Completely poured-in-place reinforced concrete with exposed exterior walls form the structural support for the buildings. A system adapted in lieu of normal column and curtain wall construction in order to eliminate column projections within rooms– and to impart a strong sculptural and architectural expression to the project. Instead of conventional face brick, the exposed concrete exteriors retain the random-plank, wood grained surface of the specially designed forms used in pouring the concrete. The use of the concrete succeeds, to some extent, in visually linking the buildings to the limestone and granite buildings of the nearby civic center and at the same time sets them apart, not only from the typical tenements of Chinatown, but also from the more mundane red brick of nearby housing projects to the east.
On the two-acre site, each 25-story tower fronts Worth Street at an angle, with a rising curved driveway ramp connecting the two. Under the ramp is the entrance, also fronting Worth Street, to the underground garage for 125 vehicles. From the ramp concrete steps descend to the ground floor which is made up of a northern and southern open loggia which lead to the lobby area. The lobby level houses two offices units and a community room running on the east-west axis.
The slender tower parti made it possible to have only five apartments per floor. All apartments are designed with off-foyer layouts, larger than average size rooms, and generous closets space enclosed by folding doors. With exception of studio units in the center, all living rooms have corner exposures, and half of these corner apartments have terraces. Mechanical equipment on the roof is enclosed by a concrete cube with a trapezoidal opening simulating a giant “eye” on the head of each tower, recalling similar treatments of roof equipment by Le Corbusier in his housing projects (Unité d’Habitation, Marseilles).
The link between underground and above-ground are shed-roofed concrete bulkheads with colored multi-light glazing. They bring light into the garage, and at the same time, the colored glass provides almost the only touch of color to the monochromatic architecture.
In the plaza development, visual considerations were very important to the landscape architects: the strong pattern of the fish-scale paving, visible from above, or the illusion of the bottomless created by lining the shallow reflecting pool with black coal. Structural considerations made it necessary to maintain a differential of only one step. A playground, originally located south of the plaza, was closed in 1966 because of a cave-in of the soil and declared unsafe.
Many streets converge at the site, formerly known as Five Points. So the focal nature of the site seemed to require a strong vertical, which was established early in the design stage. The structural system was not firmly established until later; originally it was to be steel and glass. The budget of $1.50 per cu. ft. (not including air conditioning and garage) allowed for a reinforced concrete structure, cast in place, with exposed surface. At the time the result was somewhat more expensive than conventional construction–about $1.00 per sq. ft. more. Advantages of the concrete system, aside from its strong sculptural and architectural expression, were that the structural system eliminated beam and column projections within the building and made possible a more flexible layout.
Two 25-story towers were erected in the peculiar triangular site, with 5 apartments per floor with a total of 240 cooperative units. The buildings occupy only 15 of the site, with 85 percent of the land used for the plaza and playground. Peter Samton, of the original design team, described how originally the two towers faced one another over the plaza. He came up with the idea of shifting one tower to have them both face south together like two sentinels over lower Manhattan, their Cyclopean heads hovering over Chinatown when viewed from the north.
Despite a strict budget usually associated with public housing projects, Kelly & Gruzen gave the development a high degree of built-in luxury. For their investment, residents got several firsts in New York City housing. Chatham Towers were the first in the use of entirely exposed poured-in-place concrete, which gives them that distinct and dynamic look.
The project was also the first gypsum wallboard high rise project in Manhattan for interior partitions, as opposed to more labor-intensive plaster. In fact, a heated controversy between wallboard manufacturers and plastering contractors and plasterers’ unions ensued. For the 240 unit towers 800,000 square feet of gypsum were installed, a difference that amounted to $30,000 in favor of dry-wall construction. Sheets measuring 4 by 8 feet and manufactured by Allied Chemical Corporation were used for partitions. A double layer of half-inch-thick gypsum was attached to steel runners at the floor and ceiling of the apartments. For the stair wells, elevator shafts, air ducts and the like, the wallboard was attached directly to the concrete surface with an adhesive.
Chatham Towers also was the first project in the city to use urethane insulation on its exterior walls; the closed-cell urethane foam was not previously permitted by the building code. Another first for Manhattan was the use for an apartment building of a Swedish-designed window. The problem of noise was particularly studied because of the traffic and circulation factor in this particular neighborhood. The window has a double thickness of glass with a Venetian blind between, and the whole unit can be opened for ventilation and pivoted for cleaning. The unit reduces noise levels and brings protection from the sun in the summer. Because of its high insulation value, the window prevents heat loss in the winter months. Consequently, both heating and central air conditioning equipment are reduced.
“Housing has been both a first and a final difficulty for Modernism. Its beginnings in villas for the wealthy and apartment blocks for the workers took decades to gel into anything that could be “sold” to the middle classes. Chatham Towers offers an architecturally and socially informative example of the moment in America when it looked like the sale could finally be made.”
Targeted to a more affluent group of residents than those in Chatham Green next door, the new project was built by the Committee for Middle Income Housing under Title 1, and it conveyed a sense of luxury and decisively broke with the prevailing institutional look of subsidized housing. It is the attention to proportion and detail that gives the complex a humane quality, which served to advance the aim of the developers: “to demonstrate that decent middle-income urban housing could still be built.” At the time the towers were finished in 1965, “middle income” was a category which included those incomes ranging from $5,000 to $15,000. The apartments required an equity investment ranging from $3,980 for a studio to $7,280 for two bedrooms to $8,930 for three bedrooms with terrace, and monthly carrying charges ranging from $105 to $252 to $270 respectively.
Six months after the towers opened, 64 of the 240 apartments were yet to be sold, a situation that could have put the co-op corporation into a shaky financial condition. A New York Times article published in May of 1966 reported tenant-owners doubling as salespeople to help sell the remaining apartments. Volunteering on weekends the residents had sold 50 additional units and were hoping to have the remaining 14 sold by June.
Among early tenants were an oil company executive, a senior editor for a professional homebuilding magazine, an attorney, a Wall Street securities analyst, and a television and electronics engineer.
Unquestionably it is the appearance of these two concrete giants rising on the corner site which makes them stand out; it is their form and texture which makes them so exciting. Instead of conventional face brick, the exposed concrete exteriors retain the random-plank, wood grained surface of specially designed forms used in pouring the concrete. At four corners of each building, two terraced floors alternate with two unterraced ones, producing a serrated silhouette, in contrast to the sheer vertical lines of the tower themselves, which is emphasized by the spacing of alternate panels of glass and textured concrete. Nothing like them had ever been seen in New York, a pair of towers that seem carved out of gritty cliffs of concrete wall, making vertical grooves that create light and shadow, solids and voids. The same effect that is created vertically in microcosm in the walls is created horizontally in macrocosm in the massing by balconies and the lack of them. This effect is further extended within the balconies themselves by the solid walls and the voids that are the open and shadowed places. These great jagged forms, topped by Cyclopean heads at the rooftops, seemingly hover over Chinatown when seen from the north. Strong architectural statements as were the towers also drew their share of criticism. Right away passersby and tenants alike expected the buildings to be painted. When viewed up close, the entrances are hard to find, because the buildings are set on an awkward site. Besides possessing successful composition and a bold sculptural presence it has been said that the buildings turn their backs on everything and everyone, that they are insular, that they focus on themselves. The fact that it lacked some crucial linkage to the overall neighborhood made some circles in the city label the towers as just “another housing project.”
The New York State Association of Architects bestowed the tower complex an award of merit in the residential category at its 1964 convention. After it was completed the towers received the Bard Award for Excellence in Architecture and Urban Design. The award was given in 1967 by the City Club of New York Albert S. Bard Civic Award Trust Fund “for outstanding achievement in projects owned, financed or aided by government agencies and built withing the five boroughs of the City of New York.” The critique by the Award Jury stated, “Kelly and Gruzen have broken new ground with their housing project, Chatham Towers. Semi-public building in New York City is inherently and traditionally nearly impossible. “Projectitis” is endemic in our cities. This project is an astounding exception. Kelly and Gruzen’s rough Expressionist towers, represent a new Romantic reaction from International style simplicity. The resulting design is strong, rough, but carefully detailed, excellently executed.”
For Norval White and Elliot Willensky, editors of the AIA Guide to New York City, the complex immediately joined the ranks of “distinguished housing architecture”, along with the Dakota, Butterfield House, 131-135 East 66th Street and Williamsburg Houses. Paul Goldberger, in his book “The City Observed”, said that Chatham Towers, in contrast to its neighbor, Chatham Green, “has aged well, and even though it could be called heavy-handed Corbusier, it is well-scaled, comfortable, and visually attractive, qualities which help any building survive the passage of time.
“With its raw concrete and late Corbusian flourishes at the base and penthouse, the Towers are often described as Brutalist. However, their monumental geometry seems just as inflected by Louis Kahn, and their mannered details by the refined late Modernism then being practiced in Boston (TAC, Benjamin Thompson).’’
“Co-Ops Planned Near Chinatown”, The New York Times, February 15, 1961. pg. 28.
“Plans Cleared for Second Co-Op In Civic Center Area at City Hall”, Charles G. Bennett, The
New York Times, July 7, 1963. pg. 43.
“Twin-Tower Co-op Development Rises in a Once-Seamy Section of Lower Manhattan”, The
New York Times, April 12, 1964. pp. R1, 8.
“Gypsum Gets Manhattan Test In The Chatham Towers Project”, Charles Friedman, The New York Times, January 17, 1965. pp. R1, 7.
“Co-op Equipment Displayed At Chatham Towers Office”, The New York Times, March 7, 1965.
“Chatham Towers (New York City)” Empire State Architect 25 (1965): 27-28.
“Co-op Near City Hall Will Be Dedicated Today”, The New York Times, November 14, 1965.
“Chatham Towers, New York” Deutsche Bauzeitung 100 (1966): 837-840.
“Tours D’Habitation a New York” Architecture d’Aujourd’ hui 36 (1966): 94-95.
Ellen Perry. “Middle Income Project In Lower Manhattan” Progressive Architecture 47 (1966):
“Tenant-Owners Helping to Sell Apartments at Chatham Co-op”, The New York Times,
May 15, 1966. pg. R1.
“Two Manhattan Apartment Complexes Given Awards”, The New York Times, May 14, 1967.
“1967 Bard Awards Announced” Empire State Architect 27 (1967): 6-10.
Goldberger, Paul. Photography by David W. Dunlap. The City Observed: New York, A Guide to the Architecture of Manhattan. New York: Vintage Books, 1979, ill.
Tauranac, John, Essential New York: A Guide to the History and Architecture of Manhattan’s
Important Buildings, Parks, and Bridges . New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979, ill.
Stern, Robert A. M., Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman.New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial. New York: Monacelli Press, 1995, ill.
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Crown Publishers, 2000, fourth ed., ill.
Kimbro Frutiger. “Chatham Towers: Modernism and the Middle Class” DOCOMOMO/US Newsletter (Spring 2001): 1 & 9.