Walkabout: The Williamsburg Houses, Part 2

We tend to equate public housing, aka “the projects,” with the 1960s and ’70s, due in part, to issues of urban poverty and its associated problems. But public housing is much older than that, dating back to another time of massive poverty and social upheaval: the Great Depression. The New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s great federal experiment, and the programs of the Public Works Administration, sought to alleviate some of the atrocious housing conditions in the worst sections of our cities, and from this ambitious endeavor came the oldest of our public housing complexes: the Harlem River Houses, the Red Hook Houses and the Williamsburg Houses. The decade was the 1930s.

Last time, we looked at the beginnings of the Williamsburg Houses, and the architects and planners that designed it. Working for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), founded in 1934, a team of ten architects, led by Richmond H. Shreve and his head designer, William Lescaze led the project. Shreve was a partner in Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, forever known for their design of the Empire State Building. William Lescaze was a pioneer of the new International Style, a clean, minimalist style of architecture championed by such icons of modern architecture as Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe and the architects of the Bauhaus. The International Style utilized the building materials of the 20th century: steel, concrete and glass, with an emphasis on form and function, not ornamentation. This would be the perfect medium for public housing, both then and going forward.

The site picked for the project was in the middle of one of the most densely populated areas of New York City. Twelve blocks were purchased and cleared of mostly wood framed tenements, houses and small factories. The site enclosed Scholes Street to Maujer Street, Leonard Street to Bushwick Avenue. The blocks inside this square were decommissioned, except for the cross streets, taking the project out of the street grid, creating a 25 acre site to build the largest public housing project the federal WPA would undertake.

Chief designer William Lescaze wanted to design something different. One of the ideals left over from the City Beautiful Movement, as well as European models of apartment design, was the concept of open spaces and parkland. People need open space to escape from crowded tenements and people living on top of each other. Reformers in the late 19th and early 20th century had pushed for small and large parks in the city for this reason. This part of Williamsburg had no parks, another reason for the choice of this location.

After 1910, planners of apartment buildings began to design “garden apartments,” where the buildings were designed to enclose a large, private interior garden. The now landmarked garden apartments of Jackson Heights were built at this same time. If enclosed gardens were not possible, other variations were sought, such as in the Harlem River Houses, where a “crankshaft” design allowed for exterior and interior garden and lawn space. Le Corbusier, in Europe was also advocating for housing surrounding open spaces, and all of these ideas went into the plan for the Williamsburg Houses.

Lescaze also made the innovative move to set the houses at a 15 degree angle from the street. This would prove very controversial, but was based on both American and European models. The houses would catch the sun and the northwest breezes, especially important in the days before air conditioning, especially in housing for lower income people. This angle would also allow for a better configuration of buildings and open space. The concept met with criticism, but Lescaze quelled those critics by saying that his choices were also aesthetic; the angles “broke up the street front,” and “allowed for the feeling of space to weave in and out on the street front.” He was right.

The Williamsburg Houses consist of 20 four story buildings, all in three shapes; a capital “H,”, small “h,” and a “T” shape. The “T” shaped buildings are in the middle of the complex with both “H” shaped buildings surrounding them. The buildings were arrayed to make the most of the possible garden and lawn plots in between the buildings, sidewalks and pathways. When the houses were completed, there were no fences, and the areas between the concrete walkways were paved with cobblestones.

Lescaze loved the possibilities afforded by modern materials. His houses are concrete, with tan brick facades, and alternating bands of light colored concrete. This in itself was controversial, as all other projects were built with red brick. But Lescaze prevailed in his choice. He designed his buildings with multiple entrances, each equal in importance, so there were no back doors, as the buildings could be entered from the courtyard or the street. Since that might be disorientating, Lescaze used signs to guide people, and used color to distinguish aspects of the façade. Blue was his favorite color, and the buildings entrances were all clad in large, but simple blue tiles, which carried up to the roof, highlighting the stairwells.

The apartment themselves were small, but efficient. They ranged from two room apartments to five rooms, and came with refrigerators, electric stoves and modern plumbing, supplying the tenants with steam heat, and hot and cold running water. This was the life of kings compared to much of the housing that had previously stood on this site. The first tenants were carefully chosen by income restrictions, and preference was given to those who had been displaced by the construction. The WPA Guide, written in 1939 stated that “rents, paid weekly in advance, range from $4.45 a week for a two-room apartment to $7.20 for five rooms; electricity for an apartment costs 90 cents to $1.20 a week. Three hundred and ninety-eight residents are employed as clerical workers, 49 as professionals, managers, and officials, 353 as skilled workers, 468 as semiskilled, and 283 as unskilled.”

Before the Houses were completed, it was proposed that they be named the “Ten Eyck Houses,” presumably after the Dutch family that had helped settle the area, and the street named after them, which had run through the project. The name was adopted, but even today is rarely used. During construction, President and Mrs. Roosevelt came to inspect the site, along with Mayor LaGuardia, a keen supporter of this and other public housing projects. In 1937, the model apartments were opened for the press and public, showcasing furniture and appliances supplied by Brooklyn’s department stores, showing what could be done with a modest budget and good taste. It was a big hit.

The first tenants began to move in at the end of September, 1937. As a precaution against “disease,” all of the tenants’ belongings were taken to a fumigation center and treated, before they were moved into the apartments. The first official tenants were Bessie and Louis Grabkowitz, who paid less than $7 a week for their light filled apartment.

The complex included a junior high school, the William J. Gaynor Junior HS, with a nursery school opposite it, in Building 11. A new heath center was built outside of the complex, across the street from the Houses, on Maujer Street. The basements of all the buildings held meeting and social gathering rooms, craft rooms and classrooms. Many had WPA murals painted there, some of which have just been rediscovered under years of paint, and five of them are now in the Brooklyn Museum. They include works by Paul Kelpe, Ilya Bolotowsky, and Balcomb Greene.

And then there were the stores. The storefronts built into the street facing buildings are the most attractive parts of the project. They were built on the north and south facing buildings, in a sleek Moderne style, with sweeping curves, with aluminum facing and matching blue trim, to coordinate with the entrances to the apartments. Unfortunately, even back then, tenants for these buildings were hard to come by, and some of the stores were converted back into apartments in 1945.

When the buildings opened, and in subsequent years, they were met with both praise, and less than fulsome commentary. Walter Gropius, one of the masters of the Moderne style, praised them highly for their use of space, light and materials. Talbot Hamlin wrote a lengthy review, praising the design and the concept, but he was not pleased with what he called the “shockingly low standards of construction,” or the inadequate landscaping. Architectural historians went from calling the project “brilliant” to “overrated,” depending on who you talked to, but in the past decades, the pendulum has swung to an embrace of the project, with the 2000 edition of the AIA Guide to NYC calling it the best public housing project ever built in New York City. The complex was further honored by landmarking in 2003.

Of course, this was after the Houses had deteriorated badly over the years, and project life had become synonymous with poor minorities, crime and drugs, even though only a small percentage of troublemakers made it so. In the late 1990s, a $70 million dollar renovation of the Houses took place, restoring many of the original details and features. This prompted a new appreciation for the Williamsburg Houses, as both a social experiment and as architecture. One can only hope this renovation had a positive impact on those who live there, as well, and that low income housing, necessary in this economy, can itself be restored. The idealistic goals of that housing are still as worthy as ever. GMAP
(All photos: nyc-architecture.com)

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