Historians Fight to Slow Development at Bronx Revolutionary War Site

Historians Fight to Slow Development at Bronx Revolutionary War Site
This story was originally published on May 30, 2019, by THE CITY.

There’s a good amount of history in the long-vacant lot at West 230 Street and Fairfield Avenue in Spuyten Duyvil.

There’s also a lot of garbage: Litter surrounds the fallen branches and stones strewn around the site. An aged pair of size 8.5 olive green boots and a battered tarp were among the items discarded spotted there on a recent visit.

Yet, under the trash may lie treasure, local historians say: The site was once a small Revolutionary War outpost, called Fort No. 2 or Fort Swartwout. George Washington established the stronghold in 1776 to safeguard passages into Manhattan.

Now, some 243 years later, new homes may be coming to the site, plans approved this month by the city Department of Buildings indicate.

Historians fear development could eliminate opportunities to fully study the grounds, which had been under both American and British control at different points.

This lot at West 230th Street and Fairfield Avenue in Spuyten Duyvil was once home to a Revolutionary War fort. Photo: Ese Olumhense/THE CITY.
This lot at West 230th Street and Fairfield Avenue in Spuyten Duyvil was once home to a Revolutionary War fort. Photo: Ese Olumhense/THE CITY.

The buffs are pressing for a comprehensive archaeological dig, hoping historical gems could be found. Previous examinations of the site, dating back to 1910, have yielded some finds, including some possibly Hessian articles and musket bullets, according to the the 1916 book, “Relics of of the Revolution.”

“What is the value of having three more million-dollar homes, really, weighed against the potential to engage New York — New Yorkers rediscovering their history, essentially?” asked Kingsbridge Historical Society president Nick Dembowski.

But the owner of the land, architect Martin Zelnik, contends that an archaeological dig would likely not unearth any new shards of history. The site, he noted, has already had many lives, including a stint as a private tennis club in the 1920s.

When Zelnik’s father acquired the property from the American Legion in the 1960s, he built a community pool. Other homes have also been built here over the years, Zelnik pointed out — all with full basements that required lots of digging. He’s even fought the historians before.

No Deal on Dig

“There was never any evidence uncovered of a ‘fort’ or any archaeological artifacts,” Zelnik told THE CITY in an email.

But, he added, “We are sensitive to the need to preserve any historic artifacts.”

So Zelnik and Hal Dorfman, the developer working on the homes, offered the Kingsbridge Historical Society a chance to do an inspection and dig at the site beginning Tuesday, May 28.

But the olive branch came with restrictions, according to a copy of the agreement reviewed by THE CITY: Archaeologists would only be allowed to dig five holes, each no more than two feet long, wide and deep. They would also only be given from May 28 to May 31 to work.

And if any artifacts were found, Zelnik would have to give the historical society permission to keep, photograph or even talk about the finds — or about the dig in general. The group would also have been required to obtain a minimum of $2 million in liability insurance.

The historical society ultimately rejected the contract, and in an email to Zelnik and his attorney, said they “cannot be subject to the whims of an external censor in perpetuity when the whole point is to share historical truth.”

“The purpose of archaeology is to uncover history,” said Dembowski, who has led the charge to take another look at the site. “But what they were proposing would cover up history.”

‘I’d Rather See Somebody Live There’

The New York State Military Museum catalogs Fort Number 2 as: “Built by Col. [Jacobus] Swartwout on the crest of Spuyten Duyvil Hill today 200 feet south of 230 Street and 230 feet west of Arlington Avenue. A small circular abatised fort, abandoned Oct. 1776, occupied by Hessians who added a small redan on west side, abandoned and destroyed Nov. 1779.”

Some residents of the tony Bronx neighborhood near the site said they were not aware of its purported historical significance.

“That’s fascinating,” said Tom Clarke, who has lived in an adjacent apartment building for five years. “I walk through here all the time. I always liked the idea of having a little bit of woods out here.”

“My husband told me something might be happening, but I didn’t know what,” said George Nesic, who has lived nearby since 2012. “My first indication that they were doing anything was when they started cutting down the trees [in March].”

Other neighbors are ready to put the past behind them.

“I’d rather see somebody live there,” said Guillemette Bowler, who lives just south of the lot. “The weeds we get, the dog sh-t. People think they can come here and let their dogs off-leash.”

“I was bit by a pitbull,” she told THE CITY, while showing off a scar on her right forearm.

Bowler is not convinced there would much to be found. “If anything, when they excavated for [the tennis club], they destroyed all the evidence,” she said.

Dembowski and his colleagues just want to be sure.

“To let the place to sort of disappear without any kind of study would be a real shame,” he said.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.