21 Tier Street House
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
The West and South Elevations of the House in August 2018
The house at 21 Tier Street in the City Island neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City is a New York City Landmark significant for its Shingle style architecture.
A unique building crafted in a unique style located in a unique part of the city, the house is "a quintessential Shingle style waterfront residence" according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and was designated in August 2000. The home's Shingle styling and waterfront location together help tell the story of two often overlooked parts of New York City history.
The home is located on City Island, a small primarily residential enclave just off the coast of the Bronx that is little known even to New York City residents, let alone visiting tourists.
City Island was originally known as Magnets Island, but had its name changed to the current title in 1761 by Benjamin Palmer. He and a group of business partners hoped to develop the island into a major commercial center that would rival Manhattan, but events like the Revolutionary War and the generally remote location of the island prevented that dream from becoming a reality. The group was responsible however for drawing the island's street grid and dividing it into plots.
City Island was annexed into New York City in 1895, but it was not until 1901 that the City Island Bridge was opened, providing a permanent non-water link between the island and the mainland. That bridge was replaced with a new one in 2017.
In the mid 1800s, oyster harvesting became the economic lifeblood of City Island, especially after Orrin Fordham revolutionized the industry by deliberately planting oyster beds just offshore, ensuring a constant, plentiful harvest. To this day, City Island is one of the best places to find good seafood in the Five Boroughs.
Naturally, shipbuilding and ship maintenance became major industries on City Island as well. While the industry began by building and servicing small fishing boats, by the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, City Island had become a center for the crafting and maintaining of large luxury yachts. Several America's Cup winners were even built in the island's yards.
By the year immediately preceding the turn to the 20th Century, City Island had built a reputation as a resort area for the wealthy, including Lawrence and Mary Delmour, who comissioned the House at 21 Tier Street in 1896.
Lawrence Delmour was an Irish immigrant to the United States who fell in deep with the Tammany Hall machine politics running the city at the time and profited handsomely from his connections.
Known as "Whispering Larry" and Tammany Hall Boss Richard Croker's "closest man", Delmour could keep a secret and had an eye for real estate. As leader of the city's 30th Assembly District he brought home the votes for Tammany's Democrat machine after earlier bringing home the cash as Collector of Taxes and Undersheriff.
One of the juiciest rewards machine bosses reaped from their connections was the knowledge of which real estate to buy before city-funded improvements and amenities were added around it, raising its value quickly and allowing the well-timed investors to see big profits quickly.
Delmar was apparently quite skilled in such tactics as he built a large real estate fortune, but not without the help of his wife Mary. When she died in 1902, Mary's obituary called her "one of the shrewdest women real estate operators in the city." It was she who purchased the land which the house was to be built on.
The Delmars hired City Island builder Samuel Booth to erect the house for them
The Shingle Style
The Newport Casino in Newport, Rhode Island. This National Historic Landmark is considered one of the finest and first Shingle Style building in America
Often times in architecture, new designs are informed by or even modeled after the styles of the past. The most obvious examples of such a trend are the "Revival" styles like Greek Revival, Classical Revival, and Spanish Revival, often used to pay tribute to or draw connections with accomplished societies of the past, or to represent shared cultural heritages.
In the case of the Shingle style, Americans were looking back at the vernacular architecture of the early colonial period.
Famed architect Charles Follen McKim of the famed firm McKim, Meade, and White was particularly interested in the development of the Shingle Style. He and his partners took trips to coastal New England towns to sketch shingle-clad colonial structures.
Those sketches soon came to life in the form of buildings like the Newport Casino (pictured above) and other Shingle Style summer "cottages" for the Gilded Age wealthy located in Eastern coastal towns.
The Shingle style was always a blend of multiple characteristics, mixing the English Queen Anne style with sweeping porches, gambrel roofs, elaborate chimneys, and complex, irregular massing. A special emphasis was placed on using natural materials that helped the homes blend into their sites.
McKim, Meade, and White and other architectural firms completed many masterpieces of the Shingle style between 1875 and 1890, but some of the grandest examples including the William G Low House and Kragsyde, located in coastal Rhode Island and Massachusetts respectively, were demolished in the mid-1900s.
New York City was never home to a large collection of Shingle style buildings, nor even a particularly notable example. The style's absence in the city is part of what makes the House at 21 Tier street so significant. Its waterfront location and use as a summer retreat also place it squarely in the tradition of the grand Shingle New England summer cottages.
The Home: Side by Side
Note: The home is still a private residence, and not visible to the public beyond the street. The photos below come from the official City Landmark Designation Report, available for download via the hyperlink at the end of the post
The House at 21 Tier Street is in the Shingle Style with Colonial Revival details. It sits between the water and the street in the back corner of a 3/4 acre lot on a foundation of concrete and rubble. Each facade of the home features different notable architectural elements.
As the street face of the house, the South Facade is the most formal. Its most distinctive features are the rounded projection of the porch (right above) and the conical tower (left above). The circular massing of these structures stand out from the largely rectangular form of the rest of the home.
The porch is supported by 6 Tuscan columns, which along with the porch railing are crafted of white painted wood. Each window is framed in painted wood as well.
The east elevation is far simpler than the south. The porch ends on this side of the home in the rounded projection. The oriel bay window on the first floor is the most distinctive feature of the facade, and features Colonial Revival molding in the eaves just above it.
There is also a round stained glass window. The rest of the windows are plain rectangular. Windows in the home were placed to provide light to interior spaces, not to create a uniform exterior.
The facade is topped by a pointed gable roof, the type commonly found in shingle style buildings.
The North and West Facades
The North elevation is the smallest and plainest. A small, non-historic addition projects from the side, reached by a small flight of stairs. The white triangular structure in the photo above is the entrance to the cellar. The windows on either side of the addition are topped with two curved rows of shingles.
The roof lines of the Northern facade vary from the simple triangle of the addition to the curved eave of the projecting square niche above the corner of the porch.
The West Elevation
The West elevation faces the waterfront. The round tower with its conical roof, wide expanse of porch and central bay of windows are all definitive features. The roundness of the tower contrasts nicely with the triangular peak of above the bay to create the irregular massing that is a key ingredient of the Shingle style. The steps on the far north side of the porch lead down to a path that extends to the Eastchester Bay, where an elegant shingle style gazebo sits along the shore.