Weeksville Heritage Center Reveals City’s History

Weeksville, Brooklyn, and the Weeksville Heritage Center both have relatively long histories. James Weeks, a free African American, established the Brooklyn community in 1838; and the Center, designed by Caples Jefferson Architects, started in 2002. Fifty years after its “rediscovery” in the late 1960s by Pratt professor and amateur helicopter pilot James Hurley, the neighborhood received a new $26-million home for rotating exhibitions, performances, lectures, classrooms, research, and offices to administer the cultural organization’s programming – green markets, after-school programs, outdoor concerts – and, most importantly, the historic Hunterfly Road Houses.

To sneak preview the building and some behind-the-scenes spaces, curious tourists came from as far as New Jersey on a beautiful, if slightly chilly, April morning. Sara Caples, AIA, welcomed the group and introduced the project she designed with her partner Everardo Jefferson, AIA. Inspired by the site’s history and African patterns, and despite colleagues initially calling it “cliché and not what good Modernists are supposed to do,” the rich colors and finely detailed steel, wood, and slate never seem fussy or superfluous. Patterns inform the theater’s laser-cut panels, perimeter fence, and security gate; Congolese weaving inspires the glass connector’s frit pattern. Details or decoration, it’s all integrated into design intent or functional enhancement.

The 23,000-square-foot building, decidedly modern and not stylistically mimicking the historic houses, anchors the southeast corner of the site. A narrow north-south bar lines the eastern edge, and a yellow steel-framed glass corridor along the site’s southern edge connects to a box containing an exhibition room and multi-purpose hall. The siting reinforces the urban grid, references historic roads, and opens the landscaped garden and historic houses to the community.

All public spaces of the LEED Gold building receive natural light and most have natural ventilation. All painting is low-VOC, pigmented plaster, or was done off-site in the case of steel. Caples made a point to eschew cutting-edge green technologies: “We didn’t do the fashionable thing; we designed for the long term, the community, and the changing nature of New York. What was fashionable when we started designing isn’t fashionable today.” The sprung floors of the auditorium and exhibition hall are made of a recycled wood panel byproduct, similar to end grain hardwood floors. Landscaping by Elizabeth Kennedy Landscape Architects keeps the remaining site open for geothermal wells, abundant plantings, and a thriving summer concert series.

Still wrapping up construction and finish-out, the center expects to open in May, with full programming starting in September. Another gem of New York City culture, it’s a worthwhile visit architecturally and historically.

James Way, Assoc. AIA, Marketing Manager at Dattner Architects, frequently contributes to eOculus.

Event: Weeksville Heritage Center Presentation and Tour
Location: Weeksville Heritage Center, 158 Buffalo Avenue, Brooklyn, 04.05.14
Speakers: Everardo Jefferson & Sara Caples, Caples Jefferson Architects; Anita Romero-Warren, Director of Operations & Administration, Weeksville Heritage Center
Organized by: AIANY Diversity and Inclusion Committee, nycobaNOMA, & AIANY Cultural Facilities Committee