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Williamsburg, Brooklyn

 

A collaborative project of the Federal Public Works Administration and the newly established New York City Housing Authority, the Williamsburg Houses are notable as one of the earliest housing developments in the United States to reflect the ideas of the modern movement in architecture. In the 1920s Williamsburg was one of the most densely populated sections of Brooklyn and nearly six hundred, mostly frame, structures were demolished to create the 23.3 acre site. Proposed in 1934, this residential complex was skillfully designed by the Williamsburg Associated Architects during 1935 and most units were occupied by 1938.

 

The partnership included Richmond H. Shreve, of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the architects of the Empire State Building, and William Lescaze, the Swiss-born architect who helped introduce the “International” style on the eastern seaboard. Lescaze was responsible for the design, which includes twenty 4-story structures on four “super” blocks turned at 15 degree angles to the street grid. Oriented to the sun and prevailing winds, this unusual layout produced a series of large and small courts, many of which flow into a large public space at the center of each block. A light-colored palette distinguishes the facades, executed in tan brick and exposed concrete.

 

Among the most prominent features are the entrances, marked by blue tile and projecting stainless steel canopies, and the handsome streamlined storefronts. The complex was widely discussed by contemporary critics and more than 25,000 New Yorkers applied for 1,622 apartments. During the mid-1990s, the buildings underwent an extensive restoration which included the replacement of all exterior materials. Sponsored by the Housing Authority, in consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, these alterations were remarkably sensitive and in the 4th edition of the AIA Guide to New York City the “revivified” complex was called “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

 

DESCRIPTION AND ANALYSIS

 

Housing the Masses

 

From the rowhouse to the apartment building, New York City has been a laboratory for innovative housing. Beginning after the Civil War, apartments, variously known as French Flats and tenements, were built to house the city’s surging population. Immigrants, for the most part, crowded into unregulated tenements, structures that maximized profits for developers while providing few amenities that we take for granted today, such as light, air, and private bathrooms.

 

Despite government efforts to legislate minimum standards in 1867 and 1879, initially private individuals took the most significant steps to make decent housing affordable to all. Several pioneering examples were located close to the Brooklyn waterfront, including the Home and Tower Buildings (William Field and Son, 1876-78), the Astral Apartments (Lamb & Rich, 1885-87) and Riverside (William Field and Son, 1890). The later complex surrounded a large tree-shaded courtyard incorporating a music pavilion and areas for drying laundry. Despite these, and a few innovative Manhattan developments, the majority of New Yorkers continued to live in substandard conditions.

 

The passage of the New Tenement Law in 1901 improved the situation, requiring that multiple dwellings be built on significantly larger lots, with fire escapes and separate “privies” for each family. After World War I, the garden apartment came into vogue. While most were built for the middle class, especially in Jackson Heights, a significant group were sponsored by unions and cooperative organizations that wished to provide members with inexpensive apartments. Significant examples include the Amalgamated Houses (Springsteen & Goldhammer, 1930) on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the “Coops” built in the Bronx by the United Workers Cooperative Association (Springsteen & Goldhammer, 1925-27; Herman Jessor, 1927-29).

 

The first significant act of government intervention occurred in 1926 with the passage of the New York State Housing Law. Promoted by Governor Alfred E. Smith to encourage construction through the formation of local authorities that would sell bonds or seek federal funds, it had little impact until 1934 when the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) was established. The authority’s first project, aptly called the First Houses (Frederick L. Ackerman, 1934-36), was located in Manhattan’s East Village. Begun as a rehabilitation program involving the demolition of every third structure, due to structural problems the eight brick buildings were entirely rebuilt.

 

Throughout the early Depression, government-subsidized housing remained a controversial issue. Consequently, it was first promoted as worker relief, organized to create jobs but not compete with the commercial market. The first federal agency to involve itself with housing was the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) which was created in 1932 to provide low-interest loans to limited-dividend housing corporations. Of the two loans it made, one was toward the construction of Knickerbocker Village (John S. Van Wart & Frederick L. Ackerman, 1933). Built for the Fred F. French Company, this Chinatown-area development consists of two 12-story buildings, both enclosing an interior courtyard.

 

In mid-1933, as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration (PWA) was established. What made this agency different from its predecessor, the RFC, was that it would be directly involved in the planning and construction of low-income housing. The program was a great success and over the next three and half years it collaborated on the design and construction of 51 projects in 36 cities, including the Harlem River Houses and the Williamsburg Houses.

 

The passage of the Wagner-Steagall Bill (aka U.S. Housing Bill) by the United States Congress in September 1937, strengthened the federal government’s commitment to housing, but shifted greater control to local authorities. The first New York City housing project to be financed under this program was the Red Hook Houses (Electus Litchfied, chief designer, 1938-39) in Brooklyn. Future construction, which would amount to more than half a million low-rental units nationwide by 1957, would be funded primarily through low-interest loans.

 

Site

 

The Williamsburg Houses are located in northwestern Brooklyn, approximately one mile east of the Williamsburg Bridge and two blocks south of Grand Street, a lively commercial thoroughfare. Founded as part of the town of Bushwick in the mid17th century, Williamsburg was incorporated as a village in 1827. The community prospered and by 1852 it was the 20th largest city in the nation. Three years later, Williamsburg became part of Brooklyn and was commonly referred to as the Eastern District. Although ferry service was important to the area’s development, it was the planning and construction of a second East River crossing, the Williamsburg Bridge, that caused the most dramatic growth.

 

Proposed in 1883, the bridge was completed with much fanfare in 1903, serving pedestrians, bicycles and horse-drawn vehicles. In subsequent decades, Williamsburg rivaled the Lower East Side in population and density. The Brooklyn Eagle claimed in 1920 that the bridge was part of the busiest traffic center in the nation and that a single block north of it was the most crowded in the world. Conditions in the neighborhood continued to deteriorate throughout the decade, so much so that the population began to decline.

 

In October 1933, the Federal Works Administration (PWA) established a slum clearance committee to study conditions throughout New York City. Richmond H. Shreve, who would later serve as chief architect of the Williamsburg Houses, was named director. Based on the committee’s recommendations, $25 million was set aside for a housing program in New York City. Under the direction of the NYCHA, a more comprehensive study was undertaken in 1934, focusing on fourteen neighborhoods, including Williamsburg. The PWA reported:

 

When the study was completed the blighted slum area of the Williamsburg section stood out as the best example where the most good could be done in wholesale clearance work.

 

Of 93 blocks studied, a grid of 12 was identified for redevelopment in Williamsburg. These blocks were chosen because property values were relatively low and the owners were willing to sell. Most of buildings were mixed-use, incorporating retail spaces at ground level and apartments above. Each lot was carefully documented: 90% of the structures were at least forty years old, 70% were built of wood, 78% had no central heating, and 67% had no private toilets. Such statistics were used to paint an extremely bleak picture of life there:

 

But the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, according to official surveys, is unique in that its 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.

 

Public amenities were also in short supply; there were few schools and there were almost no parks.

 

Architects

 

Five architects were appointed to the NYCHA’s architectural board in May 1934: Richmond H. Shreve (1877-1946) of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, Matthew W. Del Gaudio (1889-1960), William Lescaze (1899-1969), Arthur C. Holden (18901993), and James F. Bly. As members of the board, their initial role was advisory. They would act as the authority’s chief architect, overseeing the design and construction of municipal housing citywide.

 

In June 1934 an open competition was held to choose the architects who would work on the Williamsburg Houses and other NYCHA projects. The program guidelines did not specify the location, but the grid chosen closely resembled the long blocks where the Williamsburg Houses would be built. Of 278 architects who participated, 5 of the 22 selected were assigned to the Brooklyn project: Samuel Gardstein, of Holmgren, Volz & Gardstein, G. Harmon Gurney (b. 1896), of Gurney & Clavan, John W. Ingle Jr., Paul Trapani (1887-1974), and Harry Leslie Walker (1877-1954).

 

In June 1935, a contract was signed with the Williamsburg Associated Architects. The partnership consisted of ten men: the five architects selected by jury, as well as the five members of the architectural board. Among them, Shreve had the most experience with large projects, having worked on a succession of major Manhattan skyscrapers, most notably, the Empire State Building (Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, 1931).

 

A graduate of the College of Architecture at Cornell University (1902), he began his career as a member of the school’s faculty and later joined the firm of Carrére & Hastings in New York City where he distinguished himself as having a “genius for the solution of operational and administrative problems.” Whereas prior to the Depression he mainly worked on office buildings, in his later years Shreve was associated with residential developments, most notably the Vladeck Houses (1940) on the Lower East Side, and Parkchester (1938-42), a development with more than twelve thousand apartments in the Bronx. During the late 1930s, he also served as a member of the board of design for the New York World’s Fair.

 

Design

 

Of the three initial projects built by the NYCHA and the PWA, the Williamsburg Houses were the most innovative. Shreve appointed Lescaze as the chief designer, responsible for the plan and elevations. In the 1930s, he was at the height of his career, profiled in publications read by professionals and the layman. Born near Geneva, Switzerland, in 1896, he studied in Zurich with the architect Karl Moser in 1915-19 and for a brief period worked in Paris with Henri Sauvage, an important designer of apartment buildings. Lescaze moved to the United States in 1920 and after working in Cleveland and New York City, formed a partnership with George Howe, a Philadelphia architect, in 1929.

 

Their association lasted four years and produced one architectural masterpiece, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building, completed in 1932. During the mid-1930s, he was extremely active, working on unrealized plans for the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, as well as building three of the earliest modern-style townhouses in Manhattan, his own house and studio, completed in 1934, as well as the Raymond C. and Mildred Kramer (1934-5) and Edward and Dorothy Norman (1940) houses. He also designed, with Albert Frey, the Chrystie-Forsyth Houses. Planned in 1931, this unrealized proposal was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s so-called “International Style” exhibition of 1932.

 

One of the most unique aspects of the Williamsburg Houses is the plan. To create the 23.3 acre complex, twelve blocks were acquired by the city, and the two east-west streets (Stagg and Ten Eyck) were closed to traffic to create four “super” blocks. All but one extend three full blocks from north to south, except part of the block between Manhattan and Graham Avenues that was set aside for a new junior high school and play area.

 

The development of New York City was closely tied to its gridiron. Introduced in 1811, it resulted in a city of predictable intersecting streets and avenues. In 1835, a similar plan was approved for Brooklyn and by the early 1850s the streets that cross through the site of the Williamsburg Houses had opened.

 

Most were named for area residents, such as Daniel Maujer, a lawyer and alderman, John and James Lorimer Graham, land jobbers, and James Scholes, a local land owner. The impact of this approach is visible throughout New York City, establishing blocks and lots of equal size and dimensions. Residential developers benefitted immensely, commissioning rowhouse and tenement designs that could be repeated without regard to location.

 

By the end of the 19th century, there was relatively little open space in Manhattan and Brooklyn. As part of the City Beautiful movement, various attempts were made to loosen the grid’s hold, first through the passage of the Small Parks Act in 1887, which focused on tenement neighborhoods, and later, by situating major civic structures in plazas. Similar ideas shaped the development of garden apartments which came into vogue after 1910. One of the primary characteristics of this type of multiple dwelling was reduced site coverage.

 

In most cases, such as in the Jackson Heights Historic District, the buildings were set around the perimeter of each block, enclosing large private gardens, but in other situations, such as at the Harlem River Houses, a “crankshaft” arrangement was adopted, creating a mixture of interior and exterior courts.

 

Lescaze borrowed freely from both the garden apartment tradition and architects associated with European modernism. In his earliest design, each block incorporated six U-shaped structures arranged around a narrow central court. A later design was considerably more irregular. Turned at an angle to the street, there were fewer but larger buildings.

 

Many aspects of this proposal were integrated into the final design. The Williamsburg Houses are configured in three ways, with footprints suggesting a capital “H,” small “h,” and “T.” All have small spurs and extensions, resembling crossbars. By adding this feature the number of courtyards was significantly increased. Within each block are six buildings (except north of the school); at the north and south are the “H” and “h” configurations, and in the middle, the “T”s.

 

The decision to turn the buildings at a 15 degree angle to the street grid proved controversial. PWA accounts described it in functional terms, explaining that the orientation would provide tenants with more sun and take advantage of the prevailing northwest breezes. During the previous decade, many architects and planners experimented with similar ideas. One of the earliest built examples “to deviate from the geometry of the New York gridiron” was the Mesa Verde apartments (1926) in Jackson Heights. Designed by Henry Atterbury Smith and based on an earlier proposal from 1917, the development featured two rows of six “closed L buildings” set at 45 degree angle to the surrounding streets.

 

Lescaze, however, was more likely to have been influenced by European sources. During the 1920s, he frequently returned to Europe, a period when leading architects were involved in the design of social housing. Many favored the “tower in the park” approach in which free-standing high-rise structures stood in continuous open space. Writing in English in 1935, Walter Gropius concluded that apartment blocks should “command a clear view of the sky, over broad expanses of grass and trees which separate the blocks and serve as playgrounds.”

 

Another source of inspiration might have been Ernst May who oversaw the design and construction of many low-rise housing estates in Frankfurt. In his Bruchfeldstrasse development of 1926-27, designed with C. K. Rudloff, one section was arranged in an overlapping zig-zag configuration. As in Williamsburg, each unit had corner windows, providing tenants with uninterrupted views of a central garden.

 

Many writers were skeptical about the benefits of Lescaze’s plan. Hamlin argued that the layout would convert the courts “into perfect channels for Project for a group of factories. our most vicious northwest winds.” He was told that

 

the arrangement had, in fact, been chosen for aesthetic reasons, to “break up the street facades” and “allow the feeling of space to weave in and out on the street fronts. This goal was definitely achieved, producing an environment that was new and distinctive. The flowing spaces that Lescaze planned are less monumental and more intimate than those experienced in most housing projects, juxtaposing wedge-shaped lawns with semi-enclosed courtyards and large open plazas. As originally built, no fences interrupted the spaces and the areas adjoining the curving concrete walks were paved with cobblestone.

 

The Elevations

 

Equally modern were the elevations. Lescaze was attracted to the expressive and aesthetic qualities of modern materials. Particularly unusual was the decision to use a light-colored palette. Built from reinforced concrete, the walls were originally enclosed with a sand-cast brick that was variously described by observers as bright tan, yellowish, pinkish, and grayish warm pink. One of the most notable features was the exposed concrete floor plates which express the structure and division between the floors while giving the complex a strong horizontal appearance. Talbot Hamlin observed:

 

The effectiveness of the buildings is undoubted. The striping of brick and concrete and the contrast of the light walls which front the stair towers make a vivid picture . . .

 

Prior to the mid-1930s, red brick was the most frequently used material in housing developments, used throughout Jackson Heights and in the First Houses and Harlem River Houses. The proposal to break with this tradition generated considerable debate. While the general scheme was approved in June 1935, it was not until October that specific materials were selected. Presumably, the PWA wished to standardize the building process and reduce costs. Frederick Ackerman, technical director of the NYCHA, defended Lescaze’s proposal. He wrote the authority’s chairman, Langdon W. Post:

 

. . . the “effect” of the Project will depend very largely upon the texture and quality of the exterior wall. Unless the exterior wall possesses a greater intrinsic interest than one made of common brick then the resultant effect is certain to be a bleak, barren and unusually forbidding mass of building:

 

One might readily mistake the At Williamsburg, the buildings stand as freestanding objects, finished on all sides and approachable from multiple directions. No facade dominates and the apartment entrances face both the streets and courtyards. For those unfamiliar with the layout, the angled plan may have been somewhat disorienting. To make it easier to navigate, signs were installed throughout the complex and Lescaze skillfully designed the entrances, making dramatic use of color and form. Like Le Corbusier, he was an “accomplished” painter and frequently used color, especially blue, to enliven wall surfaces. Another possible model was May’s housing development at Praunheim (1926-29) where contrasting colors were used to give the projecting stair towers a distinctive appearance.

 

Within the courtyards are as many as five entrances. Each is sheltered by a small cantilevered aluminum marquee and is flanked by square blue terra-cotta tiles. The entrances that are located at the far end of the larger courtyards are set at a angle. In these instances, the tiles spread onto the adjoining walls and extend above the parapet to the stair bulkhead. Other tile treatments project slightly forward, or are recessed above the doors to the roof. An entrance is also located in the covered breezeway. Reached by a short flight of stairs connecting both the street and courtyard, the more public street facade had an asymmetrical character, incorporating projecting blue tiles to one side and a wide aluminum marquee.

 

Construction

 

To prepare the site for construction, 568 buildings were demolished on 349 lots and approximately 5,400 people were relocated. A 1935 report described the population as divided equally between American born, Italian born, and other nationalities. Most were semi-skilled workers, employed in manufacturing, or as clerks, truck drivers, and construction workers.

 

Demolition commenced in June 1935 as PWA supervisor Elizabeth Ross dug a crowbar into the facade of 197 Manhattan Avenue, near Ten Eyck Street. In the months that followed:

 

Steam shovels and picks played a tune to rival that of the pipes of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. From every dank basement and crumbling wall rats fled in droves. Backyards disgorged an assortment of rusted cans, trash, filth and litter that would have discouraged the most voracious goat.

 

Ground was broken on January 3, 1936. Following a brief ceremony in the rain, public officials addressed an audience of five hundred at Public School 196. During April 1936, the first foundations were poured at the southwest corner of Manhattan Avenue and Stagg Street. Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia was in attendance, followed by “a few hundred interested onlookers and an army of schoolboys.”

 

As the foundations neared completion, the PWA solicited bids for construction. Starrett Brothers & Eken was awarded the $7. 5 million contract for the first 18 buildings in October 1936. A subsequent contract, for construction of buildings No. 5 and 18, was signed in late April 1937.

 

Founded by Paul Starrett (1866-1957) and William Aiken Starrett (1877-1932) and Andrew J. Eken (1882-1965) in 1922, the firm was responsible for such high-profile buildings as the New York Life Insurance Company Building (1925), Bank of Manhattan Building (1929-30), McGraw-Hill Building (1930-31), and Empire State Building (1930-31, all are designated New York City Landmarks). The Starrett Brothers worked closely with Shreve on the Empire State Building and it is likely that this relationship helped secure the contract for the Williamsburg Houses. William Starrett acknowledged the importance and complexity of this issue when he said:

 

It is the hope of people who are discussing this (slum) problem that those same brains that put together the great skyscrapers . . . will turn toward this.

 

Starrett Brothers & Eken later built Parkchester (Richmond H. Shreve, chairman of the board of design, 1938-42), Stuyvesant Town (Irwin Clavan and Gilmore Clarke, 1943-49) and Peter Cooper Village (Irwin Clavan and Gilmore D. Clarke, 1947) for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

 

The cornerstone was laid in October 1936. It contained an aerial view of the site, a copy of the federal act creating the PWA, as well as an autographed copy of Jacob Riis’s timeless account of slum conditions, How the Other Half Lives, donated by his widow. Construction progressed rapidly, and aside from minor walk-outs by metalworkers and painters, the first six buildings were ready for occupancy with a year, in September

 

Publicity

 

The Williamsburg Houses was the largest and costliest project built by the PWA. With 1,622 apartments, it was more than twice the size of the Harlem River Houses. The approximate cost was $12.8 million. It was described by the PWA as part of “demonstration program” and numerous public events were held. In a letter to Post, Shreve stated:

 

As this project is the beginning of what, in a way, is a housing community experiment and as the public attitude toward housing will be largely controlled by the success or failure of such an experiment, it is of importance that every effort be made to make the first experiment successful.

 

In this context, how the project was perceived was of the utmost importance. Once the design had been approved, a scale model was built by the PWA and exhibited at banks in Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg during late 1935 and 1936. This presentation was accompanied by a series of posters documenting the site, including photographs of earlier buildings and their demolition, as well as projected floor plans. The New York Times reported the model:

 

. . . throws into graphic relief the application of the new principle of multiple housing, providing more air, sunlight and recreational facilities and involving a departure from the solid-block construction.

 

The idea of using public funds to create low-income housing was relatively new and much of the language used in speeches and press releases heralded it as a major advance. At the site, signs were posted, calling Williamsburg the “Largest Low Rental Development in the USA.” At the ground-breaking, public officials evoked the memory of Alfred T. White, whose Brooklyn developments were among the first attempts to improve low-income housing in the nation.

 

Mayor LaGuardia thanked the President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for his support, as did Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, who described slums as a “vicious project of that old order whose passing, we hope, is at hand.” While some critics equated the federal housing program with socialism, most speakers saw it as a defense of democracy.

 

In November 1935, Post had contacted the PWA, requesting that the complex be called the “Ten Eyck” Houses. No explanation was given, but it is likely that the request was made to distinguish the new development from the larger surrounding neighborhood.

 

Ten Eyck Street was one of two east-west streets closed to create the site and it was probably named for the Dutch family whose Brooklyn lineage extended back to at least the 18th century. In the immediate area also lived William Ten Eyck, who during the mid-19th century served as the deacon of the Reformed Church of South Bushwick (1853, a designated New York City Landmark). Post’s request was quickly approved. The new name, however, was not widely used and a 1938 PWA publication refers to the development as the Williamsburg Houses.

 

On October 28, 1936, the construction site was briefly visited by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. According to the New York Times, ten thousand school children and five thousand adults “cheered the President’s passage through the streets bordering the housing project.”

 

Three “model” apartments were opened for public view in July through August 1937. Furnished with loans from various Brooklyn department stores, they were presented at 180 Maujer Street. Post was an early visitor and he described the apartments as a “demonstration of what can be done, this is the most valuable contribution to social progress that the New Deal has made.” An average of 1,200 persons a day visited. In September 1937, a second group of apartments opened at 176 Maujer Street, including one decorated entirely with “reconditioned furniture.” In a related development, during April and May 1938, the WPA created an exhibit in a storefront office at 212 Graham Avenue. Organized by William Friedman of the art teaching division, the display was changed periodically to demonstrate different apartment layouts and decoration. Nine experts spent five months preparing the exhibit, hoping that it would influence local residents and provide a model for future public housing developments. A music branch, at 176 Maujer Street, also provided lessons in theory, voice, and various instruments.

 

Tenants

 

According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the Williamsburg Houses were “one of the most perfect home sites in the word . . . an eagerly sought spot to live.” Income and need formed the basis of selection and no tenant could earn more than five times the annual rent. Preference was also given to former residents of the site.

 

The first tenants began to occupy their apartments on September 30, 1937. The New York Times devoted at least two articles to “Moving Day,” as did the Brooklyn Eagle. As part of the operation, each tenant’s belongings were moved to a fumigation plant for sterilization near the intersection of Bushwick Avenue at Scholes Street.

 

This procedure was described as a “wise precaution against the spread of disease.” Bessie and Louis Grabkowitz were recognized by the NYCHA as the first official tenants. A week’s rent, of less than seven dollars, was paid and they were given keys to their new apartment. Two to five rooms in size, units featured steam heat, hot and cold water, as well as electric stoves and refrigerators. Residents praised their new homes, commenting on the appliances and abundant sunlight.

 

By the end of 1937, most apartments were occupied. A community newspaper, the Projector, began publishing on a semi-monthly basis in December 1937. In April 1938, the complex was completed. In addition to the twenty residential buildings, there were retail spaces, facing the north-south streets. The PWA reported:

 

To insure efficient, sanitary commercial services, 49 stores and shops within the project, distributing drugs, groceries, appliances, and general merchandise, have been leased to private individuals.

 

The storefronts were executed in a sleek Moderne style. To the north and south, they curved away from the street, recalling the streamlined designs of Erich Mendelsohn, as well as J. J. P. Oud’s Kiefhoek development of 1925. The prominent metal parapets were blue, matching the color of the apartment entrances. Despite their polished design, a significant number failed to attract and retain tenants. Consequently, in 1945 ten unleased spaces, near the corners of Maujer and Leonard Streets, and Scholes Street and Bushwick Avenue, were converted to apartments.

 

Tenants enjoyed a variety of useful services. At the center of the complex, on Graham Avenue stood the stripped classical-style William J. Gaynor Junior High School (1936-37), and opposite it, Building No. 11 housed a nursery school. Incorporated into the building’s south court and featuring a large play terrace, Hamlin described its glass-fronted design as “pleasant” and “delightful.” In addition, a new Moderne-style health center was built directly across from the complex, on Maujer Street.

 

Throughout the development were “social and craft rooms.” These basement spaces were originally used for classes, clubs, and meetings and many were decorated with large colorful murals. In contrast to the majority of WPA murals that were executed in style of social realism, the Williamsburg murals were non-objective. Lescaze favored “abstract and stimulating patterns” and Burgoyne Diller who headed the Federal Art Project, wrote that:

 

The decision to place abstract murals in these rooms [of the Williamsburg Housing Project] was made because the areas were intended to provide a place of relaxation and entertainment . . . The more arbitrary the color, possible when not determined by the description of objects, enables the artist to place an emphasis on its psychological potential to stimulate relaxation.

 

Of twelve murals commissioned, at least five were installed. In the early 1990s, the deteriorated canvases were restored and moved to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. They include works by the American painters Ilya Bolotowsky, Paul Kelpe, and Balcomb Greene.

  

Critical Reception

 

The opening of the Williamsburg Houses was treated as major news and writers used the event to analyze the project and express their own views about the role of public housing and the importance of modern architecture. Some of the earliest comments came from the architect Walter Gropius, former director of the Bauhaus in Germany. On a visit to New York City in April 1937 he was interviewed by H.I. Brock in the New York Times. They traveled together throughout the city, visiting both new skyscrapers and the nearly-complete Brooklyn development. Gropius was impressed and praised the unusual plan, saying that Lescaze:

 

. . . seems to have solved the problem of space and light very successfully and economically, and it has the great advantage of being spread over enough land to make it worthwhile as a sample of planned development.

 

Lewis Mumford was the first critic to publish a substantial review in February 1938. As a persistent advocate for public housing, he used the opportunity to evaluate the “outlines of the new order of building.” He praised the PWA for eschewing “overpriced building lots” and instead assembling large sites in quieter areas where streets could be closed to traffic to create gardens and playgrounds. Considerable attention was paid to the slanted orientation. Although he described it as “a bit queer,” he liked the way it separated the residences from the street and that it gave the appearance that the architects were concerned about providing tenants with ample sunlight.

 

Talbot Hamlin published the most-detailed analysis. In this review, he addressed both PWA projects, calling them “a new vision of democracy ... they are better than the most expensive apartments on Park Avenue.” Despite such praise, he expressed mixed feelings. While he found the buildings “fresh and inventive and alive,” he was disturbed by the “shockingly low” standards of construction. He also admired the “imaginative and carefully studied detailing,” but criticized the landscaping as little more than adequate. The WPA Guide to New York City, published in 1939, shared similar views, quoting Hamlin’s review, and praising the design of the individual buildings.

 

In the years since completion, the Williamsburg Houses have been a frequent subject for architectural historians. Many, starting with the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, have placed the development within the context of European modernism. In an exhibition celebrating the museum’s 10th anniversary and the opening of its new building, it was the only architectural work represented that was located in New York City. In a brief essay on housing, the curators highlighted the “triple-size superblocks,” that form an “oasis of open space,” but criticized the adjoining school building as a lost opportunity to create a “truly important work.” Photographs of the complex were also included in Forms and Functions of Twentieth-Century Architecture (1952), in sections devoted to city planning and concrete construction.

 

G. Holmes Perkins wrote in the city planning section that despite faults, the complex “may be held up as patterns for tomorrow.” Richard Pommer, in one of the most insightful discussions of Depression-era housing in the United States, criticized the angled plan, calling Lescaze a “versatile pasticheur” who used visual effects without logic or relation to function. Robert A. M. Stern shared this view, writing in 1980 that it “seems overrated.” Richard Plunz, in A History of Housing in New York City, credited the project as the start of a “brief but intense struggle” to determine the aesthetic direction government-built housing would take. All four editions of the AIA Guide to New York City have praised the Williamsburg Houses. The 1968 edition called it a “very successful solution to the problem of low-rent subsidized housing,” and in 2000 “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

 

Subsequent History

 

Conveyed by the federal government to the NYCHA in 1957, the Williamsburg Houses continue to serve their original purpose, housing more than three thousand New Yorkers. Major alterations were first proposed in 1980 and significant work took place during 1985-91. At this time, the original casement windows were replaced with bronze-colored aluminum sash and the blue terra cotta that surrounded the entrances, with tan “Morocco” glazed brick.

 

In a remarkable turnaround, during the mid1990s, the facades were restored. What began as continued maintenance, soon evolved into a major architectural project, requiring an outside contractor and consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Under the supervision of Neil Cohen of the NYCHA, the elevations were completely reskinned, the parapets replaced, as well as the chimneys, railings, and terra-cotta banding. In addition, new canopies, doors, lighting fixtures, and signage were fabricated.

 

The approximately $70 million project was executed with great sensitivity; there was an article in the real estate section of the New York Times and the NYCHA was the recipient of the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy (1999), which praised the participants for restoring the complex to “better-than-new condition.” Restoration of the storefronts, except along Bushwick Avenue, was completed in 2002.

 

The high standards set by the design of the Williamsburg Houses have rarely been matched. Innovative in terms of scale, plan, and aesthetics, it remains one of the most pleasant and architecturally-distinguished housing developments in New York City.

 

Description

 

There are twenty walk-up buildings in the 23.3acre Williamsburg complex and a total of 1,620 apartments. These buildings are numbered from 1 to 20 and each entrance has its own street address, for instance, “112 Maujer Street.” Stainless steel signs, with pin-mounted numbers and letters, identify each entrance.

 

The site extends four blocks east to west, from Bushwick Avenue to Leonard Street, and three blocks north to south, from Maujer to Scholes Streets. The principal north-south artery is Graham Avenue. Between Maujer and Scholes Streets, Ten Eyck Street and Stagg Street are closed to vehicles. These winding east-west paths are called Ten Eyck Walk and Stagg Walk. They are identified by large pin-mounted stainless steel letters attached to the building facades and are visible along the north-south streets. Throughout the complex are wall-mounted cantilevered lighting fixtures. These glass and aluminum fixtures are reproductions of the originals.

 

Three of the four blocks have a tree-shaded open space at center. At present, non-historic benches, play equipment, and basketball courts are located here. Most lawns are enclosed by low iron fences. Though not original, these fences pre-date the 1990s. Pole-mounted lighting fixtures are occasionally used to illuminate these areas.

 

All buildings materials are non-historic. Each structure is four stories tall and clad in ochre-colored brick. Exterior concrete spandrel beams are exposed at each floor. To disguise patches to the concrete, the beams are coated with a grey-colored water repellency finish. The entrances are flanked by blue structural glazed facing tiles that are approximately 12 by 12 inches. Blue mortar was used to minimize the joint lines. A canopy projects in front of each entrance (except on one side of the breezeways). Made of stainless steel, they incorporate recessed down lights. Some canopies are supported by a single pipe column. The entrance doors and sidelights are made of stainless steel.

 

Each door has a grid of four small square windows. Breezeways serve a dual purpose: reached by two sets of stairs, they provide an additional north-south passage, as well as entry to apartments. Most of the stairs are flanked by stainless steel railings. The bronze anodized aluminum windows, installed in the 1980s, are all one-over-one. Arranged as single windows or in pairs, they have concrete sills and meet the concrete spandrels above. The smaller windows light the bathrooms. Single windows and pairs are located where the facades meet, often creating triple-width openings at the cantilevered corners.

 

There are three general building configurations. All are original to the complex. They include eight buildings with “H” shaped floor plans, six with floor plans that suggest a small letter “h,” and six buildings with “T” shaped floor plans. While the “H” and “h” types alternate along Maujer and Scholes Streets (except next to the school where both are “H” shaped), the “T” shaped buildings are located only between Ten Eyck Walk and Stagg Walk.

 

The “H” buildings (Nos. 1, 6, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, and 20) are nearly symmetrical, with almost identical north and south courtyards. At the center of each court is either a projecting center section or breezeway. The apartments are reached by four distinct entrances, each with a different tile treatment. They include: corner, wide, recessed between the door and the roof, and incorporated within a breezeway. Each entrance leads to interior stairs. The windows that light the stairs are arranged in horizontal grids of six and eight panes. Except for the recessed variant, the tiles project slightly and rise above the parapet to the stair bulkhead. The opposite side of the breezeway has no tilework. Reached by stairs, each breezeway incorporates two concrete columns and a metal door. The “h” buildings (Nos. 2, 5, 19, 13, 16 and 19) are similar to the “H” buildings, except one court is partially enclosed.

 

The “T” buildings (Nos. 3, 4, 11, 12, 17, 18) have shallow courts. The top of the ‘T” has three entrances, each framed with blue tiles. A pair of entrances are also found facing each other in one of the side courts, and occasionally on the opposite side, as well. Building No. 11, located on the east side of Graham Avenue, is unique due to the presence of a nursery school at the wider south end. To accommodate this function, the entrances were moved and the court at the south end was enclosed. The south wall of school is clad with glass blocks, many of which are original. A concrete shed, at the center of the wall, is not historic and there are plans for removal. From the south facade extends a raised play area that is enclosed by a fence. Along the east side of the building, facing Graham Avenue, a non-historic ramp with metal railings has been constructed.

 

Commercial storefronts parallel the streets and adjoin the apartment buildings in various locations. The materials are non-historic, but the new elevations closely resemble the originals. The largest storefronts are located on either side of Graham Avenue, between Maujer Street and Ten Eyck Walk (Nos. 8 and 9). Smaller retail spaces are located along Graham Avenue (near Scholes Street, No. 13); on Leonard Street (near Maujer Street, No. 1); and on Bushwick Avenue (between Maujer and Stagg Walk, No. 16). They have a stream-lined character and curve away from the street at both ends. One story tall, they have granite bases and are clad with stainless steel and metal that has a baked-on blue porcelain finish. Above the storefronts runs the blue metal parapet, crowned by a stainless steel roof rail. Lighting was added above the storefronts, and security gates, when the stores are open, roll up and are neatly hidden within the facades. Large glass blocks or plate glass are used throughout. Along Bushwick Avenue, the modifications are less sympathetic and a vertical grid of older decorative concrete block occasionally interrupts the facade.

 

- From the 2003 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, United States

 

A collaborative project of the Federal Public Works Administration and the newly established New York City Housing Authority, the Williamsburg Houses are notable as one of the earliest housing developments in the United States to reflect the ideas of the modern movement in architecture. In the 1920s Williamsburg was one of the most densely populated sections of Brooklyn and nearly six hundred, mostly frame, structures were demolished to create the 23.3 acre site. Proposed in 1934, this residential complex was skillfully designed by the Williamsburg Associated Architects during 1935 and most units were occupied by 1938.

 

The partnership included Richmond H. Shreve, of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the architects of the Empire State Building, and William Lescaze, the Swiss-born architect who helped introduce the “International” style on the eastern seaboard. Lescaze was responsible for the design, which includes twenty 4-story structures on four “super” blocks turned at 15 degree angles to the street grid. Oriented to the sun and prevailing winds, this unusual layout produced a series of large and small courts, many of which flow into a large public space at the center of each block. A light-colored palette distinguishes the facades, executed in tan brick and exposed concrete.

 

Among the most prominent features are the entrances, marked by blue tile and projecting stainless steel canopies, and the handsome streamlined storefronts. The complex was widely discussed by contemporary critics and more than 25,000 New Yorkers applied for 1,622 apartments. During the mid-1990s, the buildings underwent an extensive restoration which included the replacement of all exterior materials. Sponsored by the Housing Authority, in consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, these alterations were remarkably sensitive and in the 4th edition of the AIA Guide to New York City the “revivified” complex was called “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

 

DESCRIPTION AND ANALYSIS

 

Housing the Masses

 

From the rowhouse to the apartment building, New York City has been a laboratory for innovative housing. Beginning after the Civil War, apartments, variously known as French Flats and tenements, were built to house the city’s surging population. Immigrants, for the most part, crowded into unregulated tenements, structures that maximized profits for developers while providing few amenities that we take for granted today, such as light, air, and private bathrooms.

 

Despite government efforts to legislate minimum standards in 1867 and 1879, initially private individuals took the most significant steps to make decent housing affordable to all. Several pioneering examples were located close to the Brooklyn waterfront, including the Home and Tower Buildings , the Astral Apartments and Riverside . The later complex surrounded a large tree-shaded courtyard incorporating a music pavilion and areas for drying laundry. Despite these, and a few innovative Manhattan developments, the majority of New Yorkers continued to live in substandard conditions.

 

The passage of the New Tenement Law in 1901 improved the situation, requiring that multiple dwellings be built on significantly larger lots, with fire escapes and separate “privies” for each family. After World War I, the garden apartment came into vogue. While most were built for the middle class, especially in Jackson Heights, a significant group were sponsored by unions and cooperative organizations that wished to provide members with inexpensive apartments. Significant examples include the Amalgamated Houses on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the “Coops” built in the Bronx by the United Workers Cooperative Association .

 

The first significant act of government intervention occurred in 1926 with the passage of the New York State Housing Law. Promoted by Governor Alfred E. Smith to encourage construction through the formation of local authorities that would sell bonds or seek federal funds, it had little impact until 1934 when the New York City Housing Authority was established. The authority’s first project, aptly called the First Houses , was located in Manhattan’s East Village. Begun as a rehabilitation program involving the demolition of every third structure, due to structural problems the eight brick buildings were entirely rebuilt.

 

Throughout the early Depression, government-subsidized housing remained a controversial issue. Consequently, it was first promoted as worker relief, organized to create jobs but not compete with the commercial market. The first federal agency to involve itself with housing was the Reconstruction Finance Corporation which was created in 1932 to provide low-interest loans to limited-dividend housing corporations. Of the two loans it made, one was toward the construction of Knickerbocker Village . Built for the Fred F. French Company, this Chinatown-area development consists of two 12-story buildings, both enclosing an interior courtyard.

 

In mid-1933, as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration was established. What made this agency different from its predecessor, the RFC, was that it would be directly involved in the planning and construction of low-income housing. The program was a great success and over the next three and half years it collaborated on the design and construction of 51 projects in 36 cities, including the Harlem River Houses and the Williamsburg Houses.

 

The passage of the Wagner-Steagall Bill by the United States Congress in September 1937, strengthened the federal government’s commitment to housing, but shifted greater control to local authorities. The first New York City housing project to be financed under this program was the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn. Future construction, which would amount to more than half a million low-rental units nationwide by 1957, would be funded primarily through low-interest loans.

 

Site

 

The Williamsburg Houses are located in northwestern Brooklyn, approximately one mile east of the Williamsburg Bridge and two blocks south of Grand Street, a lively commercial thoroughfare. Founded as part of the town of Bushwick in the mid17th century, Williamsburg was incorporated as a village in 1827. The community prospered and by 1852 it was the 20th largest city in the nation. Three years later, Williamsburg became part of Brooklyn and was commonly referred to as the Eastern District. Although ferry service was important to the area’s development, it was the planning and construction of a second East River crossing, the Williamsburg Bridge, that caused the most dramatic growth.

 

Proposed in 1883, the bridge was completed with much fanfare in 1903, serving pedestrians, bicycles and horse-drawn vehicles. In subsequent decades, Williamsburg rivaled the Lower East Side in population and density. The Brooklyn Eagle claimed in 1920 that the bridge was part of the busiest traffic center in the nation and that a single block north of it was the most crowded in the world. Conditions in the neighborhood continued to deteriorate throughout the decade, so much so that the population began to decline.

 

In October 1933, the Federal Works Administration established a slum clearance committee to study conditions throughout New York City. Richmond H. Shreve, who would later serve as chief architect of the Williamsburg Houses, was named director. Based on the committee’s recommendations, $25 million was set aside for a housing program in New York City. Under the direction of the NYCHA, a more comprehensive study was undertaken in 1934, focusing on fourteen neighborhoods, including Williamsburg. The PWA reported:

 

When the study was completed the blighted slum area of the Williamsburg section stood out as the best example where the most good could be done in wholesale clearance work.

 

Of 93 blocks studied, a grid of 12 was identified for redevelopment in Williamsburg. These blocks were chosen because property values were relatively low and the owners were willing to sell. Most of buildings were mixed-use, incorporating retail spaces at ground level and apartments above. Each lot was carefully documented: 90% of the structures were at least forty years old, 70% were built of wood, 78% had no central heating, and 67% had no private toilets. Such statistics were used to paint an extremely bleak picture of life there:

 

But the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, according to official surveys, is unique in that its 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.

 

Public amenities were also in short supply; there were few schools and there were almost no parks.

 

Architects

 

Five architects were appointed to the NYCHA’s architectural board in May 1934: Richmond H. Shreve of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, Matthew W. Del Gaudio , William Lescaze , Arthur C. Holden , and James F. Bly. As members of the board, their initial role was advisory. They would act as the authority’s chief architect, overseeing the design and construction of municipal housing citywide.

 

In June 1934 an open competition was held to choose the architects who would work on the Williamsburg Houses and other NYCHA projects. The program guidelines did not specify the location, but the grid chosen closely resembled the long blocks where the Williamsburg Houses would be built. Of 278 architects who participated, 5 of the 22 selected were assigned to the Brooklyn project: Samuel Gardstein, of Holmgren, Volz & Gardstein, G. Harmon Gurney , of Gurney & Clavan, John W. Ingle Jr., Paul Trapani , and Harry Leslie Walker .

 

In June 1935, a contract was signed with the Williamsburg Associated Architects. The partnership consisted of ten men: the five architects selected by jury, as well as the five members of the architectural board. Among them, Shreve had the most experience with large projects, having worked on a succession of major Manhattan skyscrapers, most notably, the Empire State Building .

 

A graduate of the College of Architecture at Cornell University , he began his career as a member of the school’s faculty and later joined the firm of Carrére & Hastings in New York City where he distinguished himself as having a “genius for the solution of operational and administrative problems.” Whereas prior to the Depression he mainly worked on office buildings, in his later years Shreve was associated with residential developments, most notably the Vladeck Houses on the Lower East Side, and Parkchester , a development with more than twelve thousand apartments in the Bronx. During the late 1930s, he also served as a member of the board of design for the New York World’s Fair.

 

Design

 

Of the three initial projects built by the NYCHA and the PWA, the Williamsburg Houses were the most innovative. Shreve appointed Lescaze as the chief designer, responsible for the plan and elevations. In the 1930s, he was at the height of his career, profiled in publications read by professionals and the layman. Born near Geneva, Switzerland, in 1896, he studied in Zurich with the architect Karl Moser in 1915-19 and for a brief period worked in Paris with Henri Sauvage, an important designer of apartment buildings. Lescaze moved to the United States in 1920 and after working in Cleveland and New York City, formed a partnership with George Howe, a Philadelphia architect, in 1929.

 

Their association lasted four years and produced one architectural masterpiece, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building, completed in 1932. During the mid-1930s, he was extremely active, working on unrealized plans for the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, as well as building three of the earliest modern-style townhouses in Manhattan, his own house and studio, completed in 1934, as well as the Raymond C. and Mildred Kramer and Edward and Dorothy Norman houses. He also designed, with Albert Frey, the Chrystie-Forsyth Houses. Planned in 1931, this unrealized proposal was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s so-called “International Style” exhibition of 1932.

 

One of the most unique aspects of the Williamsburg Houses is the plan. To create the 23.3 acre complex, twelve blocks were acquired by the city, and the two east-west streets were closed to traffic to create four “super” blocks. All but one extend three full blocks from north to south, except part of the block between Manhattan and Graham Avenues that was set aside for a new junior high school and play area.

 

The development of New York City was closely tied to its gridiron. Introduced in 1811, it resulted in a city of predictable intersecting streets and avenues. In 1835, a similar plan was approved for Brooklyn and by the early 1850s the streets that cross through the site of the Williamsburg Houses had opened.

 

Most were named for area residents, such as Daniel Maujer, a lawyer and alderman, John and James Lorimer Graham, land jobbers, and James Scholes, a local land owner. The impact of this approach is visible throughout New York City, establishing blocks and lots of equal size and dimensions. Residential developers benefitted immensely, commissioning rowhouse and tenement designs that could be repeated without regard to location.

 

By the end of the 19th century, there was relatively little open space in Manhattan and Brooklyn. As part of the City Beautiful movement, various attempts were made to loosen the grid’s hold, first through the passage of the Small Parks Act in 1887, which focused on tenement neighborhoods, and later, by situating major civic structures in plazas. Similar ideas shaped the development of garden apartments which came into vogue after 1910. One of the primary characteristics of this type of multiple dwelling was reduced site coverage.

 

In most cases, such as in the Jackson Heights Historic District, the buildings were set around the perimeter of each block, enclosing large private gardens, but in other situations, such as at the Harlem River Houses, a “crankshaft” arrangement was adopted, creating a mixture of interior and exterior courts.

 

Lescaze borrowed freely from both the garden apartment tradition and architects associated with European modernism. In his earliest design, each block incorporated six U-shaped structures arranged around a narrow central court. A later design was considerably more irregular. Turned at an angle to the street, there were fewer but larger buildings.

 

Many aspects of this proposal were integrated into the final design. The Williamsburg Houses are configured in three ways, with footprints suggesting a capital “H,” small “h,” and “T.” All have small spurs and extensions, resembling crossbars. By adding this feature the number of courtyards was significantly increased. Within each block are six buildings ; at the north and south are the “H” and “h” configurations, and in the middle, the “T”s.

 

The decision to turn the buildings at a 15 degree angle to the street grid proved controversial. PWA accounts described it in functional terms, explaining that the orientation would provide tenants with more sun and take advantage of the prevailing northwest breezes. During the previous decade, many architects and planners experimented with similar ideas. One of the earliest built examples “to deviate from the geometry of the New York gridiron” was the Mesa Verde apartments in Jackson Heights. Designed by Henry Atterbury Smith and based on an earlier proposal from 1917, the development featured two rows of six “closed L buildings” set at 45 degree angle to the surrounding streets.

 

Lescaze, however, was more likely to have been influenced by European sources. During the 1920s, he frequently returned to Europe, a period when leading architects were involved in the design of social housing. Many favored the “tower in the park” approach in which free-standing high-rise structures stood in continuous open space. Writing in English in 1935, Walter Gropius concluded that apartment blocks should “command a clear view of the sky, over broad expanses of grass and trees which separate the blocks and serve as playgrounds.”

 

Another source of inspiration might have been Ernst May who oversaw the design and construction of many low-rise housing estates in Frankfurt. In his Bruchfeldstrasse development of 1926-27, designed with C. K. Rudloff, one section was arranged in an overlapping zig-zag configuration. As in Williamsburg, each unit had corner windows, providing tenants with uninterrupted views of a central garden.

 

Many writers were skeptical about the benefits of Lescaze’s plan. Hamlin argued that the layout would convert the courts “into perfect channels for Project for a group of factories. our most vicious northwest winds.” He was told that

 

the arrangement had, in fact, been chosen for aesthetic reasons, to “break up the street facades” and “allow the feeling of space to weave in and out on the street fronts. This goal was definitely achieved, producing an environment that was new and distinctive. The flowing spaces that Lescaze planned are less monumental and more intimate than those experienced in most housing projects, juxtaposing wedge-shaped lawns with semi-enclosed courtyards and large open plazas. As originally built, no fences interrupted the spaces and the areas adjoining the curving concrete walks were paved with cobblestone.

 

The Elevations

 

Equally modern were the elevations. Lescaze was attracted to the expressive and aesthetic qualities of modern materials. Particularly unusual was the decision to use a light-colored palette. Built from reinforced concrete, the walls were originally enclosed with a sand-cast brick that was variously described by observers as bright tan, yellowish, pinkish, and grayish warm pink. One of the most notable features was the exposed concrete floor plates which express the structure and division between the floors while giving the complex a strong horizontal appearance. Talbot Hamlin observed:

 

The effectiveness of the buildings is undoubted. The striping of brick and concrete and the contrast of the light walls which front the stair towers make a vivid picture . . .

 

Prior to the mid-1930s, red brick was the most frequently used material in housing developments, used throughout Jackson Heights and in the First Houses and Harlem River Houses. The proposal to break with this tradition generated considerable debate. While the general scheme was approved in June 1935, it was not until October that specific materials were selected. Presumably, the PWA wished to standardize the building process and reduce costs. Frederick Ackerman, technical director of the NYCHA, defended Lescaze’s proposal. He wrote the authority’s chairman, Langdon W. Post:

 

. . . the “effect” of the Project will depend very largely upon the texture and quality of the exterior wall. Unless the exterior wall possesses a greater intrinsic interest than one made of common brick then the resultant effect is certain to be a bleak, barren and unusually forbidding mass of building:

 

One might readily mistake the At Williamsburg, the buildings stand as freestanding objects, finished on all sides and approachable from multiple directions. No facade dominates and the apartment entrances face both the streets and courtyards. For those unfamiliar with the layout, the angled plan may have been somewhat disorienting. To make it easier to navigate, signs were installed throughout the complex and Lescaze skillfully designed the entrances, making dramatic use of color and form. Like Le Corbusier, he was an “accomplished” painter and frequently used color, especially blue, to enliven wall surfaces. Another possible model was May’s housing development at Praunheim where contrasting colors were used to give the projecting stair towers a distinctive appearance.

 

Within the courtyards are as many as five entrances. Each is sheltered by a small cantilevered aluminum marquee and is flanked by square blue terra-cotta tiles. The entrances that are located at the far end of the larger courtyards are set at a angle. In these instances, the tiles spread onto the adjoining walls and extend above the parapet to the stair bulkhead. Other tile treatments project slightly forward, or are recessed above the doors to the roof. An entrance is also located in the covered breezeway. Reached by a short flight of stairs connecting both the street and courtyard, the more public street facade had an asymmetrical character, incorporating projecting blue tiles to one side and a wide aluminum marquee.

 

Construction

 

To prepare the site for construction, 568 buildings were demolished on 349 lots and approximately 5,400 people were relocated. A 1935 report described the population as divided equally between American born, Italian born, and other nationalities. Most were semi-skilled workers, employed in manufacturing, or as clerks, truck drivers, and construction workers.

 

Demolition commenced in June 1935 as PWA supervisor Elizabeth Ross dug a crowbar into the facade of 197 Manhattan Avenue, near Ten Eyck Street. In the months that followed:

 

Steam shovels and picks played a tune to rival that of the pipes of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. From every dank basement and crumbling wall rats fled in droves. Backyards disgorged an assortment of rusted cans, trash, filth and litter that would have discouraged the most voracious goat.

 

Ground was broken on January 3, 1936. Following a brief ceremony in the rain, public officials addressed an audience of five hundred at Public School 196. During April 1936, the first foundations were poured at the southwest corner of Manhattan Avenue and Stagg Street. Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia was in attendance, followed by “a few hundred interested onlookers and an army of schoolboys.”

 

As the foundations neared completion, the PWA solicited bids for construction. Starrett Brothers & Eken was awarded the $7. 5 million contract for the first 18 buildings in October 1936. A subsequent contract, for construction of buildings No. 5 and 18, was signed in late April 1937.

 

Founded by Paul Starrett and William Aiken Starrett and Andrew J. Eken in 1922, the firm was responsible for such high-profile buildings as the New York Life Insurance Company Building , Bank of Manhattan Building , McGraw-Hill Building , and Empire State Building . The Starrett Brothers worked closely with Shreve on the Empire State Building and it is likely that this relationship helped secure the contract for the Williamsburg Houses. William Starrett acknowledged the importance and complexity of this issue when he said:

 

It is the hope of people who are discussing this problem that those same brains that put together the great skyscrapers . . . will turn toward this.

 

Starrett Brothers & Eken later built Parkchester , Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

 

The cornerstone was laid in October 1936. It contained an aerial view of the site, a copy of the federal act creating the PWA, as well as an autographed copy of Jacob Riis’s timeless account of slum conditions, How the Other Half Lives, donated by his widow. Construction progressed rapidly, and aside from minor walk-outs by metalworkers and painters, the first six buildings were ready for occupancy with a year, in September

 

Publicity

 

The Williamsburg Houses was the largest and costliest project built by the PWA. With 1,622 apartments, it was more than twice the size of the Harlem River Houses. The approximate cost was $12.8 million. It was described by the PWA as part of “demonstration program” and numerous public events were held. In a letter to Post, Shreve stated:

 

As this project is the beginning of what, in a way, is a housing community experiment and as the public attitude toward housing will be largely controlled by the success or failure of such an experiment, it is of importance that every effort be made to make the first experiment successful.

 

In this context, how the project was perceived was of the utmost importance. Once the design had been approved, a scale model was built by the PWA and exhibited at banks in Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg during late 1935 and 1936. This presentation was accompanied by a series of posters documenting the site, including photographs of earlier buildings and their demolition, as well as projected floor plans. The New York Times reported the model:

 

. . . throws into graphic relief the application of the new principle of multiple housing, providing more air, sunlight and recreational facilities and involving a departure from the solid-block construction.

 

The idea of using public funds to create low-income housing was relatively new and much of the language used in speeches and press releases heralded it as a major advance. At the site, signs were posted, calling Williamsburg the “Largest Low Rental Development in the USA.” At the ground-breaking, public officials evoked the memory of Alfred T. White, whose Brooklyn developments were among the first attempts to improve low-income housing in the nation.

 

Mayor LaGuardia thanked the President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for his support, as did Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, who described slums as a “vicious project of that old order whose passing, we hope, is at hand.” While some critics equated the federal housing program with socialism, most speakers saw it as a defense of democracy.

 

In November 1935, Post had contacted the PWA, requesting that the complex be called the “Ten Eyck” Houses. No explanation was given, but it is likely that the request was made to distinguish the new development from the larger surrounding neighborhood.

 

Ten Eyck Street was one of two east-west streets closed to create the site and it was probably named for the Dutch family whose Brooklyn lineage extended back to at least the 18th century. In the immediate area also lived William Ten Eyck, who during the mid-19th century served as the deacon of the Reformed Church of South Bushwick . Post’s request was quickly approved. The new name, however, was not widely used and a 1938 PWA publication refers to the development as the Williamsburg Houses.

 

On October 28, 1936, the construction site was briefly visited by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. According to the New York Times, ten thousand school children and five thousand adults “cheered the President’s passage through the streets bordering the housing project.”

 

Three “model” apartments were opened for public view in July through August 1937. Furnished with loans from various Brooklyn department stores, they were presented at 180 Maujer Street. Post was an early visitor and he described the apartments as a “demonstration of what can be done, this is the most valuable contribution to social progress that the New Deal has made.” An average of 1,200 persons a day visited. In September 1937, a second group of apartments opened at 176 Maujer Street, including one decorated entirely with “reconditioned furniture.” In a related development, during April and May 1938, the WPA created an exhibit in a storefront office at 212 Graham Avenue. Organized by William Friedman of the art teaching division, the display was changed periodically to demonstrate different apartment layouts and decoration. Nine experts spent five months preparing the exhibit, hoping that it would influence local residents and provide a model for future public housing developments. A music branch, at 176 Maujer Street, also provided lessons in theory, voice, and various instruments.

 

Tenants

 

According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the Williamsburg Houses were “one of the most perfect home sites in the word . . . an eagerly sought spot to live.” Income and need formed the basis of selection and no tenant could earn more than five times the annual rent. Preference was also given to former residents of the site.

 

The first tenants began to occupy their apartments on September 30, 1937. The New York Times devoted at least two articles to “Moving Day,” as did the Brooklyn Eagle. As part of the operation, each tenant’s belongings were moved to a fumigation plant for sterilization near the intersection of Bushwick Avenue at Scholes Street.

 

This procedure was described as a “wise precaution against the spread of disease.” Bessie and Louis Grabkowitz were recognized by the NYCHA as the first official tenants. A week’s rent, of less than seven dollars, was paid and they were given keys to their new apartment. Two to five rooms in size, units featured steam heat, hot and cold water, as well as electric stoves and refrigerators. Residents praised their new homes, commenting on the appliances and abundant sunlight.

 

By the end of 1937, most apartments were occupied. A community newspaper, the Projector, began publishing on a semi-monthly basis in December 1937. In April 1938, the complex was completed. In addition to the twenty residential buildings, there were retail spaces, facing the north-south streets. The PWA reported:

 

To insure efficient, sanitary commercial services, 49 stores and shops within the project, distributing drugs, groceries, appliances, and general merchandise, have been leased to private individuals.

 

The storefronts were executed in a sleek Moderne style. To the north and south, they curved away from the street, recalling the streamlined designs of Erich Mendelsohn, as well as J. J. P. Oud’s Kiefhoek development of 1925. The prominent metal parapets were blue, matching the color of the apartment entrances. Despite their polished design, a significant number failed to attract and retain tenants. Consequently, in 1945 ten unleased spaces, near the corners of Maujer and Leonard Streets, and Scholes Street and Bushwick Avenue, were converted to apartments.

 

Tenants enjoyed a variety of useful services. At the center of the complex, on Graham Avenue stood the stripped classical-style William J. Gaynor Junior High School , and opposite it, Building No. 11 housed a nursery school. Incorporated into the building’s south court and featuring a large play terrace, Hamlin described its glass-fronted design as “pleasant” and “delightful.” In addition, a new Moderne-style health center was built directly across from the complex, on Maujer Street.

 

Throughout the development were “social and craft rooms.” These basement spaces were originally used for classes, clubs, and meetings and many were decorated with large colorful murals. In contrast to the majority of WPA murals that were executed in style of social realism, the Williamsburg murals were non-objective. Lescaze favored “abstract and stimulating patterns” and Burgoyne Diller who headed the Federal Art Project, wrote that:

 

The decision to place abstract murals in these rooms [of the Williamsburg Housing Project] was made because the areas were intended to provide a place of relaxation and entertainment . . . The more arbitrary the color, possible when not determined by the description of objects, enables the artist to place an emphasis on its psychological potential to stimulate relaxation.

 

Of twelve murals commissioned, at least five were installed. In the early 1990s, the deteriorated canvases were restored and moved to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. They include works by the American painters Ilya Bolotowsky, Paul Kelpe, and Balcomb Greene.

  

Critical Reception

 

The opening of the Williamsburg Houses was treated as major news and writers used the event to analyze the project and express their own views about the role of public housing and the importance of modern architecture. Some of the earliest comments came from the architect Walter Gropius, former director of the Bauhaus in Germany. On a visit to New York City in April 1937 he was interviewed by H.I. Brock in the New York Times. They traveled together throughout the city, visiting both new skyscrapers and the nearly-complete Brooklyn development. Gropius was impressed and praised the unusual plan, saying that Lescaze:

 

. . . seems to have solved the problem of space and light very successfully and economically, and it has the great advantage of being spread over enough land to make it worthwhile as a sample of planned development.

 

Lewis Mumford was the first critic to publish a substantial review in February 1938. As a persistent advocate for public housing, he used the opportunity to evaluate the “outlines of the new order of building.” He praised the PWA for eschewing “overpriced building lots” and instead assembling large sites in quieter areas where streets could be closed to traffic to create gardens and playgrounds. Considerable attention was paid to the slanted orientation. Although he described it as “a bit queer,” he liked the way it separated the residences from the street and that it gave the appearance that the architects were concerned about providing tenants with ample sunlight.

 

Talbot Hamlin published the most-detailed analysis. In this review, he addressed both PWA projects, calling them “a new vision of democracy ... they are better than the most expensive apartments on Park Avenue.” Despite such praise, he expressed mixed feelings. While he found the buildings “fresh and inventive and alive,” he was disturbed by the “shockingly low” standards of construction. He also admired the “imaginative and carefully studied detailing,” but criticized the landscaping as little more than adequate. The WPA Guide to New York City, published in 1939, shared similar views, quoting Hamlin’s review, and praising the design of the individual buildings.

 

In the years since completion, the Williamsburg Houses have been a frequent subject for architectural historians. Many, starting with the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, have placed the development within the context of European modernism. In an exhibition celebrating the museum’s 10th anniversary and the opening of its new building, it was the only architectural work represented that was located in New York City. In a brief essay on housing, the curators highlighted the “triple-size superblocks,” that form an “oasis of open space,” but criticized the adjoining school building as a lost opportunity to create a “truly important work.” Photographs of the complex were also included in Forms and Functions of Twentieth-Century Architecture , in sections devoted to city planning and concrete construction.

 

G. Holmes Perkins wrote in the city planning section that despite faults, the complex “may be held up as patterns for tomorrow.” Richard Pommer, in one of the most insightful discussions of Depression-era housing in the United States, criticized the angled plan, calling Lescaze a “versatile pasticheur” who used visual effects without logic or relation to function. Robert A. M. Stern shared this view, writing in 1980 that it “seems overrated.” Richard Plunz, in A History of Housing in New York City, credited the project as the start of a “brief but intense struggle” to determine the aesthetic direction government-built housing would take. All four editions of the AIA Guide to New York City have praised the Williamsburg Houses. The 1968 edition called it a “very successful solution to the problem of low-rent subsidized housing,” and in 2000 “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

 

Subsequent History

 

Conveyed by the federal government to the NYCHA in 1957, the Williamsburg Houses continue to serve their original purpose, housing more than three thousand New Yorkers. Major alterations were first proposed in 1980 and significant work took place during 1985-91. At this time, the original casement windows were replaced with bronze-colored aluminum sash and the blue terra cotta that surrounded the entrances, with tan “Morocco” glazed brick.

 

In a remarkable turnaround, during the mid1990s, the facades were restored. What began as continued maintenance, soon evolved into a major architectural project, requiring an outside contractor and consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Under the supervision of Neil Cohen of the NYCHA, the elevations were completely reskinned, the parapets replaced, as well as the chimneys, railings, and terra-cotta banding. In addition, new canopies, doors, lighting fixtures, and signage were fabricated.

 

The approximately $70 million project was executed with great sensitivity; there was an article in the real estate section of the New York Times and the NYCHA was the recipient of the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy , which praised the participants for restoring the complex to “better-than-new condition.” Restoration of the storefronts, except along Bushwick Avenue, was completed in 2002.

 

The high standards set by the design of the Williamsburg Houses have rarely been matched. Innovative in terms of scale, plan, and aesthetics, it remains one of the most pleasant and architecturally-distinguished housing developments in New York City.

 

Description

 

There are twenty walk-up buildings in the 23.3acre Williamsburg complex and a total of 1,620 apartments. These buildings are numbered from 1 to 20 and each entrance has its own street address, for instance, “112 Maujer Street.” Stainless steel signs, with pin-mounted numbers and letters, identify each entrance.

 

The site extends four blocks east to west, from Bushwick Avenue to Leonard Street, and three blocks north to south, from Maujer to Scholes Streets. The principal north-south artery is Graham Avenue. Between Maujer and Scholes Streets, Ten Eyck Street and Stagg Street are closed to vehicles. These winding east-west paths are called Ten Eyck Walk and Stagg Walk. They are identified by large pin-mounted stainless steel letters attached to the building facades and are visible along the north-south streets. Throughout the complex are wall-mounted cantilevered lighting fixtures. These glass and aluminum fixtures are reproductions of the originals.

 

Three of the four blocks have a tree-shaded open space at center. At present, non-historic benches, play equipment, and basketball courts are located here. Most lawns are enclosed by low iron fences. Though not original, these fences pre-date the 1990s. Pole-mounted lighting fixtures are occasionally used to illuminate these areas.

 

All buildings materials are non-historic. Each structure is four stories tall and clad in ochre-colored brick. Exterior concrete spandrel beams are exposed at each floor. To disguise patches to the concrete, the beams are coated with a grey-colored water repellency finish. The entrances are flanked by blue structural glazed facing tiles that are approximately 12 by 12 inches. Blue mortar was used to minimize the joint lines. A canopy projects in front of each entrance . Made of stainless steel, they incorporate recessed down lights. Some canopies are supported by a single pipe column. The entrance doors and sidelights are made of stainless steel.

 

Each door has a grid of four small square windows. Breezeways serve a dual purpose: reached by two sets of stairs, they provide an additional north-south passage, as well as entry to apartments. Most of the stairs are flanked by stainless steel railings. The bronze anodized aluminum windows, installed in the 1980s, are all one-over-one. Arranged as single windows or in pairs, they have concrete sills and meet the concrete spandrels above. The smaller windows light the bathrooms. Single windows and pairs are located where the facades meet, often creating triple-width openings at the cantilevered corners.

 

There are three general building configurations. All are original to the complex. They include eight buildings with “H” shaped floor plans, six with floor plans that suggest a small letter “h,” and six buildings with “T” shaped floor plans. While the “H” and “h” types alternate along Maujer and Scholes Streets , the “T” shaped buildings are located only between Ten Eyck Walk and Stagg Walk.

 

The “H” buildings are nearly symmetrical, with almost identical north and south courtyards. At the center of each court is either a projecting center section or breezeway. The apartments are reached by four distinct entrances, each with a different tile treatment. They include: corner, wide, recessed between the door and the roof, and incorporated within a breezeway. Each entrance leads to interior stairs. The windows that light the stairs are arranged in horizontal grids of six and eight panes. Except for the recessed variant, the tiles project slightly and rise above the parapet to the stair bulkhead. The opposite side of the breezeway has no tilework. Reached by stairs, each breezeway incorporates two concrete columns and a metal door. The “h” buildings are similar to the “H” buildings, except one court is partially enclosed.

 

The “T” buildings have shallow courts. The top of the ‘T” has three entrances, each framed with blue tiles. A pair of entrances are also found facing each other in one of the side courts, and occasionally on the opposite side, as well. Building No. 11, located on the east side of Graham Avenue, is unique due to the presence of a nursery school at the wider south end. To accommodate this function, the entrances were moved and the court at the south end was enclosed. The south wall of school is clad with glass blocks, many of which are original. A concrete shed, at the center of the wall, is not historic and there are plans for removal. From the south facade extends a raised play area that is enclosed by a fence. Along the east side of the building, facing Graham Avenue, a non-historic ramp with metal railings has been constructed.

 

Commercial storefronts parallel the streets and adjoin the apartment buildings in various locations. The materials are non-historic, but the new elevations closely resemble the originals. The largest storefronts are located on either side of Graham Avenue, between Maujer Street and Ten Eyck Walk . Smaller retail spaces are located along Graham Avenue ; on Leonard Street ; and on Bushwick Avenue . They have a stream-lined character and curve away from the street at both ends. One story tall, they have granite bases and are clad with stainless steel and metal that has a baked-on blue porcelain finish. Above the storefronts runs the blue metal parapet, crowned by a stainless steel roof rail. Lighting was added above the storefronts, and security gates, when the stores are open, roll up and are neatly hidden within the facades. Large glass blocks or plate glass are used throughout. Along Bushwick Avenue, the modifications are less sympathetic and a vertical grid of older decorative concrete block occasionally interrupts the facade.

 

- From the 2003 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report

Blogged on ☛ HoloChromaCinePhotoRamaScope‽ as: Bye bye, Miss American Pie.

 

• • • • •

 

Quoting Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum | Curtiss P-40E Warhawk (Kittyhawk IA):

 

Whether known as the Warhawk, Tomahawk, or Kittyhawk, the Curtiss P-40 proved to be a successful, versatile fighter during the first half of World War II. The shark-mouthed Tomahawks that Gen. Claire Chennault's "Flying Tigers" flew in China against the Japanese remain among the most popular airplanes of the war. P-40E pilot Lt. Boyd D. Wagner became the first American ace of World War II when he shot down six Japanese aircraft in the Philippines in mid-December 1941.

 

Curtiss-Wright built this airplane as Model 87-A3 and delivered it to Canada as a Kittyhawk I in 1941. It served until 1946 in No. 111 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force. U.S. Air Force personnel at Andrews Air Force Base restored it in 1975 to represent an aircraft of the 75th Fighter Squadron, 23rd Fighter Group, 14th Air Force.

 

Donated by the Exchange Club in Memory of Kellis Forbes.

 

Manufacturer:

Curtiss Aircraft Company

 

Date:

1939

 

Country of Origin:

United States of America

 

Dimensions:

Overall: 330 x 970cm, 2686kg, 1140cm (10ft 9 15/16in. x 31ft 9 7/8in., 5921.6lb., 37ft 4 13/16in.)

 

Materials:

All-metal, semi-monocoque

 

Physical Description:

Single engine, single seat, fighter aircraft.

 

• • • • •

 

Quoting Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum | Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird:

 

No reconnaissance aircraft in history has operated globally in more hostile airspace or with such complete impunity than the SR-71, the world's fastest jet-propelled aircraft. The Blackbird's performance and operational achievements placed it at the pinnacle of aviation technology developments during the Cold War.

 

This Blackbird accrued about 2,800 hours of flight time during 24 years of active service with the U.S. Air Force. On its last flight, March 6, 1990, Lt. Col. Ed Yielding and Lt. Col. Joseph Vida set a speed record by flying from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 20 seconds, averaging 3,418 kilometers (2,124 miles) per hour. At the flight's conclusion, they landed at Washington-Dulles International Airport and turned the airplane over to the Smithsonian.

 

Transferred from the United States Air Force.

 

Manufacturer:

Lockheed Aircraft Corporation

 

Designer:

Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson

 

Date:

1964

 

Country of Origin:

United States of America

 

Dimensions:

Overall: 18ft 5 15/16in. x 55ft 7in. x 107ft 5in., 169998.5lb. (5.638m x 16.942m x 32.741m, 77110.8kg)

Other: 18ft 5 15/16in. x 107ft 5in. x 55ft 7in. (5.638m x 32.741m x 16.942m)

 

Materials:

Titanium

 

Physical Description:

Twin-engine, two-seat, supersonic strategic reconnaissance aircraft; airframe constructed largley of titanium and its alloys; vertical tail fins are constructed of a composite (laminated plastic-type material) to reduce radar cross-section; Pratt and Whitney J58 (JT11D-20B) turbojet engines feature large inlet shock cones.

 

• • • • •

 

Quoting Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum | Vought F4U-1D Corsair :

 

By V-J Day, September 2, 1945, Corsair pilots had amassed an 11:1 kill ratio against enemy aircraft. The aircraft's distinctive inverted gull-wing design allowed ground clearance for the huge, three-bladed Hamilton Standard Hydromatic propeller, which spanned more than 4 meters (13 feet). The Pratt and Whitney R-2800 radial engine and Hydromatic propeller was the largest and one of the most powerful engine-propeller combinations ever flown on a fighter aircraft.

 

Charles Lindbergh flew bombing missions in a Corsair with Marine Air Group 31 against Japanese strongholds in the Pacific in 1944. This airplane is painted in the colors and markings of the Corsair Sun Setter, a Marine close-support fighter assigned to the USS Essex in July 1944.

 

Transferred from the United States Navy.

 

Manufacturer:

Vought Aircraft Company

 

Date:

1940

 

Country of Origin:

United States of America

 

Dimensions:

Overall: 460 x 1020cm, 4037kg, 1250cm (15ft 1 1/8in. x 33ft 5 9/16in., 8900lb., 41ft 1/8in.)

 

Materials:

All metal with fabric-covered wings behind the main spar.

 

Physical Description:

R-2800 radial air-cooled engine with 1,850 horsepower, turned a three-blade Hamilton Standard Hydromatic propeller with solid aluminum blades spanning 13 feet 1 inch; wing bent gull-shaped on both sides of the fuselage.

 

• • • • •

 

See more photos of this, and the Wikipedia article.

 

Details, quoting from Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum | Space Shuttle Enterprise:

 

Manufacturer:

Rockwell International Corporation

 

Country of Origin:

United States of America

 

Dimensions:

Overall: 57 ft. tall x 122 ft. long x 78 ft. wing span, 150,000 lb.

(1737.36 x 3718.57 x 2377.44cm, 68039.6kg)

 

Materials:

Aluminum airframe and body with some fiberglass features; payload bay doors are graphite epoxy composite; thermal tiles are simulated (polyurethane foam) except for test samples of actual tiles and thermal blankets.

 

The first Space Shuttle orbiter, "Enterprise," is a full-scale test vehicle used for flights in the atmosphere and tests on the ground; it is not equipped for spaceflight. Although the airframe and flight control elements are like those of the Shuttles flown in space, this vehicle has no propulsion system and only simulated thermal tiles because these features were not needed for atmospheric and ground tests. "Enterprise" was rolled out at Rockwell International's assembly facility in Palmdale, California, in 1976. In 1977, it entered service for a nine-month-long approach-and-landing test flight program. Thereafter it was used for vibration tests and fit checks at NASA centers, and it also appeared in the 1983 Paris Air Show and the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans. In 1985, NASA transferred "Enterprise" to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

 

Transferred from National Aeronautics and Space Administration

I recently had to take my brother (who's a Vietnam Veteran) for a Dr. appt. at the VA hospital in Fayetteville Arkansas. Since we were going through the area on our way home, we decided to visit War Eagle, as a friend had mentioned the mill there (thanks Mel!). We got there about 4:30 p.m. and as we pulled into the parking lot, the owners started closing up, pulling a large metal cable across the parking lot entrance, in essence showing us out the door. : ) The mill was built in 1973 on the site of 2 previous old mills, but it didn't look very old or scenic. However, as we were leaving, we found this old store building looking pretty on the hillside. I believe the old store was built sometime in the 1830's. War Eagle has a yearly craft & art fair that is quite large, and I may try to go back when the leaves are turning. It's a beautiful part of Arkansas!

 

view large

I bought these paintings from a teenage boy at the War Eagle Mills craft fair in Arkansas. I thought he did a nice job on them.

War Eagle Grist Mill was established in 1832. Situated on War Eagle Creek. An excellent cafe called the Bean Palace is located inside and they feature an excellent beans and cornbread entree. An Arts and Crafts Fair is held each fall on the surrounding grounds.

Masonic Aprons are always at the ready for our welcome visitors.

 

www.flickr.com/search/?q=Masonic+apron

 

youtu.be/D8QBW1NaUpQ

 

Background history:

www.phoenixmasonry.org/symbolism_and_design_of_the_masoni...

 

Delivered in the Lodge by W. Bro. C.J.E. Hudspeth, PM, AMIE Australia on June 24, 1949.

 

The Apron is not a modern invention, in fact it is the most ancient of all garments. In the 3rd Chapter of Genesis these words are written: "and the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons."

 

We are not so much interested in Adam and Eve's apron as we are in the Masonic apron. Boutelle, in his story of the building of King Solomon's Temple, says: "When the construction of King Solomon's Temple was commenced, workmen were selected to carry out the different trades. Hiram, the widow's son, proclaimed that before entering upon the undertaking the aid of God should first be invoked, and as the Temple was to be God's Holy House and erected to Him, each workman having a part in its construction should offer a sacrifice to God on the Altar of Burnt Offering. The Lamb had in all ages been deemed an Emblem of Innocence and was offered as a sacrifice. With the exception of the skin, the whole of the lamb was consumed. The skins were properly prepared and Hiram caused aprons to be made of them. One apron from the skin of each lamb sacrificed, one apron for each mason under him."

 

When the aprons had been presented to the workmen, Hiram is reported to have said: "Masonic authority makes this, the snow-white lambskin apron, its first tangible gift to you and ordains that all Masons in all ages, wherever they may be throughout the world, shall ever receive it and always wear it." The apron is an emblem of innocence. Innocent life has gone out of the world: for every man an apron - for every apron a life.

 

This sacrifice is typical of a greater sacrifice promised by the Almighty and prophesied by all the Prophets of Isreal - the coming of the Messiah who shall be offered for the guilty world. This is the badge of a Mason. It sets the Mason apart from other men. There shall be many who seek to wear it and those to whom it is given shall exalt themselves because of possessing it. No other gift that mere man can bestow can equal this honour and dignity. Kings can bestow no decorations or titles so worthy as this.

 

The Senior Warden says: "More ancient than the Golden Fleece or Roman Eagle, more honourable than the Garter or any other Order in existence, being the Badge of Innocence and bond of friendship." The Order of the Golden Fleece was founded by Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy and the Netherlands on January 10th, 1430, in honour of his marriage to Isabel, daughter of King John of Portugal.

 

It is not definitely known why the order was named the Golden Fleece, but there are four surmises as to its origin.

 

(1) In memory of Jason and his exploits in Greek Legends.

 

(2) Because the wealth of Flanders came largely from wool.

 

(3) That it was so named in memory of Gideon's request that the Lord would prove his Power by causing the dew of heaven to fall only on a fleece set out in the night while the surrounding ground remained dewless. (Judges 6th Chapter. Verses 37 to 40).

 

(4) That it was named in honour or the Duke's own mistress because he gloried in her wondrous fleece of beautiful golden hair.

 

Jason.

 

According to a Greek legend, there was a fabled ram with a golden fleece, on which the discarded wife of the King of Thessaly placed her son and daughter, bidding the ram to carry them to a place of safety far from the wrath of her successor in the King's affections. The daughter, whose name was Helle, fell into the waters of the Strait which connects the Aegean Sea with Constantinople, from which event the Strait was given the name of Hellespont - the Dardanelles of the present day.

 

The boy kept his hold and he reached the land of Colchis on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Here he sacrificed the ram and gave its fleece to the King of that country, who had received him hospitably. The fleece was hung up in a sacred grove and guarded day and night by a dragon that never slept.

 

Jason, a Grecian hero, charged with bringing back the Golden Fleece to Thessaly - as the price of a Kingdom - set out on his quest in the good ship ARGO, manned with his Argonaut crew of immortal heroes. After many thrilling adventures he succeeded in the mission, and with a yoke of fire-breathing bulls performed the task assigned to him of ploughing under the dragon's teeth which produced a crop of warriors. These assailed him, but turned against each other when Jason sprinkled them liberally with a potent lotion prepared for him by Medea, his lady love who was, luckily, a sorceress of great power. This legend or myth is probably intended to dramatise the first Grecian expedition.

 

The Roman Eagle was associated with the God Jupiter in Roman Mythology. Jupiter was the lord of life and light. The most celebrated temple of Jupiter was on the Capitoline Hill in the City of Rome. The Roman represented Jupiter as seated on the throne of ivory, holding in his right hand a sheaf of thunderbolts and in his left a sceptre, whilst an eagle stands beside his throne. When about to go into battle the consuls offered sacrifice to Jupiter praying that he might lead them against the enemy and, on their return from victory, thanks-givings were offered in his name.

 

The figure of the eagle appears on the Standards of the Roman legions and is reflected in the national ensigns of the United States of America, of France under Napoleon, of Imperial Germany and WWII Germany, Mexico and other nations.

 

The Eagle is an emblem of might and courage amongst birds, as is the lion among beasts. Its far-seeing vision, the vast height to which it soars, the wild grandeur of its abode and its longevity have been extolled in poetic phrases by the poets of every tongue and nation.

 

When the Roman Eagle yielded its sway over the then known world, that world sank into a night of 1000 years during which time - with few exceptions - no pet, painter, orator, statesman, inventor, or discoverer was produced; an age which ended only with the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, accompanied by the production of gold and other wealth in sufficient quantities to stimulate the world to a new day and new era.

 

The tassels have seven strings which represent-

 

(1) The 7 liberal Arts and Sciences-Grammar, Rhetoric (the art and science of expression), Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy.

The number 7 appears in nearly every ancient institution.

 

(2) 7 or more the make a lodge perfect.

 

(3) King Solomon was 7 years and upwards in building the temple to God's Service.

 

(4) 7 was the perfect number of the Pythagoreans because it was composed of three and four-the sum of the points of the triangle and the square-the two perfect figures.

 

(5) The 7 steps.

 

(6) 7 Altars burned constantly before Mithra.

 

(7) The Hindus believed the world to be surrounded by 7 peninsulas.

 

(8) There are 7 spacious caverns in the Persian mysteries.

 

(9) The 7 branched candlestick of the Jews representing the Sun as the central light and six other planets.

 

(10) Jacob saw a ladder of 7 steps leading to heaven.

 

The sum of the strings in the two tassels is 14, which was the number of pieces into which the body of OSIRIS was divided by Set in the Egyptian mysteries.

 

The Ribbon Around the Edge of the Apron

 

The blue ribbon around the apron has a deep symbolic meaning, and it will be seen that on reference to the Volume of the Sacred Law, The Book of Numbers, Chapter 15.

 

37th Verse - And the Lord spake unto Moses saying.

 

38th Verse - Speak unto the Children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a riband of blue

 

39th Verse - And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them; that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes; after which ye used to go a whoring;

 

40th Verse - That ye may remember, and do my commandments, and be holy unto your God.

 

41st Verse - I am the Lord your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.

 

The Colour of the Ribbon

 

The Blue of the Apron is Cambridge Blue. It is closely related to the colour of the Virgin Mary, which is itself derived from the Blue of the Ancient Egyptian Goddess Isis. In 1813 the English Grand Lodge standardised the size and shape of aprons. The Blue of the apron is also the "Garter blue" of an early date. King George II changed the Garter Blue from its original colour to its present dark blue to distinguish his Garter Knights from those created by the exiled Stuarts. According to Mackay, the blue border was added - the colour of the firmament enveloping the globe - emblematic of universal friendship and benevolence, instructing us that in the mind of a Freemason these virtues should be as extensive as the vault of Heaven itself.

 

The Two Levels.

 

Standing erect, the form of the apron gives two levels, one at the top, one at the bottom. The lower level is laid in the earth. It is symbolical of the level of time along which we walk toward that place from which no traveller returns. The level above it is laid in the heavens - a spiritual level. It is a promise that those who walk uprightly before God and Man (which is symbolised by the two perpendiculars on either side) shall walk eternally on the spiritual level.

 

The Plumbs or sides, admonish rectitude. Rectitude of Conduct. Rectitude of Morals, Rectitude of Life.

 

2 Kings 21-13th Verse - and I will stretch over Jerusalem the line of Samaria and the plummet of the house of Ahab.

 

Isiaah 28-17th Verse - Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet.

 

Amos 7-7th Verse - Thus he showed me, and behold the Lord stood upon a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand.

 

Amos 7-8th Verse - And the Lord said unto me, Amos what seest thou? And I said, A plumbline. Then said the Lord, Behold I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel. I will not again pass by them any more.

 

Zachariah 4-10th Verse - For who hath despised the day of small things? For they shall rejoice, and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerrubabel with those even, they are the eyes of the Lord, which run to and fro through the whole earth.

 

Which means that God has been lenient with his people in the past but without avail, he now proposes to set up in their midst a test of uprightness - a plumb line - and if his people failed to measure up to it, He would no more ignore their shortcomings but would rigourously punish them. Let none fail to walk uprightly. God and Man watch him. God and Man shall witness for him in another day.

 

The Squares.

 

There are four squares upon the Apron - one in each corner. The square leads a man from below to above, from the earthly level to the spiritual level. We should always live up to the Law of the Square-which is found in the Bible. Matthew 22-37, Mark 12-30, Luke 10-27: "And thou shall love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, and with thy soul and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength." This is the first commandment, and the second, thus "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself". There are no greater commandments than these.

 

Laboriously lay levels, perseveringly erect plumbs, but with double care and reverent hearts square all things that we, the architect of our spiritual temple, may find favour in the all-seeing eye of the great Architect and be permitted to walk forever on the level in realms of eternal light.

 

The Serpent.

 

www.flickr.com/photos/51035825322@N01/3690704970/in/photo...

 

There are two kinds of symbolism in all ancient religions.

 

(1) The enemy of Man and therefore the representative of the power of evil.

 

(2) Emblem of Divine Wisdom. (Matthew 10-16. "Be ye wise as serpents" does not refer to the craftiness of the devil but to divine wisdom.)

 

In ancient Egypt, the Soul as he passed through the underworld met with serpents of evil and also with serpents of good. In India legend tells us of a whole order of beings, the Serpent Folk, who are of a spiritual nature - different from man, possessed of their own rulers and endowed with superhuman wisdom. Some of these were considered to be friendly to man while others were hostile. The Sacred Cobra is well known to every student of Hindu religion and is essentially good. Actual worship is paid to the serpent throughout the whole of India and in many other parts of the world. In the Kabala we get traces of the fact that under certain circumstances the serpent is regarded as "the Shining One", the Holy Wisdom itself. Thus we see that the Serpent on our apron denotes that we are encircled by the Holy Wisdom. Finally - the serpent biting its tail and thus forming a circle, has always been regarded as the emblem of Eternity and more especially of the Eternal Wisdom of God.

 

www.flickr.com/photos/35171459@N02/5626082522/

  

The Tau(s)

 

www.flickr.com/photos/21728045@N08/7762218972/in/photolis...

 

As the Master Mason advances and becomes Master of his Lodge, the rosettes of his apron give way to three Taus or levels as they are generally called. The Tau is the symbol of the Creator.

 

It is said that Tau was the mark set upon the foreheads of those referred to in Ezekiel 9-4th Verse 4 (see also Rev. 7-3): "Go through the midst of the city, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof," which mark was to distinguish them as persons to be saved on account of their sorrow for sin,from the idolaters who were to be slain. With reference to the 9th Chapter of Ezekiel, 4th Verse, the Holy Bible as used by the Roman Catholics, translated from the Latin Vulgate says: "Go through the midst of Jerusalem and mark thou upon the foreherads of men that sign."

 

Tau is the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The Greek letter Tau is T. This Tau cross was of universal use as a sacred symbol among the ancients. The Hebrews used it as a sign of Salvation. It is thought to be much older than the time of Ezekiel and that when Moses annointed Aaron as the High Priest, he marked his forehead with this sign. It is said to have saved the youthful Isaac from death, redeemed from destruction an entire people whose houses were so marked, healed the venomous bites of those who looked up at the serpent, raised in the form of a "tau" upon a pole, and called back the soul into the dead body of the son of that poor widow who had given bread to the prophet. It was a mark worn by the devotees of Brahmah. To the Druids it was a symbol of their supreme God. The Tau Cross as worn on the Master's Apron, replacing the Rosettes, is thought by some to be the Egyptian Ankh, as worn by the ancient Egyptian Gods. The Ankh represent Life. Every God carried it.

 

The T or Tau cross, is an ancient symbol of the ongoing of Eternal Life. The vertical line represents the inner nature of the individual intelligence. The cross bar in the beginning is at the bottom. As life goes on, obstructions and temptations to right living are gradually overcome. When the cross bar has risen threequarters, the individual Intelligence of Soul has "lived the life" and worked out his own salvation. When the cross bar is at the top, the soul has triumphed over death and the conscious self-identity of his own individual intelligence independent of his physical body assures him of the on-going of eternal life, symbolised by the circle added to the Tau Cross. The Gods are cosmic principles, and in man are powers and attributes of the Soul. Every part of the Egyptian God had a deep symbolic meaning such as the Sceptre as a symbol of power. It will be seen in reference to drawings of Goddesses that they carry a reed sceptre for this reason: The reed is a water plant, symbol of the first life, coming from a concealed source, making its way through the material mud and then the less dense or limped water, up into the material air. The reed is carried by the goddesses as a symbol of the source of human life over which they have dominion.

 

Off world: www.flickr.com/photos/59889843@N07/9849048825/in/photolis...

 

Whilst we are mainly concerned with the English Masonic apron (albeit Victorian and somewhat Scottish and Irish), reference to the Masonic clothing in other lands may be of interest.

 

Belgium. - The Grand Lodge Aprons are of light blue silk, embroidered with gold fringe, without tassels. The collars are embroidered with gold with the jewels of office, and with acacia and other emblems.

 

Egypt. - The Grand Orient uses the same clothing as the Grand Lodge of England, but the colours are thistle and sea green. The rank of wearer is denoted by the number of stars on his collar.

 

France. - The Grand Orient has aprons very elaborately embroidered or painted and edged with crimson or blue. In the third degree, blue embroidered sashes are used lined with black.

 

Greece. - In recent years the clothing has become exactly identical with that worn in England, although formerly silk and satin aprons painted and embroidered with crimson were worn.

 

Germany. - Aprons varied greatly in size and shape, from square to the shape of a shield. Some bear rosettes and others the level. There is no uniformity and German Lodges had jewels apparently according to the taste of each.

 

Holland. - Each Lodge selects its own colours for aprons and the ribbons to which the jewels are attached. Individuals may use embroidery, fringes, etc., according to their own fancy.

 

Hungary. - The members of Grand Lodge wear collars of light blue silk with a narrow edging of red, white and green-their national colours-from which are suspended five pointed stars. The Grand Lodge Officers wear collars of orange colour edged with green and lines with white silk. They are embroidered with the acacia and the emblems of office. The aprons have a blue edging with three rosettes for a Master Mason.

 

Italy. - The Entered Apprentice apron is plain white silk. The Fellow craft is edged and lined with a square printed in the centre. The Master Mason wears an apron lined and edged with crimson, bearing the square and compasses. He also wears a sash of green silk, edged with red, embroidered with gold and lined with black on which are embroidered the emblems of mortality in silver. It must be remembered, however, that Freemasonry for some time past has been suppressed in Italy, the reason being that it intermeddled in national politics.

 

Iceland. - Plain white aprons, edged with blue, bearing the number of the lodge. At the Annual Communication lambskins are worn with a narrow silver braid in the centre of the ribbon. In former days, the Worshipful Master always wore a red cloak and silk hat.

 

Portugal. - The apron of the Grand Lodge Officers are of white satin, edged with blue and gold and with three rosettes. The collar is made of blue silk with the acacia embroidered in gold.

 

Spain. - The apron of the Entered Apprentice is of white leather, rounded at the bottom, with a pointed flap, worn raised. The Fellowcraft wears the same with the flap turned down, and the Mason (Master) wears a white satin apron with a curved flap, edged with crimson, and embroidered with a square and compass, enclosing the letter G. The letters M and B, and three stars also appear. It is lined with black silk and embroidered with the skull and crossbones and three stars.

 

Switzerland. - The clothing is simple. The Entered Apprentice apron is white with the lower corners rounded. The Fellowcraft has blue edging and strings, and the Master Mason has a wider border and three rosettes in the body of the apron, while the flap is covered with blue silk. The apron of the Grand Officers is edged with crimson, without tassels or rosettes, except in the case of the Grand Master, which has three crimson rosettes.

 

Thus it will be seen that our apron is a very honourable garment, one that we should treasure. It is an apron made of lambskin, pure white, without fault or stain - the colour of the Soul as mortal man sees it. It is ours and it now depends upon each of us to keep it without blemish - to keep it as a mirror of our soul that we may stand the final test when we reach into Life Eternal - which is just beyond.

 

Our Operative Brethren wore an apron to save their clothing from being soiled at work, so the Speculative brother dons it as a desire to be kept unsoiled from the world.

 

God's message to us is, "Be faithful unto death, and I shall give thee a Crown of Life". Thus may the purity and whiteness of our apron be a reflection of our Soul so that when our name is called on Judgment Day, we may look up to God and say, "I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course and I have kept the Faith."

 

And the Great Architect will say, "Enter, free and of good report".

 

"More Ancient."

 

According to Bro. Howe in his book THE FREEMASONS' MANUAL, Emnolphus of Trace was initiated in the Elusinian Mysteries (in Greece) in the year 1350 B.C. He was made the first priest and it was he who instituted the lambskin as a symbol of Peace and Goodwill. Thus it will be seen that the apron is indeed "more ancient than the Golden Fleece or the Roman Eagle."

 

The Order of the Garter is the oldest and highest order of knighthood in the world today. Founded in the year 1348 by Edward III., King of England, a blue garter is the badge of the Order on which is displayed its motto HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE. (Evil be to whom evil thinks).

 

www.flickr.com/photos/36616854@N02/9554616655/in/photolis...

 

A collar from which is suspended a figure of St. George, the Patron Saint of England, mounted in the act of slaying the dragon, and an eight-pointed star having a cross of four equal arms and angles in its centre, surrounded by the motto complete the Order insigna.

 

The origin of the Order is that the King picked up a garter dropped from her ladyship, the Countess of Salisbury, at a Ball and ,placing it about his own knee, said "HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE."

 

The Order was originally composed of 25 knights, exclusive of the Sovereign, the Royal Family and foreign Princes. It was first called the Order of St. George and ladies were admitted during its first two centuries. Today England's reigning Queen and Princess Elizabeth are the only members of the fair sex carried on the list-with the title "Lady of the Garter".

 

It is of interest to note that the Duke of Connaught, late Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England, is one of the most distinguished members of the Order of the Garter.

 

Wearing of Badges.

 

The wearing of Badges is an ancient custom. Israelite Priests wore Girdles. Indians, Persians (Iranians) and Egyptians of advanced rank wore white robes striped and ornamented with tassels and fringes.

 

Colour of the apron is white and has always been the colour for purity, and referered to in the Bible:- Eccles. 9. 8. "Let thy garments be always white." and in Rev. 3, 4. "They shall walk with me in white for they are worthy."

 

Aaron the High Priest was commanded when he entered the Sanctum Sanctorum to make an expiation for the sins of the people, to appear clothed in white linen. The war-like Scandinavians presented their candidates with a white shield. Disciples of Pythagoras chanted their songs clothed in garments of white. The Egyptians decorated the head of their principal deity OSIRIS with a white tiara and the priests wore robes of the whitest linen.

 

The word "candidate" itself is derived from the Latin word "candidus" - a white man.

 

In Germany (as well as in the Netherlands) the candidate in the first degree receives a pair of white gloves as a symbol of purity.

 

The Entered Apprentice Apron.

www.flickr.com/search/?w=21728045@N08&q=Entered%20app...

 

The apron is a perfect square, its four right angles teach us that Purity, Truth, Sincerity and Honesty are the foundations of morality. Its four sides remind us to practice the four cardinal virtues - Temperance in word and deed; Fortitude in a noble purpose; Prudence in judging wisely; Justice to the humblest and greatest alike. The Square (or 'four' ) is the symbol of matter. Four was the emblem of matter to the ancients because they thought that the earth flat, square, and marked by the four points of the compass.

 

The flap is triangle whose three sides teach us to relieve a distressed brother. To be kind and friendly in dealing with our fellow men. The triangle is the threefold revelation for God, or Divine Wisdom.

 

The circle formed by the strings is the symbol of Spirit.

 

The Entered Apprentice Apron should have the flap pointing upwards, indicating that Divine Wisdom has not yet truly penetrated the gross matter of our bodies.

 

The Equilateral triangle made by the upper flap teaches us the threefold personal revelation of God. The triangle is the Symbol of the Deity for this reason. In geometry, a single line cannot represent a perfect figure, neither can two lines. Three lines, however, constiute the triangle, or first perfect demonstrable figure. Hence this figure symbolises the Eternal God, infinitely perfect in his nature. But the triangle properly refers to God only in his quality as an eternal Being, its three sides representing the past, present and future. This symbolism of the Eternal God by the triangle is the reason why the Trinitarian scheme has been so prevalent in all religions and in Freemasonry; the frequent recurrence of the No. 3 throughout all ritualistic symbolism, is striking evidence of this. The Greek character Delta is formed as an equilateral triangle and from the sacredness attached to the form of the triangle, this character was always known as the Sacred Delta. The Egyptians called it the Sacred No. 3, a number of perfection. It was an object of worship among them as a symbol of the Grand Principle of animated existence which extends its influences throughout all created matter the three sides representing the animal, vegetable and mineral departments of nature.

 

To the Jews the triangle represented the three periods of existence: the past, present and future. To the Hindus: creation, preservation and renewal. To the Chinese: heaven, earth and water.

 

The flap of the apron when raised forms a triangle standing on a square. This was considered by the Egyptians as a most perfect figure because in the Egyptian ceremony of Initiation into their mysteries, the candidate, blindfolded and with a chain around his neck, is led by a brother to a door in the wall of the temple of the lodge-the door formed a triangle symbolising Heaven and square representing the area of the entrance on which he trod symbolised earth, thus the entrance symbolised passing from Earth to Heaven. The granite triangle in the king's chamber in the Great Pyramid is said to represent the triune God of the Egyptians.

 

The Fellowcraft Apron

 

www.flickr.com/search/?w=21728045@N08&q=Fellowcraft

 

The Fellowcraft Apron has the flap pointing down and indicates (1) That wisdom has begun to enter and therefore control matter, and (2) that the Soul and body are acting in unison. The two rosettes stress the dual nature of man and have a clear reference to the two Pillars. The two rosettes also point out that the Fellowcraft has not yet completed Freemasonry as it requires a third rosette to form a triangle. It is thought by some that the blue rozettes added to the Fellowcraft apron indicate the progress being made in the science of regeneration and that the candidate's spirituality is beginning to bud forth, also that the wilderness of the natural man is now blossoming as the rose, in the flowers and graces of his regenerated nature.

 

The Master Mason's Apron.

 

The addition of the third rosette forms a triangle, pointing upwards. A triangle, point upwards, represents Fire or Divine Spark. It is the emblem of Shiva, the third member of the Hindu Trinity. It also represents spirit. The triangle of the flap and triangle of the rosettes form a square where they overlap. This square represents matter. Thus we have the union of Body (square), Soul (top triangle) and Spirit (lower triangle).

 

The Tassels.

 

The apron was at first fastened by strings passed around the back and brought to the front, with the ends hanging down. It became the custom to decorate the ends with fringes, jewels, etc., but the introduction of elastic bands did away with that idea and the pendants were added as a sort of "in memoriam" to the departed strings. Later, the design of the tassels was made with a symbolic background.

 

www.flickr.com/photos/24924384@N00/179864556/in/photolist...

"Fox Hat Man" as we call him, is part of a craft fair in Northern Arkansas. War Eagle is full of various vendors and eccentric crafts and interests. Fox Hat Man is one of our favorites, making sculptures of various forest animals with sand and concrete. He names each and every animal too. You can find squirrels named "Nutty One" and frogs named "Herman".

 

It was not strange for me to ask to take his portrait. I've known him since I was very young - not in any kind of personal way, mind you. I don't even know his name. Just the sort that years of familiarity and friendliness brings when you live in the country. Every one is a potential friend.

 

See the whole set : Dear Missouri

The aprons and regalia shown here must be Scottish Rite.

 

Masonic Aprons in Craft lodges are always at the ready for visitors.

 

www.flickr.com/search/?q=Masonic+apron

 

Background history:

www.phoenixmasonry.org/symbolism_and_design_of_the_masoni...

 

Delivered in the Lodge by W. Bro. C.J.E. Hudspeth, PM, AMIE Australia on June 24, 1949.

 

The Apron is not a modern invention, in fact it is the most ancient of all garments. In the 3rd Chapter of Genesis these words are written: "and the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons."

 

We are not so much interested in Adam and Eve's apron as we are in the Masonic apron. Boutelle, in his story of the building of King Solomon's Temple, says: "When the construction of King Solomon's Temple was commenced, workmen were selected to carry out the different trades. Hiram, the widow's son, proclaimed that before entering upon the undertaking the aid of God should first be invoked, and as the Temple was to be God's Holy House and erected to Him, each workman having a part in its construction should offer a sacrifice to God on the Altar of Burnt Offering. The Lamb had in all ages been deemed an Emblem of Innocence and was offered as a sacrifice. With the exception of the skin, the whole of the lamb was consumed. The skins were properly prepared and Hiram caused aprons to be made of them. One apron from the skin of each lamb sacrificed, one apron for each mason under him."

 

When the aprons had been presented to the workmen, Hiram is reported to have said: "Masonic authority makes this, the snow-white lambskin apron, its first tangible gift to you and ordains that all Masons in all ages, wherever they may be throughout the world, shall ever receive it and always wear it." The apron is an emblem of innocence. Innocent life has gone out of the world: for every man an apron - for every apron a life.

 

This sacrifice is typical of a greater sacrifice promised by the Almighty and prophesied by all the Prophets of Isreal - the coming of the Messiah who shall be offered for the guilty world. This is the badge of a Mason. It sets the Mason apart from other men. There shall be many who seek to wear it and those to whom it is given shall exalt themselves because of possessing it. No other gift that mere man can bestow can equal this honour and dignity. Kings can bestow no decorations or titles so worthy as this.

 

The Senior Warden says: "More ancient than the Golden Fleece or Roman Eagle, more honourable than the Garter or any other Order in existence, being the Badge of Innocence and bond of friendship." The Order of the Golden Fleece was founded by Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy and the Netherlands on January 10th, 1430, in honour of his marriage to Isabel, daughter of King John of Portugal.

 

It is not definitely known why the order was named the Golden Fleece, but there are four surmises as to its origin.

 

(1) In memory of Jason and his exploits in Greek Legends.

 

(2) Because the wealth of Flanders came largely from wool.

 

(3) That it was so named in memory of Gideon's request that the Lord would prove his Power by causing the dew of heaven to fall only on a fleece set out in the night while the surrounding ground remained dewless. (Judges 6th Chapter. Verses 37 to 40).

 

(4) That it was named in honour or the Duke's own mistress because he gloried in her wondrous fleece of beautiful golden hair.

 

Jason.

 

According to a Greek legend, there was a fabled ram with a golden fleece, on which the discarded wife of the King of Thessaly placed her son and daughter, bidding the ram to carry them to a place of safety far from the wrath of her successor in the King's affections. The daughter, whose name was Helle, fell into the waters of the Strait which connects the Aegean Sea with Constantinople, from which event the Strait was given the name of Hellespont - the Dardanelles of the present day.

 

The boy kept his hold and he reached the land of Colchis on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Here he sacrificed the ram and gave its fleece to the King of that country, who had received him hospitably. The fleece was hung up in a sacred grove and guarded day and night by a dragon that never slept.

 

Jason, a Grecian hero, charged with bringing back the Golden Fleece to Thessaly - as the price of a Kingdom - set out on his quest in the good ship ARGO, manned with his Argonaut crew of immortal heroes. After many thrilling adventures he succeeded in the mission, and with a yoke of fire-breathing bulls performed the task assigned to him of ploughing under the dragon's teeth which produced a crop of warriors. These assailed him, but turned against each other when Jason sprinkled them liberally with a potent lotion prepared for him by Medea, his lady love who was, luckily, a sorceress of great power. This legend or myth is probably intended to dramatise the first Grecian expedition.

 

The Roman Eagle was associated with the God Jupiter in Roman Mythology. Jupiter was the lord of life and light. The most celebrated temple of Jupiter was on the Capitoline Hill in the City of Rome. The Roman represented Jupiter as seated on the throne of ivory, holding in his right hand a sheaf of thunderbolts and in his left a sceptre, whilst an eagle stands beside his throne. When about to go into battle the consuls offered sacrifice to Jupiter praying that he might lead them against the enemy and, on their return from victory, thanks-givings were offered in his name.

 

The figure of the eagle appears on the Standards of the Roman legions and is reflected in the national ensigns of the United States of America, of France under Napoleon, of Imperial Germany and WWII Germany, Mexico and other nations.

 

The Eagle is an emblem of might and courage amongst birds, as is the lion among beasts. Its far-seeing vision, the vast height to which it soars, the wild grandeur of its abode and its longevity have been extolled in poetic phrases by the poets of every tongue and nation.

 

When the Roman Eagle yielded its sway over the then known world, that world sank into a night of 1000 years during which time - with few exceptions - no pet, painter, orator, statesman, inventor, or discoverer was produced; an age which ended only with the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, accompanied by the production of gold and other wealth in sufficient quantities to stimulate the world to a new day and new era.

 

The tassels have seven strings which represent-

 

(1) The 7 liberal Arts and Sciences-Grammar, Rhetoric (the art and science of expression), Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy.

The number 7 appears in nearly every ancient institution.

 

(2) 7 or more the make a lodge perfect.

 

(3) King Solomon was 7 years and upwards in building the temple to God's Service.

 

(4) 7 was the perfect number of the Pythagoreans because it was composed of three and four-the sum of the points of the triangle and the square-the two perfect figures.

 

(5) The 7 steps.

 

(6) 7 Altars burned constantly before Mithra.

 

(7) The Hindus believed the world to be surrounded by 7 peninsulas.

 

(8) There are 7 spacious caverns in the Persian mysteries.

 

(9) The 7 branched candlestick of the Jews representing the Sun as the central light and six other planets.

 

(10) Jacob saw a ladder of 7 steps leading to heaven.

 

The sum of the strings in the two tassels is 14, which was the number of pieces into which the body of OSIRIS was divided by Set in the Egyptian mysteries.

 

The Ribbon Around the Edge of the Apron

 

The blue ribbon around the apron has a deep symbolic meaning, and it will be seen that on reference to the Volume of the Sacred Law, The Book of Numbers, Chapter 15.

 

37th Verse - And the Lord spake unto Moses saying.

 

38th Verse - Speak unto the Children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a riband of blue

 

39th Verse - And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them; that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes; after which ye used to go a whoring;

 

40th Verse - That ye may remember, and do my commandments, and be holy unto your God.

 

41st Verse - I am the Lord your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.

 

The Colour of the Ribbon

 

The Blue of the Apron is Cambridge Blue. It is closely related to the colour of the Virgin Mary, which is itself derived from the Blue of the Ancient Egyptian Goddess Isis. In 1813 the English Grand Lodge standardised the size and shape of aprons. The Blue of the apron is also the "Garter blue" of an early date. King George II changed the Garter Blue from its original colour to its present dark blue to distinguish his Garter Knights from those created by the exiled Stuarts. According to Mackay, the blue border was added - the colour of the firmament enveloping the globe - emblematic of universal friendship and benevolence, instructing us that in the mind of a Freemason these virtues should be as extensive as the vault of Heaven itself.

 

The Two Levels

 

Standing erect, the form of the apron gives two levels, one at the top, one at the bottom. The lower level is laid in the earth. It is symbolical of the level of time along which we walk toward that place from which no traveller returns. The level above it is laid in the heavens - a spiritual level. It is a promise that those who walk uprightly before God and Man (which is symbolised by the two perpendiculars on either side) shall walk eternally on the spiritual level.

 

The Plumbs or sides, admonish rectitude. Rectitude of Conduct. Rectitude of Morals, Rectitude of Life.

 

2 Kings 21-13th Verse - and I will stretch over Jerusalem the line of Samaria and the plummet of the house of Ahab.

 

Isiaah 28-17th Verse - Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet.

 

Amos 7-7th Verse - Thus he showed me, and behold the Lord stood upon a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand.

 

Amos 7-8th Verse - And the Lord said unto me, Amos what seest thou? And I said, A plumbline. Then said the Lord, Behold I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel. I will not again pass by them any more.

 

Zachariah 4-10th Verse - For who hath despised the day of small things? For they shall rejoice, and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerrubabel with those even, they are the eyes of the Lord, which run to and fro through the whole earth.

 

Which means that God has been lenient with his people in the past but without avail, he now proposes to set up in their midst a test of uprightness - a plumb line - and if his people failed to measure up to it, He would no more ignore their shortcomings but would rigourously punish them. Let none fail to walk uprightly. God and Man watch him. God and Man shall witness for him in another day.

 

The Squares

 

There are four squares upon the Apron - one in each corner. The square leads a man from below to above, from the earthly level to the spiritual level. We should always live up to the Law of the Square-which is found in the Bible. Matthew 22-37, Mark 12-30, Luke 10-27: "And thou shall love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, and with thy soul and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength." This is the first commandment, and the second, thus "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself". There are no greater commandments than these.

 

Laboriously lay levels, perseveringly erect plumbs, but with double care and reverent hearts square all things that we, the architect of our spiritual temple, may find favour in the all-seeing eye of the great Architect and be permitted to walk forever on the level in realms of eternal light.

 

The Serpent.

 

www.flickr.com/photos/51035825322@N01/3690704970/in/photo...

 

There are two kinds of symbolism in all ancient religions.

 

(1) The enemy of Man and therefore the representative of the power of evil.

 

(2) Emblem of Divine Wisdom. (Matthew 10-16. "Be ye wise as serpents" does not refer to the craftiness of the devil but to divine wisdom.)

 

In ancient Egypt, the Soul as he passed through the underworld met with serpents of evil and also with serpents of good. In India legend tells us of a whole order of beings, the Serpent Folk, who are of a spiritual nature - different from man, possessed of their own rulers and endowed with superhuman wisdom. Some of these were considered to be friendly to man while others were hostile. The Sacred Cobra is well known to every student of Hindu religion and is essentially good. Actual worship is paid to the serpent throughout the whole of India and in many other parts of the world. In the Kabala we get traces of the fact that under certain circumstances the serpent is regarded as "the Shining One", the Holy Wisdom itself. Thus we see that the Serpent on our apron denotes that we are encircled by the Holy Wisdom. Finally - the serpent biting its tail and thus forming a circle, has always been regarded as the emblem of Eternity and more especially of the Eternal Wisdom of God.

 

www.flickr.com/photos/35171459@N02/5626082522/

  

The Tau(s)

 

www.flickr.com/photos/21728045@N08/7762218972/in/photolis...

 

As the Master Mason advances and becomes Master of his Lodge, the rosettes of his apron give way to three Taus or levels as they are generally called. The Tau is the symbol of the Creator.

 

It is said that Tau was the mark set upon the foreheads of those referred to in Ezekiel 9-4th Verse 4 (see also Rev. 7-3): "Go through the midst of the city, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof," which mark was to distinguish them as persons to be saved on account of their sorrow for sin,from the idolaters who were to be slain. With reference to the 9th Chapter of Ezekiel, 4th Verse, the Holy Bible as used by the Roman Catholics, translated from the Latin Vulgate says: "Go through the midst of Jerusalem and mark thou upon the foreherads of men that sign."

 

Tau is the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The Greek letter Tau is T. This Tau cross was of universal use as a sacred symbol among the ancients. The Hebrews used it as a sign of Salvation. It is thought to be much older than the time of Ezekiel and that when Moses annointed Aaron as the High Priest, he marked his forehead with this sign. It is said to have saved the youthful Isaac from death, redeemed from destruction an entire people whose houses were so marked, healed the venomous bites of those who looked up at the serpent, raised in the form of a "tau" upon a pole, and called back the soul into the dead body of the son of that poor widow who had given bread to the prophet. It was a mark worn by the devotees of Brahmah. To the Druids it was a symbol of their supreme God. The Tau Cross as worn on the Master's Apron, replacing the Rosettes, is thought by some to be the Egyptian Ankh, as worn by the ancient Egyptian Gods. The Ankh represent Life. Every God carried it.

 

The T or Tau cross, is an ancient symbol of the ongoing of Eternal Life. The vertical line represents the inner nature of the individual intelligence. The cross bar in the beginning is at the bottom. As life goes on, obstructions and temptations to right living are gradually overcome. When the cross bar has risen threequarters, the individual Intelligence of Soul has "lived the life" and worked out his own salvation. When the cross bar is at the top, the soul has triumphed over death and the conscious self-identity of his own individual intelligence independent of his physical body assures him of the on-going of eternal life, symbolised by the circle added to the Tau Cross. The Gods are cosmic principles, and in man are powers and attributes of the Soul. Every part of the Egyptian God had a deep symbolic meaning such as the Sceptre as a symbol of power. It will be seen in reference to drawings of Goddesses that they carry a reed sceptre for this reason: The reed is a water plant, symbol of the first life, coming from a concealed source, making its way through the material mud and then the less dense or limped water, up into the material air. The reed is carried by the goddesses as a symbol of the source of human life over which they have dominion.

 

Off world: www.flickr.com/photos/59889843@N07/9849048825/in/photolis...

 

Whilst we are mainly concerned with the English Masonic apron (albeit Victorian and somewhat Scottish and Irish), reference to the Masonic clothing in other lands may be of interest.

 

Belgium. - The Grand Lodge Aprons are of light blue silk, embroidered with gold fringe, without tassels. The collars are embroidered with gold with the jewels of office, and with acacia and other emblems.

 

Egypt. - The Grand Orient uses the same clothing as the Grand Lodge of England, but the colours are thistle and sea green. The rank of wearer is denoted by the number of stars on his collar.

 

France. - The Grand Orient has aprons very elaborately embroidered or painted and edged with crimson or blue. In the third degree, blue embroidered sashes are used lined with black.

 

Greece. - In recent years the clothing has become exactly identical with that worn in England, although formerly silk and satin aprons painted and embroidered with crimson were worn.

 

Germany. - Aprons varied greatly in size and shape, from square to the shape of a shield. Some bear rosettes and others the level. There is no uniformity and German Lodges had jewels apparently according to the taste of each.

 

Holland. - Each Lodge selects its own colours for aprons and the ribbons to which the jewels are attached. Individuals may use embroidery, fringes, etc., according to their own fancy.

 

Hungary. - The members of Grand Lodge wear collars of light blue silk with a narrow edging of red, white and green-their national colours-from which are suspended five pointed stars. The Grand Lodge Officers wear collars of orange colour edged with green and lines with white silk. They are embroidered with the acacia and the emblems of office. The aprons have a blue edging with three rosettes for a Master Mason.

 

Italy. - The Entered Apprentice apron is plain white silk. The Fellow craft is edged and lined with a square printed in the centre. The Master Mason wears an apron lined and edged with crimson, bearing the square and compasses. He also wears a sash of green silk, edged with red, embroidered with gold and lined with black on which are embroidered the emblems of mortality in silver. It must be remembered, however, that Freemasonry for some time past has been suppressed in Italy, the reason being that it intermeddled in national politics.

 

Iceland. - Plain white aprons, edged with blue, bearing the number of the lodge. At the Annual Communication lambskins are worn with a narrow silver braid in the centre of the ribbon. In former days, the Worshipful Master always wore a red cloak and silk hat.

 

Portugal. - The apron of the Grand Lodge Officers are of white satin, edged with blue and gold and with three rosettes. The collar is made of blue silk with the acacia embroidered in gold.

 

Spain. - The apron of the Entered Apprentice is of white leather, rounded at the bottom, with a pointed flap, worn raised. The Fellowcraft wears the same with the flap turned down, and the Mason (Master) wears a white satin apron with a curved flap, edged with crimson, and embroidered with a square and compass, enclosing the letter G. The letters M and B, and three stars also appear. It is lined with black silk and embroidered with the skull and crossbones and three stars.

 

Switzerland. - The clothing is simple. The Entered Apprentice apron is white with the lower corners rounded. The Fellowcraft has blue edging and strings, and the Master Mason has a wider border and three rosettes in the body of the apron, while the flap is covered with blue silk. The apron of the Grand Officers is edged with crimson, without tassels or rosettes, except in the case of the Grand Master, which has three crimson rosettes.

 

Thus it will be seen that our apron is a very honourable garment, one that we should treasure. It is an apron made of lambskin, pure white, without fault or stain - the colour of the Soul as mortal man sees it. It is ours and it now depends upon each of us to keep it without blemish - to keep it as a mirror of our soul that we may stand the final test when we reach into Life Eternal - which is just beyond.

 

Our Operative Brethren wore an apron to save their clothing from being soiled at work, so the Speculative brother dons it as a desire to be kept unsoiled from the world.

 

God's message to us is, "Be faithful unto death, and I shall give thee a Crown of Life". Thus may the purity and whiteness of our apron be a reflection of our Soul so that when our name is called on Judgment Day, we may look up to God and say, "I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course and I have kept the Faith."

 

And the Great Architect will say, "Enter, free and of good report".

 

"More Ancient."

 

According to Bro. Howe in his book THE FREEMASONS' MANUAL, Emnolphus of Trace was initiated in the Elusinian Mysteries (in Greece) in the year 1350 B.C. He was made the first priest and it was he who instituted the lambskin as a symbol of Peace and Goodwill. Thus it will be seen that the apron is indeed "more ancient than the Golden Fleece or the Roman Eagle."

 

The Order of the Garter is the oldest and highest order of knighthood in the world today. Founded in the year 1348 by Edward III., King of England, a blue garter is the badge of the Order on which is displayed its motto HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE. (Evil be to whom evil thinks).

 

www.flickr.com/photos/36616854@N02/9554616655/in/photolis...

 

A collar from which is suspended a figure of St. George, the Patron Saint of England, mounted in the act of slaying the dragon, and an eight-pointed star having a cross of four equal arms and angles in its centre, surrounded by the motto complete the Order insigna.

 

The origin of the Order is that the King picked up a garter dropped from her ladyship, the Countess of Salisbury, at a Ball and ,placing it about his own knee, said "HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE."

 

The Order was originally composed of 25 knights, exclusive of the Sovereign, the Royal Family and foreign Princes. It was first called the Order of St. George and ladies were admitted during its first two centuries. Today England's reigning Queen and Princess Elizabeth are the only members of the fair sex carried on the list-with the title "Lady of the Garter".

 

It is of interest to note that the Duke of Connaught, late Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England, is one of the most distinguished members of the Order of the Garter.

 

Wearing of Badges

 

The wearing of Badges is an ancient custom. Israelite Priests wore Girdles. Indians, Persians (Iranians) and Egyptians of advanced rank wore white robes striped and ornamented with tassels and fringes.

 

Colour of the apron is white and has always been the colour for purity, and referered to in the Bible:- Eccles. 9. 8. "Let thy garments be always white." and in Rev. 3, 4. "They shall walk with me in white for they are worthy."

 

Aaron the High Priest was commanded when he entered the Sanctum Sanctorum to make an expiation for the sins of the people, to appear clothed in white linen. The war-like Scandinavians presented their candidates with a white shield. Disciples of Pythagoras chanted their songs clothed in garments of white. The Egyptians decorated the head of their principal deity OSIRIS with a white tiara and the priests wore robes of the whitest linen.

 

The word "candidate" itself is derived from the Latin word "candidus" - a white man.

 

In Germany (as well as in the Netherlands) the candidate in the first degree receives a pair of white gloves as a symbol of purity.

 

The Entered Apprentice Apron.

 

www.flickr.com/search/?w=21728045@N08&q=Entered%20app...

 

The apron is a perfect square, its four right angles teach us that Purity, Truth, Sincerity and Honesty are the foundations of morality. Its four sides remind us to practice the four cardinal virtues - Temperance in word and deed; Fortitude in a noble purpose; Prudence in judging wisely; Justice to the humblest and greatest alike. The Square (or 'four' ) is the symbol of matter. Four was the emblem of matter to the ancients because they thought that the earth flat, square, and marked by the four points of the compass.

 

The flap is triangle whose three sides teach us to relieve a distressed brother. To be kind and friendly in dealing with our fellow men. The triangle is the threefold revelation for God, or Divine Wisdom.

 

The circle formed by the strings is the symbol of Spirit.

 

The Entered Apprentice Apron should have the flap pointing upwards, indicating that Divine Wisdom has not yet truly penetrated the gross matter of our bodies.

 

The Equilateral triangle made by the upper flap teaches us the threefold personal revelation of God. The triangle is the Symbol of the Deity for this reason. In geometry, a single line cannot represent a perfect figure, neither can two lines. Three lines, however, constiute the triangle, or first perfect demonstrable figure. Hence this figure symbolises the Eternal God, infinitely perfect in his nature. But the triangle properly refers to God only in his quality as an eternal Being, its three sides representing the past, present and future. This symbolism of the Eternal God by the triangle is the reason why the Trinitarian scheme has been so prevalent in all religions and in Freemasonry; the frequent recurrence of the No. 3 throughout all ritualistic symbolism, is striking evidence of this. The Greek character Delta is formed as an equilateral triangle and from the sacredness attached to the form of the triangle, this character was always known as the Sacred Delta. The Egyptians called it the Sacred No. 3, a number of perfection. It was an object of worship among them as a symbol of the Grand Principle of animated existence which extends its influences throughout all created matter the three sides representing the animal, vegetable and mineral departments of nature.

 

To the Jews the triangle represented the three periods of existence: the past, present and future. To the Hindus: creation, preservation and renewal. To the Chinese: heaven, earth and water.

 

The flap of the apron when raised forms a triangle standing on a square. This was considered by the Egyptians as a most perfect figure because in the Egyptian ceremony of Initiation into their mysteries, the candidate, blindfolded and with a chain around his neck, is led by a brother to a door in the wall of the temple of the lodge-the door formed a triangle symbolising Heaven and square representing the area of the entrance on which he trod symbolised earth, thus the entrance symbolised passing from Earth to Heaven. The granite triangle in the king's chamber in the Great Pyramid is said to represent the triune God of the Egyptians.

 

The Fellowcraft Apron

 

www.flickr.com/search/?w=21728045@N08&q=Fellowcraft

 

The Fellowcraft Apron has the flap pointing down and indicates (1) That wisdom has begun to enter and therefore control matter, and (2) that the Soul and body are acting in unison. The two rosettes stress the dual nature of man and have a clear reference to the two Pillars. The two rosettes also point out that the Fellowcraft has not yet completed Freemasonry as it requires a third rosette to form a triangle. It is thought by some that the blue rozettes added to the Fellowcraft apron indicate the progress being made in the science of regeneration and that the candidate's spirituality is beginning to bud forth, also that the wilderness of the natural man is now blossoming as the rose, in the flowers and graces of his regenerated nature.

 

The Master Mason's Apron

 

The addition of the third rosette forms a triangle, pointing upwards. A triangle, point upwards, represents Fire or Divine Spark. It is the emblem of Shiva, the third member of the Hindu Trinity. It also represents spirit. The triangle of the flap and triangle of the rosettes form a square where they overlap. This square represents matter. Thus we have the union of Body (square), Soul (top triangle) and Spirit (lower triangle).

 

The Tassels

 

The apron was at first fastened by strings passed around the back and brought to the front, with the ends hanging down. It became the custom to decorate the ends with fringes, jewels, etc., but the introduction of elastic bands did away with that idea and the pendants were added as a sort of "in memoriam" to the departed strings. Later, the design of the tassels was made with a symbolic background.

 

www.flickr.com/photos/24924384@N00/179864556/in/photolist...

From Wikipedia.com:

  

Santa Cruz Island was the largest privately owned island off the continental United States, but is currently part-owned by the National Park service (NPS owns 24%, and the Nature Conservancy owns 76%).[1] The island, located off the coast of California, is 22 miles (35 km) long and from 2 to 6 miles (3.2 to 9.7 km) wide. It is part of the northern group of the Channel Islands of California,[1] and at 61,764.6 acres (249.952 km2) or 96.507 sq mi) is the largest of the eight islands in the chain. Santa Cruz Island is located within Santa Barbara County, California. The coastline has steep cliffs, gigantic sea caves, coves, and sandy beaches. Defined by the United States Census Bureau as Block 3000, Block Group 3, Census Tract 29.10 of Santa Barbara County, the 2000 census showed an official population of two persons.[2] The highest peak is Devils Peak, at 2450+ feet (747+ m).

A central valley splits the island along the Santa Cruz Island Fault, with volcanic rock on the north and older sedimentary rock on the south.

Santa Cruz is the only place where the Island Scrub Jay is found.

Contents [hide]

1 History

1.1 Early history

1.2 Mexican land grant

1.3 Ranching

1.4 Other uses

1.5 National park

2 Wildlife

3 Reintroduced bald eagles

4 References

4.1 Notes

4.2 Bibliography

5 External links

[edit]History

 

[edit]Early history

Archaeological investigations indicate that Santa Cruz Island has been occupied for at least 9,000 years. People, of the Chumash Indian tribe lived on the island and developed a highly complex society dependent on marine harvest, craft specialization and trade with the mainland population. The Santa Cruz Island Chumash produced shell beads that they used for currency, which formed an important part of the overall Chumash economy. Native villagers had no known contact with Europeans until the 16th and early 17th centuries. Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who is credited with the first European exploration of the California coast, observed at least six villages, though he and his crew did not come ashore. Cabrillo named the island San Lucas, although the Chumash called it Limuw.[3]

In 1602, Sebastián Vizcaíno led the last Spanish expedition to California. His map named Santa Cruz Island the Isla de Gente Barbuda (island of the bearded people). Between 1602 and 1769 there was no recorded European contact with the island. Finally, in 1769, the land-and-sea expedition of Don Gaspar de Portolà reached Santa Cruz Island. Traveling with him were Father Juan González Vizcaíno and Father Francisco Palóu. Father Palóu wrote of Father Vizcaíno’s visit to the Santa Cruz village of Xaxas that the missionaries on ship went ashore and “they were well received by the heathen and presented with fish, in return for which the Indians were given some strings of beads.” The island was considered for establishment of a Catholic mission to serve the large Chumash population. When Mission San Buenaventura was founded across the channel in 1782, it commenced the slow religious conversion of the Santa Cruz Chumash. In 1822, the last of the Chumash left the island for mainland California.[3]

With Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government asserted its control over California. In an effort to increase the Mexican presence, the government began sending convicted criminals to populate many areas. Around 40 prisoners were sent to Santa Barbara where, upon arrival, they were sent to Santa Cruz Island. They lived for a short time in an area now known as Prisoners Harbor.[3]

[edit]Mexican land grant

Governor Juan Alvarado made a Mexican land grant of the Island of Santa Cruz to his aide Captain Andrés Castillero in 1839. When California became a state in 1850, the United States government, through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, required that land previously granted by Spanish and Mexican governments be proved before the Board of Land Commissioners. A claim was filed with the Land Commission in 1852,[4] confirmed by the US Supreme Court[5] and the grant was patented to Andrés Castillero in 1867.[6] For twelve years Castillero’s claim to Santa Cruz Island was disputed, even after his property had been sold. During Castillero’s ownership, Dr. James B. Shaw, an English physician, acted as manager of the island. He built the island’s first ranch house by 1855 and is thought to have brought the first French Merino sheep to the island.[3]

[edit]Ranching

See also: Santa Cruz (sheep)

  

Scorpion Ranch, 2009

Castillero sold the island to William Barron, a San Francisco businessman and co-owner of the company Barron, Forbes & Co., in 1857. During the twelve years that Barron owned the island, Dr. Shaw continued to manage it as superintendent and was charged by Barron to expand the sheep ranching operation begun during the Castillero era. The Civil War significantly increased the demand for wool and by 1864 some 24,000 sheep grazed the hills and valleys of Santa Cruz Island.[3]

Shaw’s island sheep ranch was well known by 1869, the year he left Santa Cruz. He imported cattle, horses, and sheep to the island and erected one of the earliest wharves along the California coast at Prisoners Harbor by 1869. He built corrals and houses for himself and his employees and expanded the road system. Shaw was the first rancher to ship sheep to San Francisco by steamer, some selling at $30 per animal. When Barron sold the island in 1869 to ten investors from San Francisco for $150,000, Shaw left for San Francisco and Los Alamos where he continued ranching. At that time, the gross proceeds from the ranch on Santa Cruz Island were supposedly $50,000.[3]

One of the investors, Justinian Caire, was a French immigrant and founder of a successful San Francisco hardware business that sold equipment to miners. By the late 1880s Caire had acquired all of the shares of the Santa Cruz Island Company which he and his colleagues had founded in 1869. He continued a successful livestock and ranching industry on the island for many years.[3]

An extended and complicated series of litigation among Caire family members resulted in the division of the island and the sale of most of it in 1937. Justinian Caire's descendents retained 6,000 acres (24 km2) on the east end of the island, on which they continued the sheep ranching operation. Other family members sold the remaining 90 percent of the island to Los Angeles oilman Edwin Stanton in 1937.[3]

Edwin Stanton’s purchase of the major part of Santa Cruz Island brought a major shift in agricultural production on the island. After trying for a short time to continue the sheep operation, he decided to switch to beef production. At the time, the beef industry in California was growing rapidly, with Santa Barbara County among the top ten beef producers in the state.[3]

Edwin Stanton’s ranch on Santa Cruz Island saw changes that reflected the evolution of cattle ranching in a working landscape. While retaining most of the 19th century structures dating from the Caire period, Stanton constructed a few buildings to meet the needs of his cattle ranch, the most notable of which is Rancho del Norte on the isthmus. Pasture fencing and corrals were altered to suit the cattle operation and an extensive water system was added to provide water to the cattle.[3]

The Gherini family, descendents of Justinian Caire, continued their sheep ranching operations on the east end of Santa Cruz Island until 1984, using Scorpion Ranch as their base. They managed the island with resident managers and laborers and often worked as a family during shearing and during the summer. Production dropped during the 1970s and 80s and the expense of ranching on a remote island rose. By 1984 the last ranch lessee vacated the island and a newly formed hunting club called Island Adventures leased the facilities from the Gherinis. The hunt club used the ranch houses at Scorpion and Smugglers to house guests who came to hunt the feral pigs and remaining sheep.[3] The fight between the Gherinis and the federal government started in 1980, when the northern Channel Islands were designated a national park and Congress authorized the purchase of the family's remaining acreage. But the purchase agreement stalled for years as family members pushed the federal government to pay what they believed was the appropriate amount for the land. In the early 1990s, the government managed to buy the interests of Francis Gherini's three siblings for about $4 million apiece. But the former Oxnard attorney rejected the offer as too low, keeping his 25% interest in the 6,264-acre (25.35 km2) ranch and leaving the park service with 75%. Park officials continued negotiations in recent years, but said they were constrained by law from paying more than fair market value. In 1995, park officials were still reviewing appraisals of the land, hoping they could meet Gherini's price and snatch up the last privately owned land in the national park. In November 1996, government officials settled with Mr. Gherini for 14 million dollars which included 2 million dollars in back interest.[7]

With Edwin Stanton’s death in 1964, his widow and son, Carey, re-incorporated the Santa Cruz Island Company and continued the cattle operations on the island. Carey Stanton died unexpectedly in 1987 at the ranch and was buried in the family plot in the island chapel yard at the Main Ranch. The real property passed to The Nature Conservancy through a prior agreement that Carey Stanton had established with the non-profit organization. The Nature Conservancy rapidly liquidated the cattle operation and ended the ranching era on the island.[3]

[edit]Other uses

Santa Cruz was a base for otter hunters, fishermen, and smugglers. The Channel Islands often provided smugglers and bootleggers with convenient yet isolated hideaways where they could store their goods, one area is known today as Smugglers Cove.[3]

George Nidever recalled hunting otter at Santa Cruz in the winter of 1835-1836. Working from a base camp at Santa Rosa Island, he and two others obtained 60 skins that season. Fishermen encamped on the island, trading fish for other goods from passing boats.[3]

The United States military began to use Santa Cruz Island during World War II, and has constructed and maintained strategic installations on the island. Like all of the Channel Islands, Santa Cruz Island was used as an early warning outpost for observing enemy planes and ships during World War II. During the Cold War a communications station was installed as a part of the Pacific Missile Range Facility. This station remains in operation, although not at the levels of use seen in the 1950s and 1960s.[3]

[edit]National park

In 1936 the Caire family reportedly offered their 90% of the island for $750,000 to the state of California for use as a state or federal park. Nothing came of this proposal and the property was sold to Edwin Stanton. Stanton's son and heir was not interested in a government purchase of his island and took steps to avoid such events by forging an agreement with The Nature Conservancy and the property was transferred to the organization upon his death. Although Santa Cruz Island is included within the boundaries of Channel Islands National Park, The Nature Conservancy portion of the island does not belong to the park. A transfer of 8,500 acres (34 km2) from the Nature Conservancy to the park was completed in 2000.[3]

Channel Islands National Park owns and operates approximately 24% of Santa Cruz Island. The remaining land is managed by a combination of organizations which includes The Nature Conservancy, the University of California Field Station, and the Santa Cruz Island Foundation.

[edit]Wildlife

   

Lichen encrusted rocks upon the cliffs of Santa Cruz Island

Introduced and invasive species on Santa Cruz Island include:

Golden Eagle (invader), which replaced the native bald eagle, and hunted island foxes to threatened status.

Fennel (introduced), served as cover for Island Foxes, but as forage for the feral pigs.

Feral Pigs (introduced), displaced native island foxes.

Santa Cruz sheep

Native species include:

Island Scrub-jay

Hoffman's rockress, which is known only from Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands.[8]

Island manzanita[9] and whitehair manzanita,[10] shrubs which are endemic to Santa Cruz Island.

Island fence lizard,[11] endemic to the Channel Islands of California[12]

[edit]Reintroduced bald eagles

 

Bald eagles were once numerous on California's Channel Islands. Because of eggshell thinning caused by DDT and other factors, the last known successful bald eagle nesting in the northern Channel Islands was in 1949. By the 1960s, bald eagles could no longer be found on any of the Channel Islands.

The Institute for Wildlife Studies started a program in 2002 to reintroduce bald eagles to the Channel Islands, funded by money from a $25 million fund to deal with the lingering effects of tons of DDT dumped by the Montrose Chemical Corporation of California into the ocean near Santa Catalina Island. Since June 2002, 46 young bald eagles have been released on Santa Cruz Island. On 17 March 2006, wildlife biologists for the Institute announced that for the first time in over 50 years there has been a successful hatching on Santa Cruz Island.[13][14]

In April 2007, the Nature Conservancy announced another successful chick hatching.[15] The chick broke free of its shell on 13 April 2007.

Williamsburg, Brooklyn

 

A collaborative project of the Federal Public Works Administration and the newly established New York City Housing Authority, the Williamsburg Houses are notable as one of the earliest housing developments in the United States to reflect the ideas of the modern movement in architecture. In the 1920s Williamsburg was one of the most densely populated sections of Brooklyn and nearly six hundred, mostly frame, structures were demolished to create the 23.3 acre site. Proposed in 1934, this residential complex was skillfully designed by the Williamsburg Associated Architects during 1935 and most units were occupied by 1938.

 

The partnership included Richmond H. Shreve, of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the architects of the Empire State Building, and William Lescaze, the Swiss-born architect who helped introduce the “International” style on the eastern seaboard. Lescaze was responsible for the design, which includes twenty 4-story structures on four “super” blocks turned at 15 degree angles to the street grid. Oriented to the sun and prevailing winds, this unusual layout produced a series of large and small courts, many of which flow into a large public space at the center of each block. A light-colored palette distinguishes the facades, executed in tan brick and exposed concrete.

 

Among the most prominent features are the entrances, marked by blue tile and projecting stainless steel canopies, and the handsome streamlined storefronts. The complex was widely discussed by contemporary critics and more than 25,000 New Yorkers applied for 1,622 apartments. During the mid-1990s, the buildings underwent an extensive restoration which included the replacement of all exterior materials. Sponsored by the Housing Authority, in consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, these alterations were remarkably sensitive and in the 4th edition of the AIA Guide to New York City the “revivified” complex was called “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

 

DESCRIPTION AND ANALYSIS

 

Housing the Masses

 

From the rowhouse to the apartment building, New York City has been a laboratory for innovative housing. Beginning after the Civil War, apartments, variously known as French Flats and tenements, were built to house the city’s surging population. Immigrants, for the most part, crowded into unregulated tenements, structures that maximized profits for developers while providing few amenities that we take for granted today, such as light, air, and private bathrooms.

 

Despite government efforts to legislate minimum standards in 1867 and 1879, initially private individuals took the most significant steps to make decent housing affordable to all. Several pioneering examples were located close to the Brooklyn waterfront, including the Home and Tower Buildings (William Field and Son, 1876-78), the Astral Apartments (Lamb & Rich, 1885-87) and Riverside (William Field and Son, 1890). The later complex surrounded a large tree-shaded courtyard incorporating a music pavilion and areas for drying laundry. Despite these, and a few innovative Manhattan developments, the majority of New Yorkers continued to live in substandard conditions.

 

The passage of the New Tenement Law in 1901 improved the situation, requiring that multiple dwellings be built on significantly larger lots, with fire escapes and separate “privies” for each family. After World War I, the garden apartment came into vogue. While most were built for the middle class, especially in Jackson Heights, a significant group were sponsored by unions and cooperative organizations that wished to provide members with inexpensive apartments. Significant examples include the Amalgamated Houses (Springsteen & Goldhammer, 1930) on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the “Coops” built in the Bronx by the United Workers Cooperative Association (Springsteen & Goldhammer, 1925-27; Herman Jessor, 1927-29).

 

The first significant act of government intervention occurred in 1926 with the passage of the New York State Housing Law. Promoted by Governor Alfred E. Smith to encourage construction through the formation of local authorities that would sell bonds or seek federal funds, it had little impact until 1934 when the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) was established. The authority’s first project, aptly called the First Houses (Frederick L. Ackerman, 1934-36), was located in Manhattan’s East Village. Begun as a rehabilitation program involving the demolition of every third structure, due to structural problems the eight brick buildings were entirely rebuilt.

 

Throughout the early Depression, government-subsidized housing remained a controversial issue. Consequently, it was first promoted as worker relief, organized to create jobs but not compete with the commercial market. The first federal agency to involve itself with housing was the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) which was created in 1932 to provide low-interest loans to limited-dividend housing corporations. Of the two loans it made, one was toward the construction of Knickerbocker Village (John S. Van Wart & Frederick L. Ackerman, 1933). Built for the Fred F. French Company, this Chinatown-area development consists of two 12-story buildings, both enclosing an interior courtyard.

 

In mid-1933, as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration (PWA) was established. What made this agency different from its predecessor, the RFC, was that it would be directly involved in the planning and construction of low-income housing. The program was a great success and over the next three and half years it collaborated on the design and construction of 51 projects in 36 cities, including the Harlem River Houses and the Williamsburg Houses.

 

The passage of the Wagner-Steagall Bill (aka U.S. Housing Bill) by the United States Congress in September 1937, strengthened the federal government’s commitment to housing, but shifted greater control to local authorities. The first New York City housing project to be financed under this program was the Red Hook Houses (Electus Litchfied, chief designer, 1938-39) in Brooklyn. Future construction, which would amount to more than half a million low-rental units nationwide by 1957, would be funded primarily through low-interest loans.

 

Site

 

The Williamsburg Houses are located in northwestern Brooklyn, approximately one mile east of the Williamsburg Bridge and two blocks south of Grand Street, a lively commercial thoroughfare. Founded as part of the town of Bushwick in the mid17th century, Williamsburg was incorporated as a village in 1827. The community prospered and by 1852 it was the 20th largest city in the nation. Three years later, Williamsburg became part of Brooklyn and was commonly referred to as the Eastern District. Although ferry service was important to the area’s development, it was the planning and construction of a second East River crossing, the Williamsburg Bridge, that caused the most dramatic growth.

 

Proposed in 1883, the bridge was completed with much fanfare in 1903, serving pedestrians, bicycles and horse-drawn vehicles. In subsequent decades, Williamsburg rivaled the Lower East Side in population and density. The Brooklyn Eagle claimed in 1920 that the bridge was part of the busiest traffic center in the nation and that a single block north of it was the most crowded in the world. Conditions in the neighborhood continued to deteriorate throughout the decade, so much so that the population began to decline.

 

In October 1933, the Federal Works Administration (PWA) established a slum clearance committee to study conditions throughout New York City. Richmond H. Shreve, who would later serve as chief architect of the Williamsburg Houses, was named director. Based on the committee’s recommendations, $25 million was set aside for a housing program in New York City. Under the direction of the NYCHA, a more comprehensive study was undertaken in 1934, focusing on fourteen neighborhoods, including Williamsburg. The PWA reported:

 

When the study was completed the blighted slum area of the Williamsburg section stood out as the best example where the most good could be done in wholesale clearance work.

 

Of 93 blocks studied, a grid of 12 was identified for redevelopment in Williamsburg. These blocks were chosen because property values were relatively low and the owners were willing to sell. Most of buildings were mixed-use, incorporating retail spaces at ground level and apartments above. Each lot was carefully documented: 90% of the structures were at least forty years old, 70% were built of wood, 78% had no central heating, and 67% had no private toilets. Such statistics were used to paint an extremely bleak picture of life there:

 

But the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, according to official surveys, is unique in that its 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.

 

Public amenities were also in short supply; there were few schools and there were almost no parks.

 

Architects

 

Five architects were appointed to the NYCHA’s architectural board in May 1934: Richmond H. Shreve (1877-1946) of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, Matthew W. Del Gaudio (1889-1960), William Lescaze (1899-1969), Arthur C. Holden (18901993), and James F. Bly. As members of the board, their initial role was advisory. They would act as the authority’s chief architect, overseeing the design and construction of municipal housing citywide.

 

In June 1934 an open competition was held to choose the architects who would work on the Williamsburg Houses and other NYCHA projects. The program guidelines did not specify the location, but the grid chosen closely resembled the long blocks where the Williamsburg Houses would be built. Of 278 architects who participated, 5 of the 22 selected were assigned to the Brooklyn project: Samuel Gardstein, of Holmgren, Volz & Gardstein, G. Harmon Gurney (b. 1896), of Gurney & Clavan, John W. Ingle Jr., Paul Trapani (1887-1974), and Harry Leslie Walker (1877-1954).

 

In June 1935, a contract was signed with the Williamsburg Associated Architects. The partnership consisted of ten men: the five architects selected by jury, as well as the five members of the architectural board. Among them, Shreve had the most experience with large projects, having worked on a succession of major Manhattan skyscrapers, most notably, the Empire State Building (Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, 1931).

 

A graduate of the College of Architecture at Cornell University (1902), he began his career as a member of the school’s faculty and later joined the firm of Carrére & Hastings in New York City where he distinguished himself as having a “genius for the solution of operational and administrative problems.” Whereas prior to the Depression he mainly worked on office buildings, in his later years Shreve was associated with residential developments, most notably the Vladeck Houses (1940) on the Lower East Side, and Parkchester (1938-42), a development with more than twelve thousand apartments in the Bronx. During the late 1930s, he also served as a member of the board of design for the New York World’s Fair.

 

Design

 

Of the three initial projects built by the NYCHA and the PWA, the Williamsburg Houses were the most innovative. Shreve appointed Lescaze as the chief designer, responsible for the plan and elevations. In the 1930s, he was at the height of his career, profiled in publications read by professionals and the layman. Born near Geneva, Switzerland, in 1896, he studied in Zurich with the architect Karl Moser in 1915-19 and for a brief period worked in Paris with Henri Sauvage, an important designer of apartment buildings. Lescaze moved to the United States in 1920 and after working in Cleveland and New York City, formed a partnership with George Howe, a Philadelphia architect, in 1929.

 

Their association lasted four years and produced one architectural masterpiece, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building, completed in 1932. During the mid-1930s, he was extremely active, working on unrealized plans for the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, as well as building three of the earliest modern-style townhouses in Manhattan, his own house and studio, completed in 1934, as well as the Raymond C. and Mildred Kramer (1934-5) and Edward and Dorothy Norman (1940) houses. He also designed, with Albert Frey, the Chrystie-Forsyth Houses. Planned in 1931, this unrealized proposal was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s so-called “International Style” exhibition of 1932.

 

One of the most unique aspects of the Williamsburg Houses is the plan. To create the 23.3 acre complex, twelve blocks were acquired by the city, and the two east-west streets (Stagg and Ten Eyck) were closed to traffic to create four “super” blocks. All but one extend three full blocks from north to south, except part of the block between Manhattan and Graham Avenues that was set aside for a new junior high school and play area.

 

The development of New York City was closely tied to its gridiron. Introduced in 1811, it resulted in a city of predictable intersecting streets and avenues. In 1835, a similar plan was approved for Brooklyn and by the early 1850s the streets that cross through the site of the Williamsburg Houses had opened.

 

Most were named for area residents, such as Daniel Maujer, a lawyer and alderman, John and James Lorimer Graham, land jobbers, and James Scholes, a local land owner. The impact of this approach is visible throughout New York City, establishing blocks and lots of equal size and dimensions. Residential developers benefitted immensely, commissioning rowhouse and tenement designs that could be repeated without regard to location.

 

By the end of the 19th century, there was relatively little open space in Manhattan and Brooklyn. As part of the City Beautiful movement, various attempts were made to loosen the grid’s hold, first through the passage of the Small Parks Act in 1887, which focused on tenement neighborhoods, and later, by situating major civic structures in plazas. Similar ideas shaped the development of garden apartments which came into vogue after 1910. One of the primary characteristics of this type of multiple dwelling was reduced site coverage.

 

In most cases, such as in the Jackson Heights Historic District, the buildings were set around the perimeter of each block, enclosing large private gardens, but in other situations, such as at the Harlem River Houses, a “crankshaft” arrangement was adopted, creating a mixture of interior and exterior courts.

 

Lescaze borrowed freely from both the garden apartment tradition and architects associated with European modernism. In his earliest design, each block incorporated six U-shaped structures arranged around a narrow central court. A later design was considerably more irregular. Turned at an angle to the street, there were fewer but larger buildings.

 

Many aspects of this proposal were integrated into the final design. The Williamsburg Houses are configured in three ways, with footprints suggesting a capital “H,” small “h,” and “T.” All have small spurs and extensions, resembling crossbars. By adding this feature the number of courtyards was significantly increased. Within each block are six buildings (except north of the school); at the north and south are the “H” and “h” configurations, and in the middle, the “T”s.

 

The decision to turn the buildings at a 15 degree angle to the street grid proved controversial. PWA accounts described it in functional terms, explaining that the orientation would provide tenants with more sun and take advantage of the prevailing northwest breezes. During the previous decade, many architects and planners experimented with similar ideas. One of the earliest built examples “to deviate from the geometry of the New York gridiron” was the Mesa Verde apartments (1926) in Jackson Heights. Designed by Henry Atterbury Smith and based on an earlier proposal from 1917, the development featured two rows of six “closed L buildings” set at 45 degree angle to the surrounding streets.

 

Lescaze, however, was more likely to have been influenced by European sources. During the 1920s, he frequently returned to Europe, a period when leading architects were involved in the design of social housing. Many favored the “tower in the park” approach in which free-standing high-rise structures stood in continuous open space. Writing in English in 1935, Walter Gropius concluded that apartment blocks should “command a clear view of the sky, over broad expanses of grass and trees which separate the blocks and serve as playgrounds.”

 

Another source of inspiration might have been Ernst May who oversaw the design and construction of many low-rise housing estates in Frankfurt. In his Bruchfeldstrasse development of 1926-27, designed with C. K. Rudloff, one section was arranged in an overlapping zig-zag configuration. As in Williamsburg, each unit had corner windows, providing tenants with uninterrupted views of a central garden.

 

Many writers were skeptical about the benefits of Lescaze’s plan. Hamlin argued that the layout would convert the courts “into perfect channels for Project for a group of factories. our most vicious northwest winds.” He was told that

 

the arrangement had, in fact, been chosen for aesthetic reasons, to “break up the street facades” and “allow the feeling of space to weave in and out on the street fronts. This goal was definitely achieved, producing an environment that was new and distinctive. The flowing spaces that Lescaze planned are less monumental and more intimate than those experienced in most housing projects, juxtaposing wedge-shaped lawns with semi-enclosed courtyards and large open plazas. As originally built, no fences interrupted the spaces and the areas adjoining the curving concrete walks were paved with cobblestone.

 

The Elevations

 

Equally modern were the elevations. Lescaze was attracted to the expressive and aesthetic qualities of modern materials. Particularly unusual was the decision to use a light-colored palette. Built from reinforced concrete, the walls were originally enclosed with a sand-cast brick that was variously described by observers as bright tan, yellowish, pinkish, and grayish warm pink. One of the most notable features was the exposed concrete floor plates which express the structure and division between the floors while giving the complex a strong horizontal appearance. Talbot Hamlin observed:

 

The effectiveness of the buildings is undoubted. The striping of brick and concrete and the contrast of the light walls which front the stair towers make a vivid picture . . .

 

Prior to the mid-1930s, red brick was the most frequently used material in housing developments, used throughout Jackson Heights and in the First Houses and Harlem River Houses. The proposal to break with this tradition generated considerable debate. While the general scheme was approved in June 1935, it was not until October that specific materials were selected. Presumably, the PWA wished to standardize the building process and reduce costs. Frederick Ackerman, technical director of the NYCHA, defended Lescaze’s proposal. He wrote the authority’s chairman, Langdon W. Post:

 

. . . the “effect” of the Project will depend very largely upon the texture and quality of the exterior wall. Unless the exterior wall possesses a greater intrinsic interest than one made of common brick then the resultant effect is certain to be a bleak, barren and unusually forbidding mass of building:

 

One might readily mistake the At Williamsburg, the buildings stand as freestanding objects, finished on all sides and approachable from multiple directions. No facade dominates and the apartment entrances face both the streets and courtyards. For those unfamiliar with the layout, the angled plan may have been somewhat disorienting. To make it easier to navigate, signs were installed throughout the complex and Lescaze skillfully designed the entrances, making dramatic use of color and form. Like Le Corbusier, he was an “accomplished” painter and frequently used color, especially blue, to enliven wall surfaces. Another possible model was May’s housing development at Praunheim (1926-29) where contrasting colors were used to give the projecting stair towers a distinctive appearance.

 

Within the courtyards are as many as five entrances. Each is sheltered by a small cantilevered aluminum marquee and is flanked by square blue terra-cotta tiles. The entrances that are located at the far end of the larger courtyards are set at a angle. In these instances, the tiles spread onto the adjoining walls and extend above the parapet to the stair bulkhead. Other tile treatments project slightly forward, or are recessed above the doors to the roof. An entrance is also located in the covered breezeway. Reached by a short flight of stairs connecting both the street and courtyard, the more public street facade had an asymmetrical character, incorporating projecting blue tiles to one side and a wide aluminum marquee.

 

Construction

 

To prepare the site for construction, 568 buildings were demolished on 349 lots and approximately 5,400 people were relocated. A 1935 report described the population as divided equally between American born, Italian born, and other nationalities. Most were semi-skilled workers, employed in manufacturing, or as clerks, truck drivers, and construction workers.

 

Demolition commenced in June 1935 as PWA supervisor Elizabeth Ross dug a crowbar into the facade of 197 Manhattan Avenue, near Ten Eyck Street. In the months that followed:

 

Steam shovels and picks played a tune to rival that of the pipes of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. From every dank basement and crumbling wall rats fled in droves. Backyards disgorged an assortment of rusted cans, trash, filth and litter that would have discouraged the most voracious goat.

 

Ground was broken on January 3, 1936. Following a brief ceremony in the rain, public officials addressed an audience of five hundred at Public School 196. During April 1936, the first foundations were poured at the southwest corner of Manhattan Avenue and Stagg Street. Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia was in attendance, followed by “a few hundred interested onlookers and an army of schoolboys.”

 

As the foundations neared completion, the PWA solicited bids for construction. Starrett Brothers & Eken was awarded the $7. 5 million contract for the first 18 buildings in October 1936. A subsequent contract, for construction of buildings No. 5 and 18, was signed in late April 1937.

 

Founded by Paul Starrett (1866-1957) and William Aiken Starrett (1877-1932) and Andrew J. Eken (1882-1965) in 1922, the firm was responsible for such high-profile buildings as the New York Life Insurance Company Building (1925), Bank of Manhattan Building (1929-30), McGraw-Hill Building (1930-31), and Empire State Building (1930-31, all are designated New York City Landmarks). The Starrett Brothers worked closely with Shreve on the Empire State Building and it is likely that this relationship helped secure the contract for the Williamsburg Houses. William Starrett acknowledged the importance and complexity of this issue when he said:

 

It is the hope of people who are discussing this (slum) problem that those same brains that put together the great skyscrapers . . . will turn toward this.

 

Starrett Brothers & Eken later built Parkchester (Richmond H. Shreve, chairman of the board of design, 1938-42), Stuyvesant Town (Irwin Clavan and Gilmore Clarke, 1943-49) and Peter Cooper Village (Irwin Clavan and Gilmore D. Clarke, 1947) for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

 

The cornerstone was laid in October 1936. It contained an aerial view of the site, a copy of the federal act creating the PWA, as well as an autographed copy of Jacob Riis’s timeless account of slum conditions, How the Other Half Lives, donated by his widow. Construction progressed rapidly, and aside from minor walk-outs by metalworkers and painters, the first six buildings were ready for occupancy with a year, in September

 

Publicity

 

The Williamsburg Houses was the largest and costliest project built by the PWA. With 1,622 apartments, it was more than twice the size of the Harlem River Houses. The approximate cost was $12.8 million. It was described by the PWA as part of “demonstration program” and numerous public events were held. In a letter to Post, Shreve stated:

 

As this project is the beginning of what, in a way, is a housing community experiment and as the public attitude toward housing will be largely controlled by the success or failure of such an experiment, it is of importance that every effort be made to make the first experiment successful.

 

In this context, how the project was perceived was of the utmost importance. Once the design had been approved, a scale model was built by the PWA and exhibited at banks in Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg during late 1935 and 1936. This presentation was accompanied by a series of posters documenting the site, including photographs of earlier buildings and their demolition, as well as projected floor plans. The New York Times reported the model:

 

. . . throws into graphic relief the application of the new principle of multiple housing, providing more air, sunlight and recreational facilities and involving a departure from the solid-block construction.

 

The idea of using public funds to create low-income housing was relatively new and much of the language used in speeches and press releases heralded it as a major advance. At the site, signs were posted, calling Williamsburg the “Largest Low Rental Development in the USA.” At the ground-breaking, public officials evoked the memory of Alfred T. White, whose Brooklyn developments were among the first attempts to improve low-income housing in the nation.

 

Mayor LaGuardia thanked the President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for his support, as did Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, who described slums as a “vicious project of that old order whose passing, we hope, is at hand.” While some critics equated the federal housing program with socialism, most speakers saw it as a defense of democracy.

 

In November 1935, Post had contacted the PWA, requesting that the complex be called the “Ten Eyck” Houses. No explanation was given, but it is likely that the request was made to distinguish the new development from the larger surrounding neighborhood.

 

Ten Eyck Street was one of two east-west streets closed to create the site and it was probably named for the Dutch family whose Brooklyn lineage extended back to at least the 18th century. In the immediate area also lived William Ten Eyck, who during the mid-19th century served as the deacon of the Reformed Church of South Bushwick (1853, a designated New York City Landmark). Post’s request was quickly approved. The new name, however, was not widely used and a 1938 PWA publication refers to the development as the Williamsburg Houses.

 

On October 28, 1936, the construction site was briefly visited by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. According to the New York Times, ten thousand school children and five thousand adults “cheered the President’s passage through the streets bordering the housing project.”

 

Three “model” apartments were opened for public view in July through August 1937. Furnished with loans from various Brooklyn department stores, they were presented at 180 Maujer Street. Post was an early visitor and he described the apartments as a “demonstration of what can be done, this is the most valuable contribution to social progress that the New Deal has made.” An average of 1,200 persons a day visited. In September 1937, a second group of apartments opened at 176 Maujer Street, including one decorated entirely with “reconditioned furniture.” In a related development, during April and May 1938, the WPA created an exhibit in a storefront office at 212 Graham Avenue. Organized by William Friedman of the art teaching division, the display was changed periodically to demonstrate different apartment layouts and decoration. Nine experts spent five months preparing the exhibit, hoping that it would influence local residents and provide a model for future public housing developments. A music branch, at 176 Maujer Street, also provided lessons in theory, voice, and various instruments.

 

Tenants

 

According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the Williamsburg Houses were “one of the most perfect home sites in the word . . . an eagerly sought spot to live.” Income and need formed the basis of selection and no tenant could earn more than five times the annual rent. Preference was also given to former residents of the site.

 

The first tenants began to occupy their apartments on September 30, 1937. The New York Times devoted at least two articles to “Moving Day,” as did the Brooklyn Eagle. As part of the operation, each tenant’s belongings were moved to a fumigation plant for sterilization near the intersection of Bushwick Avenue at Scholes Street.

 

This procedure was described as a “wise precaution against the spread of disease.” Bessie and Louis Grabkowitz were recognized by the NYCHA as the first official tenants. A week’s rent, of less than seven dollars, was paid and they were given keys to their new apartment. Two to five rooms in size, units featured steam heat, hot and cold water, as well as electric stoves and refrigerators. Residents praised their new homes, commenting on the appliances and abundant sunlight.

 

By the end of 1937, most apartments were occupied. A community newspaper, the Projector, began publishing on a semi-monthly basis in December 1937. In April 1938, the complex was completed. In addition to the twenty residential buildings, there were retail spaces, facing the north-south streets. The PWA reported:

 

To insure efficient, sanitary commercial services, 49 stores and shops within the project, distributing drugs, groceries, appliances, and general merchandise, have been leased to private individuals.

 

The storefronts were executed in a sleek Moderne style. To the north and south, they curved away from the street, recalling the streamlined designs of Erich Mendelsohn, as well as J. J. P. Oud’s Kiefhoek development of 1925. The prominent metal parapets were blue, matching the color of the apartment entrances. Despite their polished design, a significant number failed to attract and retain tenants. Consequently, in 1945 ten unleased spaces, near the corners of Maujer and Leonard Streets, and Scholes Street and Bushwick Avenue, were converted to apartments.

 

Tenants enjoyed a variety of useful services. At the center of the complex, on Graham Avenue stood the stripped classical-style William J. Gaynor Junior High School (1936-37), and opposite it, Building No. 11 housed a nursery school. Incorporated into the building’s south court and featuring a large play terrace, Hamlin described its glass-fronted design as “pleasant” and “delightful.” In addition, a new Moderne-style health center was built directly across from the complex, on Maujer Street.

 

Throughout the development were “social and craft rooms.” These basement spaces were originally used for classes, clubs, and meetings and many were decorated with large colorful murals. In contrast to the majority of WPA murals that were executed in style of social realism, the Williamsburg murals were non-objective. Lescaze favored “abstract and stimulating patterns” and Burgoyne Diller who headed the Federal Art Project, wrote that:

 

The decision to place abstract murals in these rooms [of the Williamsburg Housing Project] was made because the areas were intended to provide a place of relaxation and entertainment . . . The more arbitrary the color, possible when not determined by the description of objects, enables the artist to place an emphasis on its psychological potential to stimulate relaxation.

 

Of twelve murals commissioned, at least five were installed. In the early 1990s, the deteriorated canvases were restored and moved to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. They include works by the American painters Ilya Bolotowsky, Paul Kelpe, and Balcomb Greene.

  

Critical Reception

 

The opening of the Williamsburg Houses was treated as major news and writers used the event to analyze the project and express their own views about the role of public housing and the importance of modern architecture. Some of the earliest comments came from the architect Walter Gropius, former director of the Bauhaus in Germany. On a visit to New York City in April 1937 he was interviewed by H.I. Brock in the New York Times. They traveled together throughout the city, visiting both new skyscrapers and the nearly-complete Brooklyn development. Gropius was impressed and praised the unusual plan, saying that Lescaze:

 

. . . seems to have solved the problem of space and light very successfully and economically, and it has the great advantage of being spread over enough land to make it worthwhile as a sample of planned development.

 

Lewis Mumford was the first critic to publish a substantial review in February 1938. As a persistent advocate for public housing, he used the opportunity to evaluate the “outlines of the new order of building.” He praised the PWA for eschewing “overpriced building lots” and instead assembling large sites in quieter areas where streets could be closed to traffic to create gardens and playgrounds. Considerable attention was paid to the slanted orientation. Although he described it as “a bit queer,” he liked the way it separated the residences from the street and that it gave the appearance that the architects were concerned about providing tenants with ample sunlight.

 

Talbot Hamlin published the most-detailed analysis. In this review, he addressed both PWA projects, calling them “a new vision of democracy ... they are better than the most expensive apartments on Park Avenue.” Despite such praise, he expressed mixed feelings. While he found the buildings “fresh and inventive and alive,” he was disturbed by the “shockingly low” standards of construction. He also admired the “imaginative and carefully studied detailing,” but criticized the landscaping as little more than adequate. The WPA Guide to New York City, published in 1939, shared similar views, quoting Hamlin’s review, and praising the design of the individual buildings.

 

In the years since completion, the Williamsburg Houses have been a frequent subject for architectural historians. Many, starting with the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, have placed the development within the context of European modernism. In an exhibition celebrating the museum’s 10th anniversary and the opening of its new building, it was the only architectural work represented that was located in New York City. In a brief essay on housing, the curators highlighted the “triple-size superblocks,” that form an “oasis of open space,” but criticized the adjoining school building as a lost opportunity to create a “truly important work.” Photographs of the complex were also included in Forms and Functions of Twentieth-Century Architecture (1952), in sections devoted to city planning and concrete construction.

 

G. Holmes Perkins wrote in the city planning section that despite faults, the complex “may be held up as patterns for tomorrow.” Richard Pommer, in one of the most insightful discussions of Depression-era housing in the United States, criticized the angled plan, calling Lescaze a “versatile pasticheur” who used visual effects without logic or relation to function. Robert A. M. Stern shared this view, writing in 1980 that it “seems overrated.” Richard Plunz, in A History of Housing in New York City, credited the project as the start of a “brief but intense struggle” to determine the aesthetic direction government-built housing would take. All four editions of the AIA Guide to New York City have praised the Williamsburg Houses. The 1968 edition called it a “very successful solution to the problem of low-rent subsidized housing,” and in 2000 “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

 

Subsequent History

 

Conveyed by the federal government to the NYCHA in 1957, the Williamsburg Houses continue to serve their original purpose, housing more than three thousand New Yorkers. Major alterations were first proposed in 1980 and significant work took place during 1985-91. At this time, the original casement windows were replaced with bronze-colored aluminum sash and the blue terra cotta that surrounded the entrances, with tan “Morocco” glazed brick.

 

In a remarkable turnaround, during the mid1990s, the facades were restored. What began as continued maintenance, soon evolved into a major architectural project, requiring an outside contractor and consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Under the supervision of Neil Cohen of the NYCHA, the elevations were completely reskinned, the parapets replaced, as well as the chimneys, railings, and terra-cotta banding. In addition, new canopies, doors, lighting fixtures, and signage were fabricated.

 

The approximately $70 million project was executed with great sensitivity; there was an article in the real estate section of the New York Times and the NYCHA was the recipient of the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy (1999), which praised the participants for restoring the complex to “better-than-new condition.” Restoration of the storefronts, except along Bushwick Avenue, was completed in 2002.

 

The high standards set by the design of the Williamsburg Houses have rarely been matched. Innovative in terms of scale, plan, and aesthetics, it remains one of the most pleasant and architecturally-distinguished housing developments in New York City.

 

Description

 

There are twenty walk-up buildings in the 23.3acre Williamsburg complex and a total of 1,620 apartments. These buildings are numbered from 1 to 20 and each entrance has its own street address, for instance, “112 Maujer Street.” Stainless steel signs, with pin-mounted numbers and letters, identify each entrance.

 

The site extends four blocks east to west, from Bushwick Avenue to Leonard Street, and three blocks north to south, from Maujer to Scholes Streets. The principal north-south artery is Graham Avenue. Between Maujer and Scholes Streets, Ten Eyck Street and Stagg Street are closed to vehicles. These winding east-west paths are called Ten Eyck Walk and Stagg Walk. They are identified by large pin-mounted stainless steel letters attached to the building facades and are visible along the north-south streets. Throughout the complex are wall-mounted cantilevered lighting fixtures. These glass and aluminum fixtures are reproductions of the originals.

 

Three of the four blocks have a tree-shaded open space at center. At present, non-historic benches, play equipment, and basketball courts are located here. Most lawns are enclosed by low iron fences. Though not original, these fences pre-date the 1990s. Pole-mounted lighting fixtures are occasionally used to illuminate these areas.

 

All buildings materials are non-historic. Each structure is four stories tall and clad in ochre-colored brick. Exterior concrete spandrel beams are exposed at each floor. To disguise patches to the concrete, the beams are coated with a grey-colored water repellency finish. The entrances are flanked by blue structural glazed facing tiles that are approximately 12 by 12 inches. Blue mortar was used to minimize the joint lines. A canopy projects in front of each entrance (except on one side of the breezeways). Made of stainless steel, they incorporate recessed down lights. Some canopies are supported by a single pipe column. The entrance doors and sidelights are made of stainless steel.

 

Each door has a grid of four small square windows. Breezeways serve a dual purpose: reached by two sets of stairs, they provide an additional north-south passage, as well as entry to apartments. Most of the stairs are flanked by stainless steel railings. The bronze anodized aluminum windows, installed in the 1980s, are all one-over-one. Arranged as single windows or in pairs, they have concrete sills and meet the concrete spandrels above. The smaller windows light the bathrooms. Single windows and pairs are located where the facades meet, often creating triple-width openings at the cantilevered corners.

 

There are three general building configurations. All are original to the complex. They include eight buildings with “H” shaped floor plans, six with floor plans that suggest a small letter “h,” and six buildings with “T” shaped floor plans. While the “H” and “h” types alternate along Maujer and Scholes Streets (except next to the school where both are “H” shaped), the “T” shaped buildings are located only between Ten Eyck Walk and Stagg Walk.

 

The “H” buildings (Nos. 1, 6, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, and 20) are nearly symmetrical, with almost identical north and south courtyards. At the center of each court is either a projecting center section or breezeway. The apartments are reached by four distinct entrances, each with a different tile treatment. They include: corner, wide, recessed between the door and the roof, and incorporated within a breezeway. Each entrance leads to interior stairs. The windows that light the stairs are arranged in horizontal grids of six and eight panes. Except for the recessed variant, the tiles project slightly and rise above the parapet to the stair bulkhead. The opposite side of the breezeway has no tilework. Reached by stairs, each breezeway incorporates two concrete columns and a metal door. The “h” buildings (Nos. 2, 5, 19, 13, 16 and 19) are similar to the “H” buildings, except one court is partially enclosed.

 

The “T” buildings (Nos. 3, 4, 11, 12, 17, 18) have shallow courts. The top of the ‘T” has three entrances, each framed with blue tiles. A pair of entrances are also found facing each other in one of the side courts, and occasionally on the opposite side, as well. Building No. 11, located on the east side of Graham Avenue, is unique due to the presence of a nursery school at the wider south end. To accommodate this function, the entrances were moved and the court at the south end was enclosed. The south wall of school is clad with glass blocks, many of which are original. A concrete shed, at the center of the wall, is not historic and there are plans for removal. From the south facade extends a raised play area that is enclosed by a fence. Along the east side of the building, facing Graham Avenue, a non-historic ramp with metal railings has been constructed.

 

Commercial storefronts parallel the streets and adjoin the apartment buildings in various locations. The materials are non-historic, but the new elevations closely resemble the originals. The largest storefronts are located on either side of Graham Avenue, between Maujer Street and Ten Eyck Walk (Nos. 8 and 9). Smaller retail spaces are located along Graham Avenue (near Scholes Street, No. 13); on Leonard Street (near Maujer Street, No. 1); and on Bushwick Avenue (between Maujer and Stagg Walk, No. 16). They have a stream-lined character and curve away from the street at both ends. One story tall, they have granite bases and are clad with stainless steel and metal that has a baked-on blue porcelain finish. Above the storefronts runs the blue metal parapet, crowned by a stainless steel roof rail. Lighting was added above the storefronts, and security gates, when the stores are open, roll up and are neatly hidden within the facades. Large glass blocks or plate glass are used throughout. Along Bushwick Avenue, the modifications are less sympathetic and a vertical grid of older decorative concrete block occasionally interrupts the facade.

 

- From the 2003 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, United States

 

A collaborative project of the Federal Public Works Administration and the newly established New York City Housing Authority, the Williamsburg Houses are notable as one of the earliest housing developments in the United States to reflect the ideas of the modern movement in architecture. In the 1920s Williamsburg was one of the most densely populated sections of Brooklyn and nearly six hundred, mostly frame, structures were demolished to create the 23.3 acre site. Proposed in 1934, this residential complex was skillfully designed by the Williamsburg Associated Architects during 1935 and most units were occupied by 1938.

 

The partnership included Richmond H. Shreve, of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the architects of the Empire State Building, and William Lescaze, the Swiss-born architect who helped introduce the “International” style on the eastern seaboard. Lescaze was responsible for the design, which includes twenty 4-story structures on four “super” blocks turned at 15 degree angles to the street grid. Oriented to the sun and prevailing winds, this unusual layout produced a series of large and small courts, many of which flow into a large public space at the center of each block. A light-colored palette distinguishes the facades, executed in tan brick and exposed concrete.

 

Among the most prominent features are the entrances, marked by blue tile and projecting stainless steel canopies, and the handsome streamlined storefronts. The complex was widely discussed by contemporary critics and more than 25,000 New Yorkers applied for 1,622 apartments. During the mid-1990s, the buildings underwent an extensive restoration which included the replacement of all exterior materials. Sponsored by the Housing Authority, in consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, these alterations were remarkably sensitive and in the 4th edition of the AIA Guide to New York City the “revivified” complex was called “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

 

DESCRIPTION AND ANALYSIS

 

Housing the Masses

 

From the rowhouse to the apartment building, New York City has been a laboratory for innovative housing. Beginning after the Civil War, apartments, variously known as French Flats and tenements, were built to house the city’s surging population. Immigrants, for the most part, crowded into unregulated tenements, structures that maximized profits for developers while providing few amenities that we take for granted today, such as light, air, and private bathrooms.

 

Despite government efforts to legislate minimum standards in 1867 and 1879, initially private individuals took the most significant steps to make decent housing affordable to all. Several pioneering examples were located close to the Brooklyn waterfront, including the Home and Tower Buildings , the Astral Apartments and Riverside . The later complex surrounded a large tree-shaded courtyard incorporating a music pavilion and areas for drying laundry. Despite these, and a few innovative Manhattan developments, the majority of New Yorkers continued to live in substandard conditions.

 

The passage of the New Tenement Law in 1901 improved the situation, requiring that multiple dwellings be built on significantly larger lots, with fire escapes and separate “privies” for each family. After World War I, the garden apartment came into vogue. While most were built for the middle class, especially in Jackson Heights, a significant group were sponsored by unions and cooperative organizations that wished to provide members with inexpensive apartments. Significant examples include the Amalgamated Houses on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the “Coops” built in the Bronx by the United Workers Cooperative Association .

 

The first significant act of government intervention occurred in 1926 with the passage of the New York State Housing Law. Promoted by Governor Alfred E. Smith to encourage construction through the formation of local authorities that would sell bonds or seek federal funds, it had little impact until 1934 when the New York City Housing Authority was established. The authority’s first project, aptly called the First Houses , was located in Manhattan’s East Village. Begun as a rehabilitation program involving the demolition of every third structure, due to structural problems the eight brick buildings were entirely rebuilt.

 

Throughout the early Depression, government-subsidized housing remained a controversial issue. Consequently, it was first promoted as worker relief, organized to create jobs but not compete with the commercial market. The first federal agency to involve itself with housing was the Reconstruction Finance Corporation which was created in 1932 to provide low-interest loans to limited-dividend housing corporations. Of the two loans it made, one was toward the construction of Knickerbocker Village . Built for the Fred F. French Company, this Chinatown-area development consists of two 12-story buildings, both enclosing an interior courtyard.

 

In mid-1933, as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration was established. What made this agency different from its predecessor, the RFC, was that it would be directly involved in the planning and construction of low-income housing. The program was a great success and over the next three and half years it collaborated on the design and construction of 51 projects in 36 cities, including the Harlem River Houses and the Williamsburg Houses.

 

The passage of the Wagner-Steagall Bill by the United States Congress in September 1937, strengthened the federal government’s commitment to housing, but shifted greater control to local authorities. The first New York City housing project to be financed under this program was the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn. Future construction, which would amount to more than half a million low-rental units nationwide by 1957, would be funded primarily through low-interest loans.

 

Site

 

The Williamsburg Houses are located in northwestern Brooklyn, approximately one mile east of the Williamsburg Bridge and two blocks south of Grand Street, a lively commercial thoroughfare. Founded as part of the town of Bushwick in the mid17th century, Williamsburg was incorporated as a village in 1827. The community prospered and by 1852 it was the 20th largest city in the nation. Three years later, Williamsburg became part of Brooklyn and was commonly referred to as the Eastern District. Although ferry service was important to the area’s development, it was the planning and construction of a second East River crossing, the Williamsburg Bridge, that caused the most dramatic growth.

 

Proposed in 1883, the bridge was completed with much fanfare in 1903, serving pedestrians, bicycles and horse-drawn vehicles. In subsequent decades, Williamsburg rivaled the Lower East Side in population and density. The Brooklyn Eagle claimed in 1920 that the bridge was part of the busiest traffic center in the nation and that a single block north of it was the most crowded in the world. Conditions in the neighborhood continued to deteriorate throughout the decade, so much so that the population began to decline.

 

In October 1933, the Federal Works Administration established a slum clearance committee to study conditions throughout New York City. Richmond H. Shreve, who would later serve as chief architect of the Williamsburg Houses, was named director. Based on the committee’s recommendations, $25 million was set aside for a housing program in New York City. Under the direction of the NYCHA, a more comprehensive study was undertaken in 1934, focusing on fourteen neighborhoods, including Williamsburg. The PWA reported:

 

When the study was completed the blighted slum area of the Williamsburg section stood out as the best example where the most good could be done in wholesale clearance work.

 

Of 93 blocks studied, a grid of 12 was identified for redevelopment in Williamsburg. These blocks were chosen because property values were relatively low and the owners were willing to sell. Most of buildings were mixed-use, incorporating retail spaces at ground level and apartments above. Each lot was carefully documented: 90% of the structures were at least forty years old, 70% were built of wood, 78% had no central heating, and 67% had no private toilets. Such statistics were used to paint an extremely bleak picture of life there:

 

But the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, according to official surveys, is unique in that its 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.

 

Public amenities were also in short supply; there were few schools and there were almost no parks.

 

Architects

 

Five architects were appointed to the NYCHA’s architectural board in May 1934: Richmond H. Shreve of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, Matthew W. Del Gaudio , William Lescaze , Arthur C. Holden , and James F. Bly. As members of the board, their initial role was advisory. They would act as the authority’s chief architect, overseeing the design and construction of municipal housing citywide.

 

In June 1934 an open competition was held to choose the architects who would work on the Williamsburg Houses and other NYCHA projects. The program guidelines did not specify the location, but the grid chosen closely resembled the long blocks where the Williamsburg Houses would be built. Of 278 architects who participated, 5 of the 22 selected were assigned to the Brooklyn project: Samuel Gardstein, of Holmgren, Volz & Gardstein, G. Harmon Gurney , of Gurney & Clavan, John W. Ingle Jr., Paul Trapani , and Harry Leslie Walker .

 

In June 1935, a contract was signed with the Williamsburg Associated Architects. The partnership consisted of ten men: the five architects selected by jury, as well as the five members of the architectural board. Among them, Shreve had the most experience with large projects, having worked on a succession of major Manhattan skyscrapers, most notably, the Empire State Building .

 

A graduate of the College of Architecture at Cornell University , he began his career as a member of the school’s faculty and later joined the firm of Carrére & Hastings in New York City where he distinguished himself as having a “genius for the solution of operational and administrative problems.” Whereas prior to the Depression he mainly worked on office buildings, in his later years Shreve was associated with residential developments, most notably the Vladeck Houses on the Lower East Side, and Parkchester , a development with more than twelve thousand apartments in the Bronx. During the late 1930s, he also served as a member of the board of design for the New York World’s Fair.

 

Design

 

Of the three initial projects built by the NYCHA and the PWA, the Williamsburg Houses were the most innovative. Shreve appointed Lescaze as the chief designer, responsible for the plan and elevations. In the 1930s, he was at the height of his career, profiled in publications read by professionals and the layman. Born near Geneva, Switzerland, in 1896, he studied in Zurich with the architect Karl Moser in 1915-19 and for a brief period worked in Paris with Henri Sauvage, an important designer of apartment buildings. Lescaze moved to the United States in 1920 and after working in Cleveland and New York City, formed a partnership with George Howe, a Philadelphia architect, in 1929.

 

Their association lasted four years and produced one architectural masterpiece, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building, completed in 1932. During the mid-1930s, he was extremely active, working on unrealized plans for the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, as well as building three of the earliest modern-style townhouses in Manhattan, his own house and studio, completed in 1934, as well as the Raymond C. and Mildred Kramer and Edward and Dorothy Norman houses. He also designed, with Albert Frey, the Chrystie-Forsyth Houses. Planned in 1931, this unrealized proposal was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s so-called “International Style” exhibition of 1932.

 

One of the most unique aspects of the Williamsburg Houses is the plan. To create the 23.3 acre complex, twelve blocks were acquired by the city, and the two east-west streets were closed to traffic to create four “super” blocks. All but one extend three full blocks from north to south, except part of the block between Manhattan and Graham Avenues that was set aside for a new junior high school and play area.

 

The development of New York City was closely tied to its gridiron. Introduced in 1811, it resulted in a city of predictable intersecting streets and avenues. In 1835, a similar plan was approved for Brooklyn and by the early 1850s the streets that cross through the site of the Williamsburg Houses had opened.

 

Most were named for area residents, such as Daniel Maujer, a lawyer and alderman, John and James Lorimer Graham, land jobbers, and James Scholes, a local land owner. The impact of this approach is visible throughout New York City, establishing blocks and lots of equal size and dimensions. Residential developers benefitted immensely, commissioning rowhouse and tenement designs that could be repeated without regard to location.

 

By the end of the 19th century, there was relatively little open space in Manhattan and Brooklyn. As part of the City Beautiful movement, various attempts were made to loosen the grid’s hold, first through the passage of the Small Parks Act in 1887, which focused on tenement neighborhoods, and later, by situating major civic structures in plazas. Similar ideas shaped the development of garden apartments which came into vogue after 1910. One of the primary characteristics of this type of multiple dwelling was reduced site coverage.

 

In most cases, such as in the Jackson Heights Historic District, the buildings were set around the perimeter of each block, enclosing large private gardens, but in other situations, such as at the Harlem River Houses, a “crankshaft” arrangement was adopted, creating a mixture of interior and exterior courts.

 

Lescaze borrowed freely from both the garden apartment tradition and architects associated with European modernism. In his earliest design, each block incorporated six U-shaped structures arranged around a narrow central court. A later design was considerably more irregular. Turned at an angle to the street, there were fewer but larger buildings.

 

Many aspects of this proposal were integrated into the final design. The Williamsburg Houses are configured in three ways, with footprints suggesting a capital “H,” small “h,” and “T.” All have small spurs and extensions, resembling crossbars. By adding this feature the number of courtyards was significantly increased. Within each block are six buildings ; at the north and south are the “H” and “h” configurations, and in the middle, the “T”s.

 

The decision to turn the buildings at a 15 degree angle to the street grid proved controversial. PWA accounts described it in functional terms, explaining that the orientation would provide tenants with more sun and take advantage of the prevailing northwest breezes. During the previous decade, many architects and planners experimented with similar ideas. One of the earliest built examples “to deviate from the geometry of the New York gridiron” was the Mesa Verde apartments in Jackson Heights. Designed by Henry Atterbury Smith and based on an earlier proposal from 1917, the development featured two rows of six “closed L buildings” set at 45 degree angle to the surrounding streets.

 

Lescaze, however, was more likely to have been influenced by European sources. During the 1920s, he frequently returned to Europe, a period when leading architects were involved in the design of social housing. Many favored the “tower in the park” approach in which free-standing high-rise structures stood in continuous open space. Writing in English in 1935, Walter Gropius concluded that apartment blocks should “command a clear view of the sky, over broad expanses of grass and trees which separate the blocks and serve as playgrounds.”

 

Another source of inspiration might have been Ernst May who oversaw the design and construction of many low-rise housing estates in Frankfurt. In his Bruchfeldstrasse development of 1926-27, designed with C. K. Rudloff, one section was arranged in an overlapping zig-zag configuration. As in Williamsburg, each unit had corner windows, providing tenants with uninterrupted views of a central garden.

 

Many writers were skeptical about the benefits of Lescaze’s plan. Hamlin argued that the layout would convert the courts “into perfect channels for Project for a group of factories. our most vicious northwest winds.” He was told that

 

the arrangement had, in fact, been chosen for aesthetic reasons, to “break up the street facades” and “allow the feeling of space to weave in and out on the street fronts. This goal was definitely achieved, producing an environment that was new and distinctive. The flowing spaces that Lescaze planned are less monumental and more intimate than those experienced in most housing projects, juxtaposing wedge-shaped lawns with semi-enclosed courtyards and large open plazas. As originally built, no fences interrupted the spaces and the areas adjoining the curving concrete walks were paved with cobblestone.

 

The Elevations

 

Equally modern were the elevations. Lescaze was attracted to the expressive and aesthetic qualities of modern materials. Particularly unusual was the decision to use a light-colored palette. Built from reinforced concrete, the walls were originally enclosed with a sand-cast brick that was variously described by observers as bright tan, yellowish, pinkish, and grayish warm pink. One of the most notable features was the exposed concrete floor plates which express the structure and division between the floors while giving the complex a strong horizontal appearance. Talbot Hamlin observed:

 

The effectiveness of the buildings is undoubted. The striping of brick and concrete and the contrast of the light walls which front the stair towers make a vivid picture . . .

 

Prior to the mid-1930s, red brick was the most frequently used material in housing developments, used throughout Jackson Heights and in the First Houses and Harlem River Houses. The proposal to break with this tradition generated considerable debate. While the general scheme was approved in June 1935, it was not until October that specific materials were selected. Presumably, the PWA wished to standardize the building process and reduce costs. Frederick Ackerman, technical director of the NYCHA, defended Lescaze’s proposal. He wrote the authority’s chairman, Langdon W. Post:

 

. . . the “effect” of the Project will depend very largely upon the texture and quality of the exterior wall. Unless the exterior wall possesses a greater intrinsic interest than one made of common brick then the resultant effect is certain to be a bleak, barren and unusually forbidding mass of building:

 

One might readily mistake the At Williamsburg, the buildings stand as freestanding objects, finished on all sides and approachable from multiple directions. No facade dominates and the apartment entrances face both the streets and courtyards. For those unfamiliar with the layout, the angled plan may have been somewhat disorienting. To make it easier to navigate, signs were installed throughout the complex and Lescaze skillfully designed the entrances, making dramatic use of color and form. Like Le Corbusier, he was an “accomplished” painter and frequently used color, especially blue, to enliven wall surfaces. Another possible model was May’s housing development at Praunheim where contrasting colors were used to give the projecting stair towers a distinctive appearance.

 

Within the courtyards are as many as five entrances. Each is sheltered by a small cantilevered aluminum marquee and is flanked by square blue terra-cotta tiles. The entrances that are located at the far end of the larger courtyards are set at a angle. In these instances, the tiles spread onto the adjoining walls and extend above the parapet to the stair bulkhead. Other tile treatments project slightly forward, or are recessed above the doors to the roof. An entrance is also located in the covered breezeway. Reached by a short flight of stairs connecting both the street and courtyard, the more public street facade had an asymmetrical character, incorporating projecting blue tiles to one side and a wide aluminum marquee.

 

Construction

 

To prepare the site for construction, 568 buildings were demolished on 349 lots and approximately 5,400 people were relocated. A 1935 report described the population as divided equally between American born, Italian born, and other nationalities. Most were semi-skilled workers, employed in manufacturing, or as clerks, truck drivers, and construction workers.

 

Demolition commenced in June 1935 as PWA supervisor Elizabeth Ross dug a crowbar into the facade of 197 Manhattan Avenue, near Ten Eyck Street. In the months that followed:

 

Steam shovels and picks played a tune to rival that of the pipes of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. From every dank basement and crumbling wall rats fled in droves. Backyards disgorged an assortment of rusted cans, trash, filth and litter that would have discouraged the most voracious goat.

 

Ground was broken on January 3, 1936. Following a brief ceremony in the rain, public officials addressed an audience of five hundred at Public School 196. During April 1936, the first foundations were poured at the southwest corner of Manhattan Avenue and Stagg Street. Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia was in attendance, followed by “a few hundred interested onlookers and an army of schoolboys.”

 

As the foundations neared completion, the PWA solicited bids for construction. Starrett Brothers & Eken was awarded the $7. 5 million contract for the first 18 buildings in October 1936. A subsequent contract, for construction of buildings No. 5 and 18, was signed in late April 1937.

 

Founded by Paul Starrett and William Aiken Starrett and Andrew J. Eken in 1922, the firm was responsible for such high-profile buildings as the New York Life Insurance Company Building , Bank of Manhattan Building , McGraw-Hill Building , and Empire State Building . The Starrett Brothers worked closely with Shreve on the Empire State Building and it is likely that this relationship helped secure the contract for the Williamsburg Houses. William Starrett acknowledged the importance and complexity of this issue when he said:

 

It is the hope of people who are discussing this problem that those same brains that put together the great skyscrapers . . . will turn toward this.

 

Starrett Brothers & Eken later built Parkchester , Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

 

The cornerstone was laid in October 1936. It contained an aerial view of the site, a copy of the federal act creating the PWA, as well as an autographed copy of Jacob Riis’s timeless account of slum conditions, How the Other Half Lives, donated by his widow. Construction progressed rapidly, and aside from minor walk-outs by metalworkers and painters, the first six buildings were ready for occupancy with a year, in September

 

Publicity

 

The Williamsburg Houses was the largest and costliest project built by the PWA. With 1,622 apartments, it was more than twice the size of the Harlem River Houses. The approximate cost was $12.8 million. It was described by the PWA as part of “demonstration program” and numerous public events were held. In a letter to Post, Shreve stated:

 

As this project is the beginning of what, in a way, is a housing community experiment and as the public attitude toward housing will be largely controlled by the success or failure of such an experiment, it is of importance that every effort be made to make the first experiment successful.

 

In this context, how the project was perceived was of the utmost importance. Once the design had been approved, a scale model was built by the PWA and exhibited at banks in Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg during late 1935 and 1936. This presentation was accompanied by a series of posters documenting the site, including photographs of earlier buildings and their demolition, as well as projected floor plans. The New York Times reported the model:

 

. . . throws into graphic relief the application of the new principle of multiple housing, providing more air, sunlight and recreational facilities and involving a departure from the solid-block construction.

 

The idea of using public funds to create low-income housing was relatively new and much of the language used in speeches and press releases heralded it as a major advance. At the site, signs were posted, calling Williamsburg the “Largest Low Rental Development in the USA.” At the ground-breaking, public officials evoked the memory of Alfred T. White, whose Brooklyn developments were among the first attempts to improve low-income housing in the nation.

 

Mayor LaGuardia thanked the President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for his support, as did Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, who described slums as a “vicious project of that old order whose passing, we hope, is at hand.” While some critics equated the federal housing program with socialism, most speakers saw it as a defense of democracy.

 

In November 1935, Post had contacted the PWA, requesting that the complex be called the “Ten Eyck” Houses. No explanation was given, but it is likely that the request was made to distinguish the new development from the larger surrounding neighborhood.

 

Ten Eyck Street was one of two east-west streets closed to create the site and it was probably named for the Dutch family whose Brooklyn lineage extended back to at least the 18th century. In the immediate area also lived William Ten Eyck, who during the mid-19th century served as the deacon of the Reformed Church of South Bushwick . Post’s request was quickly approved. The new name, however, was not widely used and a 1938 PWA publication refers to the development as the Williamsburg Houses.

 

On October 28, 1936, the construction site was briefly visited by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. According to the New York Times, ten thousand school children and five thousand adults “cheered the President’s passage through the streets bordering the housing project.”

 

Three “model” apartments were opened for public view in July through August 1937. Furnished with loans from various Brooklyn department stores, they were presented at 180 Maujer Street. Post was an early visitor and he described the apartments as a “demonstration of what can be done, this is the most valuable contribution to social progress that the New Deal has made.” An average of 1,200 persons a day visited. In September 1937, a second group of apartments opened at 176 Maujer Street, including one decorated entirely with “reconditioned furniture.” In a related development, during April and May 1938, the WPA created an exhibit in a storefront office at 212 Graham Avenue. Organized by William Friedman of the art teaching division, the display was changed periodically to demonstrate different apartment layouts and decoration. Nine experts spent five months preparing the exhibit, hoping that it would influence local residents and provide a model for future public housing developments. A music branch, at 176 Maujer Street, also provided lessons in theory, voice, and various instruments.

 

Tenants

 

According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the Williamsburg Houses were “one of the most perfect home sites in the word . . . an eagerly sought spot to live.” Income and need formed the basis of selection and no tenant could earn more than five times the annual rent. Preference was also given to former residents of the site.

 

The first tenants began to occupy their apartments on September 30, 1937. The New York Times devoted at least two articles to “Moving Day,” as did the Brooklyn Eagle. As part of the operation, each tenant’s belongings were moved to a fumigation plant for sterilization near the intersection of Bushwick Avenue at Scholes Street.

 

This procedure was described as a “wise precaution against the spread of disease.” Bessie and Louis Grabkowitz were recognized by the NYCHA as the first official tenants. A week’s rent, of less than seven dollars, was paid and they were given keys to their new apartment. Two to five rooms in size, units featured steam heat, hot and cold water, as well as electric stoves and refrigerators. Residents praised their new homes, commenting on the appliances and abundant sunlight.

 

By the end of 1937, most apartments were occupied. A community newspaper, the Projector, began publishing on a semi-monthly basis in December 1937. In April 1938, the complex was completed. In addition to the twenty residential buildings, there were retail spaces, facing the north-south streets. The PWA reported:

 

To insure efficient, sanitary commercial services, 49 stores and shops within the project, distributing drugs, groceries, appliances, and general merchandise, have been leased to private individuals.

 

The storefronts were executed in a sleek Moderne style. To the north and south, they curved away from the street, recalling the streamlined designs of Erich Mendelsohn, as well as J. J. P. Oud’s Kiefhoek development of 1925. The prominent metal parapets were blue, matching the color of the apartment entrances. Despite their polished design, a significant number failed to attract and retain tenants. Consequently, in 1945 ten unleased spaces, near the corners of Maujer and Leonard Streets, and Scholes Street and Bushwick Avenue, were converted to apartments.

 

Tenants enjoyed a variety of useful services. At the center of the complex, on Graham Avenue stood the stripped classical-style William J. Gaynor Junior High School , and opposite it, Building No. 11 housed a nursery school. Incorporated into the building’s south court and featuring a large play terrace, Hamlin described its glass-fronted design as “pleasant” and “delightful.” In addition, a new Moderne-style health center was built directly across from the complex, on Maujer Street.

 

Throughout the development were “social and craft rooms.” These basement spaces were originally used for classes, clubs, and meetings and many were decorated with large colorful murals. In contrast to the majority of WPA murals that were executed in style of social realism, the Williamsburg murals were non-objective. Lescaze favored “abstract and stimulating patterns” and Burgoyne Diller who headed the Federal Art Project, wrote that:

 

The decision to place abstract murals in these rooms [of the Williamsburg Housing Project] was made because the areas were intended to provide a place of relaxation and entertainment . . . The more arbitrary the color, possible when not determined by the description of objects, enables the artist to place an emphasis on its psychological potential to stimulate relaxation.

 

Of twelve murals commissioned, at least five were installed. In the early 1990s, the deteriorated canvases were restored and moved to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. They include works by the American painters Ilya Bolotowsky, Paul Kelpe, and Balcomb Greene.

  

Critical Reception

 

The opening of the Williamsburg Houses was treated as major news and writers used the event to analyze the project and express their own views about the role of public housing and the importance of modern architecture. Some of the earliest comments came from the architect Walter Gropius, former director of the Bauhaus in Germany. On a visit to New York City in April 1937 he was interviewed by H.I. Brock in the New York Times. They traveled together throughout the city, visiting both new skyscrapers and the nearly-complete Brooklyn development. Gropius was impressed and praised the unusual plan, saying that Lescaze:

 

. . . seems to have solved the problem of space and light very successfully and economically, and it has the great advantage of being spread over enough land to make it worthwhile as a sample of planned development.

 

Lewis Mumford was the first critic to publish a substantial review in February 1938. As a persistent advocate for public housing, he used the opportunity to evaluate the “outlines of the new order of building.” He praised the PWA for eschewing “overpriced building lots” and instead assembling large sites in quieter areas where streets could be closed to traffic to create gardens and playgrounds. Considerable attention was paid to the slanted orientation. Although he described it as “a bit queer,” he liked the way it separated the residences from the street and that it gave the appearance that the architects were concerned about providing tenants with ample sunlight.

 

Talbot Hamlin published the most-detailed analysis. In this review, he addressed both PWA projects, calling them “a new vision of democracy ... they are better than the most expensive apartments on Park Avenue.” Despite such praise, he expressed mixed feelings. While he found the buildings “fresh and inventive and alive,” he was disturbed by the “shockingly low” standards of construction. He also admired the “imaginative and carefully studied detailing,” but criticized the landscaping as little more than adequate. The WPA Guide to New York City, published in 1939, shared similar views, quoting Hamlin’s review, and praising the design of the individual buildings.

 

In the years since completion, the Williamsburg Houses have been a frequent subject for architectural historians. Many, starting with the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, have placed the development within the context of European modernism. In an exhibition celebrating the museum’s 10th anniversary and the opening of its new building, it was the only architectural work represented that was located in New York City. In a brief essay on housing, the curators highlighted the “triple-size superblocks,” that form an “oasis of open space,” but criticized the adjoining school building as a lost opportunity to create a “truly important work.” Photographs of the complex were also included in Forms and Functions of Twentieth-Century Architecture , in sections devoted to city planning and concrete construction.

 

G. Holmes Perkins wrote in the city planning section that despite faults, the complex “may be held up as patterns for tomorrow.” Richard Pommer, in one of the most insightful discussions of Depression-era housing in the United States, criticized the angled plan, calling Lescaze a “versatile pasticheur” who used visual effects without logic or relation to function. Robert A. M. Stern shared this view, writing in 1980 that it “seems overrated.” Richard Plunz, in A History of Housing in New York City, credited the project as the start of a “brief but intense struggle” to determine the aesthetic direction government-built housing would take. All four editions of the AIA Guide to New York City have praised the Williamsburg Houses. The 1968 edition called it a “very successful solution to the problem of low-rent subsidized housing,” and in 2000 “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

 

Subsequent History

 

Conveyed by the federal government to the NYCHA in 1957, the Williamsburg Houses continue to serve their original purpose, housing more than three thousand New Yorkers. Major alterations were first proposed in 1980 and significant work took place during 1985-91. At this time, the original casement windows were replaced with bronze-colored aluminum sash and the blue terra cotta that surrounded the entrances, with tan “Morocco” glazed brick.

 

In a remarkable turnaround, during the mid1990s, the facades were restored. What began as continued maintenance, soon evolved into a major architectural project, requiring an outside contractor and consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Under the supervision of Neil Cohen of the NYCHA, the elevations were completely reskinned, the parapets replaced, as well as the chimneys, railings, and terra-cotta banding. In addition, new canopies, doors, lighting fixtures, and signage were fabricated.

 

The approximately $70 million project was executed with great sensitivity; there was an article in the real estate section of the New York Times and the NYCHA was the recipient of the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy , which praised the participants for restoring the complex to “better-than-new condition.” Restoration of the storefronts, except along Bushwick Avenue, was completed in 2002.

 

The high standards set by the design of the Williamsburg Houses have rarely been matched. Innovative in terms of scale, plan, and aesthetics, it remains one of the most pleasant and architecturally-distinguished housing developments in New York City.

 

Description

 

There are twenty walk-up buildings in the 23.3acre Williamsburg complex and a total of 1,620 apartments. These buildings are numbered from 1 to 20 and each entrance has its own street address, for instance, “112 Maujer Street.” Stainless steel signs, with pin-mounted numbers and letters, identify each entrance.

 

The site extends four blocks east to west, from Bushwick Avenue to Leonard Street, and three blocks north to south, from Maujer to Scholes Streets. The principal north-south artery is Graham Avenue. Between Maujer and Scholes Streets, Ten Eyck Street and Stagg Street are closed to vehicles. These winding east-west paths are called Ten Eyck Walk and Stagg Walk. They are identified by large pin-mounted stainless steel letters attached to the building facades and are visible along the north-south streets. Throughout the complex are wall-mounted cantilevered lighting fixtures. These glass and aluminum fixtures are reproductions of the originals.

 

Three of the four blocks have a tree-shaded open space at center. At present, non-historic benches, play equipment, and basketball courts are located here. Most lawns are enclosed by low iron fences. Though not original, these fences pre-date the 1990s. Pole-mounted lighting fixtures are occasionally used to illuminate these areas.

 

All buildings materials are non-historic. Each structure is four stories tall and clad in ochre-colored brick. Exterior concrete spandrel beams are exposed at each floor. To disguise patches to the concrete, the beams are coated with a grey-colored water repellency finish. The entrances are flanked by blue structural glazed facing tiles that are approximately 12 by 12 inches. Blue mortar was used to minimize the joint lines. A canopy projects in front of each entrance . Made of stainless steel, they incorporate recessed down lights. Some canopies are supported by a single pipe column. The entrance doors and sidelights are made of stainless steel.

 

Each door has a grid of four small square windows. Breezeways serve a dual purpose: reached by two sets of stairs, they provide an additional north-south passage, as well as entry to apartments. Most of the stairs are flanked by stainless steel railings. The bronze anodized aluminum windows, installed in the 1980s, are all one-over-one. Arranged as single windows or in pairs, they have concrete sills and meet the concrete spandrels above. The smaller windows light the bathrooms. Single windows and pairs are located where the facades meet, often creating triple-width openings at the cantilevered corners.

 

There are three general building configurations. All are original to the complex. They include eight buildings with “H” shaped floor plans, six with floor plans that suggest a small letter “h,” and six buildings with “T” shaped floor plans. While the “H” and “h” types alternate along Maujer and Scholes Streets , the “T” shaped buildings are located only between Ten Eyck Walk and Stagg Walk.

 

The “H” buildings are nearly symmetrical, with almost identical north and south courtyards. At the center of each court is either a projecting center section or breezeway. The apartments are reached by four distinct entrances, each with a different tile treatment. They include: corner, wide, recessed between the door and the roof, and incorporated within a breezeway. Each entrance leads to interior stairs. The windows that light the stairs are arranged in horizontal grids of six and eight panes. Except for the recessed variant, the tiles project slightly and rise above the parapet to the stair bulkhead. The opposite side of the breezeway has no tilework. Reached by stairs, each breezeway incorporates two concrete columns and a metal door. The “h” buildings are similar to the “H” buildings, except one court is partially enclosed.

 

The “T” buildings have shallow courts. The top of the ‘T” has three entrances, each framed with blue tiles. A pair of entrances are also found facing each other in one of the side courts, and occasionally on the opposite side, as well. Building No. 11, located on the east side of Graham Avenue, is unique due to the presence of a nursery school at the wider south end. To accommodate this function, the entrances were moved and the court at the south end was enclosed. The south wall of school is clad with glass blocks, many of which are original. A concrete shed, at the center of the wall, is not historic and there are plans for removal. From the south facade extends a raised play area that is enclosed by a fence. Along the east side of the building, facing Graham Avenue, a non-historic ramp with metal railings has been constructed.

 

Commercial storefronts parallel the streets and adjoin the apartment buildings in various locations. The materials are non-historic, but the new elevations closely resemble the originals. The largest storefronts are located on either side of Graham Avenue, between Maujer Street and Ten Eyck Walk . Smaller retail spaces are located along Graham Avenue ; on Leonard Street ; and on Bushwick Avenue . They have a stream-lined character and curve away from the street at both ends. One story tall, they have granite bases and are clad with stainless steel and metal that has a baked-on blue porcelain finish. Above the storefronts runs the blue metal parapet, crowned by a stainless steel roof rail. Lighting was added above the storefronts, and security gates, when the stores are open, roll up and are neatly hidden within the facades. Large glass blocks or plate glass are used throughout. Along Bushwick Avenue, the modifications are less sympathetic and a vertical grid of older decorative concrete block occasionally interrupts the facade.

 

- From the 2003 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, United States

 

A collaborative project of the Federal Public Works Administration and the newly established New York City Housing Authority, the Williamsburg Houses are notable as one of the earliest housing developments in the United States to reflect the ideas of the modern movement in architecture. In the 1920s Williamsburg was one of the most densely populated sections of Brooklyn and nearly six hundred, mostly frame, structures were demolished to create the 23.3 acre site. Proposed in 1934, this residential complex was skillfully designed by the Williamsburg Associated Architects during 1935 and most units were occupied by 1938.

 

The partnership included Richmond H. Shreve, of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the architects of the Empire State Building, and William Lescaze, the Swiss-born architect who helped introduce the “International” style on the eastern seaboard. Lescaze was responsible for the design, which includes twenty 4-story structures on four “super” blocks turned at 15 degree angles to the street grid. Oriented to the sun and prevailing winds, this unusual layout produced a series of large and small courts, many of which flow into a large public space at the center of each block. A light-colored palette distinguishes the facades, executed in tan brick and exposed concrete.

 

Among the most prominent features are the entrances, marked by blue tile and projecting stainless steel canopies, and the handsome streamlined storefronts. The complex was widely discussed by contemporary critics and more than 25,000 New Yorkers applied for 1,622 apartments. During the mid-1990s, the buildings underwent an extensive restoration which included the replacement of all exterior materials. Sponsored by the Housing Authority, in consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, these alterations were remarkably sensitive and in the 4th edition of the AIA Guide to New York City the “revivified” complex was called “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

 

DESCRIPTION AND ANALYSIS

 

Housing the Masses

 

From the rowhouse to the apartment building, New York City has been a laboratory for innovative housing. Beginning after the Civil War, apartments, variously known as French Flats and tenements, were built to house the city’s surging population. Immigrants, for the most part, crowded into unregulated tenements, structures that maximized profits for developers while providing few amenities that we take for granted today, such as light, air, and private bathrooms.

 

Despite government efforts to legislate minimum standards in 1867 and 1879, initially private individuals took the most significant steps to make decent housing affordable to all. Several pioneering examples were located close to the Brooklyn waterfront, including the Home and Tower Buildings , the Astral Apartments and Riverside . The later complex surrounded a large tree-shaded courtyard incorporating a music pavilion and areas for drying laundry. Despite these, and a few innovative Manhattan developments, the majority of New Yorkers continued to live in substandard conditions.

 

The passage of the New Tenement Law in 1901 improved the situation, requiring that multiple dwellings be built on significantly larger lots, with fire escapes and separate “privies” for each family. After World War I, the garden apartment came into vogue. While most were built for the middle class, especially in Jackson Heights, a significant group were sponsored by unions and cooperative organizations that wished to provide members with inexpensive apartments. Significant examples include the Amalgamated Houses on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the “Coops” built in the Bronx by the United Workers Cooperative Association .

 

The first significant act of government intervention occurred in 1926 with the passage of the New York State Housing Law. Promoted by Governor Alfred E. Smith to encourage construction through the formation of local authorities that would sell bonds or seek federal funds, it had little impact until 1934 when the New York City Housing Authority was established. The authority’s first project, aptly called the First Houses , was located in Manhattan’s East Village. Begun as a rehabilitation program involving the demolition of every third structure, due to structural problems the eight brick buildings were entirely rebuilt.

 

Throughout the early Depression, government-subsidized housing remained a controversial issue. Consequently, it was first promoted as worker relief, organized to create jobs but not compete with the commercial market. The first federal agency to involve itself with housing was the Reconstruction Finance Corporation which was created in 1932 to provide low-interest loans to limited-dividend housing corporations. Of the two loans it made, one was toward the construction of Knickerbocker Village . Built for the Fred F. French Company, this Chinatown-area development consists of two 12-story buildings, both enclosing an interior courtyard.

 

In mid-1933, as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration was established. What made this agency different from its predecessor, the RFC, was that it would be directly involved in the planning and construction of low-income housing. The program was a great success and over the next three and half years it collaborated on the design and construction of 51 projects in 36 cities, including the Harlem River Houses and the Williamsburg Houses.

 

The passage of the Wagner-Steagall Bill by the United States Congress in September 1937, strengthened the federal government’s commitment to housing, but shifted greater control to local authorities. The first New York City housing project to be financed under this program was the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn. Future construction, which would amount to more than half a million low-rental units nationwide by 1957, would be funded primarily through low-interest loans.

 

Site

 

The Williamsburg Houses are located in northwestern Brooklyn, approximately one mile east of the Williamsburg Bridge and two blocks south of Grand Street, a lively commercial thoroughfare. Founded as part of the town of Bushwick in the mid17th century, Williamsburg was incorporated as a village in 1827. The community prospered and by 1852 it was the 20th largest city in the nation. Three years later, Williamsburg became part of Brooklyn and was commonly referred to as the Eastern District. Although ferry service was important to the area’s development, it was the planning and construction of a second East River crossing, the Williamsburg Bridge, that caused the most dramatic growth.

 

Proposed in 1883, the bridge was completed with much fanfare in 1903, serving pedestrians, bicycles and horse-drawn vehicles. In subsequent decades, Williamsburg rivaled the Lower East Side in population and density. The Brooklyn Eagle claimed in 1920 that the bridge was part of the busiest traffic center in the nation and that a single block north of it was the most crowded in the world. Conditions in the neighborhood continued to deteriorate throughout the decade, so much so that the population began to decline.

 

In October 1933, the Federal Works Administration established a slum clearance committee to study conditions throughout New York City. Richmond H. Shreve, who would later serve as chief architect of the Williamsburg Houses, was named director. Based on the committee’s recommendations, $25 million was set aside for a housing program in New York City. Under the direction of the NYCHA, a more comprehensive study was undertaken in 1934, focusing on fourteen neighborhoods, including Williamsburg. The PWA reported:

 

When the study was completed the blighted slum area of the Williamsburg section stood out as the best example where the most good could be done in wholesale clearance work.

 

Of 93 blocks studied, a grid of 12 was identified for redevelopment in Williamsburg. These blocks were chosen because property values were relatively low and the owners were willing to sell. Most of buildings were mixed-use, incorporating retail spaces at ground level and apartments above. Each lot was carefully documented: 90% of the structures were at least forty years old, 70% were built of wood, 78% had no central heating, and 67% had no private toilets. Such statistics were used to paint an extremely bleak picture of life there:

 

But the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, according to official surveys, is unique in that its 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.

 

Public amenities were also in short supply; there were few schools and there were almost no parks.

 

Architects

 

Five architects were appointed to the NYCHA’s architectural board in May 1934: Richmond H. Shreve of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, Matthew W. Del Gaudio , William Lescaze , Arthur C. Holden , and James F. Bly. As members of the board, their initial role was advisory. They would act as the authority’s chief architect, overseeing the design and construction of municipal housing citywide.

 

In June 1934 an open competition was held to choose the architects who would work on the Williamsburg Houses and other NYCHA projects. The program guidelines did not specify the location, but the grid chosen closely resembled the long blocks where the Williamsburg Houses would be built. Of 278 architects who participated, 5 of the 22 selected were assigned to the Brooklyn project: Samuel Gardstein, of Holmgren, Volz & Gardstein, G. Harmon Gurney , of Gurney & Clavan, John W. Ingle Jr., Paul Trapani , and Harry Leslie Walker .

 

In June 1935, a contract was signed with the Williamsburg Associated Architects. The partnership consisted of ten men: the five architects selected by jury, as well as the five members of the architectural board. Among them, Shreve had the most experience with large projects, having worked on a succession of major Manhattan skyscrapers, most notably, the Empire State Building .

 

A graduate of the College of Architecture at Cornell University , he began his career as a member of the school’s faculty and later joined the firm of Carrére & Hastings in New York City where he distinguished himself as having a “genius for the solution of operational and administrative problems.” Whereas prior to the Depression he mainly worked on office buildings, in his later years Shreve was associated with residential developments, most notably the Vladeck Houses on the Lower East Side, and Parkchester , a development with more than twelve thousand apartments in the Bronx. During the late 1930s, he also served as a member of the board of design for the New York World’s Fair.

 

Design

 

Of the three initial projects built by the NYCHA and the PWA, the Williamsburg Houses were the most innovative. Shreve appointed Lescaze as the chief designer, responsible for the plan and elevations. In the 1930s, he was at the height of his career, profiled in publications read by professionals and the layman. Born near Geneva, Switzerland, in 1896, he studied in Zurich with the architect Karl Moser in 1915-19 and for a brief period worked in Paris with Henri Sauvage, an important designer of apartment buildings. Lescaze moved to the United States in 1920 and after working in Cleveland and New York City, formed a partnership with George Howe, a Philadelphia architect, in 1929.

 

Their association lasted four years and produced one architectural masterpiece, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building, completed in 1932. During the mid-1930s, he was extremely active, working on unrealized plans for the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, as well as building three of the earliest modern-style townhouses in Manhattan, his own house and studio, completed in 1934, as well as the Raymond C. and Mildred Kramer and Edward and Dorothy Norman houses. He also designed, with Albert Frey, the Chrystie-Forsyth Houses. Planned in 1931, this unrealized proposal was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s so-called “International Style” exhibition of 1932.

 

One of the most unique aspects of the Williamsburg Houses is the plan. To create the 23.3 acre complex, twelve blocks were acquired by the city, and the two east-west streets were closed to traffic to create four “super” blocks. All but one extend three full blocks from north to south, except part of the block between Manhattan and Graham Avenues that was set aside for a new junior high school and play area.

 

The development of New York City was closely tied to its gridiron. Introduced in 1811, it resulted in a city of predictable intersecting streets and avenues. In 1835, a similar plan was approved for Brooklyn and by the early 1850s the streets that cross through the site of the Williamsburg Houses had opened.

 

Most were named for area residents, such as Daniel Maujer, a lawyer and alderman, John and James Lorimer Graham, land jobbers, and James Scholes, a local land owner. The impact of this approach is visible throughout New York City, establishing blocks and lots of equal size and dimensions. Residential developers benefitted immensely, commissioning rowhouse and tenement designs that could be repeated without regard to location.

 

By the end of the 19th century, there was relatively little open space in Manhattan and Brooklyn. As part of the City Beautiful movement, various attempts were made to loosen the grid’s hold, first through the passage of the Small Parks Act in 1887, which focused on tenement neighborhoods, and later, by situating major civic structures in plazas. Similar ideas shaped the development of garden apartments which came into vogue after 1910. One of the primary characteristics of this type of multiple dwelling was reduced site coverage.

 

In most cases, such as in the Jackson Heights Historic District, the buildings were set around the perimeter of each block, enclosing large private gardens, but in other situations, such as at the Harlem River Houses, a “crankshaft” arrangement was adopted, creating a mixture of interior and exterior courts.

 

Lescaze borrowed freely from both the garden apartment tradition and architects associated with European modernism. In his earliest design, each block incorporated six U-shaped structures arranged around a narrow central court. A later design was considerably more irregular. Turned at an angle to the street, there were fewer but larger buildings.

 

Many aspects of this proposal were integrated into the final design. The Williamsburg Houses are configured in three ways, with footprints suggesting a capital “H,” small “h,” and “T.” All have small spurs and extensions, resembling crossbars. By adding this feature the number of courtyards was significantly increased. Within each block are six buildings ; at the north and south are the “H” and “h” configurations, and in the middle, the “T”s.

 

The decision to turn the buildings at a 15 degree angle to the street grid proved controversial. PWA accounts described it in functional terms, explaining that the orientation would provide tenants with more sun and take advantage of the prevailing northwest breezes. During the previous decade, many architects and planners experimented with similar ideas. One of the earliest built examples “to deviate from the geometry of the New York gridiron” was the Mesa Verde apartments in Jackson Heights. Designed by Henry Atterbury Smith and based on an earlier proposal from 1917, the development featured two rows of six “closed L buildings” set at 45 degree angle to the surrounding streets.

 

Lescaze, however, was more likely to have been influenced by European sources. During the 1920s, he frequently returned to Europe, a period when leading architects were involved in the design of social housing. Many favored the “tower in the park” approach in which free-standing high-rise structures stood in continuous open space. Writing in English in 1935, Walter Gropius concluded that apartment blocks should “command a clear view of the sky, over broad expanses of grass and trees which separate the blocks and serve as playgrounds.”

 

Another source of inspiration might have been Ernst May who oversaw the design and construction of many low-rise housing estates in Frankfurt. In his Bruchfeldstrasse development of 1926-27, designed with C. K. Rudloff, one section was arranged in an overlapping zig-zag configuration. As in Williamsburg, each unit had corner windows, providing tenants with uninterrupted views of a central garden.

 

Many writers were skeptical about the benefits of Lescaze’s plan. Hamlin argued that the layout would convert the courts “into perfect channels for Project for a group of factories. our most vicious northwest winds.” He was told that

 

the arrangement had, in fact, been chosen for aesthetic reasons, to “break up the street facades” and “allow the feeling of space to weave in and out on the street fronts. This goal was definitely achieved, producing an environment that was new and distinctive. The flowing spaces that Lescaze planned are less monumental and more intimate than those experienced in most housing projects, juxtaposing wedge-shaped lawns with semi-enclosed courtyards and large open plazas. As originally built, no fences interrupted the spaces and the areas adjoining the curving concrete walks were paved with cobblestone.

 

The Elevations

 

Equally modern were the elevations. Lescaze was attracted to the expressive and aesthetic qualities of modern materials. Particularly unusual was the decision to use a light-colored palette. Built from reinforced concrete, the walls were originally enclosed with a sand-cast brick that was variously described by observers as bright tan, yellowish, pinkish, and grayish warm pink. One of the most notable features was the exposed concrete floor plates which express the structure and division between the floors while giving the complex a strong horizontal appearance. Talbot Hamlin observed:

 

The effectiveness of the buildings is undoubted. The striping of brick and concrete and the contrast of the light walls which front the stair towers make a vivid picture . . .

 

Prior to the mid-1930s, red brick was the most frequently used material in housing developments, used throughout Jackson Heights and in the First Houses and Harlem River Houses. The proposal to break with this tradition generated considerable debate. While the general scheme was approved in June 1935, it was not until October that specific materials were selected. Presumably, the PWA wished to standardize the building process and reduce costs. Frederick Ackerman, technical director of the NYCHA, defended Lescaze’s proposal. He wrote the authority’s chairman, Langdon W. Post:

 

. . . the “effect” of the Project will depend very largely upon the texture and quality of the exterior wall. Unless the exterior wall possesses a greater intrinsic interest than one made of common brick then the resultant effect is certain to be a bleak, barren and unusually forbidding mass of building:

 

One might readily mistake the At Williamsburg, the buildings stand as freestanding objects, finished on all sides and approachable from multiple directions. No facade dominates and the apartment entrances face both the streets and courtyards. For those unfamiliar with the layout, the angled plan may have been somewhat disorienting. To make it easier to navigate, signs were installed throughout the complex and Lescaze skillfully designed the entrances, making dramatic use of color and form. Like Le Corbusier, he was an “accomplished” painter and frequently used color, especially blue, to enliven wall surfaces. Another possible model was May’s housing development at Praunheim where contrasting colors were used to give the projecting stair towers a distinctive appearance.

 

Within the courtyards are as many as five entrances. Each is sheltered by a small cantilevered aluminum marquee and is flanked by square blue terra-cotta tiles. The entrances that are located at the far end of the larger courtyards are set at a angle. In these instances, the tiles spread onto the adjoining walls and extend above the parapet to the stair bulkhead. Other tile treatments project slightly forward, or are recessed above the doors to the roof. An entrance is also located in the covered breezeway. Reached by a short flight of stairs connecting both the street and courtyard, the more public street facade had an asymmetrical character, incorporating projecting blue tiles to one side and a wide aluminum marquee.

 

Construction

 

To prepare the site for construction, 568 buildings were demolished on 349 lots and approximately 5,400 people were relocated. A 1935 report described the population as divided equally between American born, Italian born, and other nationalities. Most were semi-skilled workers, employed in manufacturing, or as clerks, truck drivers, and construction workers.

 

Demolition commenced in June 1935 as PWA supervisor Elizabeth Ross dug a crowbar into the facade of 197 Manhattan Avenue, near Ten Eyck Street. In the months that followed:

 

Steam shovels and picks played a tune to rival that of the pipes of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. From every dank basement and crumbling wall rats fled in droves. Backyards disgorged an assortment of rusted cans, trash, filth and litter that would have discouraged the most voracious goat.

 

Ground was broken on January 3, 1936. Following a brief ceremony in the rain, public officials addressed an audience of five hundred at Public School 196. During April 1936, the first foundations were poured at the southwest corner of Manhattan Avenue and Stagg Street. Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia was in attendance, followed by “a few hundred interested onlookers and an army of schoolboys.”

 

As the foundations neared completion, the PWA solicited bids for construction. Starrett Brothers & Eken was awarded the $7. 5 million contract for the first 18 buildings in October 1936. A subsequent contract, for construction of buildings No. 5 and 18, was signed in late April 1937.

 

Founded by Paul Starrett and William Aiken Starrett and Andrew J. Eken in 1922, the firm was responsible for such high-profile buildings as the New York Life Insurance Company Building , Bank of Manhattan Building , McGraw-Hill Building , and Empire State Building . The Starrett Brothers worked closely with Shreve on the Empire State Building and it is likely that this relationship helped secure the contract for the Williamsburg Houses. William Starrett acknowledged the importance and complexity of this issue when he said:

 

It is the hope of people who are discussing this problem that those same brains that put together the great skyscrapers . . . will turn toward this.

 

Starrett Brothers & Eken later built Parkchester , Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

 

The cornerstone was laid in October 1936. It contained an aerial view of the site, a copy of the federal act creating the PWA, as well as an autographed copy of Jacob Riis’s timeless account of slum conditions, How the Other Half Lives, donated by his widow. Construction progressed rapidly, and aside from minor walk-outs by metalworkers and painters, the first six buildings were ready for occupancy with a year, in September

 

Publicity

 

The Williamsburg Houses was the largest and costliest project built by the PWA. With 1,622 apartments, it was more than twice the size of the Harlem River Houses. The approximate cost was $12.8 million. It was described by the PWA as part of “demonstration program” and numerous public events were held. In a letter to Post, Shreve stated:

 

As this project is the beginning of what, in a way, is a housing community experiment and as the public attitude toward housing will be largely controlled by the success or failure of such an experiment, it is of importance that every effort be made to make the first experiment successful.

 

In this context, how the project was perceived was of the utmost importance. Once the design had been approved, a scale model was built by the PWA and exhibited at banks in Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg during late 1935 and 1936. This presentation was accompanied by a series of posters documenting the site, including photographs of earlier buildings and their demolition, as well as projected floor plans. The New York Times reported the model:

 

. . . throws into graphic relief the application of the new principle of multiple housing, providing more air, sunlight and recreational facilities and involving a departure from the solid-block construction.

 

The idea of using public funds to create low-income housing was relatively new and much of the language used in speeches and press releases heralded it as a major advance. At the site, signs were posted, calling Williamsburg the “Largest Low Rental Development in the USA.” At the ground-breaking, public officials evoked the memory of Alfred T. White, whose Brooklyn developments were among the first attempts to improve low-income housing in the nation.

 

Mayor LaGuardia thanked the President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for his support, as did Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, who described slums as a “vicious project of that old order whose passing, we hope, is at hand.” While some critics equated the federal housing program with socialism, most speakers saw it as a defense of democracy.

 

In November 1935, Post had contacted the PWA, requesting that the complex be called the “Ten Eyck” Houses. No explanation was given, but it is likely that the request was made to distinguish the new development from the larger surrounding neighborhood.

 

Ten Eyck Street was one of two east-west streets closed to create the site and it was probably named for the Dutch family whose Brooklyn lineage extended back to at least the 18th century. In the immediate area also lived William Ten Eyck, who during the mid-19th century served as the deacon of the Reformed Church of South Bushwick . Post’s request was quickly approved. The new name, however, was not widely used and a 1938 PWA publication refers to the development as the Williamsburg Houses.

 

On October 28, 1936, the construction site was briefly visited by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. According to the New York Times, ten thousand school children and five thousand adults “cheered the President’s passage through the streets bordering the housing project.”

 

Three “model” apartments were opened for public view in July through August 1937. Furnished with loans from various Brooklyn department stores, they were presented at 180 Maujer Street. Post was an early visitor and he described the apartments as a “demonstration of what can be done, this is the most valuable contribution to social progress that the New Deal has made.” An average of 1,200 persons a day visited. In September 1937, a second group of apartments opened at 176 Maujer Street, including one decorated entirely with “reconditioned furniture.” In a related development, during April and May 1938, the WPA created an exhibit in a storefront office at 212 Graham Avenue. Organized by William Friedman of the art teaching division, the display was changed periodically to demonstrate different apartment layouts and decoration. Nine experts spent five months preparing the exhibit, hoping that it would influence local residents and provide a model for future public housing developments. A music branch, at 176 Maujer Street, also provided lessons in theory, voice, and various instruments.

 

Tenants

 

According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the Williamsburg Houses were “one of the most perfect home sites in the word . . . an eagerly sought spot to live.” Income and need formed the basis of selection and no tenant could earn more than five times the annual rent. Preference was also given to former residents of the site.

 

The first tenants began to occupy their apartments on September 30, 1937. The New York Times devoted at least two articles to “Moving Day,” as did the Brooklyn Eagle. As part of the operation, each tenant’s belongings were moved to a fumigation plant for sterilization near the intersection of Bushwick Avenue at Scholes Street.

 

This procedure was described as a “wise precaution against the spread of disease.” Bessie and Louis Grabkowitz were recognized by the NYCHA as the first official tenants. A week’s rent, of less than seven dollars, was paid and they were given keys to their new apartment. Two to five rooms in size, units featured steam heat, hot and cold water, as well as electric stoves and refrigerators. Residents praised their new homes, commenting on the appliances and abundant sunlight.

 

By the end of 1937, most apartments were occupied. A community newspaper, the Projector, began publishing on a semi-monthly basis in December 1937. In April 1938, the complex was completed. In addition to the twenty residential buildings, there were retail spaces, facing the north-south streets. The PWA reported:

 

To insure efficient, sanitary commercial services, 49 stores and shops within the project, distributing drugs, groceries, appliances, and general merchandise, have been leased to private individuals.

 

The storefronts were executed in a sleek Moderne style. To the north and south, they curved away from the street, recalling the streamlined designs of Erich Mendelsohn, as well as J. J. P. Oud’s Kiefhoek development of 1925. The prominent metal parapets were blue, matching the color of the apartment entrances. Despite their polished design, a significant number failed to attract and retain tenants. Consequently, in 1945 ten unleased spaces, near the corners of Maujer and Leonard Streets, and Scholes Street and Bushwick Avenue, were converted to apartments.

 

Tenants enjoyed a variety of useful services. At the center of the complex, on Graham Avenue stood the stripped classical-style William J. Gaynor Junior High School , and opposite it, Building No. 11 housed a nursery school. Incorporated into the building’s south court and featuring a large play terrace, Hamlin described its glass-fronted design as “pleasant” and “delightful.” In addition, a new Moderne-style health center was built directly across from the complex, on Maujer Street.

 

Throughout the development were “social and craft rooms.” These basement spaces were originally used for classes, clubs, and meetings and many were decorated with large colorful murals. In contrast to the majority of WPA murals that were executed in style of social realism, the Williamsburg murals were non-objective. Lescaze favored “abstract and stimulating patterns” and Burgoyne Diller who headed the Federal Art Project, wrote that:

 

The decision to place abstract murals in these rooms [of the Williamsburg Housing Project] was made because the areas were intended to provide a place of relaxation and entertainment . . . The more arbitrary the color, possible when not determined by the description of objects, enables the artist to place an emphasis on its psychological potential to stimulate relaxation.

 

Of twelve murals commissioned, at least five were installed. In the early 1990s, the deteriorated canvases were restored and moved to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. They include works by the American painters Ilya Bolotowsky, Paul Kelpe, and Balcomb Greene.

  

Critical Reception

 

The opening of the Williamsburg Houses was treated as major news and writers used the event to analyze the project and express their own views about the role of public housing and the importance of modern architecture. Some of the earliest comments came from the architect Walter Gropius, former director of the Bauhaus in Germany. On a visit to New York City in April 1937 he was interviewed by H.I. Brock in the New York Times. They traveled together throughout the city, visiting both new skyscrapers and the nearly-complete Brooklyn development. Gropius was impressed and praised the unusual plan, saying that Lescaze:

 

. . . seems to have solved the problem of space and light very successfully and economically, and it has the great advantage of being spread over enough land to make it worthwhile as a sample of planned development.

 

Lewis Mumford was the first critic to publish a substantial review in February 1938. As a persistent advocate for public housing, he used the opportunity to evaluate the “outlines of the new order of building.” He praised the PWA for eschewing “overpriced building lots” and instead assembling large sites in quieter areas where streets could be closed to traffic to create gardens and playgrounds. Considerable attention was paid to the slanted orientation. Although he described it as “a bit queer,” he liked the way it separated the residences from the street and that it gave the appearance that the architects were concerned about providing tenants with ample sunlight.

 

Talbot Hamlin published the most-detailed analysis. In this review, he addressed both PWA projects, calling them “a new vision of democracy ... they are better than the most expensive apartments on Park Avenue.” Despite such praise, he expressed mixed feelings. While he found the buildings “fresh and inventive and alive,” he was disturbed by the “shockingly low” standards of construction. He also admired the “imaginative and carefully studied detailing,” but criticized the landscaping as little more than adequate. The WPA Guide to New York City, published in 1939, shared similar views, quoting Hamlin’s review, and praising the design of the individual buildings.

 

In the years since completion, the Williamsburg Houses have been a frequent subject for architectural historians. Many, starting with the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, have placed the development within the context of European modernism. In an exhibition celebrating the museum’s 10th anniversary and the opening of its new building, it was the only architectural work represented that was located in New York City. In a brief essay on housing, the curators highlighted the “triple-size superblocks,” that form an “oasis of open space,” but criticized the adjoining school building as a lost opportunity to create a “truly important work.” Photographs of the complex were also included in Forms and Functions of Twentieth-Century Architecture , in sections devoted to city planning and concrete construction.

 

G. Holmes Perkins wrote in the city planning section that despite faults, the complex “may be held up as patterns for tomorrow.” Richard Pommer, in one of the most insightful discussions of Depression-era housing in the United States, criticized the angled plan, calling Lescaze a “versatile pasticheur” who used visual effects without logic or relation to function. Robert A. M. Stern shared this view, writing in 1980 that it “seems overrated.” Richard Plunz, in A History of Housing in New York City, credited the project as the start of a “brief but intense struggle” to determine the aesthetic direction government-built housing would take. All four editions of the AIA Guide to New York City have praised the Williamsburg Houses. The 1968 edition called it a “very successful solution to the problem of low-rent subsidized housing,” and in 2000 “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

 

Subsequent History

 

Conveyed by the federal government to the NYCHA in 1957, the Williamsburg Houses continue to serve their original purpose, housing more than three thousand New Yorkers. Major alterations were first proposed in 1980 and significant work took place during 1985-91. At this time, the original casement windows were replaced with bronze-colored aluminum sash and the blue terra cotta that surrounded the entrances, with tan “Morocco” glazed brick.

 

In a remarkable turnaround, during the mid1990s, the facades were restored. What began as continued maintenance, soon evolved into a major architectural project, requiring an outside contractor and consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Under the supervision of Neil Cohen of the NYCHA, the elevations were completely reskinned, the parapets replaced, as well as the chimneys, railings, and terra-cotta banding. In addition, new canopies, doors, lighting fixtures, and signage were fabricated.

 

The approximately $70 million project was executed with great sensitivity; there was an article in the real estate section of the New York Times and the NYCHA was the recipient of the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy , which praised the participants for restoring the complex to “better-than-new condition.” Restoration of the storefronts, except along Bushwick Avenue, was completed in 2002.

 

The high standards set by the design of the Williamsburg Houses have rarely been matched. Innovative in terms of scale, plan, and aesthetics, it remains one of the most pleasant and architecturally-distinguished housing developments in New York City.

 

Description

 

There are twenty walk-up buildings in the 23.3acre Williamsburg complex and a total of 1,620 apartments. These buildings are numbered from 1 to 20 and each entrance has its own street address, for instance, “112 Maujer Street.” Stainless steel signs, with pin-mounted numbers and letters, identify each entrance.

 

The site extends four blocks east to west, from Bushwick Avenue to Leonard Street, and three blocks north to south, from Maujer to Scholes Streets. The principal north-south artery is Graham Avenue. Between Maujer and Scholes Streets, Ten Eyck Street and Stagg Street are closed to vehicles. These winding east-west paths are called Ten Eyck Walk and Stagg Walk. They are identified by large pin-mounted stainless steel letters attached to the building facades and are visible along the north-south streets. Throughout the complex are wall-mounted cantilevered lighting fixtures. These glass and aluminum fixtures are reproductions of the originals.

 

Three of the four blocks have a tree-shaded open space at center. At present, non-historic benches, play equipment, and basketball courts are located here. Most lawns are enclosed by low iron fences. Though not original, these fences pre-date the 1990s. Pole-mounted lighting fixtures are occasionally used to illuminate these areas.

 

All buildings materials are non-historic. Each structure is four stories tall and clad in ochre-colored brick. Exterior concrete spandrel beams are exposed at each floor. To disguise patches to the concrete, the beams are coated with a grey-colored water repellency finish. The entrances are flanked by blue structural glazed facing tiles that are approximately 12 by 12 inches. Blue mortar was used to minimize the joint lines. A canopy projects in front of each entrance . Made of stainless steel, they incorporate recessed down lights. Some canopies are supported by a single pipe column. The entrance doors and sidelights are made of stainless steel.

 

Each door has a grid of four small square windows. Breezeways serve a dual purpose: reached by two sets of stairs, they provide an additional north-south passage, as well as entry to apartments. Most of the stairs are flanked by stainless steel railings. The bronze anodized aluminum windows, installed in the 1980s, are all one-over-one. Arranged as single windows or in pairs, they have concrete sills and meet the concrete spandrels above. The smaller windows light the bathrooms. Single windows and pairs are located where the facades meet, often creating triple-width openings at the cantilevered corners.

 

There are three general building configurations. All are original to the complex. They include eight buildings with “H” shaped floor plans, six with floor plans that suggest a small letter “h,” and six buildings with “T” shaped floor plans. While the “H” and “h” types alternate along Maujer and Scholes Streets , the “T” shaped buildings are located only between Ten Eyck Walk and Stagg Walk.

 

The “H” buildings are nearly symmetrical, with almost identical north and south courtyards. At the center of each court is either a projecting center section or breezeway. The apartments are reached by four distinct entrances, each with a different tile treatment. They include: corner, wide, recessed between the door and the roof, and incorporated within a breezeway. Each entrance leads to interior stairs. The windows that light the stairs are arranged in horizontal grids of six and eight panes. Except for the recessed variant, the tiles project slightly and rise above the parapet to the stair bulkhead. The opposite side of the breezeway has no tilework. Reached by stairs, each breezeway incorporates two concrete columns and a metal door. The “h” buildings are similar to the “H” buildings, except one court is partially enclosed.

 

The “T” buildings have shallow courts. The top of the ‘T” has three entrances, each framed with blue tiles. A pair of entrances are also found facing each other in one of the side courts, and occasionally on the opposite side, as well. Building No. 11, located on the east side of Graham Avenue, is unique due to the presence of a nursery school at the wider south end. To accommodate this function, the entrances were moved and the court at the south end was enclosed. The south wall of school is clad with glass blocks, many of which are original. A concrete shed, at the center of the wall, is not historic and there are plans for removal. From the south facade extends a raised play area that is enclosed by a fence. Along the east side of the building, facing Graham Avenue, a non-historic ramp with metal railings has been constructed.

 

Commercial storefronts parallel the streets and adjoin the apartment buildings in various locations. The materials are non-historic, but the new elevations closely resemble the originals. The largest storefronts are located on either side of Graham Avenue, between Maujer Street and Ten Eyck Walk . Smaller retail spaces are located along Graham Avenue ; on Leonard Street ; and on Bushwick Avenue . They have a stream-lined character and curve away from the street at both ends. One story tall, they have granite bases and are clad with stainless steel and metal that has a baked-on blue porcelain finish. Above the storefronts runs the blue metal parapet, crowned by a stainless steel roof rail. Lighting was added above the storefronts, and security gates, when the stores are open, roll up and are neatly hidden within the facades. Large glass blocks or plate glass are used throughout. Along Bushwick Avenue, the modifications are less sympathetic and a vertical grid of older decorative concrete block occasionally interrupts the facade.

 

- From the 2003 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report

Brooklyn, New York City, New York, United States of America

 

A collaborative project of the Federal Public Works Administration and the newly established New York City Housing Authority, the Williamsburg Houses are notable as one of the earliest housing developments in the United States to reflect the ideas of the modern movement in architecture. In the 1920s Williamsburg was one of the most densely populated sections of Brooklyn and nearly six hundred, mostly frame, structures were demolished to create the 23.3 acre site. Proposed in 1934, this residential complex was skillfully designed by the Williamsburg Associated Architects during 1935 and most units were occupied by 1938.

 

The partnership included Richmond H. Shreve, of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the architects of the Empire State Building, and William Lescaze, the Swiss-born architect who helped introduce the “International” style on the eastern seaboard. Lescaze was responsible for the design, which includes twenty 4-story structures on four “super” blocks turned at 15 degree angles to the street grid. Oriented to the sun and prevailing winds, this unusual layout produced a series of large and small courts, many of which flow into a large public space at the center of each block. A light-colored palette distinguishes the facades, executed in tan brick and exposed concrete.

 

Among the most prominent features are the entrances, marked by blue tile and projecting stainless steel canopies, and the handsome streamlined storefronts. The complex was widely discussed by contemporary critics and more than 25,000 New Yorkers applied for 1,622 apartments. During the mid-1990s, the buildings underwent an extensive restoration which included the replacement of all exterior materials. Sponsored by the Housing Authority, in consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, these alterations were remarkably sensitive and in the 4th edition of the AIA Guide to New York City the “revivified” complex was called “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

 

DESCRIPTION AND ANALYSIS

 

Housing the Masses

 

From the rowhouse to the apartment building, New York City has been a laboratory for innovative housing. Beginning after the Civil War, apartments, variously known as French Flats and tenements, were built to house the city’s surging population. Immigrants, for the most part, crowded into unregulated tenements, structures that maximized profits for developers while providing few amenities that we take for granted today, such as light, air, and private bathrooms.

 

Despite government efforts to legislate minimum standards in 1867 and 1879, initially private individuals took the most significant steps to make decent housing affordable to all. Several pioneering examples were located close to the Brooklyn waterfront, including the Home and Tower Buildings (William Field and Son, 1876-78), the Astral Apartments (Lamb & Rich, 1885-87) and Riverside (William Field and Son, 1890). The later complex surrounded a large tree-shaded courtyard incorporating a music pavilion and areas for drying laundry. Despite these, and a few innovative Manhattan developments, the majority of New Yorkers continued to live in substandard conditions.

 

The passage of the New Tenement Law in 1901 improved the situation, requiring that multiple dwellings be built on significantly larger lots, with fire escapes and separate “privies” for each family. After World War I, the garden apartment came into vogue. While most were built for the middle class, especially in Jackson Heights, a significant group were sponsored by unions and cooperative organizations that wished to provide members with inexpensive apartments. Significant examples include the Amalgamated Houses (Springsteen & Goldhammer, 1930) on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the “Coops” built in the Bronx by the United Workers Cooperative Association (Springsteen & Goldhammer, 1925-27; Herman Jessor, 1927-29).

 

The first significant act of government intervention occurred in 1926 with the passage of the New York State Housing Law. Promoted by Governor Alfred E. Smith to encourage construction through the formation of local authorities that would sell bonds or seek federal funds, it had little impact until 1934 when the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) was established. The authority’s first project, aptly called the First Houses (Frederick L. Ackerman, 1934-36), was located in Manhattan’s East Village. Begun as a rehabilitation program involving the demolition of every third structure, due to structural problems the eight brick buildings were entirely rebuilt.

 

Throughout the early Depression, government-subsidized housing remained a controversial issue. Consequently, it was first promoted as worker relief, organized to create jobs but not compete with the commercial market. The first federal agency to involve itself with housing was the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) which was created in 1932 to provide low-interest loans to limited-dividend housing corporations. Of the two loans it made, one was toward the construction of Knickerbocker Village (John S. Van Wart & Frederick L. Ackerman, 1933). Built for the Fred F. French Company, this Chinatown-area development consists of two 12-story buildings, both enclosing an interior courtyard.

 

In mid-1933, as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration (PWA) was established. What made this agency different from its predecessor, the RFC, was that it would be directly involved in the planning and construction of low-income housing. The program was a great success and over the next three and half years it collaborated on the design and construction of 51 projects in 36 cities, including the Harlem River Houses and the Williamsburg Houses.

 

The passage of the Wagner-Steagall Bill (aka U.S. Housing Bill) by the United States Congress in September 1937, strengthened the federal government’s commitment to housing, but shifted greater control to local authorities. The first New York City housing project to be financed under this program was the Red Hook Houses (Electus Litchfied, chief designer, 1938-39) in Brooklyn. Future construction, which would amount to more than half a million low-rental units nationwide by 1957, would be funded primarily through low-interest loans.

 

Site

 

The Williamsburg Houses are located in northwestern Brooklyn, approximately one mile east of the Williamsburg Bridge and two blocks south of Grand Street, a lively commercial thoroughfare. Founded as part of the town of Bushwick in the mid17th century, Williamsburg was incorporated as a village in 1827. The community prospered and by 1852 it was the 20th largest city in the nation. Three years later, Williamsburg became part of Brooklyn and was commonly referred to as the Eastern District. Although ferry service was important to the area’s development, it was the planning and construction of a second East River crossing, the Williamsburg Bridge, that caused the most dramatic growth.

 

Proposed in 1883, the bridge was completed with much fanfare in 1903, serving pedestrians, bicycles and horse-drawn vehicles. In subsequent decades, Williamsburg rivaled the Lower East Side in population and density. The Brooklyn Eagle claimed in 1920 that the bridge was part of the busiest traffic center in the nation and that a single block north of it was the most crowded in the world. Conditions in the neighborhood continued to deteriorate throughout the decade, so much so that the population began to decline.

 

In October 1933, the Federal Works Administration (PWA) established a slum clearance committee to study conditions throughout New York City. Richmond H. Shreve, who would later serve as chief architect of the Williamsburg Houses, was named director. Based on the committee’s recommendations, $25 million was set aside for a housing program in New York City. Under the direction of the NYCHA, a more comprehensive study was undertaken in 1934, focusing on fourteen neighborhoods, including Williamsburg. The PWA reported:

 

When the study was completed the blighted slum area of the Williamsburg section stood out as the best example where the most good could be done in wholesale clearance work.

 

Of 93 blocks studied, a grid of 12 was identified for redevelopment in Williamsburg. These blocks were chosen because property values were relatively low and the owners were willing to sell. Most of buildings were mixed-use, incorporating retail spaces at ground level and apartments above. Each lot was carefully documented: 90% of the structures were at least forty years old, 70% were built of wood, 78% had no central heating, and 67% had no private toilets. Such statistics were used to paint an extremely bleak picture of life there:

 

But the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, according to official surveys, is unique in that its 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.

 

Public amenities were also in short supply; there were few schools and there were almost no parks.

 

Architects

 

Five architects were appointed to the NYCHA’s architectural board in May 1934: Richmond H. Shreve (1877-1946) of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, Matthew W. Del Gaudio (1889-1960), William Lescaze (1899-1969), Arthur C. Holden (18901993), and James F. Bly. As members of the board, their initial role was advisory. They would act as the authority’s chief architect, overseeing the design and construction of municipal housing citywide.

 

In June 1934 an open competition was held to choose the architects who would work on the Williamsburg Houses and other NYCHA projects. The program guidelines did not specify the location, but the grid chosen closely resembled the long blocks where the Williamsburg Houses would be built. Of 278 architects who participated, 5 of the 22 selected were assigned to the Brooklyn project: Samuel Gardstein, of Holmgren, Volz & Gardstein, G. Harmon Gurney (b. 1896), of Gurney & Clavan, John W. Ingle Jr., Paul Trapani (1887-1974), and Harry Leslie Walker (1877-1954).

 

In June 1935, a contract was signed with the Williamsburg Associated Architects. The partnership consisted of ten men: the five architects selected by jury, as well as the five members of the architectural board. Among them, Shreve had the most experience with large projects, having worked on a succession of major Manhattan skyscrapers, most notably, the Empire State Building (Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, 1931).

 

A graduate of the College of Architecture at Cornell University (1902), he began his career as a member of the school’s faculty and later joined the firm of Carrére & Hastings in New York City where he distinguished himself as having a “genius for the solution of operational and administrative problems.” Whereas prior to the Depression he mainly worked on office buildings, in his later years Shreve was associated with residential developments, most notably the Vladeck Houses (1940) on the Lower East Side, and Parkchester (1938-42), a development with more than twelve thousand apartments in the Bronx. During the late 1930s, he also served as a member of the board of design for the New York World’s Fair.

 

Design

 

Of the three initial projects built by the NYCHA and the PWA, the Williamsburg Houses were the most innovative. Shreve appointed Lescaze as the chief designer, responsible for the plan and elevations. In the 1930s, he was at the height of his career, profiled in publications read by professionals and the layman. Born near Geneva, Switzerland, in 1896, he studied in Zurich with the architect Karl Moser in 1915-19 and for a brief period worked in Paris with Henri Sauvage, an important designer of apartment buildings. Lescaze moved to the United States in 1920 and after working in Cleveland and New York City, formed a partnership with George Howe, a Philadelphia architect, in 1929.

 

Their association lasted four years and produced one architectural masterpiece, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building, completed in 1932. During the mid-1930s, he was extremely active, working on unrealized plans for the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, as well as building three of the earliest modern-style townhouses in Manhattan, his own house and studio, completed in 1934, as well as the Raymond C. and Mildred Kramer (1934-5) and Edward and Dorothy Norman (1940) houses. He also designed, with Albert Frey, the Chrystie-Forsyth Houses. Planned in 1931, this unrealized proposal was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s so-called “International Style” exhibition of 1932.

 

One of the most unique aspects of the Williamsburg Houses is the plan. To create the 23.3 acre complex, twelve blocks were acquired by the city, and the two east-west streets (Stagg and Ten Eyck) were closed to traffic to create four “super” blocks. All but one extend three full blocks from north to south, except part of the block between Manhattan and Graham Avenues that was set aside for a new junior high school and play area.

 

The development of New York City was closely tied to its gridiron. Introduced in 1811, it resulted in a city of predictable intersecting streets and avenues. In 1835, a similar plan was approved for Brooklyn and by the early 1850s the streets that cross through the site of the Williamsburg Houses had opened.

 

Most were named for area residents, such as Daniel Maujer, a lawyer and alderman, John and James Lorimer Graham, land jobbers, and James Scholes, a local land owner. The impact of this approach is visible throughout New York City, establishing blocks and lots of equal size and dimensions. Residential developers benefitted immensely, commissioning rowhouse and tenement designs that could be repeated without regard to location.

 

By the end of the 19th century, there was relatively little open space in Manhattan and Brooklyn. As part of the City Beautiful movement, various attempts were made to loosen the grid’s hold, first through the passage of the Small Parks Act in 1887, which focused on tenement neighborhoods, and later, by situating major civic structures in plazas. Similar ideas shaped the development of garden apartments which came into vogue after 1910. One of the primary characteristics of this type of multiple dwelling was reduced site coverage.

 

In most cases, such as in the Jackson Heights Historic District, the buildings were set around the perimeter of each block, enclosing large private gardens, but in other situations, such as at the Harlem River Houses, a “crankshaft” arrangement was adopted, creating a mixture of interior and exterior courts.

 

Lescaze borrowed freely from both the garden apartment tradition and architects associated with European modernism. In his earliest design, each block incorporated six U-shaped structures arranged around a narrow central court. A later design was considerably more irregular. Turned at an angle to the street, there were fewer but larger buildings.

 

Many aspects of this proposal were integrated into the final design. The Williamsburg Houses are configured in three ways, with footprints suggesting a capital “H,” small “h,” and “T.” All have small spurs and extensions, resembling crossbars. By adding this feature the number of courtyards was significantly increased. Within each block are six buildings (except north of the school); at the north and south are the “H” and “h” configurations, and in the middle, the “T”s.

 

The decision to turn the buildings at a 15 degree angle to the street grid proved controversial. PWA accounts described it in functional terms, explaining that the orientation would provide tenants with more sun and take advantage of the prevailing northwest breezes. During the previous decade, many architects and planners experimented with similar ideas. One of the earliest built examples “to deviate from the geometry of the New York gridiron” was the Mesa Verde apartments (1926) in Jackson Heights. Designed by Henry Atterbury Smith and based on an earlier proposal from 1917, the development featured two rows of six “closed L buildings” set at 45 degree angle to the surrounding streets.

 

Lescaze, however, was more likely to have been influenced by European sources. During the 1920s, he frequently returned to Europe, a period when leading architects were involved in the design of social housing. Many favored the “tower in the park” approach in which free-standing high-rise structures stood in continuous open space. Writing in English in 1935, Walter Gropius concluded that apartment blocks should “command a clear view of the sky, over broad expanses of grass and trees which separate the blocks and serve as playgrounds.”

 

Another source of inspiration might have been Ernst May who oversaw the design and construction of many low-rise housing estates in Frankfurt. In his Bruchfeldstrasse development of 1926-27, designed with C. K. Rudloff, one section was arranged in an overlapping zig-zag configuration. As in Williamsburg, each unit had corner windows, providing tenants with uninterrupted views of a central garden.

 

Many writers were skeptical about the benefits of Lescaze’s plan. Hamlin argued that the layout would convert the courts “into perfect channels for Project for a group of factories. our most vicious northwest winds.” He was told that

 

the arrangement had, in fact, been chosen for aesthetic reasons, to “break up the street facades” and “allow the feeling of space to weave in and out on the street fronts. This goal was definitely achieved, producing an environment that was new and distinctive. The flowing spaces that Lescaze planned are less monumental and more intimate than those experienced in most housing projects, juxtaposing wedge-shaped lawns with semi-enclosed courtyards and large open plazas. As originally built, no fences interrupted the spaces and the areas adjoining the curving concrete walks were paved with cobblestone.

 

The Elevations

 

Equally modern were the elevations. Lescaze was attracted to the expressive and aesthetic qualities of modern materials. Particularly unusual was the decision to use a light-colored palette. Built from reinforced concrete, the walls were originally enclosed with a sand-cast brick that was variously described by observers as bright tan, yellowish, pinkish, and grayish warm pink. One of the most notable features was the exposed concrete floor plates which express the structure and division between the floors while giving the complex a strong horizontal appearance. Talbot Hamlin observed:

 

The effectiveness of the buildings is undoubted. The striping of brick and concrete and the contrast of the light walls which front the stair towers make a vivid picture . . .

 

Prior to the mid-1930s, red brick was the most frequently used material in housing developments, used throughout Jackson Heights and in the First Houses and Harlem River Houses. The proposal to break with this tradition generated considerable debate. While the general scheme was approved in June 1935, it was not until October that specific materials were selected. Presumably, the PWA wished to standardize the building process and reduce costs. Frederick Ackerman, technical director of the NYCHA, defended Lescaze’s proposal. He wrote the authority’s chairman, Langdon W. Post:

 

. . . the “effect” of the Project will depend very largely upon the texture and quality of the exterior wall. Unless the exterior wall possesses a greater intrinsic interest than one made of common brick then the resultant effect is certain to be a bleak, barren and unusually forbidding mass of building:

 

One might readily mistake the At Williamsburg, the buildings stand as freestanding objects, finished on all sides and approachable from multiple directions. No facade dominates and the apartment entrances face both the streets and courtyards. For those unfamiliar with the layout, the angled plan may have been somewhat disorienting. To make it easier to navigate, signs were installed throughout the complex and Lescaze skillfully designed the entrances, making dramatic use of color and form. Like Le Corbusier, he was an “accomplished” painter and frequently used color, especially blue, to enliven wall surfaces. Another possible model was May’s housing development at Praunheim (1926-29) where contrasting colors were used to give the projecting stair towers a distinctive appearance.

 

Within the courtyards are as many as five entrances. Each is sheltered by a small cantilevered aluminum marquee and is flanked by square blue terra-cotta tiles. The entrances that are located at the far end of the larger courtyards are set at a angle. In these instances, the tiles spread onto the adjoining walls and extend above the parapet to the stair bulkhead. Other tile treatments project slightly forward, or are recessed above the doors to the roof. An entrance is also located in the covered breezeway. Reached by a short flight of stairs connecting both the street and courtyard, the more public street facade had an asymmetrical character, incorporating projecting blue tiles to one side and a wide aluminum marquee.

 

Construction

 

To prepare the site for construction, 568 buildings were demolished on 349 lots and approximately 5,400 people were relocated. A 1935 report described the population as divided equally between American born, Italian born, and other nationalities. Most were semi-skilled workers, employed in manufacturing, or as clerks, truck drivers, and construction workers.

 

Demolition commenced in June 1935 as PWA supervisor Elizabeth Ross dug a crowbar into the facade of 197 Manhattan Avenue, near Ten Eyck Street. In the months that followed:

 

Steam shovels and picks played a tune to rival that of the pipes of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. From every dank basement and crumbling wall rats fled in droves. Backyards disgorged an assortment of rusted cans, trash, filth and litter that would have discouraged the most voracious goat.

 

Ground was broken on January 3, 1936. Following a brief ceremony in the rain, public officials addressed an audience of five hundred at Public School 196. During April 1936, the first foundations were poured at the southwest corner of Manhattan Avenue and Stagg Street. Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia was in attendance, followed by “a few hundred interested onlookers and an army of schoolboys.”

 

As the foundations neared completion, the PWA solicited bids for construction. Starrett Brothers & Eken was awarded the $7. 5 million contract for the first 18 buildings in October 1936. A subsequent contract, for construction of buildings No. 5 and 18, was signed in late April 1937.

 

Founded by Paul Starrett (1866-1957) and William Aiken Starrett (1877-1932) and Andrew J. Eken (1882-1965) in 1922, the firm was responsible for such high-profile buildings as the New York Life Insurance Company Building (1925), Bank of Manhattan Building (1929-30), McGraw-Hill Building (1930-31), and Empire State Building (1930-31, all are designated New York City Landmarks). The Starrett Brothers worked closely with Shreve on the Empire State Building and it is likely that this relationship helped secure the contract for the Williamsburg Houses. William Starrett acknowledged the importance and complexity of this issue when he said:

 

It is the hope of people who are discussing this (slum) problem that those same brains that put together the great skyscrapers . . . will turn toward this.

 

Starrett Brothers & Eken later built Parkchester (Richmond H. Shreve, chairman of the board of design, 1938-42), Stuyvesant Town (Irwin Clavan and Gilmore Clarke, 1943-49) and Peter Cooper Village (Irwin Clavan and Gilmore D. Clarke, 1947) for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

 

The cornerstone was laid in October 1936. It contained an aerial view of the site, a copy of the federal act creating the PWA, as well as an autographed copy of Jacob Riis’s timeless account of slum conditions, How the Other Half Lives, donated by his widow. Construction progressed rapidly, and aside from minor walk-outs by metalworkers and painters, the first six buildings were ready for occupancy with a year, in September

 

Publicity

 

The Williamsburg Houses was the largest and costliest project built by the PWA. With 1,622 apartments, it was more than twice the size of the Harlem River Houses. The approximate cost was $12.8 million. It was described by the PWA as part of “demonstration program” and numerous public events were held. In a letter to Post, Shreve stated:

 

As this project is the beginning of what, in a way, is a housing community experiment and as the public attitude toward housing will be largely controlled by the success or failure of such an experiment, it is of importance that every effort be made to make the first experiment successful.

 

In this context, how the project was perceived was of the utmost importance. Once the design had been approved, a scale model was built by the PWA and exhibited at banks in Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg during late 1935 and 1936. This presentation was accompanied by a series of posters documenting the site, including photographs of earlier buildings and their demolition, as well as projected floor plans. The New York Times reported the model:

 

. . . throws into graphic relief the application of the new principle of multiple housing, providing more air, sunlight and recreational facilities and involving a departure from the solid-block construction.

 

The idea of using public funds to create low-income housing was relatively new and much of the language used in speeches and press releases heralded it as a major advance. At the site, signs were posted, calling Williamsburg the “Largest Low Rental Development in the USA.” At the ground-breaking, public officials evoked the memory of Alfred T. White, whose Brooklyn developments were among the first attempts to improve low-income housing in the nation.

 

Mayor LaGuardia thanked the President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for his support, as did Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, who described slums as a “vicious project of that old order whose passing, we hope, is at hand.” While some critics equated the federal housing program with socialism, most speakers saw it as a defense of democracy.

 

In November 1935, Post had contacted the PWA, requesting that the complex be called the “Ten Eyck” Houses. No explanation was given, but it is likely that the request was made to distinguish the new development from the larger surrounding neighborhood.

 

Ten Eyck Street was one of two east-west streets closed to create the site and it was probably named for the Dutch family whose Brooklyn lineage extended back to at least the 18th century. In the immediate area also lived William Ten Eyck, who during the mid-19th century served as the deacon of the Reformed Church of South Bushwick (1853, a designated New York City Landmark). Post’s request was quickly approved. The new name, however, was not widely used and a 1938 PWA publication refers to the development as the Williamsburg Houses.

 

On October 28, 1936, the construction site was briefly visited by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. According to the New York Times, ten thousand school children and five thousand adults “cheered the President’s passage through the streets bordering the housing project.”

 

Three “model” apartments were opened for public view in July through August 1937. Furnished with loans from various Brooklyn department stores, they were presented at 180 Maujer Street. Post was an early visitor and he described the apartments as a “demonstration of what can be done, this is the most valuable contribution to social progress that the New Deal has made.” An average of 1,200 persons a day visited. In September 1937, a second group of apartments opened at 176 Maujer Street, including one decorated entirely with “reconditioned furniture.” In a related development, during April and May 1938, the WPA created an exhibit in a storefront office at 212 Graham Avenue. Organized by William Friedman of the art teaching division, the display was changed periodically to demonstrate different apartment layouts and decoration. Nine experts spent five months preparing the exhibit, hoping that it would influence local residents and provide a model for future public housing developments. A music branch, at 176 Maujer Street, also provided lessons in theory, voice, and various instruments.

 

Tenants

 

According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the Williamsburg Houses were “one of the most perfect home sites in the word . . . an eagerly sought spot to live.” Income and need formed the basis of selection and no tenant could earn more than five times the annual rent. Preference was also given to former residents of the site.

 

The first tenants began to occupy their apartments on September 30, 1937. The New York Times devoted at least two articles to “Moving Day,” as did the Brooklyn Eagle. As part of the operation, each tenant’s belongings were moved to a fumigation plant for sterilization near the intersection of Bushwick Avenue at Scholes Street.

 

This procedure was described as a “wise precaution against the spread of disease.” Bessie and Louis Grabkowitz were recognized by the NYCHA as the first official tenants. A week’s rent, of less than seven dollars, was paid and they were given keys to their new apartment. Two to five rooms in size, units featured steam heat, hot and cold water, as well as electric stoves and refrigerators. Residents praised their new homes, commenting on the appliances and abundant sunlight.

 

By the end of 1937, most apartments were occupied. A community newspaper, the Projector, began publishing on a semi-monthly basis in December 1937. In April 1938, the complex was completed. In addition to the twenty residential buildings, there were retail spaces, facing the north-south streets. The PWA reported:

 

To insure efficient, sanitary commercial services, 49 stores and shops within the project, distributing drugs, groceries, appliances, and general merchandise, have been leased to private individuals.

 

The storefronts were executed in a sleek Moderne style. To the north and south, they curved away from the street, recalling the streamlined designs of Erich Mendelsohn, as well as J. J. P. Oud’s Kiefhoek development of 1925. The prominent metal parapets were blue, matching the color of the apartment entrances. Despite their polished design, a significant number failed to attract and retain tenants. Consequently, in 1945 ten unleased spaces, near the corners of Maujer and Leonard Streets, and Scholes Street and Bushwick Avenue, were converted to apartments.

 

Tenants enjoyed a variety of useful services. At the center of the complex, on Graham Avenue stood the stripped classical-style William J. Gaynor Junior High School (1936-37), and opposite it, Building No. 11 housed a nursery school. Incorporated into the building’s south court and featuring a large play terrace, Hamlin described its glass-fronted design as “pleasant” and “delightful.” In addition, a new Moderne-style health center was built directly across from the complex, on Maujer Street.

 

Throughout the development were “social and craft rooms.” These basement spaces were originally used for classes, clubs, and meetings and many were decorated with large colorful murals. In contrast to the majority of WPA murals that were executed in style of social realism, the Williamsburg murals were non-objective. Lescaze favored “abstract and stimulating patterns” and Burgoyne Diller who headed the Federal Art Project, wrote that:

 

The decision to place abstract murals in these rooms [of the Williamsburg Housing Project] was made because the areas were intended to provide a place of relaxation and entertainment . . . The more arbitrary the color, possible when not determined by the description of objects, enables the artist to place an emphasis on its psychological potential to stimulate relaxation.

 

Of twelve murals commissioned, at least five were installed. In the early 1990s, the deteriorated canvases were restored and moved to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. They include works by the American painters Ilya Bolotowsky, Paul Kelpe, and Balcomb Greene.

  

Critical Reception

 

The opening of the Williamsburg Houses was treated as major news and writers used the event to analyze the project and express their own views about the role of public housing and the importance of modern architecture. Some of the earliest comments came from the architect Walter Gropius, former director of the Bauhaus in Germany. On a visit to New York City in April 1937 he was interviewed by H.I. Brock in the New York Times. They traveled together throughout the city, visiting both new skyscrapers and the nearly-complete Brooklyn development. Gropius was impressed and praised the unusual plan, saying that Lescaze:

 

. . . seems to have solved the problem of space and light very successfully and economically, and it has the great advantage of being spread over enough land to make it worthwhile as a sample of planned development.

 

Lewis Mumford was the first critic to publish a substantial review in February 1938. As a persistent advocate for public housing, he used the opportunity to evaluate the “outlines of the new order of building.” He praised the PWA for eschewing “overpriced building lots” and instead assembling large sites in quieter areas where streets could be closed to traffic to create gardens and playgrounds. Considerable attention was paid to the slanted orientation. Although he described it as “a bit queer,” he liked the way it separated the residences from the street and that it gave the appearance that the architects were concerned about providing tenants with ample sunlight.

 

Talbot Hamlin published the most-detailed analysis. In this review, he addressed both PWA projects, calling them “a new vision of democracy ... they are better than the most expensive apartments on Park Avenue.” Despite such praise, he expressed mixed feelings. While he found the buildings “fresh and inventive and alive,” he was disturbed by the “shockingly low” standards of construction. He also admired the “imaginative and carefully studied detailing,” but criticized the landscaping as little more than adequate. The WPA Guide to New York City, published in 1939, shared similar views, quoting Hamlin’s review, and praising the design of the individual buildings.

 

In the years since completion, the Williamsburg Houses have been a frequent subject for architectural historians. Many, starting with the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, have placed the development within the context of European modernism. In an exhibition celebrating the museum’s 10th anniversary and the opening of its new building, it was the only architectural work represented that was located in New York City. In a brief essay on housing, the curators highlighted the “triple-size superblocks,” that form an “oasis of open space,” but criticized the adjoining school building as a lost opportunity to create a “truly important work.” Photographs of the complex were also included in Forms and Functions of Twentieth-Century Architecture (1952), in sections devoted to city planning and concrete construction.

 

G. Holmes Perkins wrote in the city planning section that despite faults, the complex “may be held up as patterns for tomorrow.” Richard Pommer, in one of the most insightful discussions of Depression-era housing in the United States, criticized the angled plan, calling Lescaze a “versatile pasticheur” who used visual effects without logic or relation to function. Robert A. M. Stern shared this view, writing in 1980 that it “seems overrated.” Richard Plunz, in A History of Housing in New York City, credited the project as the start of a “brief but intense struggle” to determine the aesthetic direction government-built housing would take. All four editions of the AIA Guide to New York City have praised the Williamsburg Houses. The 1968 edition called it a “very successful solution to the problem of low-rent subsidized housing,” and in 2000 “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

 

Subsequent History

 

Conveyed by the federal government to the NYCHA in 1957, the Williamsburg Houses continue to serve their original purpose, housing more than three thousand New Yorkers. Major alterations were first proposed in 1980 and significant work took place during 1985-91. At this time, the original casement windows were replaced with bronze-colored aluminum sash and the blue terra cotta that surrounded the entrances, with tan “Morocco” glazed brick.

 

In a remarkable turnaround, during the mid1990s, the facades were restored. What began as continued maintenance, soon evolved into a major architectural project, requiring an outside contractor and consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Under the supervision of Neil Cohen of the NYCHA, the elevations were completely reskinned, the parapets replaced, as well as the chimneys, railings, and terra-cotta banding. In addition, new canopies, doors, lighting fixtures, and signage were fabricated.

 

The approximately $70 million project was executed with great sensitivity; there was an article in the real estate section of the New York Times and the NYCHA was the recipient of the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy (1999), which praised the participants for restoring the complex to “better-than-new condition.” Restoration of the storefronts, except along Bushwick Avenue, was completed in 2002.

 

The high standards set by the design of the Williamsburg Houses have rarely been matched. Innovative in terms of scale, plan, and aesthetics, it remains one of the most pleasant and architecturally-distinguished housing developments in New York City.

 

Description

 

There are twenty walk-up buildings in the 23.3acre Williamsburg complex and a total of 1,620 apartments. These buildings are numbered from 1 to 20 and each entrance has its own street address, for instance, “112 Maujer Street.” Stainless steel signs, with pin-mounted numbers and letters, identify each entrance.

 

The site extends four blocks east to west, from Bushwick Avenue to Leonard Street, and three blocks north to south, from Maujer to Scholes Streets. The principal north-south artery is Graham Avenue. Between Maujer and Scholes Streets, Ten Eyck Street and Stagg Street are closed to vehicles. These winding east-west paths are called Ten Eyck Walk and Stagg Walk. They are identified by large pin-mounted stainless steel letters attached to the building facades and are visible along the north-south streets. Throughout the complex are wall-mounted cantilevered lighting fixtures. These glass and aluminum fixtures are reproductions of the originals.

 

Three of the four blocks have a tree-shaded open space at center. At present, non-historic benches, play equipment, and basketball courts are located here. Most lawns are enclosed by low iron fences. Though not original, these fences pre-date the 1990s. Pole-mounted lighting fixtures are occasionally used to illuminate these areas.

 

All buildings materials are non-historic. Each structure is four stories tall and clad in ochre-colored brick. Exterior concrete spandrel beams are exposed at each floor. To disguise patches to the concrete, the beams are coated with a grey-colored water repellency finish. The entrances are flanked by blue structural glazed facing tiles that are approximately 12 by 12 inches. Blue mortar was used to minimize the joint lines. A canopy projects in front of each entrance (except on one side of the breezeways). Made of stainless steel, they incorporate recessed down lights. Some canopies are supported by a single pipe column. The entrance doors and sidelights are made of stainless steel.

 

Each door has a grid of four small square windows. Breezeways serve a dual purpose: reached by two sets of stairs, they provide an additional north-south passage, as well as entry to apartments. Most of the stairs are flanked by stainless steel railings. The bronze anodized aluminum windows, installed in the 1980s, are all one-over-one. Arranged as single windows or in pairs, they have concrete sills and meet the concrete spandrels above. The smaller windows light the bathrooms. Single windows and pairs are located where the facades meet, often creating triple-width openings at the cantilevered corners.

 

There are three general building configurations. All are original to the complex. They include eight buildings with “H” shaped floor plans, six with floor plans that suggest a small letter “h,” and six buildings with “T” shaped floor plans. While the “H” and “h” types alternate along Maujer and Scholes Streets (except next to the school where both are “H” shaped), the “T” shaped buildings are located only between Ten Eyck Walk and Stagg Walk.

 

- From the 2003 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report

Brooklyn, New York City, New York, United States of America

 

A collaborative project of the Federal Public Works Administration and the newly established New York City Housing Authority, the Williamsburg Houses are notable as one of the earliest housing developments in the United States to reflect the ideas of the modern movement in architecture. In the 1920s Williamsburg was one of the most densely populated sections of Brooklyn and nearly six hundred, mostly frame, structures were demolished to create the 23.3 acre site. Proposed in 1934, this residential complex was skillfully designed by the Williamsburg Associated Architects during 1935 and most units were occupied by 1938.

 

The partnership included Richmond H. Shreve, of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the architects of the Empire State Building, and William Lescaze, the Swiss-born architect who helped introduce the “International” style on the eastern seaboard. Lescaze was responsible for the design, which includes twenty 4-story structures on four “super” blocks turned at 15 degree angles to the street grid. Oriented to the sun and prevailing winds, this unusual layout produced a series of large and small courts, many of which flow into a large public space at the center of each block. A light-colored palette distinguishes the facades, executed in tan brick and exposed concrete.

 

Among the most prominent features are the entrances, marked by blue tile and projecting stainless steel canopies, and the handsome streamlined storefronts. The complex was widely discussed by contemporary critics and more than 25,000 New Yorkers applied for 1,622 apartments. During the mid-1990s, the buildings underwent an extensive restoration which included the replacement of all exterior materials. Sponsored by the Housing Authority, in consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, these alterations were remarkably sensitive and in the 4th edition of the AIA Guide to New York City the “revivified” complex was called “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

 

DESCRIPTION AND ANALYSIS

 

Housing the Masses

 

From the rowhouse to the apartment building, New York City has been a laboratory for innovative housing. Beginning after the Civil War, apartments, variously known as French Flats and tenements, were built to house the city’s surging population. Immigrants, for the most part, crowded into unregulated tenements, structures that maximized profits for developers while providing few amenities that we take for granted today, such as light, air, and private bathrooms.

 

Despite government efforts to legislate minimum standards in 1867 and 1879, initially private individuals took the most significant steps to make decent housing affordable to all. Several pioneering examples were located close to the Brooklyn waterfront, including the Home and Tower Buildings (William Field and Son, 1876-78), the Astral Apartments (Lamb & Rich, 1885-87) and Riverside (William Field and Son, 1890). The later complex surrounded a large tree-shaded courtyard incorporating a music pavilion and areas for drying laundry. Despite these, and a few innovative Manhattan developments, the majority of New Yorkers continued to live in substandard conditions.

 

The passage of the New Tenement Law in 1901 improved the situation, requiring that multiple dwellings be built on significantly larger lots, with fire escapes and separate “privies” for each family. After World War I, the garden apartment came into vogue. While most were built for the middle class, especially in Jackson Heights, a significant group were sponsored by unions and cooperative organizations that wished to provide members with inexpensive apartments. Significant examples include the Amalgamated Houses (Springsteen & Goldhammer, 1930) on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the “Coops” built in the Bronx by the United Workers Cooperative Association (Springsteen & Goldhammer, 1925-27; Herman Jessor, 1927-29).

 

The first significant act of government intervention occurred in 1926 with the passage of the New York State Housing Law. Promoted by Governor Alfred E. Smith to encourage construction through the formation of local authorities that would sell bonds or seek federal funds, it had little impact until 1934 when the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) was established. The authority’s first project, aptly called the First Houses (Frederick L. Ackerman, 1934-36), was located in Manhattan’s East Village. Begun as a rehabilitation program involving the demolition of every third structure, due to structural problems the eight brick buildings were entirely rebuilt.

 

Throughout the early Depression, government-subsidized housing remained a controversial issue. Consequently, it was first promoted as worker relief, organized to create jobs but not compete with the commercial market. The first federal agency to involve itself with housing was the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) which was created in 1932 to provide low-interest loans to limited-dividend housing corporations. Of the two loans it made, one was toward the construction of Knickerbocker Village (John S. Van Wart & Frederick L. Ackerman, 1933). Built for the Fred F. French Company, this Chinatown-area development consists of two 12-story buildings, both enclosing an interior courtyard.

 

In mid-1933, as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration (PWA) was established. What made this agency different from its predecessor, the RFC, was that it would be directly involved in the planning and construction of low-income housing. The program was a great success and over the next three and half years it collaborated on the design and construction of 51 projects in 36 cities, including the Harlem River Houses and the Williamsburg Houses.

 

The passage of the Wagner-Steagall Bill (aka U.S. Housing Bill) by the United States Congress in September 1937, strengthened the federal government’s commitment to housing, but shifted greater control to local authorities. The first New York City housing project to be financed under this program was the Red Hook Houses (Electus Litchfied, chief designer, 1938-39) in Brooklyn. Future construction, which would amount to more than half a million low-rental units nationwide by 1957, would be funded primarily through low-interest loans.

 

Site

 

The Williamsburg Houses are located in northwestern Brooklyn, approximately one mile east of the Williamsburg Bridge and two blocks south of Grand Street, a lively commercial thoroughfare. Founded as part of the town of Bushwick in the mid17th century, Williamsburg was incorporated as a village in 1827. The community prospered and by 1852 it was the 20th largest city in the nation. Three years later, Williamsburg became part of Brooklyn and was commonly referred to as the Eastern District. Although ferry service was important to the area’s development, it was the planning and construction of a second East River crossing, the Williamsburg Bridge, that caused the most dramatic growth.

 

Proposed in 1883, the bridge was completed with much fanfare in 1903, serving pedestrians, bicycles and horse-drawn vehicles. In subsequent decades, Williamsburg rivaled the Lower East Side in population and density. The Brooklyn Eagle claimed in 1920 that the bridge was part of the busiest traffic center in the nation and that a single block north of it was the most crowded in the world. Conditions in the neighborhood continued to deteriorate throughout the decade, so much so that the population began to decline.

 

In October 1933, the Federal Works Administration (PWA) established a slum clearance committee to study conditions throughout New York City. Richmond H. Shreve, who would later serve as chief architect of the Williamsburg Houses, was named director. Based on the committee’s recommendations, $25 million was set aside for a housing program in New York City. Under the direction of the NYCHA, a more comprehensive study was undertaken in 1934, focusing on fourteen neighborhoods, including Williamsburg. The PWA reported:

 

When the study was completed the blighted slum area of the Williamsburg section stood out as the best example where the most good could be done in wholesale clearance work.

 

Of 93 blocks studied, a grid of 12 was identified for redevelopment in Williamsburg. These blocks were chosen because property values were relatively low and the owners were willing to sell. Most of buildings were mixed-use, incorporating retail spaces at ground level and apartments above. Each lot was carefully documented: 90% of the structures were at least forty years old, 70% were built of wood, 78% had no central heating, and 67% had no private toilets. Such statistics were used to paint an extremely bleak picture of life there:

 

But the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, according to official surveys, is unique in that its 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.

 

Public amenities were also in short supply; there were few schools and there were almost no parks.

 

Architects

 

Five architects were appointed to the NYCHA’s architectural board in May 1934: Richmond H. Shreve (1877-1946) of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, Matthew W. Del Gaudio (1889-1960), William Lescaze (1899-1969), Arthur C. Holden (18901993), and James F. Bly. As members of the board, their initial role was advisory. They would act as the authority’s chief architect, overseeing the design and construction of municipal housing citywide.

 

In June 1934 an open competition was held to choose the architects who would work on the Williamsburg Houses and other NYCHA projects. The program guidelines did not specify the location, but the grid chosen closely resembled the long blocks where the Williamsburg Houses would be built. Of 278 architects who participated, 5 of the 22 selected were assigned to the Brooklyn project: Samuel Gardstein, of Holmgren, Volz & Gardstein, G. Harmon Gurney (b. 1896), of Gurney & Clavan, John W. Ingle Jr., Paul Trapani (1887-1974), and Harry Leslie Walker (1877-1954).

 

In June 1935, a contract was signed with the Williamsburg Associated Architects. The partnership consisted of ten men: the five architects selected by jury, as well as the five members of the architectural board. Among them, Shreve had the most experience with large projects, having worked on a succession of major Manhattan skyscrapers, most notably, the Empire State Building (Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, 1931).

 

A graduate of the College of Architecture at Cornell University (1902), he began his career as a member of the school’s faculty and later joined the firm of Carrére & Hastings in New York City where he distinguished himself as having a “genius for the solution of operational and administrative problems.” Whereas prior to the Depression he mainly worked on office buildings, in his later years Shreve was associated with residential developments, most notably the Vladeck Houses (1940) on the Lower East Side, and Parkchester (1938-42), a development with more than twelve thousand apartments in the Bronx. During the late 1930s, he also served as a member of the board of design for the New York World’s Fair.

 

Design

 

Of the three initial projects built by the NYCHA and the PWA, the Williamsburg Houses were the most innovative. Shreve appointed Lescaze as the chief designer, responsible for the plan and elevations. In the 1930s, he was at the height of his career, profiled in publications read by professionals and the layman. Born near Geneva, Switzerland, in 1896, he studied in Zurich with the architect Karl Moser in 1915-19 and for a brief period worked in Paris with Henri Sauvage, an important designer of apartment buildings. Lescaze moved to the United States in 1920 and after working in Cleveland and New York City, formed a partnership with George Howe, a Philadelphia architect, in 1929.

 

Their association lasted four years and produced one architectural masterpiece, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building, completed in 1932. During the mid-1930s, he was extremely active, working on unrealized plans for the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, as well as building three of the earliest modern-style townhouses in Manhattan, his own house and studio, completed in 1934, as well as the Raymond C. and Mildred Kramer (1934-5) and Edward and Dorothy Norman (1940) houses. He also designed, with Albert Frey, the Chrystie-Forsyth Houses. Planned in 1931, this unrealized proposal was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s so-called “International Style” exhibition of 1932.

 

One of the most unique aspects of the Williamsburg Houses is the plan. To create the 23.3 acre complex, twelve blocks were acquired by the city, and the two east-west streets (Stagg and Ten Eyck) were closed to traffic to create four “super” blocks. All but one extend three full blocks from north to south, except part of the block between Manhattan and Graham Avenues that was set aside for a new junior high school and play area.

 

The development of New York City was closely tied to its gridiron. Introduced in 1811, it resulted in a city of predictable intersecting streets and avenues. In 1835, a similar plan was approved for Brooklyn and by the early 1850s the streets that cross through the site of the Williamsburg Houses had opened.

 

Most were named for area residents, such as Daniel Maujer, a lawyer and alderman, John and James Lorimer Graham, land jobbers, and James Scholes, a local land owner. The impact of this approach is visible throughout New York City, establishing blocks and lots of equal size and dimensions. Residential developers benefitted immensely, commissioning rowhouse and tenement designs that could be repeated without regard to location.

 

By the end of the 19th century, there was relatively little open space in Manhattan and Brooklyn. As part of the City Beautiful movement, various attempts were made to loosen the grid’s hold, first through the passage of the Small Parks Act in 1887, which focused on tenement neighborhoods, and later, by situating major civic structures in plazas. Similar ideas shaped the development of garden apartments which came into vogue after 1910. One of the primary characteristics of this type of multiple dwelling was reduced site coverage.

 

In most cases, such as in the Jackson Heights Historic District, the buildings were set around the perimeter of each block, enclosing large private gardens, but in other situations, such as at the Harlem River Houses, a “crankshaft” arrangement was adopted, creating a mixture of interior and exterior courts.

 

Lescaze borrowed freely from both the garden apartment tradition and architects associated with European modernism. In his earliest design, each block incorporated six U-shaped structures arranged around a narrow central court. A later design was considerably more irregular. Turned at an angle to the street, there were fewer but larger buildings.

 

Many aspects of this proposal were integrated into the final design. The Williamsburg Houses are configured in three ways, with footprints suggesting a capital “H,” small “h,” and “T.” All have small spurs and extensions, resembling crossbars. By adding this feature the number of courtyards was significantly increased. Within each block are six buildings (except north of the school); at the north and south are the “H” and “h” configurations, and in the middle, the “T”s.

 

The decision to turn the buildings at a 15 degree angle to the street grid proved controversial. PWA accounts described it in functional terms, explaining that the orientation would provide tenants with more sun and take advantage of the prevailing northwest breezes. During the previous decade, many architects and planners experimented with similar ideas. One of the earliest built examples “to deviate from the geometry of the New York gridiron” was the Mesa Verde apartments (1926) in Jackson Heights. Designed by Henry Atterbury Smith and based on an earlier proposal from 1917, the development featured two rows of six “closed L buildings” set at 45 degree angle to the surrounding streets.

 

Lescaze, however, was more likely to have been influenced by European sources. During the 1920s, he frequently returned to Europe, a period when leading architects were involved in the design of social housing. Many favored the “tower in the park” approach in which free-standing high-rise structures stood in continuous open space. Writing in English in 1935, Walter Gropius concluded that apartment blocks should “command a clear view of the sky, over broad expanses of grass and trees which separate the blocks and serve as playgrounds.”

 

Another source of inspiration might have been Ernst May who oversaw the design and construction of many low-rise housing estates in Frankfurt. In his Bruchfeldstrasse development of 1926-27, designed with C. K. Rudloff, one section was arranged in an overlapping zig-zag configuration. As in Williamsburg, each unit had corner windows, providing tenants with uninterrupted views of a central garden.

 

Many writers were skeptical about the benefits of Lescaze’s plan. Hamlin argued that the layout would convert the courts “into perfect channels for Project for a group of factories. our most vicious northwest winds.” He was told that

 

the arrangement had, in fact, been chosen for aesthetic reasons, to “break up the street facades” and “allow the feeling of space to weave in and out on the street fronts. This goal was definitely achieved, producing an environment that was new and distinctive. The flowing spaces that Lescaze planned are less monumental and more intimate than those experienced in most housing projects, juxtaposing wedge-shaped lawns with semi-enclosed courtyards and large open plazas. As originally built, no fences interrupted the spaces and the areas adjoining the curving concrete walks were paved with cobblestone.

 

The Elevations

 

Equally modern were the elevations. Lescaze was attracted to the expressive and aesthetic qualities of modern materials. Particularly unusual was the decision to use a light-colored palette. Built from reinforced concrete, the walls were originally enclosed with a sand-cast brick that was variously described by observers as bright tan, yellowish, pinkish, and grayish warm pink. One of the most notable features was the exposed concrete floor plates which express the structure and division between the floors while giving the complex a strong horizontal appearance. Talbot Hamlin observed:

 

The effectiveness of the buildings is undoubted. The striping of brick and concrete and the contrast of the light walls which front the stair towers make a vivid picture . . .

 

Prior to the mid-1930s, red brick was the most frequently used material in housing developments, used throughout Jackson Heights and in the First Houses and Harlem River Houses. The proposal to break with this tradition generated considerable debate. While the general scheme was approved in June 1935, it was not until October that specific materials were selected. Presumably, the PWA wished to standardize the building process and reduce costs. Frederick Ackerman, technical director of the NYCHA, defended Lescaze’s proposal. He wrote the authority’s chairman, Langdon W. Post:

 

. . . the “effect” of the Project will depend very largely upon the texture and quality of the exterior wall. Unless the exterior wall possesses a greater intrinsic interest than one made of common brick then the resultant effect is certain to be a bleak, barren and unusually forbidding mass of building:

 

One might readily mistake the At Williamsburg, the buildings stand as freestanding objects, finished on all sides and approachable from multiple directions. No facade dominates and the apartment entrances face both the streets and courtyards. For those unfamiliar with the layout, the angled plan may have been somewhat disorienting. To make it easier to navigate, signs were installed throughout the complex and Lescaze skillfully designed the entrances, making dramatic use of color and form. Like Le Corbusier, he was an “accomplished” painter and frequently used color, especially blue, to enliven wall surfaces. Another possible model was May’s housing development at Praunheim (1926-29) where contrasting colors were used to give the projecting stair towers a distinctive appearance.

 

Within the courtyards are as many as five entrances. Each is sheltered by a small cantilevered aluminum marquee and is flanked by square blue terra-cotta tiles. The entrances that are located at the far end of the larger courtyards are set at a angle. In these instances, the tiles spread onto the adjoining walls and extend above the parapet to the stair bulkhead. Other tile treatments project slightly forward, or are recessed above the doors to the roof. An entrance is also located in the covered breezeway. Reached by a short flight of stairs connecting both the street and courtyard, the more public street facade had an asymmetrical character, incorporating projecting blue tiles to one side and a wide aluminum marquee.

 

Construction

 

To prepare the site for construction, 568 buildings were demolished on 349 lots and approximately 5,400 people were relocated. A 1935 report described the population as divided equally between American born, Italian born, and other nationalities. Most were semi-skilled workers, employed in manufacturing, or as clerks, truck drivers, and construction workers.

 

Demolition commenced in June 1935 as PWA supervisor Elizabeth Ross dug a crowbar into the facade of 197 Manhattan Avenue, near Ten Eyck Street. In the months that followed:

 

Steam shovels and picks played a tune to rival that of the pipes of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. From every dank basement and crumbling wall rats fled in droves. Backyards disgorged an assortment of rusted cans, trash, filth and litter that would have discouraged the most voracious goat.

 

Ground was broken on January 3, 1936. Following a brief ceremony in the rain, public officials addressed an audience of five hundred at Public School 196. During April 1936, the first foundations were poured at the southwest corner of Manhattan Avenue and Stagg Street. Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia was in attendance, followed by “a few hundred interested onlookers and an army of schoolboys.”

 

As the foundations neared completion, the PWA solicited bids for construction. Starrett Brothers & Eken was awarded the $7. 5 million contract for the first 18 buildings in October 1936. A subsequent contract, for construction of buildings No. 5 and 18, was signed in late April 1937.

 

Founded by Paul Starrett (1866-1957) and William Aiken Starrett (1877-1932) and Andrew J. Eken (1882-1965) in 1922, the firm was responsible for such high-profile buildings as the New York Life Insurance Company Building (1925), Bank of Manhattan Building (1929-30), McGraw-Hill Building (1930-31), and Empire State Building (1930-31, all are designated New York City Landmarks). The Starrett Brothers worked closely with Shreve on the Empire State Building and it is likely that this relationship helped secure the contract for the Williamsburg Houses. William Starrett acknowledged the importance and complexity of this issue when he said:

 

It is the hope of people who are discussing this (slum) problem that those same brains that put together the great skyscrapers . . . will turn toward this.

 

Starrett Brothers & Eken later built Parkchester (Richmond H. Shreve, chairman of the board of design, 1938-42), Stuyvesant Town (Irwin Clavan and Gilmore Clarke, 1943-49) and Peter Cooper Village (Irwin Clavan and Gilmore D. Clarke, 1947) for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

 

The cornerstone was laid in October 1936. It contained an aerial view of the site, a copy of the federal act creating the PWA, as well as an autographed copy of Jacob Riis’s timeless account of slum conditions, How the Other Half Lives, donated by his widow. Construction progressed rapidly, and aside from minor walk-outs by metalworkers and painters, the first six buildings were ready for occupancy with a year, in September

 

Publicity

 

The Williamsburg Houses was the largest and costliest project built by the PWA. With 1,622 apartments, it was more than twice the size of the Harlem River Houses. The approximate cost was $12.8 million. It was described by the PWA as part of “demonstration program” and numerous public events were held. In a letter to Post, Shreve stated:

 

As this project is the beginning of what, in a way, is a housing community experiment and as the public attitude toward housing will be largely controlled by the success or failure of such an experiment, it is of importance that every effort be made to make the first experiment successful.

 

In this context, how the project was perceived was of the utmost importance. Once the design had been approved, a scale model was built by the PWA and exhibited at banks in Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg during late 1935 and 1936. This presentation was accompanied by a series of posters documenting the site, including photographs of earlier buildings and their demolition, as well as projected floor plans. The New York Times reported the model:

 

. . . throws into graphic relief the application of the new principle of multiple housing, providing more air, sunlight and recreational facilities and involving a departure from the solid-block construction.

 

The idea of using public funds to create low-income housing was relatively new and much of the language used in speeches and press releases heralded it as a major advance. At the site, signs were posted, calling Williamsburg the “Largest Low Rental Development in the USA.” At the ground-breaking, public officials evoked the memory of Alfred T. White, whose Brooklyn developments were among the first attempts to improve low-income housing in the nation.

 

Mayor LaGuardia thanked the President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for his support, as did Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, who described slums as a “vicious project of that old order whose passing, we hope, is at hand.” While some critics equated the federal housing program with socialism, most speakers saw it as a defense of democracy.

 

In November 1935, Post had contacted the PWA, requesting that the complex be called the “Ten Eyck” Houses. No explanation was given, but it is likely that the request was made to distinguish the new development from the larger surrounding neighborhood.

 

Ten Eyck Street was one of two east-west streets closed to create the site and it was probably named for the Dutch family whose Brooklyn lineage extended back to at least the 18th century. In the immediate area also lived William Ten Eyck, who during the mid-19th century served as the deacon of the Reformed Church of South Bushwick (1853, a designated New York City Landmark). Post’s request was quickly approved. The new name, however, was not widely used and a 1938 PWA publication refers to the development as the Williamsburg Houses.

 

On October 28, 1936, the construction site was briefly visited by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. According to the New York Times, ten thousand school children and five thousand adults “cheered the President’s passage through the streets bordering the housing project.”

 

Three “model” apartments were opened for public view in July through August 1937. Furnished with loans from various Brooklyn department stores, they were presented at 180 Maujer Street. Post was an early visitor and he described the apartments as a “demonstration of what can be done, this is the most valuable contribution to social progress that the New Deal has made.” An average of 1,200 persons a day visited. In September 1937, a second group of apartments opened at 176 Maujer Street, including one decorated entirely with “reconditioned furniture.” In a related development, during April and May 1938, the WPA created an exhibit in a storefront office at 212 Graham Avenue. Organized by William Friedman of the art teaching division, the display was changed periodically to demonstrate different apartment layouts and decoration. Nine experts spent five months preparing the exhibit, hoping that it would influence local residents and provide a model for future public housing developments. A music branch, at 176 Maujer Street, also provided lessons in theory, voice, and various instruments.

 

Tenants

 

According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the Williamsburg Houses were “one of the most perfect home sites in the word . . . an eagerly sought spot to live.” Income and need formed the basis of selection and no tenant could earn more than five times the annual rent. Preference was also given to former residents of the site.

 

The first tenants began to occupy their apartments on September 30, 1937. The New York Times devoted at least two articles to “Moving Day,” as did the Brooklyn Eagle. As part of the operation, each tenant’s belongings were moved to a fumigation plant for sterilization near the intersection of Bushwick Avenue at Scholes Street.

 

This procedure was described as a “wise precaution against the spread of disease.” Bessie and Louis Grabkowitz were recognized by the NYCHA as the first official tenants. A week’s rent, of less than seven dollars, was paid and they were given keys to their new apartment. Two to five rooms in size, units featured steam heat, hot and cold water, as well as electric stoves and refrigerators. Residents praised their new homes, commenting on the appliances and abundant sunlight.

 

By the end of 1937, most apartments were occupied. A community newspaper, the Projector, began publishing on a semi-monthly basis in December 1937. In April 1938, the complex was completed. In addition to the twenty residential buildings, there were retail spaces, facing the north-south streets. The PWA reported:

 

To insure efficient, sanitary commercial services, 49 stores and shops within the project, distributing drugs, groceries, appliances, and general merchandise, have been leased to private individuals.

 

The storefronts were executed in a sleek Moderne style. To the north and south, they curved away from the street, recalling the streamlined designs of Erich Mendelsohn, as well as J. J. P. Oud’s Kiefhoek development of 1925. The prominent metal parapets were blue, matching the color of the apartment entrances. Despite their polished design, a significant number failed to attract and retain tenants. Consequently, in 1945 ten unleased spaces, near the corners of Maujer and Leonard Streets, and Scholes Street and Bushwick Avenue, were converted to apartments.

 

Tenants enjoyed a variety of useful services. At the center of the complex, on Graham Avenue stood the stripped classical-style William J. Gaynor Junior High School (1936-37), and opposite it, Building No. 11 housed a nursery school. Incorporated into the building’s south court and featuring a large play terrace, Hamlin described its glass-fronted design as “pleasant” and “delightful.” In addition, a new Moderne-style health center was built directly across from the complex, on Maujer Street.

 

Throughout the development were “social and craft rooms.” These basement spaces were originally used for classes, clubs, and meetings and many were decorated with large colorful murals. In contrast to the majority of WPA murals that were executed in style of social realism, the Williamsburg murals were non-objective. Lescaze favored “abstract and stimulating patterns” and Burgoyne Diller who headed the Federal Art Project, wrote that:

 

The decision to place abstract murals in these rooms [of the Williamsburg Housing Project] was made because the areas were intended to provide a place of relaxation and entertainment . . . The more arbitrary the color, possible when not determined by the description of objects, enables the artist to place an emphasis on its psychological potential to stimulate relaxation.

 

Of twelve murals commissioned, at least five were installed. In the early 1990s, the deteriorated canvases were restored and moved to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. They include works by the American painters Ilya Bolotowsky, Paul Kelpe, and Balcomb Greene.

  

Critical Reception

 

The opening of the Williamsburg Houses was treated as major news and writers used the event to analyze the project and express their own views about the role of public housing and the importance of modern architecture. Some of the earliest comments came from the architect Walter Gropius, former director of the Bauhaus in Germany. On a visit to New York City in April 1937 he was interviewed by H.I. Brock in the New York Times. They traveled together throughout the city, visiting both new skyscrapers and the nearly-complete Brooklyn development. Gropius was impressed and praised the unusual plan, saying that Lescaze:

 

. . . seems to have solved the problem of space and light very successfully and economically, and it has the great advantage of being spread over enough land to make it worthwhile as a sample of planned development.

 

Lewis Mumford was the first critic to publish a substantial review in February 1938. As a persistent advocate for public housing, he used the opportunity to evaluate the “outlines of the new order of building.” He praised the PWA for eschewing “overpriced building lots” and instead assembling large sites in quieter areas where streets could be closed to traffic to create gardens and playgrounds. Considerable attention was paid to the slanted orientation. Although he described it as “a bit queer,” he liked the way it separated the residences from the street and that it gave the appearance that the architects were concerned about providing tenants with ample sunlight.

 

Talbot Hamlin published the most-detailed analysis. In this review, he addressed both PWA projects, calling them “a new vision of democracy ... they are better than the most expensive apartments on Park Avenue.” Despite such praise, he expressed mixed feelings. While he found the buildings “fresh and inventive and alive,” he was disturbed by the “shockingly low” standards of construction. He also admired the “imaginative and carefully studied detailing,” but criticized the landscaping as little more than adequate. The WPA Guide to New York City, published in 1939, shared similar views, quoting Hamlin’s review, and praising the design of the individual buildings.

 

In the years since completion, the Williamsburg Houses have been a frequent subject for architectural historians. Many, starting with the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, have placed the development within the context of European modernism. In an exhibition celebrating the museum’s 10th anniversary and the opening of its new building, it was the only architectural work represented that was located in New York City. In a brief essay on housing, the curators highlighted the “triple-size superblocks,” that form an “oasis of open space,” but criticized the adjoining school building as a lost opportunity to create a “truly important work.” Photographs of the complex were also included in Forms and Functions of Twentieth-Century Architecture (1952), in sections devoted to city planning and concrete construction.

 

G. Holmes Perkins wrote in the city planning section that despite faults, the complex “may be held up as patterns for tomorrow.” Richard Pommer, in one of the most insightful discussions of Depression-era housing in the United States, criticized the angled plan, calling Lescaze a “versatile pasticheur” who used visual effects without logic or relation to function. Robert A. M. Stern shared this view, writing in 1980 that it “seems overrated.” Richard Plunz, in A History of Housing in New York City, credited the project as the start of a “brief but intense struggle” to determine the aesthetic direction government-built housing would take. All four editions of the AIA Guide to New York City have praised the Williamsburg Houses. The 1968 edition called it a “very successful solution to the problem of low-rent subsidized housing,” and in 2000 “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

 

Subsequent History

 

Conveyed by the federal government to the NYCHA in 1957, the Williamsburg Houses continue to serve their original purpose, housing more than three thousand New Yorkers. Major alterations were first proposed in 1980 and significant work took place during 1985-91. At this time, the original casement windows were replaced with bronze-colored aluminum sash and the blue terra cotta that surrounded the entrances, with tan “Morocco” glazed brick.

 

In a remarkable turnaround, during the mid1990s, the facades were restored. What began as continued maintenance, soon evolved into a major architectural project, requiring an outside contractor and consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Under the supervision of Neil Cohen of the NYCHA, the elevations were completely reskinned, the parapets replaced, as well as the chimneys, railings, and terra-cotta banding. In addition, new canopies, doors, lighting fixtures, and signage were fabricated.

 

The approximately $70 million project was executed with great sensitivity; there was an article in the real estate section of the New York Times and the NYCHA was the recipient of the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy (1999), which praised the participants for restoring the complex to “better-than-new condition.” Restoration of the storefronts, except along Bushwick Avenue, was completed in 2002.

 

The high standards set by the design of the Williamsburg Houses have rarely been matched. Innovative in terms of scale, plan, and aesthetics, it remains one of the most pleasant and architecturally-distinguished housing developments in New York City.

 

Description

 

There are twenty walk-up buildings in the 23.3acre Williamsburg complex and a total of 1,620 apartments. These buildings are numbered from 1 to 20 and each entrance has its own street address, for instance, “112 Maujer Street.” Stainless steel signs, with pin-mounted numbers and letters, identify each entrance.

 

The site extends four blocks east to west, from Bushwick Avenue to Leonard Street, and three blocks north to south, from Maujer to Scholes Streets. The principal north-south artery is Graham Avenue. Between Maujer and Scholes Streets, Ten Eyck Street and Stagg Street are closed to vehicles. These winding east-west paths are called Ten Eyck Walk and Stagg Walk. They are identified by large pin-mounted stainless steel letters attached to the building facades and are visible along the north-south streets. Throughout the complex are wall-mounted cantilevered lighting fixtures. These glass and aluminum fixtures are reproductions of the originals.

 

Three of the four blocks have a tree-shaded open space at center. At present, non-historic benches, play equipment, and basketball courts are located here. Most lawns are enclosed by low iron fences. Though not original, these fences pre-date the 1990s. Pole-mounted lighting fixtures are occasionally used to illuminate these areas.

 

All buildings materials are non-historic. Each structure is four stories tall and clad in ochre-colored brick. Exterior concrete spandrel beams are exposed at each floor. To disguise patches to the concrete, the beams are coated with a grey-colored water repellency finish. The entrances are flanked by blue structural glazed facing tiles that are approximately 12 by 12 inches. Blue mortar was used to minimize the joint lines. A canopy projects in front of each entrance (except on one side of the breezeways). Made of stainless steel, they incorporate recessed down lights. Some canopies are supported by a single pipe column. The entrance doors and sidelights are made of stainless steel.

 

Each door has a grid of four small square windows. Breezeways serve a dual purpose: reached by two sets of stairs, they provide an additional north-south passage, as well as entry to apartments. Most of the stairs are flanked by stainless steel railings. The bronze anodized aluminum windows, installed in the 1980s, are all one-over-one. Arranged as single windows or in pairs, they have concrete sills and meet the concrete spandrels above. The smaller windows light the bathrooms. Single windows and pairs are located where the facades meet, often creating triple-width openings at the cantilevered corners.

 

There are three general building configurations. All are original to the complex. They include eight buildings with “H” shaped floor plans, six with floor plans that suggest a small letter “h,” and six buildings with “T” shaped floor plans. While the “H” and “h” types alternate along Maujer and Scholes Streets (except next to the school where both are “H” shaped), the “T” shaped buildings are located only between Ten Eyck Walk and Stagg Walk.

 

- From the 2003 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report