Penn Station South

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Penn South
1960–1962, Herman J. Jessor. Bounded by W. 23rd and W. 29th sts. between 8th and 9th aves.

Penn Station South, or Penn South, with 2,820 apartments in ten 22-story towers in Midtown Manhattan, represents the apogee of a radical, if largely unrealized, vision for an alternative kind of twentieth-century U.S. metropolis defined by well-equipped subsidized housing for working- and middle-class families in city centers rather than single-family tracts at the urban edge.

Officially called the Mutual Redevelopment Houses, Penn South was a limited-equity cooperative, or co-op, built as part of the Penn Station South Renewal Area under Title I of the National Housing Act of 1949. Under the limited-equity co-op plan of co-ownership, which traces its roots to non-market housing schemes originated in nineteenth-century Britain, homeowners paid little down thanks to generous financing but were prohibited from profiting from re-sales. Title I allowed local governments to apply for grants to condemn, buy, and prepare “blighted” real estate for redevelopment by private builders. Penn South’s developer, Abraham Kazan, was one of the originators of non-speculative co-op housing in the United States and a national leader in sponsoring Title I projects.

The idea of subsidized housing for middle-income families in central locations, which ran against the larger impetus in reform circles toward decentralization, emerged in the first three decades of the twentieth century in Europe, particularly in the progressive cities of Amsterdam and Vienna. Stateside, it was championed by a mixture of reformers drawn from the settlement-house movement, like Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, and poor, mostly socialist and anarchist, Eastern European Jewish immigrants who preferred urban communitarianism to suburban privatism and were unafraid to ask government to subsidize it. The first low-rent, community-built apartments in the United States were developed by and for Finnish immigrants in Brooklyn, in 1916. But it was Jewish leftists, mainly garment workers operating through trade unions—Kazan and his Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America chief among them—who perfected the model and fought for the public funds required to bridge the gap between what they could afford to pay and the high costs of quality construction and urban land.

Penn South’s architect, Herman J. Jessor, played an important role in this movement. A Ukrainian Jewish émigré, he had studied engineering at Cooper Union and then gone to work as a draftsman for the architecture firm Springsteen and Goldhammer. There, he helped design the two most important early examples of Jewish co-ops: the Amalgamated Cooperative Apartments (1926–1927) in the Bronx, whose fashionable Tudor Revival skin proclaimed Kazan’s ambition to outperform speculative builders, and the Amalgamated Dwellings (1930) on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, whose expressionist vocabulary and grand arched entrance recalled Red Vienna’s Karl-Marx-Hof (1927–1930, Karl Ehn). Style was of only secondary concern, however. Both Kazan and Jessor prioritized apartment interiors, driven by a shared commitment to provide the best living space at the lowest cost.

The initial impetus for Penn South came from Robert Moses, chairman of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance. In 1956, Moses had the idea to use Title I to rebuild four blocks of Manhattan’s East Side and approached Kazan about serving as developer. Although Moses was not interested in the limited-equity movement, he recognized the value of retaining middle-income families in the city at a time of accelerating white flight and he trusted Kazan to get projects done.

Kazan invited the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) to serve as co-sponsor. The union’s leaders, however, preferred a walk-to-work site closer to the garment district. Moses agreed and helped select a new location: six West Side blocks of old-law tenements, boardinghouses, and aging lofts—all of which were rapidly becoming obsolete as manufacturing fled Manhattan. Although 7,500 people would have to be displaced from the site, there was little organized opposition. With the exception of a handful of preservation-oriented architects and bohemian residents who organized under the lead of a patrician activist named Jane Wood, few thought the blocks worth saving.

Jessor’s plan for Penn South borrowed directly from his previous housing work, both with Springsteen and Goldhammer in the 1920s and after, first as a principal in Springsteen and Jessor in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and as head of his own firm once George W. Springsteen died. (In the late 1930s, Jessor also worked for Alfred Easton Poor on the public Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn.)

The 1920s co-ops had taken the form of perimeter blocks, with apartments accessed by a series of separate stairwells, eliminating the need for lobbies and common corridors. After World War II they pioneered a new model. At Hillman Houses (1947–1950) and East River Houses (1954–1956), both at slum clearance sites on the Lower East Side, they began testing freestanding high-rises, with each building served by three unconnected service cores. At the latter complex, each building took the form of three cruciform towers fused end-to-end. Apartment interiors, which remained the most important consideration, were arranged so that every kitchen had a window and space to eat, and every bedroom sat at an outer corner, allowing for cross ventilation. Exterior presentation remained an afterthought. Following the lead of the city’s public-housing authority, buildings were clad in little more than expedient red brick.

Penn South followed this generic template, with a few refinements. One concern was traffic. Vestigial shipping on the far West Side meant that closing Penn South’s five interior cross streets to create a large superblock, as was the fashion, was impractical. As an alternative, Jessor closed just one road and curved two others, enlarging two of the remaining blocks. Another challenge was accommodating existing buildings. To secure support for the project from neighborhood institutions, Penn South had excluded several existing structures, including an elevator hotel on West 23rd Street and two churches.

To fit the new housing—along with playgrounds, landscaped sitting areas, two new churches, four groups of one- and two-story retail buildings and a three-story office building along the project’s perimeter, surface and underground parking, a heating (and later electricity) plant, and a theater and indoor tennis center that were leased to commercial operators—Jessor replaced triple-core buildings with an even mixture of double- and single-core variants.

Jessor also refined the apartment interiors. Advancements in technology and the project’s economies of scale allowed him to include central air conditioning, mechanical ventilation (in lieu of windows) in some bathrooms, and a balcony in nearly every unit. These enhancements, in turn, meant he could expand the apartments by deepening the distance between elevator landings and outside windows without sacrificing comfort.

If unextraordinary in the context of Jessor’s larger body of work, especially considering that he employed similar designs at several other projects in the 1960s, Penn South’s geography represented a great triumph. To make his early projects pencil out, Kazan had built on greenfield sites in the Bronx. Amalgamated Dwellings, Hillman, and East River brought this vision to the East Side tenement district. But only Penn South sat at the very heart of the city: in Midtown. The symbolic importance was not lost on the tenants. Compared to her old neighborhood in the Bronx, one described Penn South as “heaven.”

At the same time, Penn South betrayed some of the limits of its agenda. With its serial, no-frills aesthetic; simple landscaping (which, five years after opening, Lawrence Halprin proposed revamping); and unornamented facades, whose monotony was relieved only by the balconies and cantilevered entrance awnings, Penn South came under quick attack by critics who, following Jane Jacobs, saw it as dull, capricious, and anti-urban.

Penn South also tested the limits of the right-to-the-city argument. Kazan had long prioritized housing for families—meaning households with children—and Penn South included many two- and three-bedroom apartments. But in recognition of the limited appeal of Midtown, Jessor also included many one-bedroom suites and for the first time, efficiencies (studios). In the end, however, there was so little demand from families that even three-bedroom apartments were assigned initially to single-person households.

The design also reveals a more fundamental paradox: while Penn South offered ample shared amenities, its greatest achievement was the privacy it offered. Despite the tower-in-the-park format, the grounds, while open to the public, were largely cloistered behind the commercial blocks (which resembled ordinary taxpayer strips) and churches. More important, the apartments were as generous in size and equipment as in any luxury building, or any suburban house, with as many as 1,250 square feet of living space.

The challenges of clearance, meanwhile, including growing discomfort over displacement, meant Penn South would be the only project of its kind. Going forward, Kazan refused to accept any additional Title I parcels and all of his (and Jessor’s) future projects, like Co-op City, were relegated to poorly serviced, low-cost sites at the city’s periphery. 

Yet from the perspective of the twenty-first century it is difficult to see Penn South as anything less than a success. Tenants warmed to it quickly, forming deep attachments to the buildings, grounds, and one another. As original tenants Leonard Kriegel, who moved to Penn South from a small studio in the neighborhood, noted more than forty years later, “Penn South never lacked the amenities Jane Jacobs thinks of as the glue of a healthy urban community.” In contrast to many other below-market complexes of its era in New York, Penn South owners have also defended its model fiercely. Its terms required it to remain limited-equity only until its original loans were paid off. Yet despite the skyrocketing value of neighborhood real estate, the homeowners voted three times, beginning in the 1980s, to remain affordable.

In the early twenty-first century, the project was pristinely maintained—and extraordinarily popular. Many first-generation owners along with many of their children and grandchildren remained. The waiting list to buy grew so long, and moved so slowly, that it was permanently closed in 1987 except for occasional special lotteries. As one owner summed things up, “Each day I am thankful to my union for thinking of a beautiful place in midst of Manhattan for workers’ homes.”

References

Bloom, Nicholas Dagen, and Matthew Gordon Lasner, eds. Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Kreigel, Leonard. “The Co-op: On Urban Planning and Socialist Dreams.” Dissent 53, no. 2 (Spring 2006): 52-57.

Lasner, Matthew Gordon. High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

Schuman, Tony. “Labor and Housing in New York City: Architect Herman Jessor and the Cooperative Housing Movement.” In Building as Political Act: Proceedings of the 1997 ACSA International Conference, 387-92. Washington, D.C.: ACSA Press, 1998.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Matthew Gordon Lasner

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