170 Park Row, 1961–1965

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

Chatham Towers was the first residential project in New York City built with exposed reinforced concrete. In the early 20th century, most concrete buildings, such as the numerous factories in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, were painted to give the exteriors a more polished character. This practice, however, declined after World World II when architects like Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn began to experiment with exposed concrete. Though some examples of the so-called “Brutalist style” exhibit a raw, almost primitive quality, the surfaces at Chatham Towers are remarkably refined, with most of the visual interest resulting from linear patterns left by the wood-planked formwork.

Kelly & Gruzen (now Gruzen Samton) served as the project’s architect, with Mario Romanach, a Cuban-born architect who taught at the University of Pennsylvania, chief designer. Established in 1936, this firm worked on many ambitious urban renewal projects in Lower Manhattan, namely the Southbridge Towers housing cooperative and One Police Plaza. Twice they worked for the non-profit Association for Middle-Income Housing under the sponsorship of the Municipal Credit Union and the New York State Credit Union, first designing the serpentine-shaped Chatham Green apartments on Park Row, completed in 1961, and later Chatham Towers, a 240-unit cooperative. Sited between the Civic Center and Chinatown, the two 25-story buildings stand close to Worth Street and Columbus Park. Together they cover just 15 per cent of the two-acre site, with the balance of the parcel set aside as a private park and playground.

Chatham Towers introduced a number of modern innovations. Despite vehement opposition from the plasterers’ unions, it was the first development in New York City to feature mass-produced gypsum wallboard, commonly called sheetrock or drywall. Also noteworthy are the large windows with curved corners. Each double-glazed window pivots out horizontally and incorporates a dust-free horizontal blind.

Like pieces of abstract sculpture, these totemic structures stand in near isolation. Though the pristine concrete elevations bare little aesthetic relation to buildings in the surrounding neighborhood, their high level of execution make them a bright addition to Lower Manhattan’s cityscape.

Matthew A. Postal