This park gets its name from the D’Auria-Murphy American Legion Post in the Belmont section of the Bronx. The post was created in 1918, following World War I, and the members planned to name it for the Mayor of New York, John P. Mitchel (1879-1918), at an elaborate installation ceremony. When the mayor failed to appear, the Legionnaires changed the name at the last minute to honor two young men from the neighborhood who had lost their lives in the war, John D’Auria (1889-1918) and Henry J. Murphy (1891-1918). The streets bordering the park include Crescent Avenue, Adams Place, East 183rd Street, and Arthur Avenue.
The park’s centerpiece is a statue of Christopher Columbus that was moved here in 1992 from P.S. 45 on Bathgate Avenue and Lorillard Place. It is the work of Attilio Piccirilli (1866-1945) whose world-renowned studios on 142nd Street and Willis Avenue produced the Maine Monument at Columbus Circle, completed in 1925, and the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. In addition to the statue, the park contains a gazebo, benches, lawns, and a variety of small trees.
The Belmont area was part of the vast Lorillard estate in the town of Westchester during the 19th century. In 1760, Pierre Lorillard (1742-ca. 1778), a French Huguenot, had built the first tobacco company in New York at One Chatham Street. During the British occupation he was killed in a dispute with Hessian soldiers, and his widow and two of his five sons carried on the business. Feeling that the Bronx was better suited for a large manufacturing plant, they purchased a large tract of land in 1792 near the Bronx River where they built a mansion and a highly successful snuff mill, powered by water from the river. Part of the Lorillard Company’s success is attributable to the brothers’ pioneering efforts in advertising. A bill of sale from 1809 promises that their Scotch Snuff “may be returned within twelve months, and all the charges of freight and cartage will be repaid,” if it is not “equal to any manufactured.”
The plant moved to New Jersey in 1870 and a niece, Catherine Lorillard Wolfe (1826-1887), “the richest woman in America,” inherited the land in the Bronx. She auctioned off the estate, of which one section was divided into streets and avenues. A great admirer of President Chester Alan Arthur (1830-1886), Ms. Wolfe had one of the streets named Arthur Avenue. The larger portion of the Lorillard holdings was transformed into the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden. Extensive rose gardens already existed on the property; the rose petals had been used to perfume the snuff. The Lorillard snuff mill still stands on the banks of the Bronx River on the grounds of the Botanical Garden.
Construction of the Zoo and the Botanical Garden began in 1898 and provided employment for many of the Italian immigrants streaming into the United States. Others found work laying out the new streets. Few Italian families were to be found in the Bronx at the start of the 19th century, but by the beginning of the 20th century, Belmont was becoming known as another “Little Italy”. A 1913 advertisement accompanying a photograph of new apartment buildings in the neighborhood boasts of the “phenomenal increase in value of real estate in the ‘Italian’ colonies.” By 1933, Arthur Avenue had become Belmont’s principal thoroughfare and the site of a flourishing open-air market with pushcart vendors offering various Italian delicacies.
Today the pushcarts are gone, but the character of the Belmont neighborhood remains much the same, with Italian residents now joined by newcomers of Latino and Albanian origin. For New Yorkers, the name Arthur Avenue still conjures up the smell of freshly baked Italian bread, aromatic delicatessens with cheeses and sausages in the windows.