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Inside the Conversion of an Abandoned East Harlem School

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After sitting abandoned for 15 years, P.S. 109 is finally being converted into a residential building by nonprofit Artspace. The project is moving steadily along, and artists and their families are expected to start moving into the grand 19th century building in East Harlem by the end of the year. Located on East 99th Street between Second and Third Avenues, this incredible structure will be home to 90 affordable housing units. A tour last week gave the first look inside the project.

The building was completed in 1898, when architect C.B.J. Snyder (a.k.a. Charles B.J. Snyder) was superintendent for school buildings in New York City. He worked on over 400 projects between 1891 and 1923 and brought innovations to the school system, including the "H" design seen in this school. "He gave them beauty. He gave them light," New York Landmarks Conservancy President Peg Breen said during the tour last Friday. By 1995, the city had scheduled it for demolition and work actually began to that effect. However, the conservancy (which organized the tour) worked with the community in 2000 and got the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of the original terra cotta had already been removed, but was salvaged, though not all of it was in a condition where it could be re-attached. Those pieces that couldn't be re-attached have been recreated. In fact, the building's central steeple was removed entirely, shipped up to Boston, repaired, shipped back to Manhattan, and put back in place.

The reborn P.S. 109 is being run by Artspace, which creates affordable housing for artists across the country, and is known as Artspace PS109. The $52 million conversion project, under the supervision of architect Matthew Meier of HHL Architects and Artspace's Shawn McLearen with general contractor Monadnock Construction, includes three types of housing units—studios and one- and two-bedrooms in a variety of shapes and sizes. The largest two-bedroom unit is 1,200 square feet and will go for $1,000 a month.

Because of the building's H-shaped layout, rounded interior corners, scissor stairs, and more, Meier called it "the most expensive jigsaw puzzle in the city." One of the elements of which he is particularly proud is the addition of new pieces to the building's exterior, including one called Gene because of its Gene Simmons-like long tongue.

In addition to the 90 units, for which there have been over 53,000 applicants (and 50 percent of the units have been reserved for current El Barrio residents), there is more than 10,000 square feet on the ground and lower level (referred to as the cellar on the tour, but that belies how much space there is) for events and arts and cultural organizations. There is a particularly large central common space on the ground floor and the lower level even has a space that will be made into a small theater. Each floor will have a shared laundry facility.

—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· Artspace PS109 [Official]
· All P.S. 109 coverage [Curbed]