Parkchester Apartments

In 1942, a new housing complex was completed in the East Bronx.[1] Fifty-one new buildings with over 12,000 apartments made room for 40,000 people to live on just 129 acres,[2] while still allowing for ample open space.  The complex was called ‘Parkchester.’  The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company funded the project in hopes of bettering American living conditions.  A nationwide movement for affordable housing was growing, and there was a wealth of new ideas about what it meant to build a city.  With revolutionary concepts and new-found public enthusiasm for architecture and urban design in the 1940s, New Yorkers were able to start a trend toward greater affordable urban housing.  Parkchester was one of the groundbreaking projects in this process.

Parkchester’s 12,262 apartments, with over 12,000 Frigidaire refrigerators,[3] 97,300 doors, and 60,000 windows were in 51 different buildings, built with 110 million bricks, and 120 million pounds of structural steel.[4] When the kitchen cabinets were ordered for the complex’s kitchens, it was the largest order of kitchen cabinets ever placed in the history of the nation.[5] Buildings ranged from eight to twelve stories high (roughly half were eight stories), built of red brick.  Parkchester was the largest integral housing project ever to be planned and built in the U.S. up to that time.  Parkchester had its own 2,000 seat movie theater, the very first branch of Macy’s department store, a drug store, supermarkets, bars, hotels, delis, and much more.[6] It took three years and $50 million to build[7] – making it the second most valuable property New York (second only to Rockefeller Center).[8]

The hope for Parkchester was that it could provide high quality housing that would be affordable to middle-income New Yorkers.  The apartments rented for about $12 per room per month.  While rent for a Parkchester apartment was not as low as the U.S. Housing Authority’s subsidized “low rent housing,” Parkchester was still quite inexpensive for the area.  For a nearby modern six-story apartment which might be comparable to Parkchester apartments, rent could be expected to be between $18 and $28 dollars per room per month.[9] And Parkchester apartments were spacious — almost comparable to privately owned homes in the area[10] – ranging from 577 square feet for one bedroom to 967 square feet for three bedrooms.[11]

In the late 1930s and early 1940s when Parkchester was being planned and built, there was a greater movement going on, working for the creation of affordable housing across the country. During the Great Depression, Americans were struggling with their finances: incomes were falling, and people had trouble making their housing payments.  Foreclosures and housing debt soared;[12] at the start of 1934, “approximately one-half of urban housing with an outstanding mortgage was in default.”[13] The government stepped in and created a series of agencies to manage these mortgage and affordability issues.  Some provided refinancing for distressed mortgages, others offered mortgage insurance, created reserve credit for home financing institutions, and much more.[14] But most important for the advancement of affordable public housing was the U.S. Housing Act of 1937, which created federal subsidies for local governments to fund housing projects.[15] The aim of the bill was to free the lower classes from “unsafe and unsanitary housing conditions and [relieve] the acute shortage of decent, safe and sanitary dwellings for families whose income is so low that they cannot afford adequate privately owned dwellings.”[16] Two years after the bill was passed, there were already twenty public housing projects being built across the nation by the government.  This was a huge relief to middle and low-income families.  When these housing projects were completed, rents were turning out even lower than predicted;[17] the projects were providing a real, viable alternative to the slums that many families had previously been relegated to.

But New York City is unique.  The costs involved in building housing in New York “would prevent private enterprise from producing adequate urban middle-class housing,”[18] so the job of providing affordable housing to low and middle-income New Yorkers would be left almost entirely up to government funding – for a city with nearly seven million people[19] which had been plagued with housing shortages since World War I,[20] that was expecting a lot.  A few years earlier, New York law-makers had tried to stimulate private investment in mass housing, and realized that life insurance companies were perhaps the largest holders of capital.  Laws prohibited life insurance companies from investing in real estate because it was thought to be a risky investment, but in 1926 there was a temporary change in state insurance code which attempted to draw capital from private companies to build large-scale housing, by using incentives like tax-exemption. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company responded by building a housing complex in Queens, and called it ‘Metropolitan Houses’.  They invested $7.5 million, and the five-story walkups were 100% tenanted upon their completion.[21] The project was a huge success.  The 1926 New York State Housing law expired after a few years, taking the tax-exemption and other enticements away, but in 1928, Louis Pinks encouraged again the idea of tapping into life insurance companies’ capital in a book that he wrote.   He argued that affordable housing could be a “’safe and useful field for investment’” for life insurance companies, while also helping create viable living spaces for workers.[22] In 1938 when the New York State Insurance Code was temporarily changed again, allowing life insurance companies to invest up to ten percent of their assets directly in real estate and moderate-rental housing projects, Metropolitan Life and other huge insurance companies leapt at the chance to build more housing for New Yorkers, even without the promise of tax-exemption.[23]

In 1939, Metropolitan Life Insurance was the second biggest company in existence (second to American Telephone & Telegraph);[24] it supplied life insurance to 29 million people – equivalent at the time to one out of every three people in the urban United States.[25] Met Life held more than $5 billion in assets, and accumulated $200 million more each year.  Its competitors, Prudential and New York Life Insurance, took on millions of dollars in Federal Housing Authority mortgages, but Met Life chose not to.  Met Life preferred direct investment, “wherein it may know first-hand the allocation of every dollar, may even take a hand in the allocation.”  The company’s success with its housing project in Queens ten years prior had “crystallized the Met’s convictions as to the wisdom of direct housing investment.”[26] Building a housing complex was a good way for life insurance companies to diversify their assets, which grew exponentially each year, and also provided a kind of public service to the city. When the state began considering another insurance law modification, Met Life announced that it was “prepared to invest $100 million if and when permitted,” in order to encourage the bill’s passage.[27]

Met Life organized a Board of Design to devise the plan for Parkchester.  Met Chairman Frederick H. Eckers wanted to make sure that the project was handled by a “coordinated group of experts.”  Thus, he hired the architects Streve and Clavan, and the builders, Starrett Bros. who had worked with Eckers to build the Empire State building only nine years earlier. Also included were town planners, and the former secretary of the New York State Board of Housing.[28] With such talented planners, Met Life was sure to do something great with their 129 acres.

Upon these 129 acres, Ecker and his team built 51 geometrically-shaped apartment buildings spread across the plot in a somewhat haphazard pattern,[29] each building with a unique design, and with much open space surrounding.  Parkchester was completely self-contained,[30] charged low rents, and cut “a fat chunk out of the housing market’s $1,800 to $4,500 income group.”[31]

Instead of the classic tenement style that covered the Lower East Side, featuring six-storied, continuous block-long structures, Parkchester followed the ‘tower in a park’ model. By building vertically rather than horizontally, architects Shreve, Lamb and Harmon were able to use only one-quarter of the 129 acres for buildings – that left the rest for open space!  A baseball field, basketball courts, tetherball courts, and more than twenty playgrounds[32] filled the 66.6 acres that remained after buildings and pathways were created.  There was a real emphasis on openness; “in all, about 73 percent of the 129 acre site is open.”  Light and air were priorities, and buildings were no closer than sixty feet from one another, to limit noise. [33] In this open space, Met Life planted more than 4,000 oak, sycamore and maple trees, spending $300,000 of their budget on landscaping.[34] Residents appreciated this, noting years later that “the buildings here are not crowded together…but stand apart and let the sun shine through. There are views of sky and trees and shrubs from the windows.”[35]

Two through-streets cut across the complex, “landscaped to rival the paseos of Buenos Aires, curv[ing] through the town and divid[ing] it into irregular quadrants.”[36] These quadrants –North, South, East and West — are how residents describe the neighborhoods in which they live.  Because these two boulevards are the only two through-streets, there is virtually no automobile traffic; Parkchester is veined instead with a vast series of pedestrian walkways, leaving kids free to run around on their own without the danger of traffic.  In the center of the complex is the “Metropolitan Oval” – the largest of the complex’s parks, at 2.5 acres.  It has a great pool with fountains, brass sculptures, swaths of flowers, and many, many trees.[37]

In the center of each quadrant of Parkchester was a large open area, used for organized recreation and landscaped lawns, with the taller of the apartment buildings clustered around this space (to ensure that the shadows of the taller buildings would not block sunlight from other apartments) and around the corners of the site, for emphasis. Buildings had varying heights and varying designs for visual interest.[38] The whole complex was designed using a modular unit system, which made building quicker and more economical. Three different ‘core’ designs could be combined any of five different ‘wing’ designs, to make nearly endless combinations of building forms.   ‘Core’ structures had all of the necessary services for an apartment building: staircases, elevators, trash chutes, ventilation, as well as the apartments’ kitchens, and foyers.  Then the wing designs were added onto the core – wings have living rooms, bedrooms, and other living spaces, and come in a variety of layouts.  “Due to the many different combinations of these eight plans into various buildings, Parkchester’s fifty-one standardized buildings display marked dissimilarity.”[39]

On the exterior, the buildings were given a “simple, frank expression.”  They were built of red brick, lightly ornamented with terra cotta figures on the corners, and carvings over entrance ways.  These occasional accents enliven the bland brick, making it seem friendly, but not formal.  “The whole place stands as a crucial reminder that it is possible to build housing on a mass scale and not lose touch with what we like to call human values.” 

Ecker and his team wanted to provide the highest quality living space for the lowest possible rent, and thus also the lowest possible building cost.  The design team made a concerted effort to design buildings that would be efficient and economical to build.  By designing square and rectangular buildings, which create the most interior shape with the smallest perimeters, Parkchester’s designers cut material costs.[40] All of the bathrooms are identical, saving money by buying tile, caulking, toilets et cetera in bulk,[41] and making it easier and faster for plumbers and tilers to install.  Kitchens were built in only three different patterns, designed with a “semicircular form that saves steps for the family’s chef.”[42] Common plumbing stacks were used, and public corridor spaces were minimized. All of these design decisions cut costs — few kitchen designs made buying custom cabinetry and appliances less expensive, common plumbing stacks mean less piping to buy, and smaller corridors mean less un-rentable space to spend money building and furnishing.[43]

But the Board of Design made sure to include household conveniences that residents would appreciate – each bedroom got a large closet, each apartment entrance has a coat closet, and a broom closet is nearby every kitchen.  Most bedrooms have cross ventilation,[44] and “the steel casement windows have an ingenious system that permits the ordinary, or non-acrobatic, housewife to wash the outsides from a safe position inside.”[45] Parkchester apartments have “unusually large rooms” with hardwood floors. So, while some decisions were made to cut costs, the Board did not sacrifice the quality of the living space in order to save money.

Parkchester, along with countless later housing complexes, was influenced heavily by the work of Le Corbusier.  In 1925, the French architect and urbanist proposed his Plan Voisin – a plan to knock down part of the city of Paris, eliminate the narrow, dirty streets and replace them with large park-like open spaces, dotted with cruciform-shaped skyscrapers.  Le Corbusier was a lover of simple geometric form; he believed that “our eyes are made for seeing forms in light. Primary forms are beautiful forms because they are clearly legible.  The architects of today no longer make simple forms,” but using geometric forms in architecture would satisfy our eyes through geometry, and our minds through mathematics.  He was also an advocate of order.  The cities of the world were cramped, crowded, and dark, because they had come about without a plan; “without a plan, there is disorder, arbitrariness.”  By organizing cities on a grid pattern, or on a ‘regulating line,’ greater order could be achieved; “the regulating line is a guarantee against arbitrariness. It brings satisfaction to the mind.” By organizing the city, he posited that one creates a “hierarchy of goals, the classification of intention.”[46]

Le Corbusier visited New York in 1935, and was both enchanted and disgusted by what he saw.  It didn’t take long for him to design a plan for New York — “a Radiant City” for the U.S.  The traits of the Radiant City were not tremendously different from his Plan Voisin for Paris.  He proposed “’great obelisks,’ far apart, so that the city would have space and light and order.”[47] The Radiant City was separated into “discrete zones for working, living and leisure. Above all, everything should be done on a big scale — big buildings, big open spaces, big urban highways.”[48] Skyscrapers would increase the population density of the Radiant City, shorten travel times, and provide for more open space.  For Corbusier, these were vital to the city and to the life of the future.  He believed in “a hitherto unheard-of concentration of population (superdensities), to shorten internal distances, and save time (within each 24-hour sun cycle); to restore the ground-level of the city in its entirety to traffic of all kinds (decongestion); in fact, to create an entirely new relation between the new population densities and the ground surface necessary for efficient traffic systems.” He believed that it was fundamental “for all men, in cities and in farms: sun in the house, sky through their windowpanes, trees to look at as soon as they step outside.”[49] In his designs, Le Corbusier ensured this.

In accordance with this idea of “superdensities,” Le Corbusier was a believer in what he called “mass-production housing.”  He believed that housing was “the problem of the era,” that “the various working classes of society no longer have suitable shelter, neither laborers nor intellectuals.”  He argued that the solution was to apply the knowledge of mass-production and industry, of standardized parts and efficiency, to the housing problem.  In his 1927 book Towards a New Architecture, he wrote that if we could only change our states of mind, to accept a different sort of housing, that we could solve the housing problem quickly with architecture. He designed his urban plans to

“bring decent living conditions and a light-filled atmosphere to places where everything at the moment is rottenness, filth, milling crowds, din, disorder, delay, fatigue, wear and tear, and demoralization. To create the nobility, the grandeur, the serene dignity made possible by suitable proportions. To provide a sublime expression (the mature fruit of machine-age evolution) of this century’s strength. To bring back the sky. To restore a clear vision of things. Air, light, joy.”[50]

While Corbusier’s Plan Voisin was never taken up by Paris, and Americans gave him very little respect at the time, Le Corbusier’s concept was tremendously influential.  Corbusier’s ideas informed Parkchester’s design, and the designs of other mass-housing built in New York in the 1940s; “the modern city would no longer be a hodge-podge of activities; it would be ordered logical, planned….In America, the designers of the public housing projects that were built in almost every major city also adopted Le Corbusier’s vision.”[51]

The chance for Corbusier’s concept to shine came just a few years later, when architecture and urban planning came into vogue in New York in the 1940s.  New ideas about urban planning and new styles of architecture played a sizeable role in the way that Americans envisioned the future, and envisioned what the country would become after the war.  Reflecting this surge in interest, the 1939 World’s Fair put particular emphasis on architecture and its creation of the ‘City of the Future.’  One of the Fair’s trademark structures, the “Perisphere,” was an enormous spherical building 180 feet in diameter, which fair visitors could enter through an outdoor escalator.[52] When they arrived inside, they saw ‘Democracity’ – a diorama made by Henry Dreyfuss, which “displayed a futuristic utopian ‘city’ visible from a movable sidewalk parading onlookers through.”[53] Democracity predicted what American cities would look like in the year 2039; “a perfectly integrated garden city of tomorrow” built next to a river, powered by hydroelectrics, without congestion or pollution.  Democracity integrated industry into the city to minimize commute time, and showed a clean, open, organized city.[54] General Motors’ pavilion offered competition for Democracity.  General Motors built a 35,000 square foot scale model called ‘Futurama,’ depicting GM’s prescription for the American city of 1960.[55] GM’s exhibit was heavily influenced by Le Corbusier; “the model showed an urbanized landscape that included cities with extremely tall skyscrapers, elevated walkways, and underground parking garages. This was in many ways an adaptation of the Voisin Plan, but [General Motors’] vision of the urban future was far more expansive than Le Corbusier’s.”[56] Futurama was the largest scale model ever made, with 50,000 buildings, many of which were skyscrapers.[57] Futurama and Democracity were the most popular exhibits at the fair – clearly New Yorkers were fascinated by the urban design concepts.  ConEd, the supplier of New York’s electricity, also built an exhibit centered around architecture – the “Consolidated Edison City of Lights” was the world’s largest diorama, filling an entire city block with replicas of New York’s buildings, complete with working elevators, lights, and subway cars.[58] It was at this same fair that the model of Parkchester was first introduced to the public; it was nowhere near the scale of those shown in the other pavilions, at only six feet wide by seven feet long, but this was a model of something that was not a dream, nor a prediction, but a plan to be implemented.[59] The World’s Fair represented an opportunity to showcase the latest science, cultural, and technological trends; that the 1939 New York Fair emphasized architecture and urban design so heavily shows how much of a presence it had in the minds and imaginations of Americans at the time.

This was not just a fad in popular culture — even New York’s intelligencia was attracted to the possibilities and the promise that architecture held.  Architecture and large-scale urban design appeared in a variety of the film and fiction of the era.  New York’s most prominent architecture was highlighted in Stanley Donen’s “On the Town,” which was filmed on site and showcased many of New York’s sights.  Architects were primary characters in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, and Lionel Trilling’s Middle of the Journey.  In Ann Petry’s The Street, exclusion from new public housing projects (like Parkchester, which unfortunately did not allow African Americans) was a source of resentment and frustration. Ideas about architecture, and about its role in New York was clearly not confined to the World’s Fair, but was fairly embedded in the thought of the times, even effecting the works of artists and intellectuals.

With so many new ideas about architecture and urban design floating around New York, it didn’t take long before a real difference was seen in the landscape.  “Only four years after the World’s Fair closed, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, encouraged by Robert Moses, started to build a series of unusual residential projects in New York City.”[60] Parkchester was a product of all of these forces.  New York had been short on housing for years, and finally everything came together – the government gave public housing the momentum it needed, just as New York insurance law was altered, and companies like Met Life were allowed, and excited, to use their funds to solve the problem.  Meanwhile, Corbusier’s influence was still fresh – his ideology and suggestions for New York apparent in the ‘Radiant City’ were picked up and by American designers, and put to use in a place where real estate was at a premium, and where the population could really benefit from the integration of what Le Corbusier saw as “basic materials of city planning…sun, sky, trees, [and] steel.”  Public support was rallied at the World’s Fair, getting everyone excited about the future of urban design – the city of the future.  With public enthusias, good design, and affordable rents, New Yorkers would move into Parkchester. Families would be freed from the slums and long commute times.  Parkchester was an amalgamation of all of these serendipitous conditions, because the timing was right, because Americans worked hard to push public policy, because met Life was willing to use their funds for a public good, because the city of New York was willing to get together and fight for affordable housing for hardworking New Yorkers.  Parkchester is the beautiful result of all of these things.   The 1940s is remembered as a kind of golden age in New York – a time of musical breakthroughs like the development of bebop, of influential art movements like abstract expressionism, of record levels of employment, and of the achievability of the American dream — thanks, in part, to the success of projects like Parkchester.

 

Anne Calder

New York in the ’40s

Wesleyan University

Spring 2011


[1] Goldberger, Paul. “To Utopia by Bus and Subway.” The New York Times, April 17, 1981.

[2] “Metropolitan’s Parkchester.” The Architectural Forum, December 1939: 413.

[3] The New York Times. “Display Ad 39.” July 16, 1939: 1.

[4] “Metropolitan’s Parkchester,” 414.

[5] The Wall Street Journal. “Republic Unit Receives Large Steel Kitchen Cabinet Order.” September 13, 1939: 3.

[6] Cillia, Hank de. “Parkchester…The Grand Old Neighborhood.” Parkchester: A Residential Community. 1999. http://parkchester.org/History/deCillia.html (accessed April 2011).

[7] The Wall Street Journal. “Metropolitan Life Announces Housing Project Rentals.” September 29, 1939: 5.

[8] Stanton, John. “Town Within the City.” The New York Times, May 11, 1941.

[9] “Metropoloitan’s Parkchester,” 424.

[10] Ibid.

[11] ParkchesterInfo.com — Parkchester Apartment and Condominium Floor Plans and Layout. 2001. http://www.parkchesterinfo.com/rent_an_apartment/new_floor_plans.asp (accessed May 2011).

[12] FHAMortgageCenter.com: History of FHA Loans. 2007. http://www.fhamortgagecenter.com/fha_lending_guide/fha_loan_history.html (accessed April 2011).

[13] Wheelock, David C. “The Federal Response to Home Mortgage Distress: Lessons from the Great Depression.” Federal Reserve bank of St. Louis Review, 2008.

[14] Wheelock.

[15] The American Public wasn’t unaware of the housing problem – in the December 1939 issue of The Architectural Forum, the journal informed its readers that “there are two ways to deal with a controversy—look the other way or jump in.  On a question as vital as Public Housing THE FORUM elects to take the plunge.  Thus, in January will appear a thoroughgoing and, we believe, an objective examination of the USHA program.  Millions of words have been written and spoken on Housing.  In words that add to a few thousand, THE FORUM attempts to clarify major issues and reach some major conclusions.”

“Metropolitan’s Parkchester,” 65.

[16] Committee of the House on the State of the Union, United States Housing Act of 1937, 1937. Washington, DC.

[17] Nathan Straus, Administrator, United States Housing Authority. “Public Housing 1939-1940: An Account and Forecast of the United States Housing Authority’s Activities.” Housing Yearbook, 1940: 147-152.

[18] Henderson, A. Scott. Housing and the Democratic Ideal. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

[19] Campbell Gibson, Population Division of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, Population of the 100 Largest Cities and other Urban Places in the United States: 1790 to 1990, http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0027/twps0027.html.

[20] Henderson.

[21] “Metropolitan’s Parkchester,” 414.

[22] Henderson.

[23]The Wall Street Journal. “Metropolitan Life Announces Housing Project Rentals.” September 29, 1939: 5.

[24] “Metropolitan’s Parkchester,” 414.

[25] Ibid, 413.

[26] Ibid, 414.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Metropolitan’s Parkchester,” 414.

[29] De Cillia

[30] “Display Ad 39”

[31] “Metropolitan’s Parkchester,” 413.

[32] De Cillia

[33] “Metropolitan’s Parkchester,” 419.

[34] Ibid, 413.

[35] Stanton.

[36] Stanton.

[37] “Metropolitan’s Parkchester,” 419.

[38] Ibid, 421.

[39] “Metropolitan’s Parkchester,” 420.

[40] Ibid, 421.

[41] Companies whose products were chosen for use in Parkchester were proud to be chosen – advertisements bragged “They Had GOOD REASONS for selecting 65,800 Fenestra Windows for ‘Parkchester’,” and “World’s No. 1 Refrigerator Chosen for World’s No. 1 Apartment House Development!”  The products selected for the complex were those that would withstand the test of time, “selected only after the most scrutinous research as to initial, installation and maintenance costs.”

“Metropolitan’s Parkchester.”

[42] Stanton.

[43] It also meant more crowded, hot hallways with poor ventilation, and little indoor room to socialize with neighbors.

[44] “Metropolitan’s Parkchester,” 420.

[45] Stanton.

[46] Corbusier, Le. Toward An Architecture. Los Angeles: Getty Research Insitute Publications Program, 2007.

[47] Bacon, Mardges. Le Corbusier in America. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001.

[48] —. The Time 100: Arts & Entertainers — Le Corbusier. June 8, 1998. http://www.time.com/time/time100/artists/profile/lecorbusier3.html (accessed April 2011).

[49] Reichert, Dr. Martin F. Art and the City. Spring 2002. http://www.nyu.edu/classes/reichert/sem/city/lecorbu_img.html (accessed April 2011).

[50] Ibid.

[51] Rybczynski, Witold. Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities. New York: Scribner, 2010.

[52] Snyder, Jon. “1939′s ‘World of Tomorrow’ Shaped Our Today.” Wired.com, April 29, 2010.

[53] Life.com — Future Vision: NY World’s Fair 1939. http://www.life.com/gallery/41782/image/92925469#index/15 (accessed 2011).

[54] Zondy, David. Tales of Future Past: Democracity 2. http://davidszondy.com/future/city/democracity2.htm (accessed April 2011).

[55] Snyder.

[56] Rybczynski.

[57] Snyder.

[58] Life.com — Futre Vision: NY World’s Fair 1939.

[59] The New York Times. “Model of Housing Displayed at Fair.” May 5, 1939: 47.

[60] Rybczynski.

 

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