The Jerome Park Reservoir: Its History and Legacy

The monumental public works project has had a profound impact on the neighborhood in which we go to school.

Here is a view of the Jerome Park reservoir, including the Tracey Towers in the background.

If you go to Google Maps’ “satellite” mode and look at the neighborhood surrounding our school, you will notice that the Bronx Science campus sits in the middle of a large interruption of the usual concrete cityscape. The western half of this oasis is covered by the immense Jerome Park Reservoir, which holds 773 million gallons of water, amounting to around 10% of the city’s water supply. The eastern half sticks out in its own right as a myriad of parks, educational institutions (such as the Lehman campus, DeWitt Clinton campus, and our own Bronx Science campus), rail yards, and public housing. 

The origins of this strange development lie within the stories of two men who lived around 200 years ago: Leonard Jerome and August Belmont. Despite both of them being wealthy members of elite New York society around the mid-19th century, the two were very different in terms of backgrounds and careers.

Jerome was born in Pompey, New York, to a family that claimed descendancy from George Washington. He became a stock speculator largely in the railroad industry, often partnering with Cornelius Vanderbilt, and earned the nickname “The King of Wall Street.” He held significant stock in The New York Times and, as one story goes, sat in the paper’s offices with a gatling gun during the New York draft riots, ready to defend the building. His daughter Jennie became Lady Jennie Spencer-Churchill when she married the Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874. She gave birth to Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister who served during World War II.    

Belmont was born as August Schönberg to a German-Jewish family in 1813. He grew up in Frankfurt before coming to America as an agent of the Rothschild banking firm. In 1849, He married Caroline Slidell Perry, daughter of the famous Commodore who would go on to open Japan, and relinquished Judaism. He became involved in Democratic Party politics through his wife’s uncle John Slidell, who would later become the Confederacy’s “ambassador” to France. Belmont, however, stayed with the Union during the war and became Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman in 1860. He presided over a very tumultuous time for the Democratic party, which was often accused of supporting former Confederates and suppressing reconstruction. Belmont resigned after the loss in the 1872 election. Interestingly enough, the character of Julius Beaufort in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence is said to be based off of him.  

In 1866, the two men helped found the American Jockey Club, the precursor to the modern Jockey Club, and financed the building of a thoroughbred horse racing track on the land where the reservoir now sits. The Jerome Park Racetrack, as it came to be called, was a staple of the early American horse racing scene and New York high society. Opening day drew a crowd of twenty-thousand to the track, among them many high-profile names such as future President Ulysses S. Grant.

Jerome also built a boulevard running from the Macombs Dam to the track, making the route more accessible. The city tried to name the street “Murphy Avenue” after a city alderman, but Jerome’s wife had her own signs put up labeling it “Jerome Avenue.” The city relented and the name stuck. 

The New York Times, lamenting the track’s closing in 1893, called it “the nursery of American racing” and “one of the most famous and charming spots in America that has ever been devoted to the interest of sport.” The first Belmont Stakes, oldest of the three races in the Triple Crown, were held at Jerome Park in 1867.

After the park  closed, the city announced plans to turn it into a reservoir as  part of the New Croton Aqueduct system, which was also being constructed at the time. An issue of Scientific American from May 12, 1905 described “the total amount of excavation” at about “7,200,000 yards.”

An issue from the next year described how the reservoir “was designed to act as a local storage and distributing reservoir within the city limits. It is divided by a central wall running approximately north and south, which divides it into a west basin (completed last year, and now in use with a maximum well capacity of 773,400,000 gallons) and an east basin, which is about 8/10 excavated and when completed will have a capacity of 1,130,000,000 gallons.”

That east basin, however, was excavated but never filled. The reservoir that we see today is only half the size of the planned project. The legacy of this unfinished project can still be seen today, as the land intended for the second half of the reservoir has been used  for  public development initiatives and projects such as schools, military installations, and public housing. 

At the southern tip of the planned reservoir, at Jerome Avenue and West Kingsbridge Road, lies the Kingsbridge Armory. The armory is hard to miss for anyone who takes the Number 4 Train to and from school; look out the window when the train stops at Kingsbridge Road and you will see the monumental structure overshadowing the station. The armory was built in 1917, making it one of the earliest developments on the excavated reservoir land. It was designed by Lewis Pilcher, the state architect of New York at the time. He had previously designed the Troop C Armory in Brooklyn. 

The armory was originally the home of the Eighth Regiment, New York State Militia, known as the “Washington Grays,” given that  the unit was a part of the honor guard at George Washington’s inauguration. In 1921, they became the 258th Field Artillery Regiment of the New York Army National Guard. It was made a city landmark in 1974. There is still a small National Guard presence at the armory. Walking around the building, you will see numerous signs encouraging enlistment. In 2013, it was announced that the armory would be redeveloped into the Kingsbridge National Ice Center, the world’s largest indoor ice rink. Development has not yet begun.  

On the northern end of the planned reservoir, at Paul Avenue and West Mosholu Parkway, are the Tracey Towers. Perhaps the most recognizable landmarks in the area, the twin towers were built on top of the MTA’s Jerome Maintenance Shop, after the air rights to the area were purchased from the city. 

The towers were designed by Paul Rudolph, who  worked in the brutalist style and is famous for serving as the chair of Yale University’s Department of Architecture, and for designing the Yale Art and Architecture Building, now known as Rudolph Hall.

So while the community around the reservoir has developed into the modern Bronx, the unique amounts of greenspace, public institutions, and of course the reservoir itself make Jerome Park one of the most fascinating neighborhoods in the city, and a great place to receive an education.

The origins of this strange development lie within the stories of two men who lived around 200 years ago: Leonard Jerome and August Belmont. Despite both of them being wealthy members of elite New York society around the mid-19th century, the two were very different in terms of backgrounds and careers.