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SITES + PROJECTS

The Bronxs Lambert Houses and the Two Sides


of Preservation
by SUSANNE SCHINDLER
April 1st, 2015

When the Lambert Houses were completed in 1973 as part of the Bronx Park South Urban Renewal Area, the
complex was quickly recognized as a significant architectural and social contribution. Built by nonprofit affordable
housing developer Phipps Houses (which still owns and operates Lambert today) and designed by Davis, Brody
and Associates (now Davis Brody Bond), the cluster of low-rise, six-story buildings was celebrated for its
architectural design and sensitivity to its West Farms neighborhood. On-site provision of social services further
cemented the progressive credentials of the development.

So when UO COLUMNIST Susanne Schindler learned that Phipps is planning to demolish and redevelop the
Houses, citing structural issues and significant security concerns, she wanted to understand what went wrong at
this much-lauded site. As she traces the architectural, social, and economic factors that took Lambert from acclaim
to pending demolition and redevelopment, Schindler confronts the intersection of historical preservation and
housing provision. In so doing, she questions why New York Citys diverse and innovative history of affordable
housing design is so often unrecognized as important to our cultural heritage and argues for preservation both
architectural and financial of our affordable housing stock.

V.S.

Lambert Houses as viewed from the 2/5 subway line | Photo by Susanne Schindler

This is not a plea to save the Lambert Houses. What would give me the right to demand such a thing? I
know little about their financial situation, their structural integrity, or what its like to live inside.
Nonetheless, I will ask a series of questions prompted by my initial reaction (of dismay, I admit) when I
heard that this cluster of exceptionally designed low-income housing is soon to be redeveloped, that is,
will soon be gone.

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Located in the West Farms neighborhoodof the Bronx and abutting the Zoo, the Lambert Houses are as
striking from up close as they are from a remove, which is how I first spotted the series of orange-red-ish
structures from the elevated number 2 train. My eyes tried to identify what I was seeing: clearly it was
housing, marked by unusually jagged faades rising slightly higher than their neighbors yet loosely
forming perimeter blocks. The irregularly reflecting and sparkling windows at the faades folds brought
the complex to life. I had no idea what this was, other than thinking, quite beautiful. When I proceeded
to walk through the buildings, down 180th Street then along Boston Road and other streets, I was again
struck by their scale and detail despite the addition of a stucco envelope over an original, much finer-
grained brick faade. There was something friendly about these buildings, and I wanted to know more.

Lambert Houses from Boston Road | Photo by Susanne Schindler

In New York 1960, Robert Stern, Tom Mellins, and David Fishman describe the six-story, 731-unit
project sited on five blocks of the Bronx Park South Urban Renewal Area as arguably the eras most
contextually responsive, high-density, low-rise housing project.[1] Its origins are unique: a group of
neighbors organized to develop new housing for an area rapidly losing population and investment, but
unable to do so themselves partnered with Phipps Houses, a non-profit developer that still owns and
manages Lambert Houses. Stern et. al. situate the resulting design, by Davis, Brody and Associates, in
the legacy of the 1920s garden-type apartments in Queens. In A History of Housing in New York City,
Richard Plunz positions the project, which was completed in 1973, as directly derivative of the
perimeter block tradition and concludes: At the moment of the crisis with the tower, when the tower
was pushed to its formal limits in an effort to reduce scale and to increase responsiveness to context,
there also was the beginning of a historicist tendency which rejected the tower completely.[2] Clearly,
Lambert Houses marks a turning point in the history of New York City housing and its relation to the
city.

Journalists agreed: Ada Louise Huxtable was enthusiastic about Davis, Brodys approach, titling an
overview of the firms many urban projects from the early Riverbend housing in Harlem, to Waterside
Plaza in Midtown and Harlem River Houses in the Bronx Breaking The Mold and closing with a
characterization of the designs as a human, esthetic and environmental fusion that has been notably
lacking in New York.[3] Architectural Record titled its ten-page review of the completed project just as
unequivocally: Urban Renewal with a Conscience.[4]

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Davis, Brody, and Associates Waterside Plaza in Midtown | Photo by JEFFREY ZELDMAN

We know that the architectural press enthusiasm for a just-completed, not-yet-lived-in project tells an
incomplete story, and that historians are often focused on constructing larger narratives at the expense
of the details, but there is published evidence that this project was later considered a success as well. On
the occasion of Lambert Houses ten-year anniversary, the New York Times Sunday Real Estate section
called it The project that transformed a Bronx neighborhood, and described the development, which
had received an award from the New York Society of Architects, and its vast array of social and
educational services as a stabilizing force in a troubled community.[5]

So yes, my initial reaction to hearing about the buildings impending demolition was one of dismay. Why
do these buildings, which mark a key moment in New York Citys architectural trajectory and stand out
to uninformed passers-by today, have to go? Does no one else see the value that I think I see here?

(L) Aerial of Lambert Houses and (R) Lambert Houses upon realization | Images courtesy of Davis Brody Bond

When I spoke with Phipps Houses CEO Adam Weinstein, he seemed genuinely surprised to hear that I
found the Lambert Houses friendly he has always considered the buildings threatening. Rectifying the
buildings security problems is one of the main reasons Phipps is pursuing redevelopment, along with
the estimated high cost of further physical rehabilitation and the potential to more than double the
number of apartments under current zoning through redevelopment of the site. Weinstein emphasized
that he, too, shared an interest in and grappled with the urban renewal era of the 1970s, since many
projects, such as Lambert, were built according to the best planning practices of its day. But he
underlined that thinking evolves and that we need to reevaluate. He sums up well-intentioned Lambert
as being the victim of wrong financing, wrong planning, wrong plumbing, wrong architecture. But
otherwise its a perfect project.

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General Site Plan of Bronx Park South Urban Renewal Plan filed at the Department of Buildings, 1970

Weinsteins primary critique was not the buildings structural issues, in particular that of the faades,
which have created major cost and logistical problems in the past, but that the buildings have no ability
to secure themselves. He explains by pointing to two planning decisions. The first are the courtyards.
Intended to be visually and physically open to the general public and create ample usable open space,
they can still, save for those areas now fenced in, be entered by anyone, leading to misuse for drug
trading or other unwelcome activities. The second is the decision to gang buildings around egress
stairs. A plan filed at the Department of Buildings reveals the problem clearly. While the structure
covering an entire city block is broken down visually into many parts and may have four or more distinct
entrances, the stairs, acting like joints between these staggered building sections, function as the means
of egress for both adjacent building sections. This creates one large building, linked internally through
the double-loaded corridors on every floor. Keeping track of who is coming and going is made very
difficult.

How did something so well-intentioned seemingly turn so wrong? How did many of the projects
originally celebrated features the open space, the community spaces within turn into liabilities so
that even apparent benefits, such as the range of unit sizes and duplex apartments are no longer
considered valuable? Was it the architecture, the residents, or the poor construction?

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Detail of wall section and typical floor plan for Lambert Houses | Image courtesy of Davis Brody Bond

Some clues are chronicled in a 1997 article by Lynda Simmons, part of Phipps Houses from 1969 to 1983,
ten years as its director.[6] Simmons writes that only a few years after completion, structural defects lead
to 14 years of legal battles with the contractor to win money for repairs. This, combined with rising
heating costs (a post-oil crisis issue for many housing operators); shifting federal support for low-income
housing (which turned the project from moderate to low-income through the Section 8 support); and a
continuously declining neighborhood made the project a site of many problems. As Simmons writes,
these crises, which plagued neighborhoods throughout New York City but were particularly prevalent in
West Farms, prompted Phipps to shift its mission from building low-income housing to building
communities, that is, providing the supportive services necessary to succeed, be thoseeducational,
psychological, leisure, or health services. I spoke briefly with Simmons, now retired and living in North
Carolina, by phone. She had not heard of the plans to demolish the buildings but was quick to say that
they had enormous design problems from the start, which led to criminal and anti-social behavior. She
did not elaborate further.[7]

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Axonometric drawing of Lambert Houses | Courtesy of Davis Brody Bond

At Davis Brody Bond, the successor firm to Davis, Brody and Associates, the institutional memory of
Lambert was contained in four boxes brought in from deep storage.[8] They contained two key finds: the
documentation of two earlier schemes for the project: one a high-rise scheme, which leaves Bryant
Avenue in place, and the other a mid-rise version, similar to the urban design as realized with the key
difference that the building mass is broken down into separate, side-by-side buildings, each organized
around one central core with two stairways. Why this version, which would have avoided the ganging
problem, wasnt realized, others will have to find out; most likely it was a hoped-for efficiency
promised by saving on the number of stairways.

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Model of early mid-rise Lambert Houses plan that maintains separate, side-by-side buildings| Photo courtesy of Davis
Brody Bond | Click to see more images from early designs for Lambert Houses.

As to the structural issues with the faade, it is unclear whether the fault lay with Davis, Brodys design
or with how it was implemented. The architects custom designed an 8 x 8 load-bearing masonry brick to
bring the project within tight budgetary constraints. According to a 1970 article, written while the
Lambert Houses were still in design development and referencing the tight budgetary situation of
housing throughout the country, load-bearing masonry construction was the only system that would
meet present mortgage limits. Since the building code now allows bearing-wall thickness to be
determined by calculation [performance-based], it was possible to erect 8-in. exterior walls and 6-in.
corridor walls for the six-story buildings.[9] The brick was considered an innovation, and the masonry
became the firms trademark for a time.

Tax records show that Phipps satisfied the mortgage for the Lambert Houses in December of 2014,
making the property debt- and obligation free. Its Section 8 contract expired in June of 2014, meaning
these subsidies would have to be renegotiated a mere formality according to some experts. This also
means, at least theoretically, that Lambert Houses could be sold and allowed to go market rate.

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Original rendering of Lambert Houses courtyard space | Courtesy of Davis Brody Bond

Instead, Phipps is planning to replace the buildings, and their proposal is hard to argue with. In fact, the
plans audacity in aggressively advocating for the creation of low-income housing should be a model for
others. The goal, as outlined by Weinstein and yet to be financed, is to add roughly 1,000 units of
housing to the current count of 731and make them 100 percent affordable in perpetuity. The income mix
will likely be limited to 60 percent AMI, the highest level the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit allows.
The higher density is based on a yet to be approved reversion of the current FAR of 1.8, as prescribed by
the urban renewal general plan for Lambert sites, to an FAR of roughly 4 allowed by the current R7-1
zoning. To remedy what are considered the weaknesses in Davis, Brodys design, Phipps intends to
reconnect the streets which were de-mapped in 1969 (but maintained as pedestrian walkways through
easements); build up to the street edges; locate community or commercial uses on ground floors,
primarily along Boston Road and 180th Street; and build higher adjacent to wider streets or open space
and lower on interior streets. Weinstein calls the goal of creating viewscapes and ample open space for
residents ideas worth preserving from the original scheme. The redevelopment would be implemented
in phases so as not to displace any residents from the complex.

Official meetings between Phipps, relevant agencies, and other stakeholders have just begun. Ted
Weinstein, director of planning for the Bronx for the Citys Department of Housing Preservation and
Development (with no relation to Phipps CEO Adam Weinstein), noted with some caution that its
unusual, its large and hopefully it will be replaced by something better, easier to manage a
contribution to the neighborhood. Wilhelm Ronda, director of planning and development at the Bronx
Borough Presidents Office, welcomes the proposal, even if he would like to see higher income limits. If
anyone can do this, he said, its Phipps. The Housing and Land Use Committee of Community Board 6
will complete a formal review of the project during the NYC Environmental Review Process later this
year. Hannah Fleisher, aCommunity Planning Fellow at CB6,feels there is a potential for positive
outcomes, pending further consultation with the residents (two of whom sit on the community board)
and wider community.

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Ocean Village, now called Arverne View, in the Rockaways | Photo by Jonathan Tarleton

To put Lambert into perspective, I spoke to several housing experts familiar with affordable housing
development in New York City. They all confirmed that it is highly unusual for an income-restricted,
publicly subsidized development to be demolished. Indeed, in the nations HOPE VI-induced enthusiasm
to rid us of high-rise public housing, the only instance where New York joined the party is with Prospect
Plaza, three towers in Brownsville, demolished in 2014.[10] But even more generally, in affordable, non-
public housing, there has not been any other demolition of existing structures, no matter their
architectural merit, in the past 15 years. To make the point, a senior housing official in the Bloomberg
administration, while reluctant to assess a plan he was unfamiliar with, did point to the recent
refinancing, rehabilitation, and reimagining of Ocean Village in Rockaway to make the point that the
plan to redevelop Lambert represents a very rare case.[11]

And so, the case of the Lambert Houses prompts a broader question. In the current conversation on how
to increase the availability of housing affordable to everyone from low- to middle-class households in
New York City, the numeric emphasis is not on new construction, but on the preservation of existing
income-restricted or rent-regulated housing. Where does this affordability meaning of the word
preservation intersect with the meaning that pertains to our architectural history? Phipps is answering
that question numerically: it aims to provide more, and better, housing through a new project. But
stepping back for a moment, it remains important to ask: why is low- and moderate-income housing not
considered to be an important expression of our cultural heritage? At what point, and for what reasons,
would the public interest in preserving that cultural heritage trump the owners interest, whether that is
economic or otherwise, in that property?

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Aerial view of Lambert Houses in 1973 | Photo courtesy of Davis Brody Bond

To be considered eligible for the status of an individual landmark, the Citys Landmark Preservation
Commission states that the building must be at least 30 years old and have a special character or special
historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of
the City, state, or nation.[12]

The only low- and moderate-income housing currently landmarked in New York City is all pre-1939.[13]
The kinder low-rise pre-war makes it in, while the post-war seems stuck in an evil tower-in-the-park
urban renewal image despite its diversity of program and typology manifested by projects such as
Lambert. There are landmarked districts, to which the Lower Grand Concourse is one of the most recent
additions, but none of the exceptional projects realized between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s in
which I would count Davis, Brodys Riverbend (1966), the UDCs Twin Parks with buildings by Richard
Meier, Prentice and Chan, Ohlhausen, and others (1967-74), or Josep Llus Serts Roosevelt Island
(1971-76) make it in.

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Ern Goldfingers Trellick Tower in London | Photo by STEVE CADMAN

When I spoke to Mary Beth Betts, head of research at the Citys Landmarks Preservation Commission,
she had not heard of any initiative or even conversation around landmarking housing of this era. This is
astonishing given the sheer numbers and contribution of post-war housing to the citys character. Most
post-war housing is not as ornate or solidly constructed as 19th-century brownstones and is, in contrast,
rather bare thanks to the limited budget it had to contend with. But even if we dont agree on aesthetics,
can we not agree on the central, historic role of housing in shaping our notions of citizenship and civic
identity? Can we not agree that these notions have evolved and continue to evolve? If we arent aware of
the pasts attempted solutions to house people of all income levels, how can we position what we are
doing today?

This lack of awareness of what post-war modern housing not only was, but what it could be, stands in
surprising contrast to other cities, where living in former publicly owned housing complexes, often
previously considered failures, has become highly sought-after. That our perception and experience of
architecture can rapidly change was laid out beautifully in a recent article by Fosco Lucarelli and
Mariabruna Fabrizi on the fate of Ern Goldfingers Trellick Tower in London, a Brutalist high-rise
which went, as the authors write, from being the tower of terror to now bringing street cred to its
residents in an otherwise rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.[14] Even in Chicago, a city not exactly
known for its embrace of post-war public housing, a decidedly futurist 1960s project was landmarked in
1999: Bertrand Goldbergs Hilliard Homes, an ensemble of curved high-rises and point towers realized
with prefabricated concrete panels in 1966, the peripheral sibling of the better known middle-income,
center-city Marina City towers.[15]

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Bertrand Goldbergs Hilliard Homes in Chicago | Photo by JOHN IWANSKI

To be clear: I am not advocating for the historization or musealization of the Lambert Houses. Buildings
are there to be used, lived in, worked in, extended, shrunk, appropriated. But I am shocked by our lack of
knowledge about and disregard for even embarrassment with the recent past. Looking at the
trajectories of the Trellick Tower in London or the Hilliard Homes in Chicago, I am additionally weary
that to preserve modern housing, the only path seems to be to lift its income- and rent-restrictions on at
least a substantial number of the apartments. The case of Lambert is slightly different. Phippss
aggressive and ambitious socio-economic proposition to replace the buildings with more than double
the current number of apartments, all reserved for low-income households in perpetuity easily trumps
any argument pertaining to their historic importance or possible objection based on fears of
displacement.

Were left with three questions that reach beyond Lambert: Are we capable of imagining a future for the
built realities of the visionary low- and moderate-income housing of the 1960s and 1970s, other than to
deregulate and privatize? What would it take not only in terms of financial, but in terms of design and
management creativity, to let the original promises of the rooftop community rooms, the ground-floor
childcare spaces, or the outdoor sitting areas come alive again? If a non-profit of the scale and clout of
Phipps, with its unusually long and varied history of realizing new housing design integrated with
supportive services, cant or doesnt want to do it, which stakeholders do need to become active?

We will soon learn more about the redevelopment proposal for Lambert Houses. Let it be a prompt to
debate these questions, even if the redevelopment of Lambert seems a foregone conclusion.

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Lambert Houses | Photo by Susanne Schindler

Susanne Schindler is an architect and writer focused on the intersection of policy and design in
housing. She is a co-author of Growing Urban Habitats: Seeking a New Housing Development Model
(2009), and a founding co-editor of the peer-reviewed Candide: Journal for Architectural Knowledge.
Susanne teaches design at Parsons The New School for Design and Columbia University, and is an
adjunct associate research scholar at Columbias Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture.

Urban Omnibus columnists are respected professionals of design, policy, history, and advocacy who
provide unique and pointed perspectives on issues that face the New York metropolitan region today.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus
editorial staff or The Architectural League of New York.

NOTES:

[1] Robert Stern, Tom Mellins, and David Fishman, New York 1960, New York: Monacelli 1995: 961.

[2] Richard Plunz, A History of Housing in New York City, New York: Columbia University Press, 1990:
304.

[3] Ada Louise Huxtable, Breaking the Mold, New York Times, February 10, 1974. A slightly earlier
article on Davis, Brodys work used the same expression: Stanley Abercrombie, New York Housing
Breaks the Mold, Architecture plus, January 1974: 6289.

[4] Charles Hoyt, Urban Renewal with a Conscience, Architectural Record, January 1974: 133140.

[5] Stephen Daly, THE PROJECT THAT TRANSFORMED A BRONX NEIGHBORHOOD, New York
Times, May 15, 1983.

[6] Lynda Simmons, Twenty-Five Years of Community Building in the South Bronx: Phipps Houses in
West Farms, in: Affordable Housing and Urban Redevelopment in the United States, edited by Willem
van Vliet. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997, pp. 7394.

[7] Lynda Simmons contribution to New York City housing is a story waiting to be written. Educated as
an architect at Cooper Union, Simmons worked on Riverbend while at Davis, Brody, joining Phipps after

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the firm had been commissioned with Lambert Houses. She built the organization to 500 staff members,
and 3,500 apartments. For a sense of the housing debate in the mid-1980s, see the collection of essays
edited by Eugenie Ladner Birch, The Unsheltered Woman (1984), re-issued in 2012 by Transaction
Press. In it, see Lynda Simmons, Carol Lamberg, and Linda Field, Theory and Practice of Housing
Development: Changing the Physical Environment of Our Lives.

[8] The original partners, Samuel Brody and Lewis Davis, passed away in 1992 and 2006 respectively.
Steven Davis, Lewiss son and current partner, worked on Lambert only briefly. Thanks go to Elizabeth
Frenchman and Christey Robinson for enabling access to these records.

[9] Stephen Kurtz, Toward and Urban Vernacular, Progressive Architecture, July 1970: 104.

[10] HOPE VI also funded the redevelopment of a low-rise public housing complex Markham Gardens in
Staten Island.

[11] Located in Far Rockaway, this Mitchell-Lama rental project, designed by concrete-prefabrication
pioneer Carl Koch, was completed in the mid-1970s. The 1,094-unit high- and low-rise project had
deteriorated physically and socially. The buildings were wrapped in EIFS insulation and visually spruced
up; their affordability was secured through property tax relief. Laura Kusisto, New Fund Will Buy and
Renovate Buildings for Low- or Middle-Income Residents,Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2013.

[12] New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, LANDMARK TYPES AND CRITERIA,
accessed March 17, 2015.

[13] The Dunbar Apartments, Harlem, sponsored by John D. Rockefeller specifically for African-
Americans (completed 1928; New York City Landmark Preservation Commission designation
(LPC):1970; National Register of Historic Places (NRHP): 1979); First Houses, the first public housing
in NYC (1935; LPC: 1974); Harlem River Houses, among the first federally-funded public housing
projects (1937; LPC: 1975, NRHP: 1979); and its whites-only counterpart, Williamsburg Houses (1938;
LPC: 2003).

[14] Fosco Lucarelli and Mariabruna Fabrizi, The Trellick Tower: Rise and Fall of a Modern
Monument, San Rocco Magazine #5, Fall 2012 [Scary Architects]. Also worth reading are the following
articles on the long debate over the fate of Londons Robin Hood Gardens: Will Hurst, SHOCK BID TO
SAVE ROBIN HOOD GARDENS, Architects Journal, March 17, 2015. And Justin McQuirk, Their
Rented Bit of the Socialist Dream, in SQM: The Quantified Home, edited by Space Caviar, Zurich: Lars
Mller, 2014.

[15]BERTRANDGOLDBERG.ORG ON THE RAYMOND HILLIARD HOMES,accessed March 17, 2015.

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