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Wednesday, October 5, 2005

A Bronx Tale

There was colorful article in the NY Times this past weekend about an old Bronx courthouse and a related breach of contract suit that caused an architect to quit architecture and take up painting.  The painter was Oscar Bluemner, who will soon have a retrospective exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art.  The article describes him as “the sad-eyed German émigré with a shaggy mustache who designed the Bronx Borough Courthouse, the majestic Beaux-Arts structure that stands at 161st Street and Third Avenue in the Melrose section."

In 1903, a “Tammany hack,” Michael J. Garvin, was handed the job of designing the courthouse. Garvin had no experience or training as an architect, so he hired Bluemner to “ghost design” the courthouse.  If Bluemner’s design for the building was accepted, Garvin said he would credit Bleumner as the architect and split the $40,000 commission. When the building design was approved, Garvin never paid Bluemner. The article explains:

Naïvely, Bluemner never bothered asking Garvin for a contract; as he testified in court later, it "never occurred to me that he would not keep his word." Although Bluemner worked for months on the design without pay, Garvin, far wiser in the ways of hard-knuckled urban politics, submitted it under his name alone. As The New York World reported, Garvin explained his action to Bluemner by saying: "Ability counts for nothing in politics. If you have the 'pull,' you get the work. I have the 'pull.' "

Apparently, after many years and various appeals, Bluemner only ever saw $5000. The article tells that Bluemner’s “experience with Garvin and the years of subsequent litigation left him so disillusioned that he abandoned any dreams of becoming a public architect.” Instead, he took up painting buildings – he wrote in his diary: “[a]s a painter, only being free matters.”

As for the Beaux-Arts style courthouse, it is still in the South Bronx – though presently boarded up and unused. It was vacated in the late 1970’s. 

[Meredith R. Miller]

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