Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Clinton Hill Houses, now Clinton Hill Co-ops
Address: 345-373 Clinton Avenue
Cross Streets: Lafayette and Greene Avenues
Neighborhood: Clinton Avenue
Year Built: early 1940s
Architectural Style: Modern high rise
Architect: Harrison, Fouilhoux & Abramovitz
Other Buildings by Architect: Lincoln Center, Rockefeller Apartments, Time and Life Building, all Manhattan.
Landmarked: Yes, part of the Clinton Hill HD (1981)
The story: Most people are familiar with the fact that the government tore down several blocks of late 19th century mansions on Clinton Avenue, in order to build the ten buildings in three locations that make up the Clinton Hill Houses, now the Clinton Hill Co-ops. It was during World War II, and housing was desperately needed for the Navy officers and enlisted men who were based at the nearby United States Navy Yard. The four buildings that make up this part of the Houses, were for officers and their families, and therefore were the most upscale of the entire development.
The Houses were designed by Harrison, Fouilhoux, & Abramovitz, modern architects of their day who were responsible for some of New York City’s iconic mid-century buildings. Wallace Harrison and Max Abramovitz were the architects of Lincoln Center and the Empire State Plaza in Albany. They, and other partners, were also responsible for the Time and Life Building in Midtown, the Rockefeller Apartments, the landmarked Springs Mills Building, as well as the Alcoa Building in Pittsburg, and the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning.
The idea for the officer’s towers was based on Le Corbusier’s concept of an apartment building within a park. The architects gave this project much thought, devising ten story apartment buildings with massing set back to allow the buildings to float better in their park-like setting, with plenty of space between the buildings, landscaped pathways, lawns, and garden space, and the guard and information station positioned in the middle, topped with an ethereal statue of a dancing woman. This kiosk is quite modern, a spaceship of a building on tapered concrete legs.
The buildings are a big cut above the usual military housing. Casement windows provide light and air, and the apartments themselves are well designed living spaces, with large rooms and good layouts. As a nod to their Navy heritage, all of the entrances to the buildings have mosaic transoms depicting different Navy symbols, such as a winged anchor, or a dolphin, adding some ornament to the very austere facades. When the war was over, the Houses all easily became co-ops, now affordable alternatives in an increasingly expensive housing market.
While the loss of a large number of fine and historic mansions is lamented by anyone who loves architecture, history and neighborhoods, it must be noted that the presence of the Clinton Hill Co-ops actually contributed to the stabilization and economic growth of the neighborhood, providing housing for a large number of invested middle class neighbors, who grounded Clinton Hill during the rough times. One could well argue that had it not been for this well thought out and well-designed complex, more of Clinton Hill’s treasures would not have been here to be saved. GMAP