The dedication of the United States’ first government social housing project took place on a chilly winter day in December 1935. It was a monumental occasion for the city of New York as well as the entire nation. New Yorkers packed the streets around the electrical radio hookup to hear the first lady, Mrs. Roosevelt, read her husband’s remarks about the housing project followed by her own praises to all the people that made the project a possibility. Among other speakers were Governor Lehman, Mayor LaGuardia and Housing and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses.1 The “First Houses” was the first New York Housing Authority project and an experimental exploration into social housing policy and architectural design.
The innovative architectural planning method called for the demolition of every third tenement house on the block along E 3rd Street and Avenue A. This allowed for air and light to reach into the inner spaces of the block. The addition of a park space in the center of the block added greenery and public spaces for the residents and their children. This was in response to the tightly packed tenement houses that plagued the lower east side of New York. In addition, a nursery on the ground floor offered subsidized child care and employing local residences.
“First Houses” would then repair the remaining groupings of tenement houses with windows on all four sides as well as in-unit bathrooms, which was an unheard-of luxury for lower income families in New York city. The poor conditions of the tenement house caused the remaining groupings of buildings to be deemed unsafe. This caused the buildings along 3rd Street to be torn down and rebuilt into five new buildings. Frederick L. Ackerman, the lead architect, proposed the reuse of brick and other building material to offset the cost of the new construction.2 This decision was a product of the time as building materials were scarce during the Great Depression; never the less, the cradle to cradle practice allowed the project to continue and become a success. The reuse of materials did not offset the whole cost of the project as it was completed behind schedule and over budget. The cost of the project caused the NYCHA to put tighter restrictions on future social housing projects and underwent other governmental oversights. The successes of “First Houses” far overshadow any faults as the project has been continually sighted as one of the best practices for social housing, community building, and slum regeneration. 3
“First Houses” received over four thousand applicants for the 122 apartments. The chosen families were selected based off need, location within the city, and family size. Of the 122 chosen applicants, all lived and worked in the East Side and six of the families were previous residents of the site.
Open Space & Building Separation
During the 1930’s tenement houses composed the majority of or lower Manhattan blocks. Tenement houses were single family homes divided into tightly packed apartments. Most of the apartments did not have access to adequate plumbing, electrical lighting, and windows. The lack of building and code oversite made tenement houses extremely dangerous and prone to fires. Despite this fact in the early 1900’s two-thirds of New York City’s population lived in these poor tenement conditions.4 “First Houses” response of removing every third tenement allowed for daylight and air circulation into the center of the block. This allowed for windows to be placed on all four sides of the building thus changing the way units were laid out when compared to the tenement style of living. The dimension of the buildings along 3rd Street closely matched the earlier tenement buildings. However, the deconstruction of the block and the more spacious unit layout reduced the density of the block. It is impossible to determine how many families were displaced by the “First Houses” because of the lack of documentation and regulation of the previous tenement houses. The balance between living standards, unit density, and displacement was almost perfectly achieved at “First House,” which is something that cannot be said for future housing developments.
Ground Floor Retail
One of the most overlooked aspects of the slum renovation projects was access. The public housing projects created had serious issues with accessibility to stores and other commercial programs. Out of the eighty-two projects developed and managed by the New York Housing Authority only nine of them had stores or commercial spaces built in.5 As poor as the tenement house conditions were they normally had ground floor retail or other social programming. Federal legislation banned stores in new developments, and destruction of existing tenement houses meant the loss of the ground floor retail.6 Being the first public housing project created by the NYCHA, rules that applied to later development had not been created allowing more flexibility and experimentation of programming, facilities, and architectural design. This meant “First Houses” were not a typical housing development. It was small scale in comparison to many of the other projects taken on later by the NYCHA. These larger developments formed areas of concentrated poverty and limited access to amenities, which created social housing deserts. “First Houses” did not destroy the urban fabric of the East End. Instead it conformed to the grid and provided ample access to amenities such as corner stores, health clinics, nurseries, and political meeting spaces.
Fig. 2. Lamport, Joe. “Back of First Houses.” Digital image. Hard Times in the Projects. August 20, 2007. Accessed July 5, 2017. http://www.gothamgazette.com/housing/3636-hard-times-in-the-projects.
Fig. 3 Smith, Lindsey . “First Houses.” Digital image. Happy 80th Birthday to America’s ‘First Experiment’ in Public Housing. January 2, 2015. Accessed May 5, 2017. http://bedfordandbowery.com/2015/01/happy-80th-birthday-to-americas-first-experiment-in-public-housing/.