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Thread: Public Housing Landmarked - Williamsburg Houses

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    Default Public Housing Landmarked - Williamsburg Houses

    July 6, 2003

    A Nod From Landmarks Officials, a Dash of Public Housing Pride


    It was balmy on Tuesday night and breezes slinked through the linked courtyards of the Williamsburg Houses, a sprawling public housing development a half mile into Brooklyn from the Williamsburg Bridge. Standing in a courtyard of Block One, Louis Quinones, 26, gripped an aluminum baseball bat and prepared to swing.

    Fifteen years ago, at the height of New York's crack epidemic, he might have been using the bat to defend himself. But on this night, which was humming with the sound of children riding bikes and playing basketball, he was only demonstrating his home run swing to two friends, Ron Hunter and Kadeidra Honey.

    Conditions at the sprawling Williamsburg Houses, which cover 23 acres, have improved drastically in recent years, sparked in part by a $70 million renovation in the late 1990's.

    Still, Mr. Quinones, who grew up there and has seen its worst times, was amazed to learn that his home is now in an architectural league with such icons as the Chrysler Building and Grand Central Terminal.

    On June 24, the complex was officially designated a city landmark. It is the third public housing development to be so honored, but the other two - First Houses on the Lower East Side and Harlem River Houses - were named mostly for historical reasons. Built in the 1930's, they were New York's first and second such complexes.

    "So we live in a landmark," Mr. Hunter said, looking at his friend.

    "Right," Mr. Quinones replied. "That's crazy."

    Maybe not. When the complex opened in 1938, its design was revolutionary. Rather than follow the emerging public housing pattern of large red-brick apartment houses scattered across lawns, the development was four stories tall, clad in tan brick with decorative blue panels and European Modernist features like doorways sheltered by aluminum marquees.

    The buildings were set at a rakish 15-degree angle to the street grid, a feature designed to sweep fresh air into the courtyards and spill sunlight into the windows of the 1,622 apartments.

    It was unusual, to say the least, to lavish so much care on public housing. William Lescaze, a Swiss-born architect bent on bringing the International Style to the United States, was the chief designer. Richmond H. Shreve, an architect who worked on the Empire State Building, oversaw the project.

    But the innovators saw a pressing need. "The Williamsburg section of Brooklyn is unique in that its slums bear the stamp of dull listlessness and despair," observed a government report from the 1930's.

    Many critics praised the new complex, but by the 60's, the Williamsburg Houses had begun their steep decline. Regard for Modernist architecture also plunged around that time.

    Both have made a comeback.

    "It's an easy one," said Robert B. Tierney, chairman of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission, about the designation.

    Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
    Last edited by Kris; October 4th, 2009 at 11:30 AM.

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