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Architectural Gem Celebrates 70th Birthday

Allison Scales was a newborn in 1937 when her family moved into the brand new Harlem River Houses at 151st Street and Harlem River Drive, New York City’s first federally subsidized  housing project. Now celebrating her 70th birthday, Scales shared smiles and hugs with dozens of childhood friends who gathered on June 15 at Columbia University for another birthday – the 70th anniversary of the housing project.

Guests at the celebration look over old photographs of the Harlem River Houses
Guests at the celebration look over old photographs of the Harlem River Houses

The event, also a reunion of the first tenants of the houses, some of whom went on to study and teach at Columbia, was co-sponsored by the University’s Office of Government and Community Affairs and the Urban Technical Assistance Program at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

The luncheon at Low Library Rotunda also honored the late John Louis Wilson Jr., one of the primary architects of the houses, who in 1928 was the first African American graduate of Columbia’s architecture school. Harlem River Houses was considered one of the greatest successes in public housing nationwide. Wilson went on to win many prestigious architectural awards and to mentor up and coming African American architects throughout his career, until his death in 1989 at the age of 91.

James Doman
James Doman

James Doman, also a graduate of Columbia architecture school, was one of those fortunate enough to be mentored by Wilson. Until he was 12, Doman lived in Harlem River Houses. At the June 15 gathering, he gave tribute to Wilson and recalled his childhood memories of the housing complex, including his family’s rent—$7.25 a week—and running through the connected basements of the buildings with other boys on rainy days.

Professor Lionel McIntyre, director of Columbia’s Urban Technical Assistance Program, presented an exhibition of photographs from the construction and early years of Harlem River Houses.  The houses were lauded for their innovative design and emphasis on open spaces, trees, on-site facilities for child care and health care, and community rooms

Scales viewed the images on display in Low Library and made a surprising discovery. “I looked at the photos around this room, and I saw one of my favorite dresses from when I was 5,” said Scales, pointing to a scene with 20 or so children playing in one of the communal rooms. “Then I realized: Oh, that was me!”

Some of the tenants of the buildings grew up to become community leaders, including Bob Moses, founder of the Algebra Project and MacArthur genius grant recipient; Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a Columbia alumnus and a Harvard psychiatrist who studies the traumatic effects of racism on children; and Audrey Smalz, former fashion editor for Ebony and founder and CEO of fashion and event planning experts The Ground Crew.

Professor Paul Byard, director of the historic preservation program at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, talked to the former tenants about why the community they loved was also historically and architecturally significant. The architects planned Harlem River Houses to create the maximum amount of space and benefits for its residents per dollar spent, forgoing elaborate design elements in favor of simple construction but with larger rooms and more windows per unit. The emphasis on communal spaces also came from a time when the government prioritized improving the social condition, according to Byard, by emphasizing the human need for shared experience, especially in the wake of the Great Depression.

Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, now a professor at Columbia’s School of International Affairs, delivered the keynote speech at the event.  He told the crowd how delighted he was to be among them celebrating the achievements of Wilson and the success of the houses, and left them with this thought: “Harlem River Houses stands as proof that public housing should not be about buildings but about people.”

Written by Anne Burt. Photographs by Sheri Whitley

Published: June 22, 2007
Last modified: Jul 19, 2007