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Architectural Gems and Cultural Icons

The history of the Westchester County Center.

The night that Judy Garland packed the house, Marlene Dietrich was in the second row. When Jack Brazzo lost his heavyweight fight, he went to Hollywood and changed his name to Jack Palance. Over the years the Knicks graced the court; the Globetrotters still do. And there will be  lions and tigers and baby elephants when The Royal Hanneford Circus returns.

Where? At that big white building that thousands pass every day without looking up—the Westchester County Center. 

Just off the Bronx River Parkway, the County Center is an architectural and cultural icon, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The building cost a mere $785,000 to build in the late 1920s, and the recent $16 million renovation has hardly changed its appearance. What has changed is the surrounding area.

In the early 20th century “the Bronx River was a mess,” said Katherine Hite, head of the county’s historical society. Industrial waste was “dumped into the river and flowed down to the Bronx Zoo, killing animals.”

The problem was solved by reclaiming the surrounding land and creating a linear park—in fact, the first parkland in Westchester. A roadway was added for pleasure driving. And so America’s first limited-access roadway—without trucks or billboards—set the stage for similar parkways across the nation. Once the road and landscaping were finalized, the county anchored the project by commissioning a multi-purpose, centrally located building “where the community would be able to come together,” explained Hite.

Designed by Playland architects Walker and Gillette, the County Center has the same aesthetic character. It’s Art Deco, the 20th century style defined by geometric patterns, symmetrical forms and bold graphics. Think of Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building. Notice similar details on the County Center’s facade—its symmetrical proportions, geometric embellishments and the handsome engraving of the county's town names. Inside, the spirit carries through with colorful ceramic tile, metal light fixtures and curved aluminum railings, much of it restored to its original splendor in the 1980s.

The Westchester County Center has hosted the nation’s longest running antiques fair and its second largest boat and car show. It has seen political rallies, dog shows, symphony orchestras and all-star wrestling. During World War II the Red Cross took it over to produce bandages and medical supplies. 

Countless celebrities have performed there—BobDylan, Glen Gould, the Beach Boys, Leontyne Price, and Peter, Paul and Mary, to name just a few. And to balance her mother’s smashing performance, Liza Minnelli sang to another sell-out audience at the grand reopening after the 1988 renovation. 

What next? Well, check out the website and find out. And take a few moments to check out the building next time you pass by. 

Jeanne Brill March 06, 2011 at 05:34 PM
As one of the people who passes by without ever looking up, I really enjoyed this article -- and will make it a point to follow future performances at the County Center!
Audrey Booth March 06, 2011 at 07:59 PM
I remember back in the early 1940s that the Big Bands would perform at County Center on Saturday afternoons. It was such a thrill to go there and actually see and hear them in person.
Barbara Anderson March 07, 2011 at 01:38 PM
Did you know that the Rye arcitectral firm, Anderson LaRoccaAnderson added two large art deco addtions to the east and west in the '80's. Also, don't we think its time to do some appropriate sculpture for the empty nitches on the front facade?
Robert Missinne March 07, 2011 at 09:11 PM
Great article! I had no idea what a rich history the building has had.
Katherine Pacchiana March 07, 2011 at 10:23 PM
Hi Barbara -- If you are Barbara Anderson of Anderson LaRocca Anderson fame, it was a pleasure to see your beautiful work on the County Center! Katherine

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