globe. The area has also served as an inspiration for movies like “Marty,” “A Bronx Tale,” “The Godfather,” and “The Sopranos.”
“Of course, The Bronx itself is the home of the most famous baseball team in major league history, the New York Yankees,” added Rodriguez. A baseball fan for many years, Rodriguez’s favorite place in The Bronx is Yankee Stadium. “It’s always been a special place and most recently the Yankees clinched the 2022 American League East title!”
The Bronx County Historical Society is planning a Poe Birthday Celebration at Poe Cottage on January 19, featuring all-day tours of the house as well as performances by local poets. “I love doing tours—especially walking tours,” said McCormack. “It’s a great experience to educate people and I learn a lot as well from many of the residents who have lived here a very long time.”