Grand Concourse Solitaire: Adrift at the Andrew Freedman Home for Older Adults

16 Feb 2015 | 05:02

    One of the Bronx's most majestic buildings is the blocklong mansion known as the Andrew Freedman Home for Older Adults. Set back from the Grand Concourse between 166th St. and McClellan St., the place was opened in 1924, with an endowment from the estate of the deceased capitalist Andrew Freedman. Freedman's will stipulated that the institution to be built in his name was to be not just any old-age home, but one strictly for seniors who had been rich, but who, due to life's vagaries, had lost their fortunes. Freedman wanted them to live in the style that their former riches had accustomed them to. It's believed that his rather eccentric largesse was a product of the 1907 stock panic, in which he himself almost lost his fortune. A fear of a destitute old age festered in him.

    Freedman was born in New York City in 1860. By his early 20s he was making serious money in real estate. He did so well that he was able to purchase the New York Giants baseball club in 1895, dumping them for a nice profit in 1902. He was the George Steinbrenner of his time?an insufferable personality, despite his ultimate act of generosity in endowing the home. A Tammany Hall player, he was instrumental in the 1904 construction of the IRT subway line. (The railway was built on land Freedman owned.) When he died in 1915?from an apoplectic stroke?The Sporting News described him thus: "He had an arbitrary disposition, a violent temper, and an ungovernable tongue in anger."

    He died a bachelor, leaving most of his fortune to the home. The four-story palazzo was finished in 1924, complete with a restaurant-sized kitchen, a library, spacious living quarters, various parlors, a card room and a majestic dining room. Fifty-nine staff members tended to the needs of the formerly rich. The residents' rooms were dusted, their beds made, their meals served them in elegance.

    Of the first 84 people who applied to live at the home, only 14 were accepted. But, alas, the clientele never achieved the caliber that Freedman had hoped for. In 1933, The New Yorker published a story about the Home for Older Adults, reporting that most of its residents were once doctors and lawyers?upper middle class, certainly, but not the grandly ruined industrialists Freedman had imagined.

    By the 1970s, the institution's trust fund had been sufficiently drained that residents started to be charged rent for their rooms. When I was a kid in the Bronx back then, my friends and I were aware of the stories that the hulking mansion housed destitute former millionaires. It was hard to believe that the Bronx, of all places, would be the final stop for a Midas, even a broken one. By 1984 the Freedman Home had been taken over by the Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council, and in 1992 the mansion was declared a landmark, even while still operating as an old-folks home. The difference now was that anyone over 55 could apply to live there.

    Recently I went to visit the home, walking up the Grand Concourse, a thoroughfare conceived as New York's Champs Elysees. Today the Concourse is threadbare, but there's a seedy grandeur there, and a poignant quality of light, especially on cool fall days when brisk northern winds scour the city air, making the sunlight brighter and cleaner. Afternoons, the buildings are dark from shadows and soot, but the sky shines with a bright hue of deep blue.

    On the Concourse's west side is Joyce Kilmer Park, where people still sit on the benches, throwing bread to the pigeons. Old women lean on canes and stare out at the traffic. Past 165th St. the boulevard becomes gritty, and young roughnecks hang out in a courtyard, eyeing pedestrians, looking for easy pickings. On the next block is a mortar wall full of graffiti, and behind that, on a 2.4-acre lot, is the Italian Renaissance mansion of the Andrew Freedman Home.

    The building's defined by an immense balustrade terrace in front and an arched balcony in the rear. A black wrought-iron fence hems in a garden, protecting tired old men as they meander along paths.

    I walked in through the garden and nodded to a few men lazing on the terrace. Inside, a snappish receptionist took me to her supervisor, who informed me that he wouldn't be able to talk to me without full permission from his boss.

    Out on the terrace, killing time while the officials took care of business, I asked a few old men how they liked the home. They looked furtive. One told me that things weren't so great, but that they couldn't talk to me about it.

    I waited on the terrace until a man walked up to me wearing a quiet smile. He was young-looking?well, young-looking for an old-age home?and wore a lumberjack shirt and blue jeans. He introduced himself as Gunther Reichmann, a 59-year-old resident of the home. I told him no one would talk to me. He laughed and responded, with a slight Austrian accent: "That is because they are afraid of getting thrown out of here. They are scared, but they are wrong. They shouldn't be afraid, because there are nicer homes than this. Anyone that can afford to leave here does leave. I am saving money to go also." He added: "They would do me a favor throwing me out of here."

    We sat down, and Reichmann told me his history. He has one of those powerful life stories your hear from elderly Europeans who lived through events of an intensity that we can't imagine, but he didn't evince even a trace of self-pity. Born in 1941, in Austria, he came to the United States with his parents in 1951.

    "I am not sad about how I turned out because of how my childhood was in Europe," he said. "I was never allowed to be a child with the war and all. No fun at all. I was born Catholic, but they would not baptize me because I was left-handed, and that was considered a sign that you belonged to the devil. So I don't practice that religion. I have no one in this world, yet I am not sad or sentimental about that, because I never had time to feel sorry for myself."

    By the early 1960s Reichmann had begun a career as a kosher butcher, working summers up in various Catskill resorts, supplying vacationing Jewish people. He was an alcoholic. He'd earn his bread in the mountains, then come down to the Bowery for a vacation and live for as long as he could as a stumbling and carefree drunk.

    "Back then you could walk around the Bowery from bar to bar, drunk, and no one would ever bother you. And you could get a bed for like 75 cents or a dollar and flop down. I liked that."

    Reichmann also took advantage of what, in the Bronx, is a classic source of employment for drunks?he was a building superintendent. As long as the hallways were clean and the furnace stoked in his building, no one much cared if he'd been drinking.

    "I worked as a super not far from here up on Tremont Ave. I have been around the Bronx for a while. People say, 'You live in the South Bronx?' Like that is a bad thing. But I like it here. The people are nice and I like the parks. Growing up in Austria in the country, I like to see green, and we have that here in the garden and down in Joyce Kilmer Park. It is nice."

    Reichmann's drinking caught up with him, and by 1985 he put the bottle down, afflicted by arthritis and diabetes. He went on Social Security disability. By the early 90s he was living in a nursing home.

    "That I didn't like, because I am no invalid. I am not well, but I am not deathly sick. There I had to tell them when and where I was going. I wanted a new home, so my social worker found this place. Since 1997 I am here. I am what is known as a new kid on the block. Some are here over 18 years."

    Reichmann told me in a wistful tone that quite a few of the residents have drinking problems.

    "If I could, I would join them on the wall out there. They do not care if you drink, as long as you do it outside."

    He added that the 100 or so residents of the home got along fairly well. The residents are predominately black and Hispanic, with 10 or so Caucasians and Asians in the mix. Half the residents are women. I asked if there were any romances going on.

    "Well, they discourage that sort of thing up here, and if you saw the women you would know why I stay away. I have been single my whole life, because I never found someone I could live with. I will not start here, but some of the women are good friends of mine and some are jackasses, just like the men."

    Reichmann tells me that the residents of the home pay about $900 a month in rent for their shared rooms. The money generally comes from social services agencies. I told him about how Andrew Freedman envisioned the home as a soft landing spot for the ruined wealthy. Reichmann smiled a sad smile.

    "Yes, I have heard about that man, and I am sure it was much nicer then. Now we don't even have a working kitchen. They bring the food in and by the time it is served it is cold."

    Reichmann hand-rolled a cigarette, lit it and looked out onto the Concourse. I asked him if he had any dreams left. His ice blue eyes lit up.

    "Yes, yes I do. If I live long enough, I would like to go back to Austria. I am alone here. I like being alone, but I would like to meet my two sisters and a brother before I die. I was the baby, and I don't remember them. I left with my parents and they stayed, and all I know now is their names. I don't even now if they are still alive. But I would like to see them and the country one more time. That will not happen until I am around 72 or so. I hope I make it that long."

    Reichmann described his average day. He sees a nurse and receives shots for his diabetes. He likes to listen to classical music in his room, and then wanders the neighborhood looking for tobacco bargains. He misses work.

    "My whole life, all I ever had was my job, and now that I don't have that, I have nothing. But I still save a few bucks every month, because I am saving up for my burial. A cheap funeral would cost about $1600, and I will have that. Then they will not put me in Potter's Field. I am not sure why I care, because no one will come to my funeral anyway."

    The sun was low in the sky and Reichmann was wearying. He sighed.

    "This place. This place is the last stop. From here you're either going to a nursing home or the grave. This is a sad place. Not many people here have anybody. We are alone. I like that. I don't know why."