On a recent humid Sunday afternoon, the kind that makes one hesitant to leave the embrace of the air-conditioned 4 train, I found myself walking the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. I was searching for the small 2.3-acre Poe Park, just large enough to contain a colonnaded bandstand, a playground and two structures: one old, one new, both humble focal points of the surrounding landscape.
Located at the northern end of the park, the older structure, now known as Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, looks strikingly different from the mid-rise public housing projects surrounding it. Built in 1812, the tiny 1.5 story farmhouse is the only one left of its kind from the old Bronx residential village of Fordham, once part of Westchester County. Originally built a short distance from its present site, the cottage has been moved twice: once in 1896 when the Grand Concourse was widened, and again in 1913 when it was moved a few hundred feet from the intersection of Kingsbridge and Valentine to preserve the site’s rustic ambiance in the face of obtrusive urban expansion.
The cottage is best known for being Edgar Allan Poe’s home during the last few years of his life, a history that, combined with its architectural significance as an example of the area’s agrarian past, has earned landmark status on the city, state and national levels. In 1846, Poe moved from Turtle Bay to the cozy lodging with his wife, Virginia, who was suffering from tuberculosis, and his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm. Poe paid just $100 a year for rent and hoped that the new location, with its green spaces and fresh air, would improve Virginia’s health; unfortunately her condition worsened and she died a year later. It was also at this residence that Poe composed some of his most perennial essays and poems, among them “Annabel Lee,” “The Bells,” “Eureka” and “Ulalane.”
The cottage greets visitors with a charmingly disheveled covered front porch bordered by a white wooden balustrade. Two entrances bookend the raised patio and two cramped windows; there is a small lean-to shed on the eastern side. The floorplan is asymmetrical, the first floor containing a kitchen, living room and bedroom, and the attic two small rooms. I paid three dollars to take a tour of the cottage. Beginning in the kitchen, a guide explained the stories behind the various framed pictures, furniture, and objects that occupy each room. Poe’s rocking chair is original, we learned, as is the bed frame in which Virginia died.
Just a stone’s throw away from the clapboard house lies one of the first projects completed under Mayor Bloomberg’s Design and Construction Excellence Program. Toshiko Mori’s Poe Park Visitors Center is quiet and modern looking from the outside; the ash-gray slate shingles overlap, conjuring images of feathers, and the dark iron roofline forms a V-shape like a raven’s wings. Mori describes the building as a metaphor, “composed of two separate volumes that slip between each other to express the state of flux that is characteristic of many of Poe’s stories.” On the north side, a 13-by-14 foot picture window framed with ipe offers direct views of the cottage to those inside the center; to the east, an elongated side window and the entrance door; to the south, windlowless bathrooms tiled with a ‘digital portrait’ of Poe. Inside, the space is simple, adorned with basic furnishings, barely embellished white walls and inset fluorescent bulbs.
Or so I’ve heard. Although the door to the visitors center had a handwritten note attached to it that read “open, just knock,” I was not able to see the interior that day. I spoke to a Parks worker who mentioned that “the tensions between the Bronx Historical Society and Parks is ongoing … they have no use for the center yet.” Now, with construction completed but no programming to speak of, the Parks Department has a logistical snafu on its hands. No institutions or coordinators have been brought onboard to occupy the space, although the worker informed me that Parks had indeed hired two “temporary workers” to assist with daily operations at the center, both conspicuously absent the day I visited.
In a way, I preferred seeing it from the outside. It felt distinctly Gothic in the moist air and under an overcast sky. The antique cottage, charming, open and freshly painted though it may be (after a recent year-long renovation), mourns the empty building next door; its windows shuttered, the raven’s wings suspended.
Poe Park and Cottage are located at 2640 Grand Concourse in the Bronx. The Cottage is open on Saturdays from 10am to 4pm and Sundays from 1pm to 5pm. Admission to the Cottage is $5 for adults, $3 for students, children and seniors. For more information, visit the Bronx Historical Society website.
Photos by Samuel Freeman.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.