JOHN STRATTON O'LEARY AND THE O'LEARY FLATS
By: Patricia O'Connor
In August, 1935, after much thought and deliberation on the part of my mother and father, a move from the South Bronx to the North Bronx was decided upon. By word-of-mouth, the news had reached them of beautiful new apartment houses that had recently been built on farmland by an Irish-born builder named ]ohn Stratton O'Leary. Not surprisingly, then, these new dwellings were called the O'Leary flats. The South Bronx was still a thriving, livable place, but the fact that the North Bronx offered more open space, a lower density of people, and newer living accommodations was an inducement to make the move, a move made practical by the extension of the subway to Pelham Bay Park in 1921. A hard move it was for them, too, for only a few years earlier they had made the hardest move of their lives, when, for economic reasons, they had left behind them in Ireland their homes, their relatives, and their friends. Now, new-found friends would be left behind, and, for the second time in a short period, they would be starting over again.
The O'Leary flats were within an area between White Plains Road on the east, Beach Avenue on the west, Wood Avenue on the south, and Tremont Avenue on the north. Although they were less elegant than many apartment houses in more upwardly mobile sections of the North Bronx, the buildings were uniform in appearance and were well-maintained. The premises were respected by all who lived there. In summer, every window had a matching canvas awning, which protected the inhabitants from the heat of the sun, and which also enhanced the appearance of the brick structures. The four-story buildings were amid private homes, parks, and playfields. A very large tract of land was owned by the Archdiocese of New York. One street, Beach Avenue, had a neat row of stores, which included a bakery, a butcher, a drug store, a fruit store, a cleaner, and other small businesses that provided the necessities of everyday life. If more that these necessities were needed, they were obtained by walking miles to stores in older neighborhoods; the people walked because they would not afford themselves the extravagance of spending five cents for a trolley-car or subway ride. Most of the neighborhood people were American-born and foreign-born Irish, Italians, and Jews, the majority being Irish. St. Anthony's, an Italian mission church that had served the needs of the Italian farmers, became the parish for the new Catholic residents. Father Burrieschi, who was affectionately called Fiorello because he looked like the presiding mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, was the pastor. He built a parish school and it was that school or P.S. 102 that all the local children attended.
In time, our family was joined by many other relatives and friends, who also decided on a move to "the country." Surrounded by family, friends and extended families, life in the North Bronx was basically a happy one. It seemed that a kindred relationship existed between me and most people I encountered in my daily life. From this lower-class neighborhood, where little thought was given to that class distinction or to the fact that we might be poor, emerged doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, priests, nuns, pilots, civil servants, and people who fill the professions and occupations of today's society. And there were some Studs Lonigans, too. The extension of subway lines northward had caused the disappearance of the farms and villages, but the new communities that emerged were still imbued with that small-town friendliness of the earlier, close-knit, rural Bronx.
cousins from Somerville, Massachusetts visit the Sullivan family at
1436 Beach Avenue in 1938. Standing in the rear are Margaret Cooney,
Kay Conroy, Margarite Conroy, and Margaret Sullivan, the mother of
the author, who is standing in front hiding her face.
That I lived in the O'Leary flats I had always taken for granted, but that this neighborhood and this time had been the center of my life for twenty-five years never was truly a reality to me until 1987, when my father died. As I opened his old suitcase that he said came with him from the old country in 1924, and as I began to pore over his treasured newspaper clippings and memorabilia, I saw an Irish experience unfold and I began to wonder who John Stratton O'Leary was, who those Irish people were who lived in his apartments, and what their place is in the American-Irish experience.
The fact that John Stratton O'Leary's death notice appeared in the September 25, 1942, edition of The New York Times and the October 3, 1942, edition of The Gaelic-American is not inconsistent with the life and times of this man. That The New York Times was the foremost American paper of the day and that The Gaelic-American was the foremost Irish-American newspaper of the day indicates the dedication and the loyalties this man held for his native land and for the land in which he spent the greater part of his life.
He was born to a distinguished family in Kenmare, County Kerry, in 1865, and he came to the United States in 1879. He settled in New York City, and, shortly after obtaining his citizenship papers, he was appointed a member of the police force, where he served with distinction under Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. He resigned, however, after a few years to enter the building and real estate field in the fast-growing area which would become the borough of The Bronx. Here, success came to him rapidly and he was recognized as one of the leading men in the field.
In 1905, John O'Leary married Sarah Donohue, a native New Yorker, the daughter of Jeffrey and Mary Kelly Donohue. They, too, were in the real estate and building business, and had their roots in Kenmare. A cousin was Timothy D. Sullivan, nicknamed "Big Tim," who was the East Side Democratic leader and congressman from the Bowery. It is believed that Kenmare Street in Manhattan is named after the congressman's mother's birthplace. Mrs. O'Leary, who studied at Columbia University and who was a public school teacher and assistant principal here before her marriage, shared her husband's interests and devotion to American ideals and traditions as well as the culture and refinement of Ireland.
The site of the O'Leary apartment house development in the northeastern part of The Bronx was the land of the Siwanoy Indians in the early part of the nation's history. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Indians were gone and the area had become one of palatial estates. The home of the Mapes, an influential New York family, was on the site of St. Anthony's Church, which became a focal point for the emerging neighborhood of the early twentieth century. The advent of inexpensive transportation saw real estate development boom and likewise saw large landowners sell their lands and move to less congested areas. The Mapes estate was subdivided and became known as Park Versailles, a community of one and two-family homes that stand to the present day. For many years, up to the end of World War I, much of Park Versailles went undeveloped until the subway lines were extended and made the building of multiple housing economically viable. The apartment house development that John O'Leary erected on the Park Versailles tract between December, 1926, and September, 1930, was representative of modern multiple dwellings. It was the forerunner of Parkchester, the gigantic housing development built by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in the late 1930s on the grounds of the Catholic Protectory, a site that formerly served as a home for abandoned boys.
As the borough's population grew, so did the influence of John O'Leary in the public and charitable affairs of the borough and the city. This involvement was largely encouraged by Mrs. O'Leary, who had been a leader in the civic life of The Bronx and who had been chairwoman of many campaign committees for the Democratic Party. Because of her civic endeavors, she was appointed by Governor Franklin Roosevelt and reappointed by Governor Herbert Lehman to serve as a life-long member of the Visiting Board of the Rockland State Hospital.
During his active career, John O'Leary served as president of the Bronx Eye and Ear Hospital, president of the Bronx Grand Juror Association, and president of the Bronx Taxpayers' Alliance. He was prominent in the Bronx Rotary, a member of the Elks and Bunker Hill Social Club, and the Bronx Board of Trade. He served as a vice-president of the Fordham Savings Bank and he was a director of the National Bronx Bank that he had helped found. His humane efforts led him to be the vice-president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and to be a constant supporter of the Big Brother movement. His devotion to the Church made him a Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus. The generosity of this man's spirit, time, and money led him to be appointed an aide to Governor Alfred E. Smith, and, in 1933, he was appointed by Mayor John F. O'Brien to serve as a member of the newly founded Triborough Bridge Authority.
As the outer boroughs grew, New York City had difficulty problems to solve in its highway connections. The very conditions that made New York a perfect seaport imposed handicaps on surface travel. Queens and The Bronx had no previous direct connection except for ferries, and the Triborough Bridge project was instigated to link three of the five boroughs: The Bronx, Queens and Manhattan.
The Triborough Bridge idea was conceived in 1927, but the project languished and was not revived until the federal government launched the first public works programs through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. The Triborough Bridge became a symbol of the RFC, with the federal, state, and city governments cooperating to make the public works project a success. The Triborough Bridge Authority was established in 1933 with John Stratton O'Leary on its board. Delays in financing, resulting from the functions of the RFC being transferred to the new Public Works Administration, and the intervention of a municipal election which saw the old Tammany politicians ousted by LaGuardia's Fusion administration, led to the ousting in January, 1934, of the members of the Triborough Bridge Authority. LaGuardia frankly admitted that, if elected, he would shake all Tammany commissioners from their posts and replace them with competent men, and one of his first acts after his inauguration was to reorganize the TEA. LaGuardia's remarks to the press that he would build a bridge instead of patronage, a bridge of "steel" not "steal," was responded to by Tammany politicians who said that this "Mussolini" was trying to replace them with his hacks.
John O'Leary was accused by LaGuardia of inefficiency, neglect of duty, and incompetence in that he was guided by the dictation of the Flynn organization, the Tammany group in The Bronx, and former Mayor O'Brien in voting for the appointment of incompetent individuals. LaGuardia's request that O'Leary resign was met with refusal when O'Leary denied the charges and declared that he would fight removal. He said that if removed, he would seek redress in the courts. O'Leary, in his official statement on the matter, alluded to the fact that, in his 70th year, his good name and reputation were being attacked for the duties of an office he performed with great personal sacrifice, without pay and solely with the intention of hopefully giving employment to thousands of unemployed people who were suffering from the Depression. He swore never to run away from a fight, stating that the charges were trumped up so that LaGuardia could take charge of the Authority, an Authority that he said was being run efficiently and economically by the federal government. Although it was finally ascertained that O'Leary never intended to betray the public trust, he was replaced on the Commission by the Fusion politician, Robert Moses, when the anti-Tammany members took control of the Authority.
The victory of the Fusion organization saw the beginning of the demise of the Irish politicians' influence in the affairs of New York City. Mudslinging and dirty politics were demeaning the Tammany politicians, the politicians who had helped the Irish as they tried to assimilate into their new country. John Stratton O'Leary's name had been vilified, too, when LaGuardia and his group assailed him, one who, no matter how successful he had become, never forgot his roots. In his youth, O'Leary was an ardent supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell in his fight to establish a parliamentarian form of government in Ireland, and, for more than forty years, the Irish community knew O'Leary to be an ardent and sincere worker in Ireland's fight for complete independence.
In the Irish Victory Drive and in the Irish Republic Bond Drive in 1920, he was the single largest contributor, giving of himself physically, emotionally and monetarily and as he tried to encourage others to become involved in the concern that he held for Ireland. He was a founder of the Friends of Irish Freedom, a member of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, a member of the Friends of Erin, and a life-long member of the Clan-na-Gael. On the occasion of Douglas Hyde's visit to the United States in 1906, the O'Learys donated a substantial amount of money to him in his attempts to revive the Gaelic language and the Gaelic society.
The O'Learys were life-long members of the American Irish Historical Institute where he served as a vice-president general from 1927 until 1941. At the dedication ceremonies of the Institute's new home at 991 Fifth Avenue in 1940, dignitaries from the city and country assembled to celebrate the occasion. They heard Mayor LaGuardia praise the Irish in America and their contributions to the nation and they heard John and Sarah O'Leary singularly acclaimed and honored for their work for Ireland and the Irish race. In this instance, in order to encourage interest in Irish studies, the couple donated an elevator to the building so that all might avail themselves of the association's library. Perhaps, at that moment, the O'Learys and their supporters felt vindicated.
The prosperity of the 1920s in which the O'Leary flats were built was short-lived when the good days ended and the Depression took hold. Those who had moved to the new apartments felt the impact of the times and shared with each other their common problem: survival. Life revolved mainly around the apartment, the apartment house, the neighborhood, the church and the school, all of which became the support system for the people. John Stratton O'Leary's generosity, too, was a bulwark to his tenants when those who were unable to pay their rents were not pressured on the matter.
Life was simple. Past-times were the radio, card games like Old Maid, Rummy and Monopoly, handball and stickball. Celebrations were in the church hall, where the St. Patrick's Day dance and entertainment was the social event of the season. The audience consisted of many of the parish young who had a great time poking fun at their friends who had been forced by their proud parents to perform. The Stratton Park Social Club was the site of other local events. Here, on a Sunday morning, on the way home from Mass, one could stop to watch friends learning their jigs and reels. In order to keep up with friends and relatives and to hear the news from the old country, the young Irish immigrants joined associations named after the towns and countries they had emigrated from in Ireland. For instance, many of the people in the O'Leary flats came from Tralee, County Kerry, and they founded the Tralee Social Club. Joys, sorrows, good news, bad news and many a happy time were shared at socials held in long-gone hotels in Manhattan and The Bronx, such as the Star of Munster Ballroom, the Riverside Plaza Hotel, the Hotel Martinique, and Inis fail Park. And, of course, there were a few pubs in the Stratton Park area which were an extension of Irish culture from the old country.
Standing across the street from 1436 Beach Avenue in 1944 is the author's uncle, Patrick Conroy, in uniform. Standing in the rear beside him are cousin Kate Conroy from Somerville, Massachusetts, the author's younger sister, Eileen being held by the author's mother, Margaret Sullivan, and cousin Margaret Conroy. Standing in front are the author's younger sister, Margaret, and the author, Patricia O'Connor, nee Sullivan.
That time and lifestyle has passed away for the Irish, with friends and relatives separated by distance. The prosperity of the war years, the G.I. Bill of Rights, and a more modern banking system that encouraged money-lending made the availability of a college education possible for a wider spectrum of society.
The younger generation was assimilated into the larger society, and, as success followed and as the inner city structures started to decline, many moved to the suburbs. In nostalgic moments, the emotions and events of a bygone day could take hold and they could hear the imitations of Mike Quill; they could hear the accordions and bagpipes being played; they could stop to chat with their friends and neighbors in the halls of the apartment house as they entered and exited; and they could hear Aunt Mary, the Irish Molly Goldberg, calling from her apartment roof to our apartment without the aid of a telephone.
In 1940, a special tribute was given to the O'Learys by the American Irish Historical Institute, at which time Bronx Borough President Lyons said that this gracious couple would long be remembered. Forty-seven years later, as I dug for information about this man and the section of The Bronx that he had built, no one knew much about him or about Stratton Park. I felt sad that history had forgotten us already and I put down the little I could find. Maybe now the O'Learys, their flats, and their Stratton Park section of The Bronx will be remembered along with Fordham, Kingsbridge, Riverdale, Woodlawn, Van Nest, and other neighborhoods.