First Houses
First Houses is a public housing project in Manhattan in New York City. The project consists of 122 three-room or four-room apartments in 8 four-story or five-story buildings, and is located on the south side of East 3rd Street between First Avenue and Avenue A, and on the east side of Avenue A between East 2nd Street and East 3rd Street. The neighborhood at one time was referred to as the Lower East Side, but is today considered to be the East Village. First Houses take their name from their distinction of being arguably the first public housing units constructed in the United States, opening for the first tenants on December 3, 1935. Victorian-era tenements existed on the site before they were cleared to build the project. The project was planned as a gut rehab, with every third tenement building torn down to provide extra light and air, but architect Frederick Ackerman and his engineers soon discovered that the 19th century tenements were too fragile to be reconstructed. So they were torn down and First Houses was built from scratch, employing re-used bricks and dozens of workers on relief paid for by the federal government. According to The New York Times on November 21, 1935: "Originally scheduled as a renovation operation, it was turned into practically new construction, with only a few of the old foundation supports being utilized." Ackerman designed the apartment buildings with rear entrances and courtyards to allow more light and air than the existing tenements in the neighborhood. Although First Houses cost far more than anticipated, New York City Housing Authority chairman Langdon Post said it was worth it. "In the first place," he told The New York Times , "it has taken the question of public housing out of the realm of debate and into the realm of fact. Second, it has established the Authority as an agency for the issuance of slum-clearance bonds. Both Vincent Astor and Bernard M. Baruch accepted the Authority’s bonds to cover payments for the land ”“ the first such bonds ever issued. In the third place, it provided an opportunity to test the Authority’s power to condemn land for slum clearance ”“ a test which we won. Fourth, in Mayor La Guardia’s words, it provided us with ’Boondoggling Exhibit A.’" The test which the Housing Authority won was the right to exercise the powerful tool of eminent domain. An owner of two tenements on East 3rd Street contended that seizing his property, even with compensation, contravened the constitutions of the United States and New York State. The New York State Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, ruled that the Housing Authority could seize private property with these words: "Whenever there arises, in the state, a condition of affairs holding a substantial menace to the public health, safety or general welfare, it becomes the duty of the government to apply whatever power is necessary and appropriate to check it." First Houses were designated a New York City and National Historic Landmark in 1974. They are managed by the New York City Housing Authority.

Building Activity

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