It’s hard to imagine any inch of New York City that hasn’t been scrutinized, glorified, surveyed, bought, and sold. But only 42 years ago, in 1968, Pratt Institute Professor Jim Hurley discovered three buildings in Brooklyn completely off the grid. He was in a helicopter, preparing for his urban studies course when he spotted three ancient houses along a forgotten alley. It looked like a little farm airlifted from Middle America. Instead, it was an improbably intact remnant of Weeksville, the country’s first community of free, black Americans.
Four decades after that discovery and nine years in the making, those three 120-year-old houses are being preserved in a remarkable $32 million museum, community center, and green space which will open next summer. Located in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, the site occupies what was once Hunterfly Road, a 320 year-old Dutch and Indian trading route. The project to preserve it and the houses above is an amalgam of work from architects, landscape architects, historians, city planners, and the museum’s staff.
Each of the three houses has been restored to reflect a different period in Weeksville’s history: mid-1800s, 1900s, and the Depression era, 1930s. The center hosts concerts in the yard behind the houses and local children grow organic vegetables in the lot’s small garden. It doesn’t fill much space now, but by the time the project’s finished, Weeksville will take up nearly an entire city block.
But preservation wasn’t the only goal. New York City regulators wanted the new Weeksville to be current — to give the area green space and a cultural, artistic hub. “The Design Commission had a very strong directive that it wanted to see a very modern building that did not have the same architectural language as the original houses; they didn’t want a blurring of history,” says Sara Caples of Caples Jefferson Architects.
Instead, Caples Jefferson infused the center’s state-of-the-art construction with West African patterns and colors. For example, silkscreened frits on the center’s windows, which improve the building’s energy efficiency, were printed in a Congolese pattern. The entranceway’s 15-foot-high ceiling and wooden sculptures are cloaked in African colors, such as deep purple and chocolate brown. The center will evoke Africa, not make a caricature of it — no masks or dashikis. “We got some early sketches that were too ridiculous,” Pam Green, the director of Weeksville, recalls with a laugh. “They looked like huts.”
For the center’s signage, the firm created a new font based on a newspaper once printed in Weeksville. The periodical had printed the alphabet to help the community learn to read. Caples Jefferson resurrected the style and dubbed it “Freedman’s Torchlight.”
Perhaps the project’s most compelling design decision is to build the new center low enough that the original houses can still be seen — only about two stories tall. The structure will be certified LEED Gold. Geothermal wells will provide the heating and cooling, and the walls will be made of ipe, a renewable wood from Brazil, and slate. Glass hallways will connect flexible theater and exhibition space, a research center, and library. Also, there’s room for educational workshops, symposiums, concerts, and cultural events. “Weeksville serves more than 10,000 visitors each year, and anticipates that the expansion will more than triple its attendance over time,” explains Commissioner Kate Levin of the the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
Outside, Elizabeth Kennedy Landscape Architects designed a space that harks back to a more natural, untouched Brooklyn. There will be a pastoral lawn, an interpretive landscape that reflects the area’s agricultural history before the newer city grid superseded Hunterfly Road. It will be angled along the older border, surrounded by wetlands. Weeksville’s parking lot sits across the street from the main campus, like an island off the mainland. Throngs of schoolchildren jumping off their yellow buses, among others, will find they have to cross a small bridge to reach the campus. Down below, under plexiglass, they’ll see the foundations to several of the area’s original houses, which were discovered there and left intact.
“You don’t really recreate everything; it’s interpretive,” explains Elizabeth Kennedy. “You don’t hand it to people — you give them enough to imagine what it was like.”
Weeksville’s staff talks a lot about freedom, and how that notion dictated the center’s new design. “We can’t separate the new buildings from the old in terms of what we’re trying to convey,” Green insists. “Promoting creativity, self-sufficiency and freedom.”