November 1, 2003
A Landmark Decision
With public housing projects undergoing demolition nationwide, why is New York preserving this one?
Eloina Santiago has lived in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Houses for 45 years. She came to the public housing project right off the plane from Puerto Rico and eventually raised three kids there. They grew up, she says proudly, to be a real estate agent, a teacher, and a naval officer. She feels lucky to live in what she calls a “good place.”
But public housing is an endangered species these days. In 1996 Bill Clinton inked legislation to eradicate severely depressed public housing nationwide. Cities from Chicago to San Francisco have spent the last generation knocking down their projects, consigning the built reminders of midcentury Modernist idealism to the dust pile of history. Even without knowing all that, Santiago can tell just by looking around her that fewer and fewer people in real estate-mad New York have access to affordable housing. When asked what’s best about Williamsburg, she admits with a wry smile, “I don’t pay too much rent.”
So Santiago was pleased to hear that this past June New York bucked the national trend and opted to preserve rather than destroy a public project. Finding that the Williamsburg Houses “have a special character and a special historical and aesthetic interest and value,” the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) gave the project the same status as the Chrysler Building.
“I was quite surprised it was not yet a landmark,” LPC chairman Robert Tierney says. “It’s a great public structure.” In fact, Williamsburg first went before the commission in 1981, but the records of that hearing disappeared in a change of offices, so no one is quite sure why it didn’t pass. But after a $70 million renovation in the late 1990s returned the exterior to almost original condition, the decision came easily.
“Many people think of modern architecture, especially modern public housing, in terms of banal repetitive towers in superblock settings,” observed David Burney, director of design of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), at the hearings on the designation. But before the social failure of these “tower in a park” housing schemes cast such a long shadow over postwar architecture and design, there was, he said, “what was then called ‘social housing.’” This ideal, imported from Europe by reformers in the 1920s and ’30s, inspired Williamsburg, the city’s third publicly subsidized development.
Built in the midst of the Depression, Williamsburg was a city-supervised project funded by the New Deal’s Public Works Administration (PWA). Head architect Richmond Shreve, known for the Empire State Building, tapped Swiss émigré William Lescaze as chief designer. Lescaze was Modernism’s most influential American booster and architect with George Howe of the first International Style skyscraper in the United States, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society tower.
Lescaze gave Williamsburg an expressly European avant-garde profile. The 20 blocky four-story buildings are each wrapped with four horizontal stripes where Lescaze exposed the concrete floor plates to serve as restrained exterior ornament. Entryways and stairwell exteriors feature stainless-steel marquees and blue-tile facings. Concrete stairwells make for an unfortunate institutional feel, but the compact and efficient apartments have wood flooring and ample windows, some of which wrap around the building’s corners to spill light into the bedrooms from two angles.
Williamsburg’s real innovation was its plan. Dropped into 12 north-Brooklyn blocks razed of tenements, the project sits on four superblocks assembled by converting two streets into interior landscaped walks. Like other avant-garde planners, particularly his hero Le Corbusier, Lescaze believed that the great mission of modern housing was to bring people the light and air that generations of dense speculative tenement building had blocked up and choked away. He arranged Williamsburg’s various H- and T-shaped footprints at a 15-degree angle to the boundary streets, forming a series of interconnected interior walks and courts that flow mazelike between the beige wings and trunks. This was the most controversial aspect of the plan, and observers ever since have wondered whether this tactic opened the project to the prevailing breezes and sun or merely made it into a brutal abstract wind tunnel.
Ironically the most debated feature proved the most influential and prophetic. Williamsburg was one of the first American projects in which the buildings floated free of their street frontage to hover in parklike green space. Almost every public project thereafter followed suit, but few would be walk-ups like Williamsburg. Faced with the prospect of limited funds, deteriorating housing stock, and thousands of displaced persons in the wake of urban renewal projects, housing officials had to discard the more expensive horizontal low-rise aesthetic of Williamsburg for the giant austere slabs that transformed the landscape of cities like New York in the 1950s and ’60s.
In one way landmark status weighs heavily on a place like Williamsburg, built as it was to embody the idea of a soon-to-be-realized possible future. In effect, it transforms Williamsburg into a memorial to a lost world of promise and hope, to a time when “housing” meant not merely well-designed shelter but an entire social vision of retreating slums, technocratic fixes, and modern communal living for ordinary people. With that vision all but lost these days, a certain kind of place is being remembered here—and also mourned. It’s the kind of place whose cornerstone holds an autographed copy of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, donated by the reformer’s widow. A place where tenants took instruction from the interior-design staff on how to decorate their apartments. A place that was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s tenth-anniversary exhibition of 1939. It’s a place that, Tierney says, “stands as a cultural landmark as well as an architectural landmark.”
But all that history doesn’t mean that Williams-burg is not still alive. In practical terms landmark status actually guarantees the project a future. “This shows that we’re going to hold Williams-burg up as a model,” Tierney says. Preservation means that at least these 1,625 low-income housing units will never go under the wrecking ball. Or, as Burney put it at the LPC hearings, it’s an opportunity to preserve both “affordable housing and quality architecture.” “Williamsburg is an important example of our social and architectural history,” he concluded, “as well as a splendid home for more than 1,500 families.”
Julio Cruz, who moved across the borough from NYCHA’s Red Hook Houses a few years ago, agrees. “It’s a nice place to live,” he says, walking down Manhattan Avenue. Like most of his neighbors, he is only vaguely aware of his home’s newfound landmark status. Besides, his concerns are mostly prosaic, not aesthetic. “It’s not so drug-infested here. The surrounding neighborhood is good. Even the service is better over here.” He and his partner, Edna Maldonado, appreciate the layout of their compact two-bedroom—particularly that they can go from either bedroom to the bathroom and kitchen without having to go through the living room, making it easier to host extended family or guests from their native Puerto Rico.
Despite the usual grumbling about noisy neighbors, housing authority rules, and crowded city living, the original sense of promise that launched the project seems more than just a memory. Part memorial to a lost past, part actual future, Williamsburg is a well-preserved home. “We’re poor,” Cruz says, “but we live well.”