This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.
Though just seven stories tall, the main building of Borough of Manhattan Community College is one of the largest structures in Lower Manhattan. Almost five blocks long, if stood on end this 1,100 foot-long educational mega-structure would rival the height of the Empire State Building and One World Trade Center. Founded in 1964, by the early 1970s this two-year college was leasing space in five midtown buildings. As part of the school’s 1974 commencement and to mark the school’s 10th anniversary, a large tent was erected to break ground for a new Tribeca campus. The area had once been part of the Washington Market, once the city’s largest fresh food market, which was replaced by the Hunts Point Market in the South Bronx in 1967. Though most of the late 19th century warehouse buildings east of Greenwich Street were thankfully spared and are now part of the Tribeca Historic District, a 38-acre site was cleared, of which a narrow riverfront parcel was set aside for this growing academic institution.
Caudill, Rowlett & Scott, often referred to as CRS, served as the architect. Based in Houston, Texas, this firm specialized in school design, with projects in 26 states and 8 foreign countries, as well as the Bronx and Queens. CRS was known for producing dramatic, eye-catching works — often called Brutalist — distinguished by abstract shapes and dramatic feats of engineering. While such formal concerns are certainly visible in this Chambers Street structure, BMCC could also be viewed instead as contextually responding to the surrounding environment. Despite its super size, the building is no taller than most of its neighbors (especially when compared to the nearby apartment houses at Independence Plaza) and clad with mostly square brick tiles (rather than exposed concrete) that give the elevations an almost complementary air. Perhaps this reddish material was chosen to harmonize with a group of early 19th century brick town houses that were saved and assembled on a former section of Washington Street, as well as along Harrison Street, which BMCC almost effortlessly bridges.
BMCC was built during difficult economic times. New York City struggled financially during the mid-1970s and construction was halted from 1977 to 1980. Completed by 1983, BMCC is now the largest community college in the City University system, with nearly 20,000 students enrolled in degree programs. Not surprisingly, to meet such needs the school occupies other buildings in Lower Manhattan, including Fiterman Hall, rebuilt after 9/11 at 30 West Broadway in 2012.
– Matthew A. Postal