Harlem School of the Arts Exterior

A Brutalist Building in Harlem Gets Updated to Connect with Its Neighbors

 A 1970s Brutalist gem that houses the Harlem School of the Arts gets a makeover. 

In the summer of 2017, New York City architect Celia Imrey chatted with Eric Pryor at a party on Martha’s Vineyard. Pryor, the president of Harlem School of the Arts/The Herb Alpert Center (HSA), told the architect about his desire to revamp the school’s 1974 Ulrich Franzen–designed building on Saint Nicholas Avenue to better engage and welcome the surrounding community. Imrey began working with Pryor on the school in September 2017. 

Founded in 1964 in a church basement by soprano Dorothy Maynor, HSA offers classes in dance, music, visual arts, and theater to children from preschool through high school. Along with other pioneering cultural institutions founded in Harlem in the 1960s, such as the Studio Museum and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, it offered resources, beauty, and a sense of purpose at a time when the neighborhood was burdened with high crime rates and poverty. Since then, HSA has served more than 60,000 students.

“These things don’t happen with just a sign. They happen with the spatial, temporal engagement with a space.” 

Celia Imrey, architect
Lobby Interior Harlem School of the Arts
The new lobby not only puts the interior of the school in dialogue with the street, it also doubles as a performance venue. COURTESY © AMY BARKOW/BARKOW PHOTO

As Imrey discovered, the Franzen building, which was completed under Maynor’s leadership, was a terrific example of Brutalist strength on a modest scale. But some of the qualities that made it a gem of its time were no longer serving HSA. Most significantly, Franzen had designed an impenetrable brick facade with a hidden, curved Corbusian entrance. The wall provided a physical and psychological shield from the city. Now it was inhibiting an exchange and connection between students and the neighborhood. It also posed a security risk by preventing students and staff from seeing activity outside the building during drop-offs and pickups. 

With the help of a team of engineers and specialists made up of 85 percent women- and minority-owned firms, and architect of record Eric K. Daniels, Imrey conceived a plan that removed the brick facade and replaced it with a glass curtain wall that could provide views through the main lobby out to Franzen’s rear garden, which is anchored by a rugged schist wall. They succeeded in persuading Pryor and the project’s benefactor, legendary trumpeter and bandleader Herb Alpert, to bring that vision to life.

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The $9.5 million face-lift opened in September 2020 and touched almost all of the school’s public spaces, including the canted metal-and-glass storefront, a gut renovation of its two-story atrium lobby, the addition of a pantry and café, a security area, and numerous infrastructural upgrades. 

Outside, a concrete ramp and terrace offer a soft transition from the street to the building. “It creates a psychology of belonging, and that is so important to me,” says Imrey. “These things don’t happen with just a sign. They happen with the spatial, temporal engagement with a space.” 

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