The Friends Housing Cooperative (FHC) provides affordable rental housing to over 80 households. It was overdue for repairs and renovation in 2012 when new board leadership vowed to become stronger stewards of this unique enclave of affordable housing and secure its future. One of their first actions was to apply for a Design Grant from the Collaborative for a conceptual master plan to guide repairs and restoration.
An ongoing partnership with the preservationist from the Collaborative's volunteer team led to further steps to celebrate FHC’s remarkable past and honor its original promise. As a result, FHC was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015 and received the Initiative Award for Community Involvement and Stewardship from Preservation Pennsylvania in 2016.
“Less than a decade ago,” stated Preservation Pennsylvania, “FHC was a little-known resource threatened by physical decay, mismanagement, and encroaching gentrification. All that changed in 2012, when a new Board and energized cooperative members embarked on a multi-year restoration and repair campaign coupled with advocacy efforts to raise awareness of FHC’s significance which culminated in its 2015 listing on the National Register of Historic Places.”
A progressive approach to housing that's relevant today
Leila Hamroun, architect, preservationist, and principal of Past Forward, was a member of the Collaborative team that evaluated the condition of more than 80 housing units and created a master plan to guide restoration and repairs.
She recalls, “There are really a lot of people living there from the original coop. The board was trying to preserve a living community… to keep the communal spirit alive. They realized that 'if we don’t do something, we won’t be here in in 15 years.' When we did the master plan, there were meetings with coop members. It was a vehicle to communicate that this was not about renovation to gentrify.”
Through the master planning process, Leila established a strong relationship with Phillip and Susan Murray, leaders of the board’s Preservation Committee, and she continued to work with them on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. She had discovered that FHC, designed by architect Oscar Stonorov, took a progressive approach to public housing that presaged affordable housing development practices today. Leila says, “I got an inkling of this when I started the master plan.” She suggested writing the National Register nomination. “It’s a way to keep the momentum going. I’ll prepare it and see what you think,” she said to the Preservation Committee.
The Preservation Pennsylvania award nomination summarizes Leila’s research and FHC’s extraordinary past: “The Friends Housing Cooperative, constructed in the mid-1950s, was the nation’s first integrated, urban rehabilitation, self-help public housing project, a unique experiment at a time of large scale 'tabula rasa' redevelopment and segregated low income housing.”
"... a unique experiment at a time of large scale 'tabula rasa' redevelopment and segregated low income housing.”"
“What’s fascinating is that [FHC] tells a much more universal story about a really different approach at a critical time that addresses issues relevant today,” says Leila. “FHC also opens a new window into the work of architect Oscar Stonorov,” she adds. “The nomination states that the project is the only rehabilitation housing project in the portfolio of this nationally-recognized figure in the early and mid-20th century movement for quality, affordable public housing, despite the little-known fact that he was a strong supporter of urban rehabilitation and a vocal advocate on behalf of keeping existing fabric.”
This story is part of an occasional series about the impact of the Collaborative's Design Grants.