Established in 1982 at LaGuardia Community College/ CUNY with a mission to collect, preserve, and make available primary materials documenting the social and political history of New York City. We hold nearly 5,000 cubic feet of archival records and 3,200 reels of microfilm with almost 100,000 photographs and 2,000,000 documents available on our website.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Black History Month: The Story of John Louis Wilson, Jr. and the Harlem River Houses

Architect John L. Wilson, Jr. with Borough President 
David Dinkins, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington,
 and others at the 50th Anniversary of the Harlem River Houses
©New York City Housing Authority
"At the request of the Federal Government we are putting a negro architect on the Harlem-Macombs Place Project. His name [is] John Louis Wilson.”  Even setting aside the now offensive reference to an African American, this quote from a 1935 letter by Langdon Post (then head of the New York City Housing Authority) and the story behind it is shocking.  Or maybe it just should be.

The team initially selected to design project now known as the Harlem River Houses, did not include any African Americans, even though it was the first and premier public housing in Harlem, the heart of black culture in America.  The Harlem River Houses was intended to be a high profile and symbolic project: a statement of commitment to the black community in a time of segregated housing.  Even today, it is considered among the best designed housing ever built by government.

Architects Rendering of Harlem River Houses
©New York City Housing Authority
It took federal intervention for Wilson to be added to the team.  Some of the white architects, while denying personal racism, complained that Wilson’s appointment set a bad precedent because he had not participated in the initial qualifying competition.  And they decided that Wilson’s share of the profits would be 1/3 less than their own, justifying this with an unlikely estimate of the work remaining on the project as of Wilson’s appointment. 

The Housing Authority identified only two qualified black architects to fill the post.  John Louis Wilson, Jr. was unquestionably qualified.  He was the first black graduate of Columbia University’s prestigious School of Architecture, graduating in 1928 and fully licensed by 1930.  The other candidate was already working on another federal project, perhaps because it was so hard for black professionals to find work in the private sector. 

We have collected a great many resources for you to explore the history of John Louis Wilson, Jr. and the Harlem River Houses. 
  • Here is the in depth story of Mr. Wilson and the Harlem River Houses, including photos, documents and news clippings.
  • Here is the 1935 letter confirming Wilson’s appointment to the Harlem River Houses project, along with the responses by the original architects team.  We are proud to be the official repository of the New York City Housing Authority, from which these letters are selected.  The collection can be further explored here.  
  • Although not available online, we also have in our LaGuardia Collection an oral history interview with John L. Wilson himself, conducted by Professor Richard K. Lieberman (Director of the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives), and recorded during a class at LaGuardia Community College.