News
10.17.2013
Acrimonious House
Famous prefabricated house at the center of preservation dispute.
Courtesy Frances Campani and Michael Schwarting

Residents of Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, clashed Tuesday with several members of the architecture community at a public hearing at the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Their gripe centered around a plan to move the celebrated Aluminaire House to a former playground as part of a development that would also include a two-story residential building.

Developer Harry Otterman, who purchased the quarter-acre property six years ago, told the commission that the project shares the same mission as the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District, “to create quality housing for low-cost.” The Aluminaire House, to be resurrected by architects Frances Campani and Michael Schwarting, will sit on the corner of the site, flanked by the new 8-unit building. The design for the L-shaped building echoes its aluminum neighbor, while also intending to draw upon the vernacular architecture of the district.

The relocation of this all-metal prefabricated house—the first of its kind in the United States—has sparked an ideological debate, dredging up thorny questions that get to the heart of one of historic preservation’s ongoing quandaries: What does it mean for a building to be contextual? Does it come down to upholding the original intent of the architects and of a design philosophy of a certain era? Or is it about maintaining a specific aesthetic quality, character, and architectural vocabulary of a neighborhood?

For over three hours, both sides stood up and provided testimony. Local government representatives and residents railed against the proposed development and prefab building calling it “inappropriate” for the landmark-designated neighborhood, which is predominantly made up of redbrick row houses.

 

“The Aluminaire House, while very significant and beautiful and historic in its own way, is simply inappropriate for Sunnyside Gardens,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer. “The aluminum and glass materials, and terracotta facades in the town houses do not match the one and two story community brick homes in Sunnyside Gardens. Any development in this location, I believe, should be consistent with the intended character and aesthetic that Sunnyside Gardens was built with.”

Proponents of the development—composed mostly of academics, preservationists, and architects—argued that Sunnyside Gardens would be a fitting home for the Aluminaire House. Several pointed out that while the metal prefab house, designed by architects A. Lawrence Kocher and Albert Frey, might not be in keeping with the existing building typologies in the district, it had been conceived the same year as the planned community, and with a common mission to provide affordable housing to low and moderate income families in a densely populated area.

“The House crosses path with Sunnyside Gardens,” said Michael Schwarting, a professor at New York Institute of Technology and the co-founder of the Aluminaire House Foundation. “Just because it is different doesn’t mean it is inappropriate. It is appropriate because of its scale and meaning.”

Councilman Van Bramer disagrees with this reasoning: “Just because it was built in 1931, it doesn’t mean that it belongs in Sunnyside. The Empire State Building was also built in 1931. You would plop the Empire State Building in Sunnyside.”

 

The Aluminaire House, renowned for its modernist design and populist intent, has been homeless for nearly a year now. The metal and glass prefab structure—made of aluminum, steel, and alloy—was originally built as a prototype to demonstrate how mass production can be employed for the creation of contemporary, yet low-cost housing. It made its first appearance at the Architectural and Allied Arts Exposition in 1931 inside the Grand Central Palace.

Following its early critical success, the Aluminaire House was purchased by architect Wallace K. Harrison, who then moved it to his property in Huntington, New York, to expand and turn into a weekend house. After Harrison’s death in 1981, the building began to deteriorate and was at risk of being demolished. But preservationists waged a campaign to save it, which eventually prompted the new owners to donate it to the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT).

The Aluminaire House, later reconstructed by Shwarting and his students, lived on NYIT’s Central Islip campus for more than twenty years until the university relocated its architecture program, leaving the house alone and unused.

The building has since been dismantled and placed in storage. But Shwarting is hoping that the Aluminaire House will be reconstructed, yet again, on the edge of the historic district in Sunnyside Gardens and operate as a museum, which will be open to the public select times of the year.

“It is a textbook example of ideologies that modernists endorsed in the 1930s,” said Marta Gutman, professor of architecture at The City College of New York, in her testimony. “Bring the Aluminaire House and Sunnyside together as they once were. It will be a benefit to students of housing and the public.”

A gaggle of critics and architects—including Richard Meier, Steven Holl, and Michael Graves—have spoken out in favor of the project. At the hearing, letters of support were read from Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, the Municipal Art Society, Barry Bergdoll, and Andrew Scott Dolkart.

“To marry these two great American architectural achievements at a single site is a brilliant idea, one that will make a prominent corner in Sunnyside Gardens into a veritable pilgrimage site for architectural students, fans, and aficionados. It would be a welcome addition of a landmark to this beautiful Queens neighborhood and a poetic juxtaposition,” wrote Barry Bergdoll, the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art.

But residents say that this development is a blow to the hard-won battle they fought to achieve landmark status for the district a few years ago.

“This seems the total opposite of what we are trying to protect,” said Joseph Conley, chair of community board 2. “It is an unfair imposition on the community.”

Several individuals gave testimony calling for the re-opening of the defunct playground, designed by Marjorie Sewell Cautley, across the way from its former owners, the Phipps Garden Apartments. One resident argued that it was one of the remaining intact playgrounds from the 1930s. The property, however, now belongs to Mr. Otterman.

“The truth is the Aluminaire House is a house in search of a home and it should not be jammed in to a development of town houses in Sunnyside Gardens simply because there is a hole in the ground,” said Van Bramer.

The Landmarks Commission did not come up with a resolution and has yet to reschedule a follow up hearing. For now the Aluminaire House will remain packed up in storage.

Nicole Anderson