Sunnyside Gardens residents came out in full force to urge the Landmarks Preservation Commission to vote against a proposal to place a historic aluminum house in their neighborhood and build eight residential units on the remaining space. The hearing was held on the ninth floor of the Manhattan Municipal Building at 1 Centre Street, near City Hall.
The all-brick community of Sunnyside Gardens received landmark designation in 2007, which means that homeowners cannot change the facades of their homes, build fences, or compromise the continuity of the existing architecture.
Following a presentation by architects Michael Schwarting and Frances Campani about their plan to bring the Aluminaire House, a New York state landmark built by Lawrence Kocher and Albert Frey to the former Phipps playground lot on the corner of 39th Avenue and 50th Street, residents stood before the commission and denounced the plan as “out of character.”
Schwarting contends that the Aluminaire House was built contemporaneously with Sunnyside Gardens and the nearby Phipps Garden Apartment complex and that the goal of the neighborhood’s architects, Clarence Stein, Henry Wright and Marjorie Cautley, goal to provide quality housing at minimum cost was similar to Kocher and Frey’s idea of creating a replicable metal model. Both Sunnyside Gardens and the Aluminaire House were represented at a MoMA exhibition in 1931.
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) spoke first and called the Aluminaire House “simply inappropriate for Sunnyside Gardens.”
“The Empire State Building was also constructed in 1931 and it would be no more appropriate than the Aluminaire House,” Van Bramer continued. “To compare that house to my house is historically inaccurate.”
He said that more than 350 people have contacted his office to oppose the development, while a mere five expressed support. However, Van Bramer added that Dutch Kills, which also lies within his district, would be eager to host the Aluminaire House and that he would be happy to work with the architects to find a new home for the house.
“This community fought very hard for this designation to prevent development like this,” State Sen Mike Gianaris (D-Astoria) said. “This is not the place for this.”
Assemblywoman Margaret Markey (D-Maspeth) strongly opposed the Aluminaire House and said that it would have “a detrimental effect” on the neighborhood if it is approved.
Joe Conley, the chairman of Community Board 2, which opposed the plan, said the project would be an “unfair imposition on the community.”
Community members’ objections to the Aluminaire House included concerns about safety, as many old trees fell down during Hurricane Sandy, and vandalism, since the house will be uninhabited.
Lisa Deller, chair of CB 2’s land use committee, said the board does not believe the proposal is sufficiently capitalized and that it will not be sustainable in the long run. “The community will be stuck with an albatross,” she said.
The proposal involves operating the house as a museum, which will be open by appointment a few times a year. The house contains three stories and a garage, which will contain an exhibit about the house’s history, Schwarting said.
A troupe of architects and professors supported the proposal, reiterating Schwarting and Campani’s claims about the historical significance of the Aluminaire House, which was included in “The International Style,” an influencial book by Philip Johnson and Henry Russell-Hitchcock.
Lori Kellner, a professor at the New York Institute of Technology, described the proposal as “nothing short of genius,” and that situating the Aluminaire House in Sunnyside Gardens will enable it to serve as an “important venue for educating people about the history of affordable housing in New York City.”
The lot on the corner of 39th Avenue and 50th Street has been locked for more than six years, but still contains playground structures from a previous era, when it served as a daycare center for the children of the Phipps Garden Apartment complex.
Herbert Reynolds presented posters of the playground full of children and parents.
“The development proposal would destroy the historic Phipps playground and install buildings that are entirely out of keeping with the design, materials, massing — and most of all, the sense of place that makes Sunnyside Gardens the most visually consistent, large historic district in our city,” Reynold said.
Darren Kazemi, a member of the Cautley Garden group, which seeks to acquire the lot for public use as a community garden, opposes the development plan.
Kazemi described the lot’s original structures and mature trees as “simple, charming and reflective of the opportunity to serve the community.”
Most residents began their speeches by stating the proximity of their homes to the site and the length of time they’ve lived in Sunnyside. Some longtime community members, including William Eichhorn and Gerald Perrin, even recalled playing there as children.
“I’d hate to see this Aluminaire monstrosity there,” Eichhorn said. “I’m definitely against it.”
Steven Cooper, a Sunnyside Gardens resident, agreed that the Aluminaire House is “a distinctive piece of architecture,” but noted that it was “rejected by society and never utilized.”
Doris Keehan also said “not in my backyard” and posed a question to the architects who spoke in favor of the proposal: “how would you like it if someone came and said we’re dropping a house in your neighborhood?”
Many more residents who were opposed to the proposal had signed up to speak, but the hearing began an hour late and ran long, since so many people signed up.
LPC Chairman Robert Tierney said the commissioners will take as long as they need to deliberate on the proposal and make a decision.