Oculus - Fall 2015 - (Page 45)
Mills House No. 1:
Palatial and Affordable
For philanthropist Darius Mills, Ernest Flagg created an
innovative alternative to the flophouse
B Y J O H N M O R R I S DI XO N , FA IA
Home Game: Winning with Housing
(above) Grand entryway to
Mills House No. 1 at 160
(left) Mills House No. 1,
designed to accommodate
1,554 single men, occupies
an entire blockfront on
©Eve Dilworth Rosen
ew York was growing spectacularly in the 1890s. During that decade, the
population of Manhattan grew by 28%, from 1.44 million to 1.85 million
(somewhat above its current head count). Not only were immigrants pouring in from abroad, but Americans were migrating from the countryside to
the burgeoning cities. Many were single men seeking their fortune, and their
housing options were limited. The Bowery had already become the district
of single-man hostels, which offered minimal accommodations for as little as
seven cents per night.
Providing respectable, well-maintained but affordable housing for single
men became one of the missions of philanthropist Darius Ogden Mills, who
would open three Mills Houses in the borough between 1897 and 1904. Mills
House No. 1 was the largest and most architecturally ambitious. Occupying an
entire blockfront at 160 Bleecker Street, the first Mills House was designed to
accommodate 1,554 bachelors. Paying 20 cents per night, each man got a room
about five by seven feet with a narrow bed, a chair, a clothes rack, and a window. This modest nightly rate bought them modern sanitary facilities on every
floor and showers in the basement. At 15 cents per hot meal, ample menus included old-time standbys like boiled beef tongue and the now ubiquitous kale.
To discourage loafing, residents were locked out between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
For this innovative residence, Mills commissioned Ernest Flagg, whose
work was typically more adventurous than that of the period's other BeauxArts-educated architects. Among his best-known works were the exuberant
47-story Singer Building in New York (demolished 1968), the Corcoran Gallery
in Washington, DC, and the central buildings at the Annapolis Naval Academy.
Flagg's boldness is exemplified in his design concept here: two almost perfectly cubic volumes - about 100 feet square and 10 stories high - connected
by an entrance-stair-elevator link. In each block, rooms lined double-loaded
corridors surrounding 50-foot-square glass-roofed courts (onto which many
rooms faced). These courts were the facility's most striking amenities, where
residents could relax, socialize, play cards, and smoke.
On the exterior, Flagg gave the complex a palatial image, derived from
its classical symmetry, its limestone and buff-brick cladding, and its grand
scale within the Greenwich Village setting. This impression was reinforced by
creative fenestration. The windows do not reveal the relentless modules of the
cubicles inside, but are cleverly clustered, with those of each two floors paired
around recessed spandrels, to simulate much larger openings.
The street level was designed to maintain the area's prevailing retail frontage.
From 1958 to 1994, base spaces housed the famous Village Gate jazz club, its
former performance space now occupied by Le Poisson Rouge cabaret. In 1996,
Mills House No. 1 was converted to The Atrium condominium, its 189 units
arrayed around the two skylighted courts.
©Eve Dilworth Rosen
Many of Flagg's New York buildings have been
designated landmarks. Among these are his two
successive buildings for the publishing company
Scribner's, his "Little Singer Building" at 561 Broadway, two firehouses, some Manhattan townhouses,
plus several houses and a church on Staten Island.
The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission
considered designating Mills House No. 1 in 1967,
but has not yet done so.
John Morris Dixon, FAIA, left the drafting board for
journalism in 1960 and was editor of Progressive
Architecture from 1972 to 1996. He continues
to write for a number of publications, and he
received AIANY's 2011 Stephen A. Kliment
Oculus Award for Excellence in Journalism.
Fall 2015 Oculus
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Oculus - Fall 2015
First Words Letter From the President
Letter From the Editor
Center for Architecture
One Block Over
Opener: Affordability: Many Paths to a Solution
Housing for the 99%
An Active Market for Passive
Ahead of the Class
It Takes a Village
Support System, Modular Style
From Learning to Living
The DIY Approach to Housing
Index to Advertisers
Oculus - Fall 2015
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