Walkabout: The Williamsburg Houses, Part 1

Aerial view of the Houses, with the school in the middle of the complex. Photo: late 1930s. nyc-architecture.com.

Read Part 2 of this story.

Money, real estate, and housing. These have been three of the factors that founded this city, and have continued to build it, and drive it, ever since Europeans landed on these shores. The history of housing in this city is rather fascinating, but like housing almost everywhere since the dawn of civilization, it boils down to the rich living really well, the middle classes living decently, and the poor living in various degrees of squalor.

Social reformers have long realized that having a decent roof over one’s head is not only necessary for life, but should be a given in a modern civilized society. By the Victorian era, this was an admirable goal, but here in New York City, it rarely came into being.

As more and more poor immigrants came to this country at the end of the 19th century, they joined the already large mass of poor people already here, people crowded into horrific living conditions we really can’t imagine today. Government standards for housing were rather lax, and tenements were usually human warehouses, with inadequate light, ventilation, sanitation or room.

Landlords didn’t care as long as the rent was paid, and fortunes were made from this substandard housing. As horrible as conditions were, landlords knew people would still rent; they had to live somewhere. Here in Brooklyn, enlightened reformers and businessmen like Alfred Tredway White and Charles Pratt built model tenements and worker’s housing that was a world away from the norm, but their efforts were anomalies, and while lauded, were not generally repeated.

By the first decade of the 20th century, laws were passed in the city regarding tenement conditions. These laws dictated standards of ventilation and light, fire escapes, and bathroom and sanitary requirements. This was a vast improvement, but it took time to retrofit older buildings. The rise of a powerful labor movement also had an effect on housing. Unions and worker’s groups built their own housing for their members, resulting in successful co-op complexes, such as the Amalgamated Housing on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and in the North Bronx.

In 1926, the State Legislature passed the New York State Housing Law, allowing local authorities to fund bonds or seek federal aid for housing projects. Not much happened, and the law didn’t really have any teeth until 1934, when the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) was established. NYCHA’s first project was appropriately called First Houses, and started in 1934 in the East Village.

The Great Depression was in full swing, and at first, efforts at public housing were seen more as make-work projects rather than grand housing reform. No one in authority wanted to interfere with the private housing industry, as commercial developers and builders had, and still have, tremendous power in the backrooms of City Hall. But it wasn’t until FDR’s New Deal kicked in that any real work began.

The Housing Division of the Public Works Administration was established in the middle of 1933. Rather than just give out loans, this federal program would be directly involved in the planning and construction of low-income housing. In the next three and a half years, it would oversee the building of 51 projects in 36 cities, including the Harlem River Houses in Manhattan and the Williamsburg Houses in Brooklyn.

Passage of the U.S. Housing Bill in 1937 strengthened the federal commitment to housing, but placed more control in the hands of local government. The first project in the city to be built under this new law was the Red Hook Houses, built in 1938 and ’39.

By the early decades of the 20th century, Williamsburg had become one of the most densely populated areas of the city. The construction of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 made it easy for a population of immigrants to spread from the crowded streets of the Lower East Side across the river to an area that soon became just as squalid and even more crowded. In 1934, a study was made to determine where to put new WPA housing, and Williamsburg won out over thirteen other neighborhoods as an area so blighted that vast slum clearance was seen as the best way to provide new housing relief there.

An area of twelve blocks was selected for the housing. This area was chosen in part because it included mostly mixed-use buildings, with storefronts below and apartments above. There were also a couple of factories here as well. Most of the local landlords were willing to sell.

Careful documentation showed that 90 percent of the structures were over 40 years old, 70 percent were made of wood, 78 percent had no central heating, and 67 percent had no private toilets. There were few schools in the area and no parks. The study concluded that Williamsburg’s slums “bear the stamp of dull listlessness and despair…Laissez-faire, exploitation, and land speculation have robbed the community of its natural potentialities for development and orderly urban life.”

NYCHA’s board included five architects heading up its projects. At the helm was Richmond H. Shreve of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon; the architects of the Empire State Building. The others were Matthew W. Del Guadio, William Lescaze, Arthur C. Holden and James F. Bly. In 1934, an open competition for several WPA projects was held, and of the 278 architects that took part, five of the 22 architects selected were assigned to the Williamsburg project.

They were Samuel Gardstein, G. Harmon Gurney, John W. Ingle, Jr., Paul Trapani, and Harry Leslie Walker. These ten men made up the Williamsburg Associated Architects, the official architects of the Williamsburg Houses.

Richmond Shreve had the most experience with large projects, so he took on the title of project manager. He assigned William Lescaze to be the chief designer, responsible for the design and elevations. Lescaze was a Swiss born, European educated designer, an expert in the emerging International Style of architecture.

The International Style had been born in Europe in the 1920s, the architectural vision of the Bauhaus and such men as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The famous dictum “form follows function” comes from this design philosophy.

The International Style is characterized by simplified lines, a rejection of ornament, and the use of glass, steel and concrete as the building materials of choice. William Lescaze’s design for the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building in 1932 is regarded to be the United States’ first International Style skyscraper. Who better to lead the team in this new project, the poster child for new public housing? This would be public housing like no other.

The Williamsburg Houses would be the largest and most expensive housing project built by the Public Works Administration, costing $12.5 million. A firm supporter of the plan, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was on hand to pour the first shovelful of concrete at the ground breaking ceremony in 1936.

So what was the big deal, and why were these buildings so special? What sets these houses apart from other public housing? The rest of the story of the landmarked Williamsburg Houses, next time. GMAP
(Photo: Williamsburg Houses soon after completion, 1938. nyc-architecture.com)

The Williamsburg Houses -- Brooklyn History

Aerial view of the Houses, with the school in the middle of the complex. Photo: late 1930s. nyc-architecture.com.

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