CHINATOWN — Not many people know the man behind some of the most recognizable structures in Chinatown, but a new museum retrospective aims to change that.
“Chinese Style: Rediscovering the Architecture of Poy Gum Lee, 1923-1968,” now on view at the Museum of Chinese in America, follows the architect’s long, complex career through more than 80 artifacts including photographs, blueprints and architectural drawings.
The show is the first major study of Lee’s work in the United States, according to the museum, which includes the Kimlau War Memorial in Chatham Square and the former Pagoda Theater on East Broadway, which was torn down in 1992.
Lee, who was born on Mott Street in 1900, was also a major influence on the distinctive On Leong Tong building on Mott and Canal streets as well as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association located on 62 Mott St., said Kerri Culhane, who guest curated the show for MOCA.
“This is really the story of the unknown architect of Chinatown,” she said.
Culhane, an architectural historian and the associate director of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council in the Lower East Side, said she first encountered Lee’s work while doing research for the Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District, a nationally-recognized site designated in 2010.
“And I was reading all the building permits for every building in Chinatown and I realized that until the 1950s, there was only one Chinese name as an architect on a building permit and I thought it might be this interesting story to find out who this guy was,” she said.
Culhane originally thought the exhibit would focus on a few buildings in Chinatown but as she delved deeper into his career, she realized it spanned continents and political and architectural movements.
In the end, the show became much more than just a retrospective of the architect’s work, she said.
“The architecture is really just a framework to tell a social story, and Poy Gum Lee’s story illuminates so much about Chinatown, [and] about China. It tells so much more than just a story about this guy and his buildings,” Culhane said.
“Chinese Style: Rediscovering the Architecture of Poy Gum Lee, 1923-1968” will be on view at the Museum of Chinese in America, located at 215 Centre Street, until Jan. 31, 2016.