Building of the Day: 77 New York Avenue

Address: 77 New York Avenue, between Pacific and Dean Streets
Name: Stuy Park House
Neighborhood: Crown Heights North
Year Built: 1975
Architectural Style: classic 1970’s concrete apartment box
Architect: John Louis Wilson, Jr.
Landmarked: No

Why chosen: Sometimes, it’s not the building itself that’s impressive or important, it’s the architect, and his place in history. John Louis Wilson was one of the first African-American architects to have a very public career here in NYC. Born in 1899, he was the grandson of a blacksmith born in slavery, and the child of one of Mississippi’s first black public school music teachers and her minister husband. After graduating from what is now Dillard University in New Orleans, in 1919, he became the first African-American to graduate from Columbia’s School of Architecture, in 1928, and he began his own practice in 1933. Most of his work was urban, designing modest apartment buildings, schools, senior citizen housing, and public works projects. His best known project came early in his career, when he was asked to be the only African-American architect on a team of six, commissioned to design the highly acclaimed Harlem River Houses, New York’s first federally funded housing, which was constructed in 1936 as part of FDR’s New Deal. The now landmarked Houses stretch from 151st to 153rd St along the Harlem River, and were the model for all garden apartment housing projects to follow. Throughout his long career, he encouraged and mentored hundreds of architects of color, hiring draftsmen and students from Africa, South and Central America and the United States, making his office on 125th St. a center for minority architects at a time when few were being mentored anywhere else. In 1953 he helped organize the Council for the Advancement of the Negro in Architecture, an organization of architectural professionals and students dedicated to combating discrimination in the field. This led to the chairmanship of a committee within the American Institute of Architects that raised funds for scholarships, encouraging and enabling minority students to study architecture. In 1972, the AIA elected John Wilson into the membership of their prestigious College of Fellows, citing his contribution to the field, and the changes that field experienced because of him. Wilson designed two projects here in Brooklyn, both near the end of his long career. This senior citizen residence, called StuyPark House was built in 1975, as was his other Bedford Stuyvesant project, Boys and Girls High School, on Fulton Street. At the time, this part of Crown Heights was still considered to be part of Bed Stuy. Unfortunately, a nice row of houses and a school was torn down for this, one of New York’s many urban renewal projects of the 1970’s. Stuy Park is not great architecture; Boys and Girls is much better. Frankly, John Wilson was never given the chance to really show his chops on non-subsidized projects, so we’ll never really know what he was capable of. Mr. Wilson died at the age of 90, in 1989. Stuy Park is still a proud reminder that many, many hands have gone into the shaping of the communities we love, and our history is not complete without knowledge of the contributions of men like John Louis Wilson, Jr.

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(Photo: Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, taken in 1987)

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(Photo: NY Public Library – NY Avenue from Pacific to Dean 1940)

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