“A Former New York City Public School Building Is Transformed into Housing and Community Space for Local Artists”

Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects Inc., a developer of arts facilities, has successfully adaptively reused and restored the historic 5-story “Public School No. 109” building, located at 215 East 99th Street at the upper eastern side of Manhattan in the New York neighborhood locally referred to as Spanish Harlem and/or El Barrio. The building was designed in 1898 by the famed New York City School Construction Authority Architect Charles Snyder and was used for nearly a century as a neighborhood public school.

In 1995, the School Construction Authority abandoned the facility, scheduled it for demolition and began dismantling the building. Local architects and neighborhood groups feverishly fought the demolition and, in 2000, successfully registered the building on the National Register of Historic Places, which stopped demolition plans. Since its closure, PS109 was left unoccupied and vacant, subject to vandalism and damage from weather exposure.

Fortunately, Artspace Projects has successfully created dozens of similar community/ residential projects in formerly vacant buildings throughout the U.S. Invited to New York City by a local foundation, Artspace teamed with the local housing-rights advocacy group, El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, to be joint owner/developer and operator of this unique facility. Following successful designs of other Artspace projects and based on an award-winning portfolio of historic adaptive-reuse designs, Buffalo, N.Y.-based HHL Architects was selected to lead the complicated historic adaptive-reuse design of PS109.

Following nearly a decade of coordinated planning and development, El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 now is a successful 114,000-square-foot, mixed-use historic redevelopment. The $52 million project, which was completed in late 2014, created 90 low- to moderate-income residential apartment units for local artists with approximately 14,000 square feet of community space on the lower levels.

Taking Cues from the Original Design

Because PS109 had been successfully listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties guided the renovation and restoration work. The project was financially supported by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, federal historic tax credits, as well as other local government and national foundation grant funding programs.

PS109’s site is effectively “land locked” to the south by East 99th Street, to the north by former East 100th Street (now part of the city housing development), and on the east and west by the New York City Housing Authority’s George Washington Carver Houses project and New York City’s Cherry Tree Park. The building is an “H” footprint, thereby leaving two open-square court- yards open on the north and south sides. This was primarily to enable windows into the classrooms, which were placed along the edges of the “H” corridor design. These courtyards are also slightly elevated above the sidewalk grade and just below the level of the first floor.

The design team’s goal was to improve these barren courtyards and make them complement the surrounding park setting while creating a useful respite space for the residents. The northern courtyard was designed to be more private while the southern courtyard was developed to embrace the East 99th Street sidewalk and main entry to the building, as well as possibly be utilized for large gatherings.

Artspace’s motto is “Lots of Space, Lots of Height, and Lots of Daylight”. Fortunately, the existing large window openings along each side of the building’s courtyards provide significant daylight and ventilation for the housing units. All of the existing windows were deteriorated and the design team determined they were not original to the building, so they were removed. New large operable 1898-replica wood (or metal where rating is required) windows now match the building’s original intent (as evident in the historic photos).

The 14-foot-tall ground floor is a combination of large live/work loft residential units and common spaces, such as a resident lobby/gallery and management and entry functions. The loft apartment spaces are intended to enable productive live/ work settings for artists and the creative class. The upper four stories have been converted into apartments, ranging from studios to three-bedroom units—all with very tall ceilings and large windows. The 90 apartments, including the lofts on the ground floor, are located in the rehabilitated classroom and assembly spaces. The cellar level is utilized for related community uses, such as gallery and performance spaces, along with additional support spaces for the community occupants.

Restoration and Rehabilitation

In addition to perimeter windows, the design team rehabilitated and/or restored the brick, stone and terra-cotta exterior envelope, as well as ground-level storefront entrances similar to their original 1898 appearance.

The entire fifth-floor perimeter needed to be completely disassembled, the structure repaired and the walls reconstructed. All existing brick, stone and terra-cotta features were retained (if possible) and restored or rehabilitated. All of the building’s large courtyard-level entries were replicated with new wood door and window assemblies to match original building details.

Of special note are the terra-cotta building dormers, which were stripped of their ornamental terra-cotta enframements in 1995 in preparation for demolition. The three central (entry-facing) dormers at the front (south courtyard side) of the building were restored using a combination of salvaged and new custom-fabricated replica elements while the remaining six dormers on the south were replicated with new terra cotta. Because of insufficient quantities of salvaged material and the prohibitive cost of fabricating all dormers, a simple and more economical (and acceptably non- historic) treatment was used for the seven north-facing dormers. They were made of concrete block in a color that blends with the original terra cotta.

The 35-foot-tall copper steeple and all copper cupola ventilators were restored. The large steeple was actually lifted off the top of the approximately 100-foot-tall gabled roof, shipped to Boston for restoration and then lifted back onto the roof in one piece. New copper was then reinstalled around the perimeter of the roof edge, along with replacement skylights to match the original design.

Many of the remaining original finishes and features on the interior had suffered irreparable damage caused by water infiltration, abuse and neglect during the building’s decade-long abandonment. HHL Architects retained and rehabilitated as much of the remaining historic fabric as was feasible while adding new architectural components and systems sympathetic to the broader historic character of the building.

Specific features, such as running wood trim and decorative metal crown molding, were salvaged or replicated for use primarily in lobbies, corridors and common spaces. To the extent feasible, the design team also attempted to retain or simulate original room/corridor relationships. Original 14- to 15-foot-tall ceiling heights were re-established by removing non-original soffits and suspended grids. Incompetent plaster at walls, ceilings and beam soffits were replaced as accurately as possible, using original wall locations made of gypsum board and light- gauge metal framing. Some of the original exit stairs were removed, and the bluestone treads were salvaged and incorporated into a new, wide-open stair connecting the first and cellar levels.

A New Community

The focus of this unique mixed-use project was to take a cherished local landmark
and provide housing for low- to moderate- income artists in a unique and functional “live/work loft” style design while providing a street-level community benefit opportunity for the artists to create and potentially demonstrate their creations. The final result of the El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 project developed a new community of creative residents who help re-energize this long underutilized and vacant building into a vital asset for the Spanish Harlem neighborhood.

Since its completion—on time and on budget—it has been recognized by New York
City and state administrations as a successful example of public-private partnership to provide affordable housing while reinventing a valuable neighborhood asset. It received
so much notoriety and publicity that 53,000 applicants submitted their qualifications for a chance to live in one of the unique units at PS109. The project is now fully rented and occupied. In fact, valuable community groups, such as El Taller Latino Americano, Hi-Arts and The Shakespeare Forum, lease space in the building and work collaboratively with the residents on events. Additionally, to date, the project has been recognized with seven design and preservation awards.

Retrofit Team

Owner/Developer: Artspace Projects Inc., Minneapolis
Co-owner: El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, New York
Project Architect: HHL Architects, Buffalo, N.Y.
Associate Architect: Victor Morales Architect, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Structural Engineer: Robert Silman Associates, New York
M/E/P/F/P Engineer: Lakhani & Jordan Engineers, New York
Interior Designer: Roche & Co. Ltd., Buffalo
Terra-cotta Advisor: Jablonski Building Conservation, New York
General Contractor: Monadnock Construction, Brooklyn
Masonry Restoration: Smith Restoration, Brooklyn
Windows & Glass: Diversified Glass & Storefront, Bronx, N.Y.
Roofing & Copper: Yankee Steeplejack Co., Boston


Premium Mature Moso Bamboo Flooring: US Floors
Custom Terrazzo Flooring: Imperial Flooring Systems
Fire-rated Glass Walls: Technical Glass Products
Kitchen Cabinets: Armstrong
Kitchen Appliances: General Electric
Light Sticks: Sleek Plus T5 from Jesco Lighting
Paint: Benjamin Moore
Terra-cotta Fabrications: Boston Valley Terra Cotta
Steel Fire-rated Windows: Optimum Window
Wood Windows: Custom Wood Reproductions

El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 Awards

– Preservation’s Best Of 2015: awarded by National Trust for Historic Preservation/National Trust Community Investment Corp.
– Excellence in Historic Preservation: awarded by National Housing & Rehabilitation Association 11th Annual J. Timothy Anderson Awards
– 2015 Preservation Award: awarded by The Victorian Society of New York
– 2015 Preservation Award: awarded by The Preservation League of New York
– 2015 The Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award: awarded by The New York Landmarks Conservancy
– 2015 Renaissance Award: awarded by FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Historic Districts
– 2014 State Preservation Award: NYS Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation

Goals and Challenges for El Barrio’s Artspace PS109

The goal of this project was to create a new dynamic urban residential setting within this historic former public school for the local El Barrio and for New York’s creative individuals to affordably thrive and grow within this vital East Harlem neighborhood. There were a variety of difficulties, challenges and obstacles to achieving this goal which demanded a special level of commitment and creativity.

The challenges included the following:

– An activated community prepared to challenge gentrification of this proud neighborhood. Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects Inc. resolved this by engaging the community in the design and development process to ensure the majority of the neighborhood interests were considered and addressed. This effort was led by El Barrio’s Operation Fightback and New York City Councilwoman (now Council Speaker) Melissa Mark-Viverito.

– A deteriorating abandoned building, left fallow for more than a decade was a challenge. Buffalo, N.Y.-based HHL Architects resolved this through a deliberate process of building evaluation, analysis and testing followed by creative repair solutions. This effort was led by a team of design professionals whose expertise is rehabilitating and restoring buildings.

– A land-locked site bound by one street (E. 99th), former E. 100th and the other two former building walls. Artspace resolved this by teaming with the neighboring properties (NYC Housing Authority and NYC Parks) to gain access to their properties on the three sides of the building throughout construction, ultimately establishing a lasting relationship to foster improvement in the site’s surrounding area.

– Another challenge was complying with the challenging preservation standards, particularly elevated based on the National Register of Historic Places’ nomination language and the developer’s pursuit of incentives. HHL resolved this through an iterative, charrette-like process of historic analysis and research followed by creative adaptive-reuse design solutions, led by a team of design professionals expert in their understanding of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.

– Following the restrictive public housing design standards was challenging. HHL resolved this by collaborating with the NYC Housing Preservation & Development department to evaluate the many restrictive conditions of meeting historic standards while achieving new affordable apartments compliant with the quality housing standards the agency is charged to enforce.

– Ensuring the completed project was affordable to maintain and operate also was a challenge. Although Artspace was not required to comply with energy codes and standards, HHL elected to comply with the Green Communities Criteria set forth by Enterprise Communities Partners Inc., a national Section 501(c)(3) charitable organization that provides expertise for affordable housing and sustainable communities. The design team utilized systems and materials that were energy-efficient, recycled, sustainable and cost-effective to operate. A project is required to achieve a minimum of 35 points for Green Communities certification. HHL designed the project to achieve 56 points. Final grading and certification confirmed the project actually achieved 76 points!

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