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Battle over the Aluminaire House Rages On

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Eighty-two years after its debut, the saga of the Aluminaire House continues: On October 15, 2013, a Certificate of Appropriateness to reconstruct the modern icon within the boundaries of the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District was presented before the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. A sizable crowd of architects, historians, preservationists, community residents, and politicians packed the hearing room to voice their opinions.

The Aluminaire House is the first all-metal prefabricated house built in the United States. It was designed by Albert Frey, a former apprentice to Le Corbusier, and A. Lawrence Kocher and was first unveiled at the 1931 Architectural and Allied Arts Exposition. Constructed in just ten days, the three-story, aluminum sheathed structure was an innovative model for an affordable housing unit, easy to produce and maintain. By 1932, the Aluminaire House was already considered a modern architectural icon and was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock.

Architect Wallace K. Harrison purchased the House after its exhibition and moved it to his estate in Huntington, New York, where it became known as the “Harrison Weekend House.” After Harrison’s death in 1981, the Aluminaire House fell into disrepair and an application for its demolition was proposed. Preservationists rallied to try to save it.

New York Institute of Technology’s Dean of Architecture, Julio San Jose, and Professor Michael Schwarting, joined the movement and secured a grant to move the Aluminaire House to the Institute’s Central Islip campus for use in a design workshop. There, NYIT’s architecture students studied and restored the house to its original form. When NYIT discontinued most of its academic programs at the Central Islip campus in 2006, the house was again disassembled and put in storage, until 2010 when Campani and Schwarting Architects took over stewardship and started the Aluminaire House Foundation.

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Campani and Schwarting have proposed to reconstruct the building on a vacant lot located at 50th Street and 39th Avenue within the eastern edge of Queen’s Sunnyside Gardens Historic District. The structure would be incorporated into the district along with eight new residential units.

According to Curbed, of the 54 people who delivered testimony at the Commission’s public hearing, forty testified against the proposal and fourteen spoke in favor. Sunnyside residents, local politicians and others against the proposal expressed concern that the Aluminaire House will disrupt the cohesive architectural community and that it is incompatible in material, design and historical context.

The Municipal Art Society along with Barry Bergdoll, the director of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Program, Andrew Dolkart and several local residents testified in support of the project. Although the Aluminaire House expresses a very different architectural style, it is the same 1920s-30s era as the Sunnyside Historic district and embodies the same important affordable housing reform goals, which MAS believes makes it an appropriate addition to the neighborhood. MAS suggested that design tweaks of the new adjacent buildings could be made by staff with Commission oversight. (see MAS full testimony here)

We eagerly await final word from the Landmarks Preservation Commission and hope that Aluminaire House may become part of the permanent architectural legacy of New York City.