Building of the Day: 77 New York Avenue

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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)

0 Comment

  • hey, I know this place.

  • Really interesting post…Thanks for these!

  • Montrose:

    As you know, I went to the little school house on the corner — and I had a friend who lived in the row house in the photo’s foreground! This was the 1950s, when this pocket of Crown House was seamlessly intact. (The photo obviously was taken earlier, but fits my image of the place exactly!)

    I have no photos of my old school, so this one is a real treasure for me.

    In the ’50′s, Crown Heights looked old-fashioned but many of the people living there were “modern” and engaged in poetry, painting, and the arts. They could also be very stylish. (I remember my friends’ houses technicolor furniture and “abstract”-style lighting fixtures, the kind people pay thousands for now because they’re mid-century “antiques”!)

    I also met John Louis Wilson while researching a paper for Kenneth Jackson’s undergraduate New York City history course at Columbia. Now there was a courtly gentleman, dressed just as shown in the photograph, and welcoming me to his office on 125th Street. Speaking in the tones of a Southern aristocrat, he recalled the Harlem River Houses’ white architects’ attempt to cut bath tubs out of the project because, as he put it “Negroes don’t need to take baths.” Naturally, he objected, and of all his impact on the project, he was proudest that he got bath tubs for the apartments!

    On the office’s wall was a rendering of StuyPark House. My heart sank when I realized where it was going to be built. Although I hadn’t been to Crown Heights in quite a while, I always had a special affinity for that particular stretch of New York Avenue. As early as first grade, I was allowed to walk to school alone from around the corner on Pacific Street, which made me feel very grown up, and my friends and I played in the school yard, streets and stoops along Dean.

    The photograph above proves Crown Heights’ architecture was as good as you’d find in Back Bay, Boston or Park Slope, but it was the casual relationship among buildings, like the one between school and church (and the Presbyterian Church across the street, not shown above) that made the place special.

    I wonder how the “old man” felt putting up his high-rise. Like so many architects of his generation, he probably thought it progress.

    Nostalgic on Park Avenue

  • NOP, thank you so much for that story. Thank you for telling me about John Wilson in the first place, last year, it may have otherwise taken years for me to find out that he had designed this building, as well as Boys and Girls HS. You make the Crown Heights of your childhood come alive, and I enjoy every minute of it.

  • the old streetscape photo is really very nostalgic. Not only are the buildings gone but look at the two magnificent American elms trees! Those and thousands like them used to line streets throughout the northeast before the advent of Dutch elm disease.

  • Just a wonderful story. Thanks so much for sharing this, MM!

  • Thanks for the pictures- I always wondered what was there before the home went up.You had always said some beautiful houses were torn down to make way. Sad abut the beautiful Elm trees too.

  • Thanks, Montrose. Who knew that I’d keep posting on Brownstoner three years ago when you asked a follow-up question about my comments on 1290 Pacific Street? And how many pages has it been since then? I haven’t kept a file; maybe I should.

    There’s something about your posts that resonate deeply with anyone who loves Brooklyn. The photographs, especially. Like the old one above. Those trees! And the little school tower with the mansard roof! Have we built New York any better since then?

    One day I’ll spend a little time writing about the social tensions in Crown Heights and Brooklyn during the early 1960s. But I’ll wait until I see the just the right BOTD by you.

  • Another thing about the photo – in 1940 the traffic was going south. Now it is one way north. So weird to see a car going in that direction, it’s like looking at somewhere in England.

    NOP, please keep reading!

  • great, i love these articles and dont comment too often, but do read them (despite what MM might think) and NOP’s stories are always great little bonuses.

    *rob*

  • Interesting…thank you for the history behind the properties in Brooklyn, the articles are always a good read and gives me a greater appreciation of Brooklyn.