Former Home for the Rich Now Gives Life to Struggling Artists

One subway stop uptown from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, a tall black metal fence surrounds the block-long courtyard of a grand four-story mansion built in the Italian Renaissance palazzo style. But the thick bars and heavy gate around the Andrew Freedman Home don’t keep the neighborhood out —far from it.

“Andrew Freedman really is a gift to all of us,” said Melissa Calderon, Bronx native and residency coordinator for the home. “It’s the only place on the Concourse with a yard.”

The Andrew Freedman Home was built in 1922 as a residence for formerly wealthy senior citizens who had lost their fortunes. The building, declared a New York City Landmark in June 1992, sits at the north end of the most-recently designated historic district in the Bronx, the Grand Concourse Historic District. In recent years, the Andrew Freedman Home has become an important community hub for artists and activists in the south and mid Bronx. An artist in residency program provides studio space for several artists priced out of other neighborhoods in the borough. City-funded?

“It’s almost like the exiles of Mott Haven,” Calderon, 41, said.

Artists receive free studio space in exchange for 20 hours of community service each month. Most of them teach classes in the Saturday art program for kids — which costs $20 for three months — or help run the home’s theater and interactive art shows. DJ Kool Herc, credited as the originator of hip-hop, and Lisa Kahane, a longtime Bronx photographer, both have a space, and the influential rapper KRS One is expected to take a studio this year.

Jose Ortiz, who goes by “Dr. Drum,” holds a free Afro-Puerto Rican drum workshop on Mondays and Wednesdays. Ortiz, 57, said his drums had been stuffed in a storage unit for 12 years when he was offered a studio.

“They opened the doors to me, and for once, my drums are out in the open,” Ortiz said. “This has been a Renaissance, an awakening, for me just to be able to come here and play the drums.”

The studios are on the second floor, which had been locked up and vacant since the 90s when the program started, and have large windows with 20-foot high ceilings. They line both sides of a long hallway covered in flyers and paintings with a faded, torn green carpet on the floor. An elevator lurched violently when it carried Calderon up from the basement.

“She has her own way of doing things,” Calderon said, as she grabbed the elevator wall.

Calderon said she was part of the Mott Haven art scene for about 10 years and then was priced out when the neighborhood was discovered by real estate investors. She credited the Freedman Home’s current director, Walter Puryear, with keeping this small corner of the Bronx art scene alive.

“He saved us,” Calderon said. “I couldn’t afford a studio, I couldn’t afford rent.”

Andrew Freedman — the man — was a New York businessman who was close with leaders of Tammany Hall, once owned the New York Giants and helped finance the city’s first subway line. Freedman was convinced that poverty was hardest on people who used to have money. When he died, in 1915, he left most of his estate to a fund that established a home where the fallen gentry could live in style. The Andrew Freedman Home was designed by Joseph H. Freedlander and Harry Allan Jacobs, star architects at the time, and served its original purpose for six decades.

The Mid Bronx Senior Citizens Council bought the building in 1983, and that’s how Puryear discovered it. His mother worked with the council. Puryear, 44, said she brought him to the home for the first time when he was 6 or 7, and he’s felt a special connection to the mansion ever since.

“I feel a sense of responsibility that the grandiosity of the building connects to the neighborhood,” Puryear said. “I think it allows people in the Bronx to express a higher quality of themselves.”

Calderon said she shares Puryear’s sense of responsibility. The Bronx housing court sits directly across the street from the home, and Calderon said there is usually a line of people waiting to get in when she comes out of the subway. The court building is tall enough that Calderon can see it from the window in her studio. The view serves as a constant reminder of the struggles that working- class artists, and people, face.

“Every time I work that building is hanging over me,” Calderon said. “The Bronx is the last place, it truly is. It’s the last real place of affordability and is no longer affordable.”