E-BULLETIN:Aluminaire House Testimony
E-BULLETIN OF THE HISTORIC DISTRICTS COUNCIL
October 2013, Volume 10, Number 4
Full testimony for the Aluminaire House Proposal
On Tuesday October 15th the Landmarks Preservation Commission will hold a public hearing regarding a proposal to add the Aluminaire House to the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District, along with new residential buildings which are designed by architects Michael Schwarting and Frances Campani. To view images of the proposal click here. All are welcome to testify at 3pm at the Municipal Building, 1 Centre Street, 9th floor, Manhattan. Testimony can also be submitted to the LPC at firstname.lastname@example.org. Below is the testimony of the Historic Districts Council.
Keep up with all of HDCs testimony by going to http://hdc.org/category/hdclpc
CERTIFICATE OF APPROPRIATENESS
BOROUGH OF Queens
145204- Block 129, lot 30-
39th Avenue & 50th Street – Sunnyside Gardens Historic District
A playground with a one story building and pavilion. Application is to relocate an existing building to the site and construct new buildings.
The Historic Districts Council is the advocate for New York City’s designated historic districts and neighborhoods meriting preservation. Its Public Review Committee monitors proposed changes within historic districts and changes to individual landmarks and has reviewed the application now before the Commission.
HDC has worked closely with the Sunnyside Gardens community since 2004. We have deep concerns about this project. It proposes to move an existing building into a designated historic district, something which has never been done to our knowledge, as well as construct new buildings on a site which was historically a playground. This plan raises a number of issues, but the focus needs to be on whether it is appropriate for the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District.
- 1. Moving the Aluminaire House to the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District
If the appropriateness of rebuilding the Aluminaire House was judged by the standards of new construction in an historic district, which is essentially what is happening – especially considering the likely amount of new replacement materials the building would require – it would fail. The building does not relate to the district through its materials, massing or design, all factors the Landmark Preservation Commission regularly considers and discusses to great lengths. For example, the garage is a prominent piece of the Aluminaire’s design. Sunnyside Gardens, which does not even have curb cuts, is obviously designed for a less auto-centric way of life. Also, while the Aluminaire was radical for its use of metal, Sunnyside Gardens used traditional brick to soften its innovativeness. As the designation report notes, “Stein and Wright did not want the architecture to appear revolutionary since so many other ideas they were introducing were more unusual.” Typically there are a number of iterations of a design for a new building before it is actually approved for inclusion in an historic district. The Aluminaire House, with a distinctive, historic design that one would not want to alter, does not provide the opportunity to be changed to be more in context with the district.
Appropriate new construction also has a chance to grow historically with its district – it is a clean slate with no prior history. The Aluminaire House brings its own history, an interesting one that reflects some of the issues Sunnyside Gardens dealt with, but a different one. In a place like Sunnyside Gardens where the story, like its architecture, is so unified and so specific unto itself, throwing in another story, intellectually and physically, muddies the original historic district. This is not an historic district that developed over time and contains buildings from different eras in a variety of styles. Sunnyside Gardens is a complete realization of a single visionary plan. Additionally, whatever the theories behind the Aluminaire House may be, the residents of the Gardens will have to live with the building, not the ideas. This is not an academic dissertation or hypothetical concept going onto this corner of the district, it is a building, a building that does not visually fit in the unified, cohesive architectural milieu of the historic district.
The ties between the Aluminaire House and Sunnyside Gardens are not as tight as the proposal implies. The Aluminaire is basically an exhibition piece. It never functioned as an actual residence in contrast to Sunnyside Gardens buildings which have served as homes for generations. The Aluminaire was designed by two architects specifically for an exhibition. Sunnyside Gardens was the practical outgrowth of the work of the Regional Planning Association of America, a diverse, reform-minded group that included architects Charles Stein, Henry Wright, and Frederick Ackerman, critic Lewis Mumford, and landscape designer Marjory Cautley. No Aluminaire developments were ever built or, it seems, ever even seriously proposed. Sunnyside Gardens, on the other hand, is internationally known as a very successful planned community and has inspired others. Sunnyside Gardens and Aluminaire may have both been featured in a museum exhibition, but so were many other buildings. That does not mean they should all be moved to this district. After all, our historic districts are not meant to be museums.
Speaking of museums. . . While the idea of the Aluminaire House Foundation opening the building as a museum is interesting, it is merely an idea, not a viable plan. As the constant and very real struggles of historic house museums nationally and in New York City show, retrofitting and running a house as a museum is by no means simple. Look at the problems which the Latimer House, the Bowne House or the Lott House all face – and they are all of much broader interest than the Aluminaire and have more space for programming as well as long-time institutional and municipal support behind them. The visual and historical intrusion of reconstructing this house here is unlikely to benefit the surrounding community in the future. It is our understanding that other institutions have recently reached out to the Foundation with possible locations for the Aluminaire, locations that have resources such as facility crews and security to care for it. Those who are concerned about the fate of the house should investigate these offers to find the best location for it.
- 2. New Construction
The new construction proposed to flank the Aluminaire House is far more related to the relocated structure than the actual historic district. The use of the terra cotta rain screens, rather than bridging between the aluminum house and the landmarked brick buildings as the applicant has suggested, only introduces yet another new material to the district. The rooftop terraces and pergola are not seen elsewhere in Sunnyside Gardens, and neither are the inset balconies. The deeply recessed entrance areas, oddly configured with three doors (the central one on a tall stoop), would also be an unusual feature here.
Again, debates on this proposal should not focus the fate of the Aluminaire House, but the fate of the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District. The Commission not only has purview over the district, it has the responsibility to preserve what is arguably the most intact historic planned community in the city and the nation.