Lower East Side Siedlung

By Joanna Merwood-Salisbury

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When Sara D. Roosevelt Park opened in
September 1934 it provided a much-needed amenity: a green park and recreation space for the Lower East Side.

It also represented a decisive act on the part of new Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to distance himself from his predecessor, Mayor James J. Walker, and to usher in a new era of civic responsibility in city planning. Acquired by the city three months before the devastating stock market crash of October 1929 and cleared for redevelopment the following summer, the seven blocks between Chrystie, Forsyth Streets, Houston and Canal Streets had been intended not for a park, but for social housing. Examination of housing proposals made for this site between 1930 and 1933, including a radically modern one made by architects Howe and Lescaze, sheds light on plans for the redevelopment of the Lower East Side, on a shift in thinking about social housing from a philanthropic to a public model, and on the role of the Museum of Modern Art in presenting a new architectural aesthetic to an American audience. The blocks between Chrystie and Forsyth Streets were the only open space in a horribly congested neighborhood recognized worldwide for its poor living conditions, and they held enormous allure for city planners, architects, and local businessmen, conjuring up fantasies of both a radically reinvented Lower East Side and a new model of affordable housing for the United States.

Board of Estimate plan for Chrystie-Forsyth Streets, 1929. East Side Chamber News (July 1929).

Board of Estimate plan for Chrystie-Forsyth Streets, 1929. East Side Chamber News (July 1929).

The project for model housing at Chrystie-Forsyth began in 1927 when Manhattan Borough President Julius Miller presented to the Board of Estimate and Apportionment (the government body responsible for budget and land use decisions) a plan to extend Second Avenue southward to connect with the Manhattan Bridge.[1]

In the process he proposed widening Chrystie Street to 100’ and Forsyth Street to 75’. The new traffic arteries were only part of the city’s plan for the site, however. The 125' strip of land that remained between them was to be seized by the City using laws of Excess Condemnation and, “sold…or leased for the construction of model homes.”[2] Few worries were expressed about displacing existing tenants: the population of the area had been in decline since 1900 and the assumption was that they were moving out anyway. On March 31st 1930, one thousand people living in 375 old law tenements in the seven blocks left their homes and businesses for the last time, and the old tenement buildings were demolished soon after.[3]

Chrystie and Forsyth Streets, looking south from Houston Street c. 1931. New York City Municipal Archives.

Chrystie and Forsyth Streets, looking south from Houston Street c. 1931. New York City Municipal Archives.

Land and property owners would probably have been delighted to sell – the price and compensation paid was well above the market value. Tenants may have been satisfied too – they were given six months free rent, prior to being evicted.

Then enormously popular Mayor James J. (Jimmy) Walker endorsed this project as part of a wider effort to enlist the help of philanthropists to build model housing in conjunction with street widening in all the five Boroughs of New York City. These seven blocks had been cleared as part of a larger plan made during the affluent 1920s to redevelop the Lower East Side as a vast residential annex to the nearby financial district.[4] The transformation of the tenement district was to be fostered by a series of civic improvements: the creation of a landscaped East River Drive, the construction of new parks and playgrounds, and the widening of streets for through traffic. Under Walker’s plan, “‘old law’ rookeries” would be replaced with “model housing to rent at prices not to exceed $11 a room.”[5] This was to be a triumphant example of the power of private capital working hand in hand with the city and the State to realize rental housing that was commodious and affordable for its inhabitants and profitable for its developers. Walker’s plan was less an effort at tenement reform, and more one of gentrification, as the new housing on the Lower East Side was intended not for the current residents but for middle income workers looking for accommodation within an easy ten-minute commute to Wall St.

Although the quality of this housing was a big step up from the tenement block, the real estate model was the same one that had been in use since the late-nineteenth century, when wealthy benefactors built so-called “model tenements” under the so-called “philanthropy and five percent” model. These were improved versions of the tenement vernacular built and maintained by private interests, and rented out at affordable rates while providing their owners a modest five percent return.[6] In design they were often based on the perimeter housing popular in England, which provided standard tenement accommodation and an enlarged common space in the middle of the block. When he proposed the construction of social housing at Chrystie-Forsyth, Mayor Walker had two millionaire philanthropists in mind: August Heckscher and John D. Rockefeller Jnr. In 1926 Walker had appointed Heckscher his “special emissary” on the question of housing, and in that capacity Heckscher toured recently built estates in Dusseldorf and Frankfort-am-Main in Germany.[7] On his return to New York Heckscher proposed a plan under which a collective of 500 businessmen, acting as a kind of philanthropic corporation, would finance the demolition of all the old law tenement buildings in the Lower East Side, and their replacement with model housing.[8] Although it required matching finance from the city to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, this plan received enough support from the Mayor that in 1928 it was being called the “Walker-Heckscher plan for slum relief.”

Hecksher saw the clearance of the seven-block Chrystie-Forsyth site as an important first step in the realization of his larger ambitions. The land in question had been acquired by the city only a few months before the stock market crash of 1929, at greatly inflated cost. After the existing tenement buildings were demolished in 1930 the site became a barren wasteland of demolition rubble, a “Hooverville” of shanty houses and bread lines.

Percy Loomis Sperr, Bread line for the unemployed and needy, Grand Street - Chrystie Street, 1931. New York Public Library.

Percy Loomis Sperr, Bread line for the unemployed and needy, Grand Street - Chrystie Street, 1931. New York Public Library.

But although the Depression hampered the development of the site, the desperate economic situation also provided a strong impetus to go ahead with the original plan for model housing, especially now that materials and labor costs were reduced and unemployment was high. Between 1930 and 1933, at least seven proposals were made for the site.[9] In mid-1932 Hecksher commissioned architects Sloan and Robertson to draw up a proposal: a series of 15-story U-shaped towers on five of the blocks, with two left open for parks. This was to be called “Heckscher Center” or “Heckscher City.” [10]

Sloan and Robertson, Housing Development for Chrystie-Forsyth Area, Lower East Side, New York City. Architectural Record (July 1933).

Sloan and Robertson, Housing Development for Chrystie-Forsyth Area, Lower East Side, New York City. Architectural Record (July 1933).

These towers were high-rise versions of the garden apartment. Because of the uneven size of the blocks, the architects added wings to some of their U-shaped towers, creating a mismatch of sheltered and shaded garden courts and exposed open corners.

While the Mayor already had Heckscher on his side, he was also greatly influenced by the work of John D. Rockefeller Jnr., and he hoped to link the Chrystie-Forsyth project to the prestigious Rockefeller name.[11] Like Heckscher, Rockefeller firmly believed that the construction of housing should remain in the hands of the private sector. He had financed half a dozen housing complexes in greater New York City, designed by architect Andrew J. Thomas. When the Mayor enlisted Rockefeller’s support for the Chrystie-Forsyth project, Thomas proposed a series of H-shaped blocks stepping up to the center of the block with garden courts open to both Chrystie and Forsyth Streets.

Andrew J. Thomas, Proposed Chrystie-Forsyth Development, 1933. East Side Chamber News vol. 6 no. 5 (May 1933).

Andrew J. Thomas, Proposed Chrystie-Forsyth Development, 1933. East Side Chamber News vol. 6 no. 5 (May 1933).

As with the Hecksher plan, this was but a fragment of a larger scheme. In 1925 Thomas had drawn up a plan for the entire district between the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges east of the Bowery, made up of an mix of low rise U-shaped units and H-shaped high rise apartment blocks.[12]

Andrew J. Thomas, “Rehabilitation Proposal for the Lower East Side,” c.1925. East Side Chamber News (May 1933).

Andrew J. Thomas, “Rehabilitation Proposal for the Lower East Side,” c.1925. East Side Chamber News (May 1933).

Each of these buildings was set back from the street to varying degrees, creating an undulating green space around the perimeter of each block. Besides these high profile proposals, other projects were drawn up for the site. Some were variations on the perimeter block model that had been dominant since the late-nineteenth-century, where a shared open space is carved out in the middle of the block, and others were adaptations of the garden apartment type that had emerged in the 1920s, a variation on the perimeter block where one side of the shared green space was open to the street.[13]

By the late 1920s these typical New York-style housing models were coming under attack, particularly from curators, academics, and architects associated with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). For critics like architect Henry Wright, aligned with the modern movement in Europe, projects such as those by Hecksher and Rockefeller were the highly compromised result of the legal restraints surrounding housing development in New York City, restraints that severely limited innovation in the design of high-density housing. Wright described the Tenement House Act of 1901 and the 1926 New York State Housing law as binding contemporary architects with, “multitudinous restraints of codes, tenement laws, private restrictions, zoning restrictions and what not,” restricting them from implementing good solutions through attention to what he called the “human aspect.”[14] Under the 1926 law the city was prevented from building housing except on land taken by Excess Condemnation in connection with infrastructural projects. As a result, sites available for development tended to be unsuitable for housing (the design challenge of the Chrystie-Forsyth site, for example, was how to deal with a very long and narrow site with unevenly sized blocks). In addition, the city could not build housing directly. Rather, it was obliged to sell or lease the land to private companies whose development options were subject to severe restrictions. The property had to be devoted to low rent housing (defined as a proportion of the market rate); the profit made by private interests was limited; and the State Housing Board was required to supervise the project. Under this law most new housing projects were built in the outer boroughs because the accumulation of large parcels of land in Manhattan was simply too expensive without the support of wealthy private backers

In 1932 MoMA opened its famous, “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition,” designed to promote the acceptance in the United States of a new architectural aesthetic known as the International Style.[15] This exhibition gave the Museum an opportunity to critique American social housing by comparing it unfavorably with recent social housing projects, or Seidlungen, built in Germany, France and the Netherlands. On January 29th, the week before the exhibition opened, journalists and those interested in the “housing question” were invited to visit MoMA for a preview.[16] The invitees were presented with images of two architectural projects. The first was by German architect Otto Haesler for the recently completed Siedlung Rothenberg in Kassel, Germany, an example of modernist planning in which linear white buildings were placed in long parallel rows. The second was a speculative proposal for the empty Chrystie-Forsyth site by local architects George Howe and William Lescaze.[17]

Howe and Lescaze, Housing, Chrystie-Forsyth Streets, 1931. Site collage.

Howe and Lescaze, Housing, Chrystie-Forsyth Streets, 1931. Site collage.

Presented in the form of a collage, it dramatically contrasted angular white bar buildings elevated above the ground on columns with the surrounding grimy tenement buildings. Conceived specifically for the exhibition, this project served MoMA’s aim to promote the International Style as a global phenomenon appropriate to the needs of capitalist development in United States as well as to socialist urban planning in Europe.[18] In doing so the curators hoped to convince their influential audience of the validity of this style of architecture for New York City.

Labeled “Housing on Stilts” by the New York Times, Howe and Lescaze’s project owed more to the influence of the famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier than to the German Siedlungen. It was the work of two Swiss émigrés, William Lescaze and Albert Frey, both admirers of Le Corbusier.[19] Besides its startling white aesthetic, the proposal presented an entirely new way of thinking about site planning. The project has assumed an important place in architectural history as, “the first housing project for New York which was clearly derivative of the new European slab-block.”[20] While Sloan and Robertson and Thomas respected the existing grid, Lescaze and Frey did not. Lescaze claimed that the narrowness of the site made the perimeter configuration of typical American housing schemes impossible.[21] His major innovation was to reconfigure the seven-block site into what he called two “super city blocks". This was a local application of a newly fashionable urban planning idea. The “superblock” or “neighborhood unit” formed the basis of most contemporary plans for redeveloping the Lower East Side, as in this proposal published in Real Estate Record in 1932.

Neighborhood Unit Plan - “East Side Planning Association Receives Reconstruction Plans,” Real Estate Record (May 1932).

Neighborhood Unit Plan - “East Side Planning Association Receives Reconstruction Plans,” Real Estate Record (May 1932).

The idea was to demolish existing tenement buildings, close off streets in order to create larger blocks, and then construct huge apartment buildings with spacious green areas in between. These enlarged blocks were treated as self-contained neighborhoods with their own schools, stores and other amenities, as in this diagram by the architect Arthur C. Holden.[22]

Arthur C. Holden and Associates, “The Neighborhood Unit recommended for construction on the Lower East Side of New York,” East Side Chamber News (October 1929).

Arthur C. Holden and Associates, “The Neighborhood Unit recommended for construction on the Lower East Side of New York,” East Side Chamber News (October 1929).

While local development laws made the accumulation of large sites difficult, Lescaze and Frey managed to create a small version of it at Chrystie-Forsyth by configuring the site into two linear superblocks at the upper floor level, one extending from Canal Street to Delancey and the other from Delancey to Houston.

Howe and Lescaze, Housing, Chrystie-Forsyth Streets, Lower East Side, New York, 1931. Shelter (April 1932).

Howe and Lescaze, Housing, Chrystie-Forsyth Streets, Lower East Side, New York, 1931. Shelter (April 1932).

Howe and Lescaze, Chrystie-Forsyth Site Plan. East Side Chamber News (February 1932).

Howe and Lescaze, Chrystie-Forsyth Site Plan. East Side Chamber News (February 1932).

Howe and Lescaze, Housing, Chrystie-Forsyth Streets, unit plan. Shelter (April 1932).

Howe and Lescaze, Housing, Chrystie-Forsyth Streets, unit plan. Shelter (April 1932).

These units were L-shaped bar buildings elevated on steel columns (or “pilotis”) modeled after the redents, or “set back” blocks, that Le Corbusier had published in his highly influential plan for an ideal modern city, the Ville Radieuse (1930). While Le Corbusier imaged a city built on a vastly expanded grid, Lescaze and Frey were forced to preserve the scale of the eighteenth-century Manhattan blocks, at least in the transverse direction. However in form their proposal was very similar to that of Le Corbusier: like the housing blocks in the Ville Radieuse theirs were recessed from the street, and raised up above the ground. They bridged all the intermediate cross streets except Delancey, leaving the ground free as open public space to be used for recreation. The strategy of elevating the apartment blocks above the ground helped solve the problem of the uneven blocks: because they hovered above it, the buildings need not conform to the street grid.

With this plan, Lescaze and Frey broke away from the traditional site strategies for housing in New York City (the perimeter block and the garden apartment), creating a unified site with continuous access from one end of the superblock to the other via elevated corridors. Though the bar buildings formed U-shaped interior courts that were similar to those in the garden apartment, these “courts” did not become isolated enclaves because their boundaries were altogether more porous. Lescaze and Frey were not quite so willing as Le Corbusier to render their ground plane continuous, however: both the model and the renderings include a fence around the ground level open spaces. Despite this boundary device, the project represents an early effort to break open the grid in the kind of modernist “figure-ground” reversal that would become common in post-war urban projects, while at the same time preserving the street grid as a continuous circulation system.

Howe and Lescaze, “Rendering of a patio and playground area for the Chrystie-Forsythe Housing, December 1931.” Syracuse University Library.

Howe and Lescaze, “Rendering of a patio and playground area for the Chrystie-Forsythe Housing, December 1931.” Syracuse University Library.

Though Howe and Lescaze’s scheme was aesthetically radical, it was financially conservative. Lescaze emphasized that the project met the financial criteria dictated by 1926 State Housing law: the rent per room, per month, would be about $10.95, he claimed, which was below the limit of $13.50 set by the city for that district. However the site strategy employed by Lescaze made that financing model obsolete in a larger sense. The provision of a large public park running underneath all the units and accessible to all was unprecedented, something Lescaze did not factor into his calculations. If realized it would surely increase the room rental above the market rate. In fact it would break down the real estate model on which the city had long depended: the division of land into many small and homogenous lots with very few shared public spaces. While the perimeter block and garden apartment versions of the model tenement carved out a small, shared open spaces, they did not eliminate the logic of the grid altogether, as Lescaze did.

The Howe and Lescaze scheme was championed not only by MoMA, but also by a powerful local lobbying group, the East Side Chamber of Commerce (ESCC). In terms of aesthetics, this group was generally conservative. For example they favored the modernization of existing tenement buildings rather than their wholesale demolition. However the ESCC recognized that the MoMA-backed project, with its innovative appearance, had value in attracting attention to the potential of Lower East Side redevelopment. In May of 1933 the ESCC expected Howe and Lescaze to submit their scheme to the Board of Estimate for consideration, along with others.[23] It seems that never happened. Perhaps the project had already fulfilled its main purpose as a publicity device for International Style architecture, as proposed by MoMA? In the end the Board of Estimate favored the Sloan and Robertson scheme because it promised the city an almost immediate return on its investment. However this project failed to gain the support of the State Board of Housing, and the whole idea fell apart along with Jimmy Walker’s mayoralty.

The opening of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park in September 1934 put an end to any plans for model housing at Chrystie-Forsyth. The empty site became a charged political space when Walker was indicted for corruption. When Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was elected, he made it clear he wanted nothing to do with the scheme. At the same time, LaGuardia instituted a new system for social housing, taking it out of the hands of philanthropists and giving to the newly formed New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).[24] After World War II Federal laws aimed at the renewal of under-capitalized urban centers enabled the creation of the kind of superblock sites that modernist planners had first suggested in the pre-war years. Lescaze was directly involved in those efforts, including the Williamsburg Houses (1934-7), made up four superblocks imposed on top of ten existing blocks.[25]

Understood in relation to the restraints of its site, to local housing practice, and to new housing models being built in Europe, we can see just how unusual Howe and Lescaze’s proposal was. Taking advantage of existing plans to develop mass housing in the Lower East Side, they adapted the ideas of the “superblock” and the Corbusian redents to the particular shape and scale of the long, narrow opening between Chrystie and Forsyth Streets. They introduced New York to the aesthetics of European-style socialist housing and anticipated the superblock strategies employed by NYCHA a few years later. This proposal entailed a new way of thinking about the relationship between built form and open space, between private and public, one that inaugurated a new era of housing design in New York City.


Joanna Merwood-Salisbury is Head of School at the Victoria University of Wellington School of Architecture in New Zealand. You can learn more about her work here.


[1] “Proposes to Widen East Side Highways,” New York Times (October 14 1927).

[2] Minutes of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment of the City of New York, vol. 7 August 26-October 20, 1927, 8266.

[3] “Chrystie-Forsyth Street Awaits the Wrecking Crew,” East Side Chamber News vol. 3 no. 3 (March 1930), 13.

[4] On the proposed redevelopment of the Lower East Side during the 1920s, see: Thomas Adams, The Building of the City. Regional Plan Vol. 2 (New York: Regional Plan Association, 1931), 398-406; Harland Bartholomew and Associates, Plans for Major Traffic Thoroughfares and Transit, Lower East Side, New York City, Prepared for the Lower East Side Planning Association by Bartholomew and Associates (New York: Lower East Side Planning Association, 1932); Joel Schwarz, The New York Approach: Robert Moses, Urban Liberals and Redevelopment of the Inner City (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1993), 1-34; and Suzanne Wasserman, “Déjà Vu: Replanning the Lower East Side in the 1930s,” in Janet Abu-Lughod Ed., From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for New York’s Lower East Side(Cambridge MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1994), 99-120.

[5] “Walker to Speed Removal of Slums,” New York Times (November 11 1927); “Walker Drops Chrystie St Housing Project,” New York Times (November 2 1928).

[6] On model tenements from this era, see Roy Lubove, “I. N. Phelps Stokes: Tenement Architect, Economist, Planner,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 23 (1964), 75-87; Mardges Bacon, Ernest Flagg: Beaux Arts Architect and Urban Reformer (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1986); and Richard Plunz, A History of Housing in New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 21-49.

[7] “Heckscher Sails on Housing Mission,” New York Times (June 26 1926).

[8] “Heckscher Offers $500,000,000 Plan to End City Slums,” New York Times (October 14 1926).

[9] On the various proposals made for the site, see Robert Stern et al, New York 1930: Architecture and Urbanism Between Two World Wars (New York: Rizzoli, 1982), 438-441

[10] “Hecksher Housing to Bear his Name,” New York Times (24 September 1932), 17.

[11] “Rockefeller Talks Two Hours With Mayor on Aid for Housing,” New York Times (May 25 1929).

[12] “Mass Production Solving Housing Problem,” New York Times (January 25 1925); “New Plan For Garden Homes in Manhattan Slum Area,” New York Times (May 7 1933).

[13] Plunz, A History of Housing in New York City, 122-163.

[14] Henry Wright, “Imagination in Community Planning,” Shelter vol. 2 no. 3 (April 1932).

[15] Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1932).

[16] “Housing on Stilts is Shown in Model,” New York Times (30 January 1932), 19; H. I. Brock, “Architecture Styled ‘International’; Its Principles Set Forth in Models Displayed in New York Exhibit,” New York Times (7 February 1932), 11; “Explain Houses on Stilts,” New York Times (10 February 1932), 43; “A Model Housing Development for Chrystie-Forsyth Streets,” Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide (13 February 1932), 6; Joseph Platzker, “A Plan for Model Housing in the Modern Manner for Chrystie-Forsyth Street,” East Side Chamber News vol. 5 no. 2 (February 1932), 7-9. On the International Style exhibition, see Terence Riley, The International Style: Exhibition 15 and the Museum of Modern Art (New York: Rizzoli, 1992).

[17] On Howe and Lescaze, see Robert Stern, George Howe: Toward American Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975); Christian Hubert and Lindsay Stamm Shapiro Eds., William Lescaze, (New York: Rizzoli, 1982); and “William Lescaze and the Rise of Modern Design in America,” Syracuse University Library Associates Courier vol. 19 no. 1 (1984).

[18] When Lescaze discussed the origins of the project, he wrote that, “[i]t was only natural then that, when the MoMA invited us to contribute to their Exhibition, I should choose, without hesitation, a housing problem.” William Lescaze, “What Modern Architecture Could Do for the Cause of Housing,” East Side Chamber News vol. 5 no. 3 (March 1932), 10-14. Terence Riley suggests that the initial plan had been to include a model of Howe and Lescaze’s unbuilt Hessian Hills School project but that the architects had proposed Chrystie-Forsyth in its place. Riley, The International Style, 56.

[19] On Lescaze’s association with Le Corbusier, see Mardges Bacon, Le Corbusier in America: Travels in the Land of the Timid, (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2003), 161-165. Albert Frey had worked in Le Corbusier’s Paris office from 1928 to 1929. Joseph Rosa, Albert Frey, Architect (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).

[20] Plunz, A History of Housing in New York City, 191. See also Richard Pommer, “The Architecture of Urban Housing in the United States During the Early 1930s,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians vol. 37 no. 4 (December 1978), 235-264.

[21] William Lescaze, “What Modern Architecture Could Do for the Cause of Housing,” East Side Chamber News vol. 5 no. 3 (March 1932), 11.

[22] Holden urged the formation of real estate trusts charged with slum clearance and redevelopment. Arthur C. Holden, “Facing Realities in Slum Clearance,” Architectural Record vol. 71, no. 2 (February 1932), 75-82.

[23] Joseph Platzker, “Time to Begin Reconstruction and Stop Day Dreaming,” East Side Chamber News vol. 6 no. 5 (May 1933), 8.

[24] Schwarz, 25-60; Pommer, 235; Bacon, 160-161; Nicholas Dagen Bloom, Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

[25] Plunz, A History of Housing in New York City, 216.