Appalled by an aluminum threat to their idyllic brick neighborhood, the Community Board 2 Land Use Committee put a halt to it — for now.
The board convinced the architect and the developer of a proposal to bring a historic aluminum house and a new apartment building to Sunnyside Gardens to withdraw their application from the city Landmark Preservation Commission and postpone the public hearing on the project until September 18. The board said it wanted more time to scrutinize the plan and provide opportunities for public input.
Architects Michael Schwarting and Frances Campani selected the formerly abandoned lot on the corner of 39th Avenue and 50th Street as the perfect site for the all-metal Aluminaire House, a relic from a 1931 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, and a new apartment building, but residents of the all-brick historic district could not be less enthusiastic about the proposal.
About 100 outraged residents crowded into the CB 2 Land Use Committee meeting last Wednesday to oppose the developer’s plan.
The residents brought signs and petitions, but they were not allowed to speak at the meeting. The committee assured them that they will get their chance at the public hearing. Instead, the meeting was devoted to a presentation by Schwarting, a board member of the nonprofit Aluminaire House Foundation, about the history of the house and his rationale for placing it in Sunnyside.
According to Schwarting, Lawrence Kocher and Albert Frey built the three-story Aluminaire House in 1931, for the New York Architectural League exhibition at MoMA. After the show Henry Russel Hitchcock bought it and relocated it to his estate in Huntington, LI where it remained until 1986.
When its new owners planned to demolish it, students from the New York Institute of Technology dismantled it and reassembled the house on the Central Islip campus. Since the campus closed in 2004, the house has sat in a warehouse.
Moving the house to Sunnyside Gardens “would restore the house to its original context,” as Sunnyside Gardens was also built in the 1930s, and “make a positive contribution to the neighborhood,” Schwarting said.
The first floor of the house consists of a porch and a garage, which Schwarting plans to turn into a museum. It would exhibit the history of the house and the surrounding neighborhood. The house, including the upper floors, would be open to the public by appointment. There would be a walkway and garden open to the community.
The lot would also host a residential building with eight units, made of terracotta masonry paneling. It would “mediate between the Aluminaire House and the surrounding community,” Schwarting said.
A committee member seized on his use of the word “mediate” and said that “if the house needs to be mediated, doesn’t that mean it doesn’t belong in the first place?” He continued, “In Sunnyside Gardens all of the houses have the same look. There isn’t a single aluminum building in the area. If you want to put the house in a development where all of the houses are aluminum that’s fine, but we built with brick. Why would we want aluminum? Why should there be one artifact sticking out?”
The board also expressed concerns about security for the house. Schwarting said the house would have an interior alarm system and a 4-foot hedge around the property, but the board said that that was probably insufficient to prevent vandalism.
“I don’t think it’s an attractive house, I don’t think it fits in, and there is not enough security,” one board member said, remarking that she could probably get over a 4-foot hedge.
Herbert Reynolds, the leader of the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance, said that about six neighborhood groups oppose bringing in the Aluminaire House and putting up an apartment building.
“Within 48 hours of sending out the picture from the architect, we got over 100 emails and they were entirely negative,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds noted that the site already hosts historic structures — a 1930s playhouse, bathrooms, pavilion and swing set — from the free day care center for neighborhood children, which operated from the Great Depression to the 1980s. The site is currently fenced in and locked.
Darren Kazemi, a representative of the Cautley Garden Group, which is named after Marjorie Cautley, the architect of Sunnyside Gardens, considers development on the site “contrary to her vision.” Instead, he is organizing for a garden that “is completely open to everyone in the larger neighborhood and provides a place for residents to relax, read and socialize.
“Western Queens really needs green space,” resident Ava Berman concurred.
The neighborhood’s only parks are concrete playgrounds for children or private parks for members only, and Kazemi said the community garden would provide a public alternative.
Kazemi has been organizing for a community garden, which would incorporate the existing day care structures, for several months and said that he hopes to work out a license or lease agreement with the site’s owner.
“The only people who support it are only for it because the lot is abandoned and they want to see what else can be done with it,” Kazemi said. “The situation is that the Aluminaire House acts as a decoy to allow them to build apartment houses.”
Schwarting said that the Norcor Management Corp., which owns the property, plans to build residences on the site regardless, and that bringing in the Aluminaire House would enable the community to retain some green space.
Joseph Conley, the chairman of CB 2, said that they tried to form a community garden a few years ago, but the city was not interested and sold the property to Norcor.
Despite the project’s lackluster reception, Schwarting said that he “still believes that this is a very good site” and that the architecture firm is “continuting to try to put the project together in the best possible way.”
He said that since the meeting some people have approached him and told him that they support the project.
“We don’t think that having a different material is so problematic as a number of people in the community did,” Schwarting said. “We’re hoping that people will look at it a little more carefully.”