East 140th Street north side in the Mott Haven Historical District. Courtesy of 6tocelebrate.org.
Title card of the exhibit, featuring a map of the Mott Haven Historic District. Photo by Max Balton

On the 50th anniversary of the borough’s first historic district in October, the Museum of Bronx History displayed a new exhibit giving longtime residents an opportunity to show their side of the past.

The Mott Haven Historic District runs along Alexander Avenue between 137th and 141st streets. It features the Mott Haven Library, the 40th Precinct, St. Jerome’s Church and the Tercera Inglesia Bautista.

Kathleen McAuley, curator of the exhibit, said historic districts like this one are important for communities.

“It invites people to come up and see us,” she said. “It’s tantalizing on the other side of the Harlem River.”

To McAuely, the exhibit as a way to show people the history of a neighborhood they may know little about. But it’s also an opportunity for longtime residents to show their side of its history.

A portion of the exhibit’s photos and documents from the early to mid-20th century were donated by Sandra Eaton, a Mott Haven resident with deep roots in the community.

In 1901, her great-grandfather Dr. Ernst Wilkens bought a brick rowhouse on Alexander Avenue for $6,350. The pharmacist-turned-doctor used it as a home for his family and an office for his practice, as many doctors did on the Avenue.

McAuely is most thankful for his work as an amateur photographer. The exhibit features a number of photos taken by Dr. Wilkins in the area, one of which shows Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders parading down the street.

“I wish he had placed his camera a little further out the window,” McAuley quipped.

A lot of material is donated to the museum. Member George Bradley showed up to the opening reception with an artifact to hand off.

In the 1970s Bradley lived in Highbridge and worked with the City Planning Commission, hoping to provide more green space to the area. He brought with him a schematic featuring plans to rehabilitate the century old namesake bridge and surrounding area.

“I’m always interested in taking a look back,” Bradley said about the exhibit. 

“It would be good to know the history of where you live,” he said. 

Bradley excitedly greeted Bronx Borough Historian Lloyd Ultan, who spent the evening surrounded by history buffs clinging to his every word.

“I think more people should see this exhibit,” he said. “After seeing the exhibit you should go down there.”

Ultan agreed, the district’s 50th anniversary is something to celebrate.

“You can see the elegance of 19th century Mott Haven,” he said.

The historian slowly walked toward the photo Dr. Wilkens had taken of the Rough Riders.

“This was not the first time Teddy Roosevelt was on Alexander Avenue,” he said, recounting the story of Roosevelt visiting late 19th century power broker James L. Wells. Roosevelt attempted to get Wells to join his Bull Moose Party ticket, but Wells refused. The meeting took place a few doors down from the house Wilkens would soon buy.

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