Start at Bldg 6:
Building 6 is a solid looking building in neo-Tudor style similar to other substantial housing being built in NYC at the time. It is a five story walk up. It has 55 apartments entered through 5 entrances AA through EE. It was fully occupied in February of 1928. The street address is 74 Van Cortlandt Park South. But none of the entrances are on a main street. Instead they are within an inner court. Each entrance leads to 11 apartments 2 or 3 families per floor. It is the oldest Amalgamated building still standing.
Bldg 1-5 called the First Building Building 6 is much like the First Building also known as Buildings 1-5. We can not see it because The First Building was torn down in the late 1960s and replaced by the two 20 story buildings know as the Towers that stand there now.
Construction on the First Building was started with a ground breaking ceremony on Thanksgiving Day in 1926. Many of the future tenants visited the site as often as possible to watch the construction of their new home. The first families started moving in on Nov 1, 1927. In an advertising brochure Amalgamated called the building, the "Amalgamated Cooperative Dwellings, 3965 Sedgwick Avenue facing Van Cortlandt Park". The First Building was also a five story walk-up. Only five stories, because the law did not permit walk-ups higher than five stories, and the project’s neighbor, the Radio Corporation of America, feared that elevators might interfere with its delicate experiments. The First Building had 248 apartments and 24 entrances, A to Z skipping I and Q. Each entrance had at most 11 families with only two or three sharing a landing. Surprising to the organizers two thirds of the original families moved to the Amalgamated from other apartments in the Bronx.
The design features were important to Abraham Kazan and his team that developed the guiding vision for the Amalgamated Cooperative. The bedrooms should have cross ventilation so tired workers could get better sleep. The kitchens should be eat-in with a window so the women had space to do their cooking and serving and modern appliances. Each apartment should have a foyer and adequate closet space. The buildings should be oriented so every window let in light and had a view either of a park or of an inner courtyard. The building design should leave 50% of the space for green areas and paths. High ceilings, parquet hardwood floors, tiled bathrooms were designed to make the apartments substantial and permanent. In 1927, modern appliances included an ice box. Therefore there were dumbwaiters used for the blocks of ice but also for groceries and other packages. By the 1930s, the ice boxes were replaced with refrigerators but they were noisy. The initial six buildings, designed by the architectural firm of Springsteen and Goldhammer, provide telling indicators of the cooperators’ vision. The Amalgamated structures were not single-family detached homes—single family homes would be unaffordable for its prospective tenants and two-family homes which would establish landlord-tenant relations were out of the question. Yet, despite the progressive values of the project, the architects designed the structures in a very traditional neo-Tudor style.
These design features added to the cost but were required by the vision of well built permanent attractive livable apartments for working people.
Within a few months of moving in, a nursery and food store and library were begun in function rooms in the First Building. Having an inner courtyard, only 10 or 11 families sharing a building and many cooperative projects and activities, a high level community spirit developed. One teenager was scolded by his mother. He asked what he had done wrong. His mother said he did not greet the neighbor when he entered the building. This is a cooperative she told him, we say hello to each other when we pass by. One researcher found that some women knew by name as many as 500 of their neighbors.
Back to Bldg 6.
Besides a solid foundation and the other features similar to the First Building, Bldg 6 is built on a hill and has a special feature unusual for an apartment building. It has an auditorium now known as Vladeck Hall. Originally called the Auditorium, it was named Vladeck Hall when one of the original organizers of Amalgamated Housing B Charney Vladeck died suddenly at age 52 in 1938. In the Auditorium, Amalgamated held weekly Friday night lectures, Saturday dance socials and Sunday panel discussions. The Auditorium, Library, House Committees, clubs and educational activities made Amalgamated more than a place to live, it was becoming a close knit community of about 1200 people in 303 apartments. That Bldg 6 still stands adds to the controversy over what was lost and what was gained when the First Building was replaced by the Towers.
The income from the rent covered all costs and made it possible for the Amalgamated Corporation to buy as much land as was for sale along Van Cortlandt Park South.
Bldg 7 In 1929 Amalgamated built Bldg 7 (80 Van Cortland Park South) with eight entrances in 206 apartments. Again in neo-Tudor style around an inner court yard with a fountain and a gold fish pool. The Bldg 7 court yard can be accessed from 4 directions. This court yard gives a better idea of the First Building court yard than does Bldg 6. Bldg 7 was the first Amalgamated bldg to have elevators. Today Bldg 7 is the second largest Amalgamated Bldg, only Bldg 8 has more apartments
The next building should have been Bldg 8 but when Amalgamated wanted to build its next building it did not own the next plot of land. It skipped the plot and the number and built Bldg 9 on the next plot it owned. On June 26, 1948 ground was broken on plot #8 for Bldg 14 (92 and 98 Van Cortlandt Park South). 600 people partook in the ceremony, standing on the Van Cortlandt Park side of the street watching as the first shovel full of dirt was dug. Robert Moses speaking for the City paid high tribute to the organizers for setting the example of such a socially desirable housing project based on cooperative principles. He pledged that the City would extend what aid it could in the form of tax exemptions, parks and playground facilities. After the ceremony, light refreshments were served in Vladeck hall. In 1949 the first families started moving into Bldg 14. Some complained that their apartments were cold. Others were upset when the paint soon began to peel. But all were happy to finally begin their new life at Amalgamated.
A welcoming party was held for the new comers. 400 people filled Vladeck Hall, squeezed shoulder to shoulder at long tables. The evening opened with classical and folk music. Manager Kazan gave a 10 minute talk stressing participation and involvement in the organization and in protecting the property of which they were now all co-owners. The rest of the evening was socializing.
About 50 years later, at a social gathering in her building that she organized, cooperator Etta Goldbaum made a placard out of construction paper with the heading, ''We Are a United Nations.'' The sign listed more than 20 nations that people from the building called their original home, among them Mexico, Korea, USA, Russia, Ireland and Thailand. That shows the diversity now at Amalgamated but when families first moved into Bldg 14 in 1949, they were, as were most of the original Amalgamated cooperators, predominantly secular or religious followers of the Jewish culture or faith.
Geographically Bldg 14 sits between Bldg 7 and Bldg 9
Bldg 9 (100 Van Cortlandt Park South) was built in the early 1930s. It has 115 apartments, elevators and no inner court yard. Still in neo-Tudor. Beginning with Bldg 9 Amalgamated buildings looked outward with entrances onto the main streets rather than an inner courtyard. When Amalgamated was completing Bldg 9, the Sholom Aleichem Houses, a nearby cooperative was just failing financially. Unemployment of its tenants made keeping up the mortgage payments impossible. Many of the former shareholders at Sholom Aleichem, mainly Yiddish intellectuals, applied together to become Amalgamated cooperators. They provided for 70% of Bldg 9 incoming tenants and gave that building a special intellectual character and cohesion. Bldg 9 has function rooms also entering from Gale Place including an artist studio, a ceramic studio and a Community Room. In the 1930s, there was an Old Folks Social Club that had a club room in Bldg 9.
Bldg 8 Amalgamated had plans to build its Bldg 8 starting in the 1930s but it had to wait until after WWII to actually build it. As the war was coming to an end, the Amalgamated waiting list was growing. Bldg 8 was going to be a big building to accommodate the first 300 families on the waiting list. Amalgamated did not know when the construction could start because of post-war conditions. A little synagogue on Gouverneur Ave sat on land Amalgamated wanted. The congregation did not agree to the price Amalgamated offered to pay for it to leave. Amalgamated also wanted to close Gale Place so there was no street between some of its buildings. The home owners on Gale Place objected. Amalgamated lost its effort in court to get these properties by eminent domain.
My guess is that the original plan was for Bldg 8 to be built where Bldgs 13 and 14 are now. But the little synagogue would not sell at the Board’s price, so the plans had to be changed.
In March 1950, families started to move into Bldg 8 (120, 124 and 130 Gale Place). By May, all 282 apartments were occupied. One woman, who still lives at Amalgamated, said her 12th floor apartment felt like heaven. Her views were to the South and West. She could see the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge and wonderful skies and sunsets. Another woman who still lives in her same apartment 62 years later said when she first entered her apartment she felt like dancing for joy because it was so spaciousness. With it, she was able to bring up two children and use the master bedroom as a studio until Amalgamated made a studio available to her and her husband for a reasonable rent. Again some people found the concrete floor and missing appliances annoying. For others their apartments seem very noisy. The welcoming party was held in DeWitt Clinton HS.
Bldg 13 and Train Park
Next it was Bldg 13’s turn. The ground for it was softer soil than the others. Piles had to be driven for the foundation. The noise was deafening. When completed in April and May 1951, Bldg 13 had two entrances 13A (3980 Orloff Ave) with 77 apartments on twelve floors with a pent house and 13B (3985 Gouvernreur Ave)with 74 apartments.
While Bldg 13 was being constructed, 2 small children in separate incidents were nearly hit by cars while crossing Van Cortland Park South. Some parents decided to clear the construction material from the lot owned by Amalgamated on the corner of Gale Place and Orloff Ave. making that a play area for small children. But the small children and older people who used the park were threatened by ball playing and bicycle riding so a cement train and a two pine tree garden were added to discourage ball playing. It is now known as Train Park but its official name is Ostroff Plaza, named after Harold Ostroff, an active member of the Cooperative Housing movement in NYC.
Between Bldg 13 and Bldg 14 is a garden. After Kazan’s death in 1971, Amalgamated named it Kazan Garden.
South of Bldg 13A on Orloff Ave is a VFW post and other privately owned buildings. An Amalgamated cooperator named Bernadette has taken it upon herself to plant and maintain a flower garden along the street on the way to the #10 Bus stop. Orloff Van Cortlandt, a Dutchman, arrived in New Amsterdam in 1638 and founded a dynasty which at one time owned about 200 square miles of land. His son Stephanus bought the land that included what is now Van Cortlandt Park. Two streets in this neighborhood are named after these men: Orloff Ave and Stevenson Place.
Amalgamated bought a building on Sedgwick Ave in 1946. It was trying to open a co-op supermarket but had legal problems evicting the more than 20 small stores that operated in the building. By 1950, AH Consumers was able to open for business the Co-op Market as a consumer cooperative. Based on the Rochdale Co-op Principles, each share holder received annually a share of the profits based in the amount of purchases.
Bldg 10 and 11
As the Amalgamated population aged, the 5 story walk-ups became a problem for older workers. To keep them in the community, in 1942, Amalgamated was able somehow despite WWII to build 48 garden apartments called Bldg 10 (12 entrances at 3995 Hillman Ave, 3989 Hillman Ave and 4002 Gouverneur Ave). These two story buildings surrounded a backyard which includes a hothouse still used by Amalgamated’s gardeners. In recent years the question of a new roof has been raised but not yet decided. Two meetings were called in 2010 to discuss the fate of Bldg 10. The over whelming sentiment was to repair the roof not tear down the building. The Board was considering at that time replacing it by a parking lot as a solution to the aging of the building.
When WWII ended in 1945, again NYC had a major housing shortage. New York City offered a program to encourage new housing for veterans. Plans were made to construct a small four story walkup building on Hillman Ave just south of Bldg 6. One hundred and eighty five families submitted applications for the 30 apartments. Thirty five were from Amalgamated families. So when this building called Bldg 11 or the Veterans’ Building (4010, 4016 and 4022 Hillman Ave) opened in 1947 all the new tenants were already amalgamated families. All the families being veterans, a lively social life and camaraderie developed in Bldg 11. But the physical building had its faults. The walls had not dried sufficiently when the paint was applied and soon the paint was cracking and peeling. Also, there wasn’t sufficient janitorial help. The former servicemen let their complaints be heard. The Board responded and the complaints subsided. Bldg 11 is a walkup.
The last of the middle generation buildings was Bldg 12, a nine story building with three entrances on Hillman Ave (3960, 39870 and 3980) near Sedgwick Ave. It opened in August 1951. Today the credit union is housed on the ground floor of 3960 Hillman). When all families were moved into Bldg 12, Amalgamated had more than doubled from 702 apartments in 1948 to 1435 apartments in 1951.
The Towers In 1962 Kazan began to consider if Amalgamated could expand any more. The idea he came up with was to replace the 248 apartments in the First Building with Towers using the architectural plans from Co-op City. By 1964 he was able to get enough approval from the community to begin to relocate the families living in the First Building either into other buildings at Amalgamated or elsewhere. By 1968, all families were relocated, the First Building was demolished and construction of the Towers was begun. Today there are 158 apartments in the 20 stories of Tower I (1A, 3975-77 Sedgwick Ave) and a similar number in Tower II (IB, 3965-67 Sedgwick Ave). The Towers have a convector system which provides heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. Over the years that system has had some problems.
Between Tower I and Tower II is a sculpture titled "Maternal Force". It was donated by sculptor Honey Kassoy in appreciation for the support and friendship this community gave to her and her husband, artist Bernie Kassoy.
I asked a friend who lives in the Towers what to look for when we arrive there. She answered, "Don’t forget to check out the 'pyramids' surrounding the towers! Notice how they're crumbling, and check the bases of the benches and the gazebo, also crumbling. Under the scaffolding, you'll notice a freshly-tarred area, recently done, after years of major crevasses and pot-holes." She was emphasizing that Amalgamated has it problems as well as its advantages.
Today Amalgamated has 1482 units in11 buildings on perhaps 10 acres of land between Van Cortlandt Park and the Jerome Park Reservoir. The per room investment rose to almost $6000 (approximately $500 in 1927 dollars), and the carrying charges are, on average, $196.00 per room per month as of Nov 2012. The waiting list takes about 3 to 4 years before an apartment will be offered.
There is much more to the history than we were able to cover on this tour. The History Club meets once per month to read and discuss this history and ask the question what from the history helps us understand the value of the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative and its problems today.
If time had permitted, the tour would have gone through Fort Independence Park to Sedgwick Ave near Giles Place. It would then have walked past Mutual Housing and across the street to Bldgs 2 and 3 of Park Reservoir (3825 and 3845 Sedgwick Ave).