Rogers Partners Builds a Boys & Girls Club for the Modern Age
Pinkerton Clubhouse was designed as a "vertical playscape" and has become a bright anchor for the North Harlem neighborhood.
In the shadow of a viaduct on 155th Street in New York City’s Harlem, the Pinkerton Clubhouse shines like a lantern. The top of its flat asymmetrical roof is wrapped in semitransparent polycarbonate; stretches of windows on its facades emit a warm glow thanks to the bright orange paint on the interior walls.
The 45,000-square-foot, four-story building occupies a corner lot where a run-down garage used to sit. Today, the clubhouse faces Jackie Robinson Park on one side and a cluster of Modernist housing projects on the other. When it opened last summer, the newest location of the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club quickly became a bright anchor for the North Harlem neighborhood, which is home to more than 16,000 school-age kids.
Designed by local firm Rogers Partners Architects+Urban Designers, it’s also the first Boys & Girls Clubhouse to open in New York City in 40 years. The other four in the city—two in Brooklyn, two in the Bronx— were built in the 1970s and ’80s, and each has the architecture to match its context. “You really will just drive right by them,” says Tim McChristian, executive director of the education nonprofit. “In many cases they look like a police station.”
The Boys & Girls Clubhouses of the past were designed to keep the outside world out and the kids inside safe. “They were these fortresses, with brick and concrete blocks, few windows, and a lot of programs in the basement,” explains Elizabeth Stoel, associate director at Rogers Partners, who led the project. Those monolithic facades were an architectural expression of how people used to think about safety. But in the years since, the thinking around what makes a building safe and secure has changed. “There are very few, if any, dark corners or hidden areas,” McChristian says of the new design.
At the new location, front doors open into a spacious lobby with a staircase and atrium that provide views all the way up to the fourth floor. Glancing upward, kids and other visitors can quickly orient themselves, with each floor’s landing acting like a navigational guide. Interior windows to the rooms surrounding the staircase give a glimpse of the activities happening inside; when light pours in from the exterior windows, it casts a warm radiance down the staircase. While the layout of most Boys & Girls Clubhouses expands outward, the Pinkerton Clubhouse is designed as a vertical playscape. Stoel says the open staircase is key to ensuring kids know what activities are available to them: “The goal is to draw them in and create a lot of excitement right off the bat, and then slip in all the learning opportunities as they go.”
A dining hall anchors the first floor, while the double-height gym is located at the heart of the second and third. On the roof, students can go back and forth between a recreation space and a polycarbonate-wrapped dance studio. Working within a tight budget, the architects opted to keep the building’s finishes simple. Flourishes like the CNC-milled panels that line the gym walls and depict scenes of children playing basketball add personality, but by and large, the space is designed to highlight activities, not advance an aesthetic.
Classrooms and activity spaces line the structure’s perimeter, each dedicated to a specific age group. Though the physical separation is intentional—different age groups have different needs, McChristian explains—the building is still centered upon a prevailing sense of connection. On the second floor, for example, the area devoted to preteens has views up to the teen clubhouse on the third floor, where students up to age 19 can hang out. “This intertransparency was really important in the building,” Stoel says. “The kids can constantly see where they’ve been and where they want to go and think about what’s next for them.”
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