Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
The names of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick are well known in New York City and beyond for Carnegie Hall and for the Frick Collection. Though the institutions built by these two steel magnates are important to the city’s cultural identity, the organization built by their lesser known (but just as wealthy) associate, Henry Phipps, has had, and continues to have, a more material affect on the lives of New Yorkers. His legacy, Phipps Houses, is the oldest non-profit developer of affordable housing, erecting its first buildings in 1906 and actively developing and managing properties today.
At the end of the 19th century, Jacob A. Riis and other activists were drawing public attention to the often appalling conditions of recent immigrants and working poor in tenements. Riis’s photographs vividly illustrated the unsanitary, crowded, dark, and claustrophobic apartments that housed some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. Lack of ventilation contributed to rampant tuberculosis and crude sanitation to a whole host of other health risks.
Phipps, originally a bookkeeper who had himself grown up in a Pittsburgh tenement, gained between $50 and $70 million (accounts differ) when Carnegie Steel and J.P. Morgan merged. Concerned about the welfare of the city’s poor, he initially set aside a relatively small portion of this fortune–$1 million–and began Phipps Houses’ first development, on East 31st Street between First and Second Avenues, now the site of Kips Bay Towers.
The three six-story buildings opened to tenants in 1906 and featured an interior courtyard to provide natural light and ventilation, and dramatic four-story archways that served as community spaces and, as Christopher Gray wrote in his 2003 Streetscapes column in the New York Times, “to keep the residents away from the corrupting influence of the street.”
Work began almost immediately on a new development on West 63rd Street between Amsterdam and West End Avenues. Then known as San Juan Hill, the surrounding neighborhood was predominantly populated by African Americans, many of whom had recently come to New York to escape the Jim Crow south and seek better economic opportunities, and who met with intensive housing discrimination. The buildings on West 63rd were intended for and populated by black tenants, in contrast to the all-white buildings on 31st Street. Phipps Houses sold this Midtown complex in the 1950s in order to finance other developments. The buildings are still standing, with a two-story addition.
The organization didn’t begin its next project until a couple of decades later: Phipps Garden Apartments on the border between Woodside and Sunnyside, Queens, opened in 1931, with a second, adjacent development opening in 1935. Unlike the Manhattan projects, the Garden Apartments were intended for middle income white collar workers, were larger, and featured amenities like radio aerial outlets in the living rooms and sound proofing. Four- and six-story buildings housing 472 apartments surrounded extensive interior park-like gardens designed by landscape architect Marjorie Sewell Cautley. Public space was set aside in the buildings for things like a social hall and nursery programs, and Phipps Houses constructed a playground across the street.
For rare 1930s film footage of the complex and its residents, see the Sunnyside Oral History Program’s YouTube video.
Phipps Houses continues to construct affordable housing projects all over the city, and also offers community health, social service, and education initiatives through its Phipps Neighborhoods program. You can learn more about the organization and see a list of its affordable housing projects on their website.
This blog post is presented in conjunction with the City Museum’s exhibition, Affordable New York: A Housing Legacy, on view until February 16, 2016. If you or a family member lives or lived in the Phipps Garden Apartments (now Sunnyside Garden Apartments), please share your memories in the comments section. We look forward to hearing from you!