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Sweet Home for Adjaye on Harlem's Sugar Hill
Construction set for the London architect's affordable housing and museum combo in historic Harlem neighborhood
While strikingly contemporary, the project nods to the surrounding terra-cotta rowhouses with its etched, slate-purple concrete cladding.
Courtesy BHC

If designing the African American Museum of History and Culture on the Washington Mall has brought national prestige to London-based architect David Adjaye, the more recent commission to design a new type of low-income housing for Harlem that incorporates a children’s museum, among other community-aimed offerings, will attract equal parts admiration and appreciation.

Last month, the City Council unanimously approved the rezoning of the site—located on a high bluff at the northern edge of Sugar Hill, a landmarked district associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s—from commercial to residential use, clearing the way for the $70 million plan to create 124 units of affordable housing within a 13-story building at 404-414 West 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. A period garage with terra-cotta detailing will need to be demolished, but that does not appear to be unleashing preservationists’ protest, as the new project is so clearly needed to give the economically-stressed area a boost. The developer has also promised to photographically record anything of historical interest.

Broadway Housing Communities (BHC), a nonprofit developer of supportive housing with a long track record for serving the neediest in Washington Heights and West Harlem, found a forward-thinking partner in Adjaye, whose career-long experience with innovative design programs is evident in his “Idea Store” libraries in London. With a brief to design something modern but complementary to the surrounding Gothic revival rowhouses, Adjaye presented a dark slab above a 76-foot glass-and-terrazzo base that steps back to create a ten-foot terrace and cantilever on opposite sides. Saw-toothed fenestration fans across both facades in oblique reference to the bay windows common in the area, but also provides views of the Hudson River and the new Yankee Stadium. The concrete cladding, tinted a dark slate-purple, will be etched with a rose pattern pre-cast in concrete panels.

“David took the idea from the terra-cotta buildings in the neighborhood,” said Saky Yakas, the partner in charge at SLCE Architects, the project’s architect of record. “Quite a few neighborhood buildings have various plant and sunflower motifs decorating them. He wanted to relate to them.” The apartment units will accommodate 51 single adults and 73 families with a range of economic needs, from homeless individuals to those earning near median income for the area.

The building base houses the 18,036-square-foot Faith Ringgold Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling, named for and initiated by the distinguished artist and Sugar Hill native Faith Ringgold, known for her storytelling quilts. The museum’s ground-floor interactive exhibition and performance spaces are by Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership; a 12,196-square-foot daycare center and offices for BHC are on the second floor, while terraces open up on the third and ninth floors and the roof.

To allow for a safer experience for children, residents, and community visitors entering from the steep and busy St. Nicholas Avenue, BHC exchanged easements with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, the adjacent property owner, to allow for an outdoor plaza with hardscaping that will indicate in stone where the Old Croton Aqueduct still lies below. With the rezoning passed and the design complete, BHC expects to break ground on the project by the beginning of next year and complete it by 2012.

Julie V. Iovine