A Brooklyn housing project praised by architects

WilliamsburghousesaerialPublic housing complexes rarely get any love—especially for their design.

But it’s a different story with the Williamsburg Houses.

This group of 20 buildings on a sprawling site on Bushwick Avenue earned big props for its Modernist touches, designed in part by Swiss architect William Lescaze.

“When the complex opened in 1938, its design was revolutionary,” wrote The New York Times in 2003.


“Rather than follow the emerging public housing pattern of large red-brick apartment houses scattered across lawns, the development was four stories tall, clad in tan brick with decorative blue panels and European Modernist features like doorways sheltered by aluminum marquees.”

WilliamsburghousesLOC2“The buildings were set at a rakish 15-degree angle to the street grid, a feature designed to sweep fresh air into the courtyards and spill sunlight into the windows of the 1,622 apartments.”

In their 1939 guide to New York City, the Federal Writers’ Project added that the 25-acre location was once home to 12 slum blocks.

“All apartments—two to five rooms—are equipped with electric stoves, refrigerators, and modern plumbing, and supplied with steam heat, hot and cold water.”

Williamsburghousesstore2013Oh, and the 6,000 working-class New Yorkers who moved in were charged rents between $4.45 and $7.20 per week.

After a long post-war decline, the Williamsburg Houses underwent a restoration in the mid-1990s.

That turned up a hidden treasure: WPA murals by pioneering abstract artists. They’d been neglected for years and hidden behind coats of paint in community rooms.

The Brooklyn Museum has the restored murals on view now.

The development earned landmark status in 2003, the third public housing project in the city to do so.

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3 Responses to “A Brooklyn housing project praised by architects”

  1. Miguel Hernandez Says:

    I lived on Bushwick Avenue not far from Ten Eyck Houses from the mid 1940s to 50s. Had friends there and remember that the apartments had parquet floors. There was a large Parks Dept. playground across from it and the Rainbow Movie theatre on Graham Ave. was close by too. Seem to recall that the place with the glass block windows was a public health clinic. My parents applied for an apartment there but there was along long waiting list and we never made it in.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks for your info. The waiting list was huge even before the complex opened: 19,000 applicants, according to the WPA guide! Clearly they were a step up from the surrounding neighborhood tenements.

  3. Joe R Says:

    I read somewhere that the setting of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was in the tenements where the Williamsburg Houses now stand. BTW, there were several actual stores -and not just clinics and such – in those storefronts, back in the 1950’s. I recall mainly an Italian restaurant on Graham Avenue and a large luncheonette/candy store on Bushwick Avenue.

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