Longwood Historic District
Also known as Morrisania
The push for the designation of the Longwood Historic District is emblematic of the Bronx’s revitalization through preservation.
David Dunlap, writing for The New York Times on May 8, 1982, described Longwood as “a community born in the 19th century and composed of homeowners, of acquaintances who know every face on the block, of people who have lived in one house for 30 or 40 years.” Longwood has little in common with the prevailing image of the South Bronx. It was originally incorporated as the township of Morrisania in 1788. In 1790, landowner Lewis Morris offered his land for the site of the United States federal capital. Morris was not taken up on his offer and in 1874 the area was eventually annexed to the Bronx.1
Longwood contains some of the best examples of the turn-of-the-20th-century architecture that transformed the Bronx into an urban extension of Manhattan.2. The houses were designed primarily by Warren C. Dickerson, an architect noted for the beauty and utility of his residences. “Most all of the two- or three-family houses in Longwood come in pairs – bay-front twins joined by their roofs, many of which are capped by cone-shaped peaks,” Dunlap said. “Different pairs have their own nuances, but the ensemble is unusually and pleasantly harmonious.”3 Often credited with revitalizing New York City’s faith in the South Bronx, Longwood has been called “the oasis” by longtime resident Thom Bess.4
The seven-block area was designated an historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1980. In 1983, the historic district was extended to include two blocks along Macy Place. On September 26, 1983, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Longwood neighborhood remains protected and preserved, though the Longwood Historic District Community Association disbanded around 1995.
July 1980: The Longwood Historic District is designated
September 1983: The Longwood Historic District Extension is designated
September 26, 1983: The Longwood Historic District is added to the National Register of Historic Places
Landmark designation began in the Bronx directly following the passage of the 1965 New York City Landmarks Law, with the Alexander Avenue area of Mott Haven named the borough's first historic district in 1969. After the Longwood designation, civic and community groups sought landmark status to counter the Bronx's pervasive negative image and instill pride in their borough.
“In the 1970s, the Bronx started burning down,” Thom Bess said. “That’s what prompted President Carter to come and go to Charlotte Street.” All the while, Bess and his friend Marilyn Smith had been observing a trend of people choosing to relocate away from the neighborhood rather than to remain. "We were standing in the window and we were saying, 'What a magnificent neighborhood that was,'" Bess said. Afraid an exodus of residents would change the character and personality of the area, Bess and Smith headed to Community Board 2 in the Bronx to file a formal application for historic designation. The application was filed with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission with help from the district manager. Before it could be designated, there needed to be a public hearing. It was held at the Bronx County Courthouse on 161st Street. Bess said he:
“marshaled all the neighbors that we could…including those in wheelchairs, to support the position that this was a neighborhood very worthy of being saved. And it was successful and they went back and they voted designation.”
In July 1980, a seven-block area of the neighborhood received designation status as the Longwood Historic District. Soon afterward, Kent Barwick, chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, encouraged the formation of the Longwood Historic District Community Association.5 In September 1983 the Longwood district was extended by 2 blocks along Macy Place and was added to the National Register of Historic Places.6 The designation allowed them to get government funds for exterior improvements and to rescue the derelict City-owned brownstones within the neighborhood.7 As the years passed, participation in the Longwood Historic District Community Association waned, mostly due to members' old age and others having passed away, according to Bess. Bess said the association disbanded in 1995. The Local Initiative Support Corporation became involved in the preservation of Longwood after its designation as a Historic District in 1980.
- Longwood Historic District Designation Report, Landmarks Preservation Commission, 1980.
- David Dunlap, “South Bronx Neighbors Hold Devastation at Bay,” The New York Times, 10 October 1982.
- Thom Bess Interview with Inna Guzenfeld, 28 October 2008. The New York Preservation Archive Project, see Web site.
- Evelyn Gonzalez, The Bronx (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).