Our story begins with a breakfast dish that goes by the auspicious name Never Again. Two eggs scrambled, bacon, home fries, and “S.O.S.” (Shit On Shingle). This is then topped with cheese and gravy, all in a fabulous pile-up that makes lunch at Primanti’s look like high tea. Needless to say, David’s Diner in Springdale is Orbit-approved.
We’d booked our resident architecture consultants Charles & Susan for a gorgeous bright Sunday morning poke-see at a site just across the river in New Kensington and David’s friendly staff made sure all aboard were well provisioned for the hard journalism work ahead.
The crew was on its way to Aluminum City Terrace, a historically-significant housing complex that touched the interconnected spheres of World War II, big industry, and mid-century rock star architects. We wanted to see what the place looks like today, who lives there, and how it’s fared in the seventy-some years since it was hastily built back in the day.Nineteen forty-two. America had just joined World War II and the nation needed aluminum (along with lots of other raw materials) for the effort. That meant lots of work for New Kensington-based Alcoa and a whole slew of new factory jobs for the town.
In what was reportedly a lightning development process, ex-Bauhaus founder/instructors/architects and design world big-wigs Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer drew up a 250-unit campus of cheap, simple, efficient worker apartments specifically geared to Alcoa (and New Kensington’s) immediate need to house the ramped-up workforce. The location was a beautifully hilly section just outside of town. It was a mere two miles as the crow flies from Alcoa’s plants along the Allegheny River, but must have felt like another world compared to the belching industry and urban grid of the New Ken/Arnold flats.
Seeing the apartment buildings in person, the immediate effect is, frankly, underwhelming. Aluminum City Terrace may have a great history and rich architectural pedigree, but the two-story units basically look somewhere between the kind of no-frills “garden” apartments that sit at the perimeter of many American towns and the independent no-tell motels just a little further out. This is especially true of the buildings’ featureless back sides.
The road that snakes through the complex and swells into various parking areas dominates its midsection with a regrettable amount of pavement. There are many opportunities to include a shade tree, flower bed, or line of shrubs, but the groundskeepers of the Terrace have chosen to keep its midway decidedly foliage-free.
It’s not a great first impression–especially because you’re likely only going to arrive here by car, and that will land you on pavement. Look a little deeper, though, and the Terrace tells a really interesting story, both past and present.
I’ll add that Aluminum City Terrace is no Dwell set piece, either. People live here, and the sense of life is apparent everywhere. In the drying beach towels hanging off the back porches, the kids trampoline and sports equipment strewn about the yard, the incongruous white plastic picket fence added to a single unit. Architects must flip a gripper when they see what real people do to “their” spaces, but this neutral observer found the collision to be most enjoyable.The irony of the complex that Alcoa built (not literally–the federal government actually sponsored the project–but you know what I mean) is that there wasn’t a square inch of aluminum in Gropius and Breuer’s design. That is, of course, because America needed all of it to fight the bad guys. What are now the long louvered aluminum sun shades were originally made from wood. The elevations tell us the odd jutting-out second-floor bedrooms/back porch roofs were first clad in vertical cedar siding (since replaced) and back entrances shielded by sleek flat asbestos board canopies (ditto).
Walking through the complex, I was repeatedly struck by the cattywumpus arrangement of buildings. Each individual set of apartments is one of two designs (single floor one-bedrooms and two-story combined two-/three-bedrooms). The only real exception being the unique yard spaces and controlled additions the current co-op owners have created. But with none of the units lining up in any form of metered placement, it gives the place the overall feeling of a child’s building blocks dropped indiscriminately on a (very well-groomed) lawn, or train cars gently derailed, but untoppled.
I’m sure the primary reason for this was to follow the natural contours of the land. This part of New Kensington is quite hilly, surrounded by trees, and the plan takes advantage of the location in many ways. But even with that in mind, the site plan suggests there was a conscious effort to break evenly lining up any two buildings–either in parallel or perpendicular–on the grounds.We were fortunate to run across a very friendly family, one of whom happened to be on the board of Aluminum City Terrace. They invited the group into their apartment and showed us before and after photos from a large scale remodeling job they’d done. We also got some background on how the co-op system works there.
Residents must apply, pass a background check, and pay a one-time expense to get into the co-op. They then pay monthly upkeep fees for the maintenance of the exteriors of the buildings and grounds. Compared to more strict co-ops (ex: Pittsburgh’s Chatham Village), the residents seem to have a good amount of leniency in the treatment of their yard spaces, adding trees, fences, all manner of shrubs, flowers, vegetable gardens, etc. According to our hosts, all 250 units are occupied and there’s a waiting list to get in.
And it’s easy to see why. The buildings, sidewalks, its one road, and the grounds are in immaculate condition. This is in stark contrast to seen-better-days New Kensington proper. Our hosts told us their daughter is living in a one-bedroom nearby with other relatives also in the complex and there seems to be a strong community throughout. The Terrace is surrounded by trees and was built in maybe the last age before developers routinely flattened the landscape prior to development, leaving it with terrific rolling ups and downs.
So…what’s the takeaway? Well, this is the first Bauhaus-related project this architecture-curious (but just a casual fan) blogger has experienced up close and personal. As such, it’s cool to find out it’s here, and it’s so loved, lived-in, and accessible in a very real world way. I don’t know much about Gropius and Breuer, but I hope they’d like most of what they’d see seventy years on. I do.
Oh, and that breakfast? On that, David is wrong: you can bet I’ll be having it again.