A Former New York City Public School Building Is Transformed into Housing and Community Space for Local Artists

Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects Inc., a developer of arts facilities, has successfully adaptively reused and restored the historic 5-story “Public School No. 109” building, located at 215 East 99th Street at the upper eastern side of Manhattan in the New York neighborhood locally referred to as Spanish Harlem and/or El Barrio. The building was designed in 1898 by the famed New York City School Construction Authority Architect Charles Snyder and was used for nearly a century as a neighborhood public school.

The 114,000-square-foot project created 90 low- to moderate-income residential apartment units for local artists with approximately 14,000 square feet of community space on the lower levels. PHOTO: James Shanks

The 114,000-square-foot project created 90 low- to moderate-income residential apartment units for local artists with approximately 14,000 square feet of community space on the lower levels. PHOTO: James Shanks

In 1995, the School Construction Authority abandoned the facility, scheduled it for demolition and began dismantling the building. Local architects and neighborhood groups feverishly fought the demolition and, in 2000, successfully registered the building on the National Register of Historic Places, which stopped demolition plans. Since its closure, PS109 was left unoccupied and vacant, subject to vandalism and damage from weather exposure.

Fortunately, Artspace Projects has successfully created dozens of similar community/ residential projects in formerly vacant buildings throughout the U.S. Invited to New York City by a local foundation, Artspace teamed with the local housing-rights advocacy group, El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, to be joint owner/developer and operator of this unique facility. Following successful designs of other Artspace projects and based on an award-winning portfolio of historic adaptive-reuse designs, Buffalo, N.Y.-based HHL Architects was selected to lead the complicated historic adaptive-reuse design of PS109.

Following nearly a decade of coordinated planning and development, El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 now is a successful 114,000-square-foot, mixed-use historic redevelopment. The $52 million project, which was completed in late 2014, created 90 low- to moderate-income residential apartment units for local artists with approximately 14,000 square feet of community space on the lower levels.

Taking Cues from the Original Design

Because PS109 had been successfully listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties guided the renovation and restoration work. The project was financially supported by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, federal historic tax credits, as well as other local government and national foundation grant funding programs.

PS109’s site is effectively “land locked” to the south by East 99th Street, to the north by former East 100th Street (now part of the city housing development), and on the east and west by the New York City Housing Authority’s George Washington Carver Houses project and New York City’s Cherry Tree Park. The building is an “H” footprint, thereby leaving two open-square court- yards open on the north and south sides. This was primarily to enable windows into the classrooms, which were placed along the edges of the “H” corridor design. These courtyards are also slightly elevated above the sidewalk grade and just below the level of the first floor.

The design team’s goal was to improve these barren courtyards and make them complement the surrounding park setting while creating a useful respite space for the residents. The northern courtyard was designed to be more private while the southern courtyard was developed to embrace the East 99th Street sidewalk and main entry to the building, as well as possibly be utilized for large gatherings.

HHL Architects retained and rehabilitated as much of the remaining historic fabric as was feasible while adding new architectural components and systems sympathetic to the broader historic character of the building. PHOTO: courtesy HHL Architects

HHL Architects retained and rehabilitated as much of the remaining historic fabric as was feasible while adding new architectural components and systems sympathetic to the broader historic character
of the building. PHOTO: courtesy HHL Architects

Artspace’s motto is “Lots of Space, Lots of Height, and Lots of Daylight”. Fortunately, the existing large window openings along each side of the building’s courtyards provide significant daylight and ventilation for the housing units. All of the existing windows were deteriorated and the design team determined they were not original to the building, so they were removed. New large operable 1898-replica wood (or metal where rating is required) windows now match the building’s original intent (as evident in the historic photos).

The 14-foot-tall ground floor is a combination of large live/work loft residential units and common spaces, such as a resident lobby/gallery and management and entry functions. The loft apartment spaces are intended to enable productive live/ work settings for artists and the creative class. The upper four stories have been converted into apartments, ranging from studios to three-bedroom units—all with very tall ceilings and large windows. The 90 apartments, including the lofts on the ground floor, are located in the rehabilitated classroom and assembly spaces. The cellar level is utilized for related community uses, such as gallery and performance spaces, along with additional support spaces for the community occupants.

About the Author

Matthew W. Meier, AIA
Matthew W. Meier, AIA, is a New York State Registered Architect and partner at HHL Architects, Buffalo, N.Y. HHL is best known for its successful adaptive reuse, historic preservation, renovation and restoration.

Be the first to comment on "A Former New York City Public School Building Is Transformed into Housing and Community Space for Local Artists"

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: