Queens CB2 Votes Against Bringing Aluminum House to Landmarked Sunnyside

By Jeanmarie Evelly on September 20, 2013 1:03pm 

 The Aluminaire House, built in 1931, was the first all-metal, prefabricated house built in the United States. Architects are hoping to relocate the structure to a vacant lot in Sunnyside.
The Aluminaire House, built in 1931, was the first all-metal, prefabricated house built in the United States. Architects are hoping to relocate the structure to a vacant lot in Sunnyside.
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Flickr/jenosale

SUNNYSIDE — Queens Community Board 2 voted Thursday against a developer's plan to bring an historic aluminum house and an apartment complex to the site of a former playground in landmarked Sunnyside Gardens.

Architects Jon Michael Schwarting and Frances Campani want to bring the Aluminaire House — an all-metal, prefabricated home heralded as a significant example of early American architecture — to a lot on the corner of 50th Street and 39th Avenue.

But critics said that the house is out of character with the historic district of red brick homes, which date to the 1920s, while others hope to see the space turned into a public park.

The architects are working with the owner of the property, Harry Otterman, a former Sunnyside Gardens resident who is also vying to construct a 2-story, 8-unit apartment building on the site.

The apartments would be built in an L-shape around the historic metal home, with open public space between the structures, according to the proposal.

The plan needs the approval of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, since the site is located in landmarked Sunnyside Gardens — a historic district of red brick homes built in the 1920s as a model housing community.

Schwarting said the Aluminaire House would compliment the neighborhood's architectural history. The 22-by-28 foot structure was built by architects Lawrence Kocher and Albert Frey in 1931, who conceived it as a prototype for inexpensive, mass-produced housing options.

"This historic district is wonderful for this building, because it is working with the type of studies that were done in the '30s that were actually produced in Sunnyside Gardens,"  Schwarting said. "We also feel that it would make a cultural contribution."

The Aluminaire House had been housed for several years at the New York Institute of Technology, until it closed one of its Long Island campuses. The structure was disassembled and put into storage last year.

If approved for the Sunnyside site, the house would operate as a museum, Schwarting said.

But the plan has drawn opposition from many residents and elected officials.

At a public hearing, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer said that while he thinks the Aluminaire House is "beautiful and fascinating," he feels it's too out of character with the aesthetic of Sunnyside Gardens, which the neighborhood's landmarked status was designed to preserve.

"It is so opposite what we have now today," he said. "The consistancy in the colors, in the materials — they are essential to what creates that sense of place."

Other residents are hoping to halt any future development at the site, in the hopes of eventually acquiring the land so it can be used as a public park. For decades, the space had been a children's playground for nearby Phipps Garden Apartments.

Phipps sold the lot in 2007, but the playground's original structures — a pavilion and a storage shed — still stand at the site, according to Herbert Reynolds, of the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance.

"It's one of the few intact Depression-era playgrounds in New York City," he said.

Jack Freeman, a Sunnyside Gardens resident and former Landmarks Commissioner, testified in favor of the plan, saying he thought the proposed residential housing units were appropriate in scale to the rest of the neighborhood, and that the Aluminaire House would add architectural value.

"I think its an important opportunity for Sunnyside Gardens," he said.

CB2's recommendation against the application is only advisory. The Landmarks Preservation Commissions' vote on the plan, originally slated for next week, has been rescheduled, a spokeswoman said. A date for the hearing has not been confirmed yet.

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