East Harlem Community Center Reimagined For Senior, Youth Programs

Redesigned Washington Houses Community Center brings together the East Harlem community it serves in a creative, engaging learning atmosphere.

In New York City, Andrew Franz Architect has created a sunny and art-filled environment at the Washington Houses Community Center for Union Settlement, a nonprofit community organization.

Completely transformed from the original structure built more than 60 years ago, the new, 11,00-square-foot youth and senior center brings together the East Harlem community it serves in a state-of the-art, visually impactful setting. Modernized classrooms, welcoming offices, and bright, open public spaces are fitted out with brand-new infrastructure and lighting. The new design epitomizes Union Settlement’s engaging learning atmosphere and the creativity and warmth essential to its service mission. Funded by the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the new, one-story center delivers on its mission to serve as a powerful magnet for area teens and seniors alike.

“We are extremely proud of this collaboration with Union Settlement and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and grateful for their support of our vision of a new center and community touchstone that not only fulfills their rich program offerings but also creates a welcoming, bright and open experience for East Harlem residents,” says architect Andrew Franz, AIA, founder of Andrew Franz Architect. “It’s our hope that with this extensive redesign and the wonderful works by East Harlem artists, the center will offer a source of pride and inspiration for the youth and seniors it serves, long into the future.”

The center’s new enlarged glass-clad entry was transformed from a formerly hard-to-find, dark opening into an easily accessible and hospitable invitation to come inside. Through the doors, an expanded reception area full of natural light from new skylights opens to a multi-use space with stepped bleacher-style wood seating with pops of brightly colored art and finish accents. This area extends to various function rooms, including the library, education center, classrooms, and computer lab, plus the senior center by the entry lounge, offices, and services with varied opportunities for Union Settlement to serve its different constituencies. Colorful and exuberant, the community center presents work by local artists, such as East Harlem artist Kristy McCarthy’s mixed-media art installation “Welcome Home” which features images and patterns representing the diverse ethnicities and rich history of the neighborhood.

The center’s new skylight and enlarged windows draw in natural daylight and create enhanced views of the trees and greenery outdoors. Throughout the building, glass partition hallways provide openness and views between staff members and visitors to improve Union Settlement’s team communications and client safety while encouraging friendly interactions.

Washington Houses Community Center

Washington Houses Community Center

Washington Houses Community Center

Washington Houses Community Center
(All photos by Albert Vecerka/Esto, courtesy Andrew Franz Architect)

New designs for the facility’s classrooms, conference areas, and workrooms transformed the spaces from cramped quarters into spacious, bright, and modern learning zones. All furnished with new light-toned wood tables and desks, along with colorful chairs — and new electrical and mechanical systems — the facility is designed for community and staff engagement, comfort, and productivity.

“Union Settlement is thrilled to see the Washington Houses Community Center transformed into such an amazing space, and we are delighted to now welcome children, youth, adults and seniors back into this wonderful new space,” said David Nocenti, executive director of Union Settlement. “We are grateful to Andrew Franz Architect for the firm’s innovative design that will provide an open and airy space for the East Harlem community to enjoy for years to come.”

At its ribbon-cutting, Gale A. Brewer, Borough President of Manhattan, extended her appreciation directly to the architect Franz, saying, “It’s a beautifully designed space where youth and seniors can grow, learn, and develop.”

With its new design, the Washington Houses Community Center supports the advancement of Union Settlement’s legacy of community service, helping promote productive futures through youth programs and ensuring older citizens enjoy long-lasting quality of life through its senior center.

Along with Andrew Franz Architect, the project team included contractor SPK | Lewis; mechanical, electrical, and plumbing firm Plus Group Consulting Engineers; cost estimator Ellana Inc., code consultant JMV Associates; and Design One Lighting Design. Other contributors included muralist Alice Mizrachi, installation artist Kristy McCarthy, and art consultant Angel Bellaran.

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