The abandoned stone structure on 119th and Amsterdam sort of looks like a medieval castle – a very, very small one. It isn’t quite the stuff of architecture classes, but the little building stands out – you’ve probably wondered what it is or was as you passed the forgotten, weedy lot. It’s not like there’s a dearth of old buildings around here, but everyone knows the deal on St. John the Divine, the old St.Luke’s hospital buildings, and you know, Columbia. Bwog unveils this final mystery – a riveting tale of the forgotten, the clandestine, the underground… literally.
It turns out that the 119th street gatehouse, as it is called, is part of a now defunct and closed off aqueduct system that runs from the Croton River upstate, through the Bronx and under Amsterdam. The gatehouses give access to the New Croton Aqueduct and pumping mechanisms underground. The original Croton Aqueduct began construction in 1837 after a really big fire made it clear that a growing city needed a real water source and a real distribution system. Two reservoirs were constructed to hold water for the city brought in from Croton – one where the New York Public Library now stands and one on what would become the site of the Great Lawn in Central Park.
In the 1880’s the Old Croton Aqueduct’s capacity was deemed too small for the city, and construction began on the New Croton Aqueduct in 1884. Our 119th gatehouse was constructed in 1885, as was a similar structure on 113th and Amsterdam that is now used by the adjacent senior center. A third gatehouse, more impressive than our local specimens, was also constructed during the 1890’s at 135th street.
All three sites are now historic landmarks. Unfortunately, while its fellows were converted to serve seniors or renovated (135th now serves as a classical theater), 119th was filled with sand in 1984 and will remain so bloated and abandoned for many years to come.