WILLOWBROOK — A former Staten Island poorhouse known as the New York City Farm Colony has sat dilapidated since it closed four decades ago, a haven for graffiti artists, urban explorers and arsonists.
But now a pair of architects — armed with $91 million — are converting the 1892 colony where Staten Islanders down on their luck lived and were given work farming fruits and vegetables.
The 43-acre farm is being transformed into a residential community for seniors. Designers have tried to maintain elements from the original buildings, salvaging historic materials and keeping some of the site's gritty beauty that has attracted photographers for years.
"There is something very romantic and interesting, we want to keep that somehow in the new construction as well," said architect Pablo Vengoechea, co-owner of Vengoechea + Boyland Architecture/Urban Planning, LLP.
"It will be cleaned up, you're not going to see all this bramble out there, but it would be a shame at the end of the day, I think, if we come up with a plan that makes this look pristine without maintaining some of the rough edges."
The City Council approved developers NFC Associates LLC's plans last month to transform the former poorhouse into a $91 million residential community called Landmark Colony.
The site will house about 600 seniors and include parking lots, a club house, retail space, community areas and 17 acres of public open space.
Instead of completely razing the existing landmarked buildings and putting up more modern styled structures, Vengoechea and his partner Timothy Boyland will redevelop five of them into apartment buildings — maintaining the exterior as is — and preserve the oldest building on site, which dates back to 1907, as an historic ruin.
Only one building will be completely demolished and builders plan to salvage any stone or brick work from others they’re dismantling.
"Wherever something has to be dismantled when the condition is something we could not realistically preserve, we’ve got our eye on the materials," Boyland said.
"It’s giving the material a new life even though we actually lost the building."
Aside from the materials, they also plan to keep most of the original roadways, a large concrete bridge that leads to the site's former dining hall and will remake a pond where it was formerly located. They said they intend to keep many of the trees on site, plant new ones and create public parkland.
The architects also said they took design cues for most of the new structures from buildings already on the site, especially the oldest one designed by Raymond Almirall.
The site first opened in 1829 as the Richmond County Poor Farm, which required residents to work farming fruits and vegetables, according to the Landmarks Preservation Committee.
It later served as a hospital and senior home — with various structures built or destroyed for new purposes — until it closed down in 1975. The colony was landmarked in 1985.
Since it closed, the buildings have deteriorated and almost immediately fell prey to the city's weather after thieves took copper from the roofs.
"They were doomed from day one," Boyland said.
Several plans have been floated for revitalizing the site — including a push by then-Councilman James Oddo in 1999 — but they failed until developers NFC won a bid by the city's Economic Development Corporation in 2013.
The developers approached Vengoechea and Boyland — both long-time Staten Islanders — with a draft plan. They suggested a different vision that tries to fit in with the history of the property.
While working on the designs, Boyland found he had a personal connection to the place. His grandmother Madeline Jefferys Henri worked as a nurse from 1945 to 1965, when the site was a hospital.
"I've driven past this, sitting in the back seat of my parents' car, looking out my parents' window and saying 'What's that, what's in there?' When I was a little kid," he said.
"Professionally and personally, it's been an adventure and an exploration."
The architects said they hope to start actual construction work as soon as possible. The new look Farm Colony is expected to be completed by 2018.