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Landmarks of New York: First Houses

First Houses today

On December 3, 1935, First Houses were dedicated and opened, the first housing project undertaken by the then-recently established New York City Housing Authority and the first publicly-funded low-income housing project in the nation. The groundbreaking development was made a New York City landmark on November 12, 1974.

On that cold morning in the midst of the Depresssion, throngs of New Yorkers showed up to witness the momentous occasion of the development’s opening and dedication. The proceedings were broadcast on national radio starting with the reading of a telegram from President Franklin Roosevelt: “Congratulations on the opening of First Houses by the New York City Housing Authority. I am sorry that I cannot be with you to see in person this answer to the great national need for better American homes and housing conditions.” Speakers at the ceremony included Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Governor Lehman, and Mayor LaGuardia.  An “Abolish the Slums” luncheon followed, sponsored by the National Public Housing Conference.

Avenue A before the creation of First Houses (above) and after (below), showing the innovative approach and results of demolishing every third building.

Located in the East Village on Avenue A between Second and Third Streets and along Third Street between Avenue A and 1st Avenue, First Houses was also the first municipally sponsored and operated project which endeavored to deal with the acute and long-standing problems on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the area of the greatest concentration of slums in the City at this time. The First Houses project was a bold innovation in planning which began as an experiment in partial demolition of existing tenements on the site. It was originally planned to raze every third house, in order to open up the block to air and light, and then remodel the remaining houses, a practice which had been successful in England. In order to comply with the terms of the Federal financing, First Houses also had to be a slum renovation project. Demolition of the existing tenements began on March 1, 1935; however it was quickly ascertained that the mid-19th century buildings were not structurally sound as stand-alones.  Consequently, five of the buildings were entirely rebuilt and three were almost entirely new throughout and reinforced with structural steel. Brick was reused from this and other sites, saving in construction costs and providing income for the Authority for several years.

First Houses today.

Most of the tenements on the site were acquired by the NYC Housing Authority from Vincent Astor, grandson of John Jacob Astor, at a price of $189,281.31 which was less than half of the assessed value. Astor advocated slum clearance, a problem too vast in his opinion to be handled by private enterprise. He urged other property owners to cooperate with Federal and municipal authorities in their slum clearance program. Labor and materials for the First Houses project were furnished under the “work-relief” program of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA).

first houses nypl
First Houses, date unknown, NYPL

The architect for the project was Frederick L. Ackerman who had the task of making sure that housing guidelines set forth by Federal agencies, notably the Federal Emergency Housing Administration, were applied to the project. These guidelines were created with new housing in mind, and the degree to which Ackerman was able to apply them to the alteration of existing tenements on the site showed ingenuity and imagination. First Houses was originally planned to house 120 to 122 families, and all apartments had steam heat, hot water and were equipped with the modern amenities typically found in middle class housing. Within two months of opening a rental office for the project, the Housing Authority received between 3,000 and 4,000 applications. Prospective tenants were carefully selected by a team of social workers, with preference given to the inhabitants of the worst slums and relatively small families. All but one of the families chosen were residents of the Lower East Side.

GVSHP has successfully proposed landmark designation for two other affordable housing developments in our neighborhood, Westbeth and Silver Towers/University Village which included 505 LaGuardia, an affordable housing complex.  For more information on the history of First Houses, click HERE for the New York City Landmarks Designation Report.  You can find out more about other individual landmarks and historic districts in our neighborhood on the GVSHP Resources webpage by clicking HERE.

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