In 1968, the remarkable rediscovery of four wooden houses in Brooklyn by a group of planners from Pratt helped redefine New York City history and reanimate a nearly forgotten legacy of African American independence and self-sufficiency. The houses, then concealed behind other buildings, were remnants of Weeksville, a free black community founded by James Weeks in 1838 shortly after the abolition of slavery in New York State. Then on the fringes of settled Brooklyn, Weeksville became a farming and residential community, which at its height numbered nearly 500 families and lasted into the 1930s. In a still hostile environment, the community was an important foothold for African Americans to gain economic worth and personal dignity. Its legacy faded as new streets and buildings replaced many of the original farms and structures.
Today, thanks to a new building and landscape, that story can be more clearly and legibly told, and its legacy can be reinterpreted as a part of contemporary Brooklyn. Caples Jefferson Architects has created an L-shaped building that frames the historic houses located on the opposite corner of the nearly block-sized site. A large public housing project borders the site on one side. A vacant brutalist hospital building flanks another. This is un-gentrified, densely urban Brooklyn. Yet within the space of the Center, including its rugged, meadow-like garden by Elizabeth Kennedy, a sense of the landscape and atmosphere of the vanished community is recovered—and yet contemporary Brooklyn is still within view. It is a visual and sensory interplay between past and present.
Caples Jefferson has performed an act of architectural archeology, excavating, revealing, and framing history through spatial expression. Their building is unapologetically modern, standing in stark contrast to the tiny vernacular houses across the meadow. Broad and low-slung, the building conveys a sense of institutional gravity, while also being approachable and familiar (it evokes a highly refined version of a midcentury school). Richly textured with Ipe cladding and Vermont slate end walls, with a distinctive angle-cut pattern, the new building announces itself as a serious civic work. A low wall of cut granite edges the site, topped by a rugged custom cast iron fence—each stanchion has comb-like teeth that are rotated and angled diagonally downward, giving the fence a bit of dimension. Passersby can see the houses and garden within, but the fence is substantial enough to provide a strong sense of enclosure.
Visitors enter the building on Buffalo Avenue. A glazed connector space functions as a hallway along the East/West bar of the building, and offers expansive views out to the garden. This bar includes classrooms and a small media center. The North/South bar includes a larger glazed space that functions as an area for events, an enclosed gallery space, and an acoustically designed room for performances and events. The glass ceiling of the connector and the larger glazed hall has a fritted pattern that evokes African textiles, and the metal frame is designed to resemble a basket-weave pattern. These Afro-centric elements are legible but do not feel heavy handed. A small, enclosed garden, which could eventually have seating for a planned café, flanks the space.
These glazed spaces keep visitors visually connected to the site. Unfortunately, they also become uncomfortably hot on sunny days, and will need to be fine-tuned with further shading.
The large garden, which is planted with native species and designed to be low maintenance, is bisected with a diagonal path leading out to the historic houses. For an intensely urban site, the designers have created a space the effectively evokes the settlement’s agrarian past. The historic houses each represent a different era in Weeksville’s history: they are intimately scaled and movingly modest. Behind the houses, the center maintains a market garden, raising vegetables, ducks (for eggs), and honeybees (for honey), for sale to the community, reinforcing Weeksville’s history of self-sufficiency.
The Weeksville Heritage Center is a small organization, which receives funding from a variety of public and non-profit sources. The organization’s financial struggles have been well documented, and it is currently working to prepare the facility for greater public programming. (New York City owns the site, and the Department of Design and Construction built the new facility. The center is the building’s tenant.) The Caples Jefferson-led design team has given the center an exemplary new facility to expand its outreach and promote Weeksville’s important history, which deserves to be better known and preserved in the rapidly changing landscape of Brooklyn.