Architects Look to Bring Historic Aluminum House to Sunnyside Gardens Lot

By Jeanmarie Evelly on June 20, 2013 1:46pm 

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 A team of architects is looking to relocate a historic house to a vacant lot in Sunnyside Gardens.
Historic 'Aluminaire House' Proposed for Sunnyside Lot
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SUNNYSIDE — It's a house without a home.

A team of architects is looking to relocate a historic house to a vacant lot in landmark Sunnyside Gardens — a plan that's been met with skepticism from residents who want to see the space used for a community park.

The Aluminaire House, built in 1931, was the first all-metal, prefabricated house built in the United States, according to architect Jon Michael Schwarting, who's working with fellow architect Frances Campani to find a permanent place for the building.

The three-story structure, which measures 22 by 28 feet, was made for an architectural exhibition in Manhattan by Lawrence Kocher and Albert Frey — a student of the legendary French architect Le Corbusier — and conceived as a prototype for inexpensive, mass-produced housing options.

"It's a beautiful building, and it's so important because there is so little like it in the United States," Schwarting said.

The structure's debut at the Allied Arts and Industry and Architectural League Exhibition at the now-defunct Grand Central Palace in midtown drew more than 100,000 visitors in a week, Schwarting said.

After the show, the house was bought by architect Wallace Harrison, who displayed it on his Long Island property until 1987 — when it was picked up by the New York Institute of Technology, where both Schwarting and Campani teach architecture.

But the school closed one of its Long Island campuses in 2004, turning the building over to Schwarting and Campani, who started the nonprofit Aluminaire House Foundation to oversee its preservation.

The house has been disassembled and in storage since 2012, as the two architects searched for an appropriate new location where they could re-open it as a museum.

They say they found their spot at the corner of 50th Street and 39th Avenue in Sunnyside Gardens — a historic district of landscaped, red brick homes built in the 1920s as a model housing community, origins which Schwarting says fit well with the Aluminaire House.

"It seemed perfect for us," he said. "We think it's a valuable addition to the history of this community."

The architects reached out to the owners of the property, Norcor Management Corp., which agreed to the plan, and is also proposing to build a low-rise residential development of eight condos or rental apartments in the same lot.

Because Sunnyside Gardens is a historic district, any development needs to be approved by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The proposal is scheduled to go before the commission at a hearing on July 9, but Queens Community Board 2 has asked the architects to reschedule the hearing to the fall, saying the community has not had enough time to voice their concerns about the plan.

Schwarting and Campani presented their proposal to CB2's land use committee Wednesday night, where they were met by more than a dozen Sunnyside Gardens residents who oppose the project.

"It seems to be like they're trying to sneak this proposal by under the guise of this historical house," Sunnyside resident Rebecca Crea said.

Neighbors say the lot has been vacant for almost a decade, but was once a popular playground — something they would like to see again.

"We're hoping to see it restored to its former glory," Crea said.

Local City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer has also come out in opposition to the proposal, writing a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission where he said the Aluminaire House is "architecturally significant in its own right," but that it is "inappropriate for Sunnyside Gardens."

Members of CB2 expressed similar concerns, telling the architects they were worried about the financial solvency of the house as a museum, and that the site would be vulnerable to graffiti and vandalism.

Several members said the project is out-of-character with the look of Sunnyside Gardens' uniform red brick homes.

"There's not a single aluminum building in the area," said CB2 land use co-chairman Stephen Cooper, who said he appreciates the value of the Aluminaire House but thinks it will "stick out," from the rest of the neighborhood.

Schwarting and Campani said they think the building's value is in its architectural character.

"We think it'll stick out in an elegant way — it's a beautiful house," Schwarting said.

"Of course it's going to look different but we don't feel that was a problem with it being a good companion to the neighborhood."

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