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

Restoration and Rehabilitation

In addition to perimeter windows, the design team rehabilitated and/or restored the brick, stone and terra-cotta exterior envelope, as well as ground-level storefront entrances similar to their original 1898 appearance.

The upper four stories have been converted into apartments, ranging from studios to three- bedroom units—all with very tall ceilings and large windows. PHOTO: Christopher Lopez

The upper four stories have
been converted into apartments, ranging from studios to three- bedroom units—all with very tall ceilings and large windows. PHOTO: Christopher Lopez

The entire fifth-floor perimeter needed to be completely disassembled, the structure repaired and the walls reconstructed. All existing brick, stone and terra-cotta features were retained (if possible) and restored or rehabilitated. All of the building’s large courtyard-level entries were replicated with new wood door and window assemblies to match original building details.

Of special note are the terra-cotta building dormers, which were stripped of their ornamental terra-cotta enframements in 1995 in preparation for demolition. The three central (entry-facing) dormers at the front (south courtyard side) of the building were restored using a combination of salvaged and new custom-fabricated replica elements while the remaining six dormers on the south were replicated with new terra cotta. Because of insufficient quantities of salvaged material and the prohibitive cost of fabricating all dormers, a simple and more economical (and acceptably non- historic) treatment was used for the seven north-facing dormers. They were made of concrete block in a color that blends with the original terra cotta.

The 35-foot-tall copper steeple and all copper cupola ventilators were restored. The large steeple was actually lifted off the top of the approximately 100-foot-tall gabled roof, shipped to Boston for restoration and then lifted back onto the roof in one piece. New copper was then reinstalled around the perimeter of the roof edge, along with replacement skylights to match the original design.

Many of the remaining original finishes and features on the interior had suffered irreparable damage caused by water infiltration, abuse and neglect during the building’s decade-long abandonment. 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.

Specific features, such as running wood trim and decorative metal crown molding, were salvaged or replicated for use primarily in lobbies, corridors and common spaces. To the extent feasible, the design team also attempted to retain or simulate original room/corridor relationships. Original 14- to 15-foot-tall ceiling heights were re-established by removing non-original soffits and suspended grids. Incompetent plaster at walls, ceilings and beam soffits were replaced as accurately as possible, using original wall locations made of gypsum board and light- gauge metal framing. Some of the original exit stairs were removed, and the bluestone treads were salvaged and incorporated into a new, wide-open stair connecting the first
and cellar levels.

A New Community

The 90 apartments, including the lofts on the ground floor, are located in the rehabilitated classroom and assembly spaces. PHOTO: Christopher Lopez

The 90 apartments, including the lofts on the ground floor, are located in the rehabilitated classroom and assembly spaces. PHOTO: Christopher Lopez


The focus of this unique mixed-use project was to take a cherished local landmark
and provide housing for low- to moderate- income artists in a unique and functional “live/work loft” style design while providing a street-level community benefit opportunity for the artists to create and potentially demonstrate their creations. The final result of the El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 project developed a new community of creative residents who help re-energize this long underutilized and vacant building into a vital asset for the Spanish Harlem neighborhood.

Since its completion—on time and on budget—it has been recognized by New York
City and state administrations as a successful example of public-private partnership to provide affordable housing while reinventing a valuable neighborhood asset. It received
so much notoriety and publicity that 53,000 applicants submitted their qualifications for a chance to live in one of the unique units at PS109. The project is now fully rented and occupied. In fact, valuable community groups, such as El Taller Latino Americano, Hi-Arts and The Shakespeare Forum, lease space in the building and work collaboratively with the residents on events. Additionally, to date, the project has been recognized with seven design and preservation awards (see El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 Awards”, next page).

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.

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