New York's Deborah Berke Partners, led by founding partner Deborah Berke, FAIA, have won the Women’s Building International Design Competition to reimagine the Bayview Correctional Facility, a former New York State penitentiary for women located on the west side of Manhattan on the corner of West 20th Street and 11th Avenue, directly across from Chelsea Piers. Berke, the first woman to serve as dean for the Yale School of Architecture, succeeding Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, has done much to advance the role of women in the architecture field, and with this latest win, she and her firm will redesign the Bayview facility to house organizations dedicated to serving women and girls, with the goal of bettering society as a whole.
The two New York-based organizations leading the redevelopment are the Goren Group, a developer that specializes in reusing old buildings, and the NoVo Foundation, a philanthropic organization established by co-presdients Peter Buffet, Warren E. Buffet's son, and Jennifer Buffet, Peter's wife, that is geared towards empowering women and girls. NoVo is funded by the investment superstar's pledge to donate 350,000 shares of Berkshire Hathaway's stock to the foundation.
After a two-year-long selection process held by the state, the two groups were given rights to the 108,000-square-foot space by Empire State Development, and announced the plans in October 2015. The next month, they launched the competition to turn the site into a hub that provides resources and support. This decision delighted residents of the West Chelsea neighborhood, which has seen a heavy dose of gentrification, who worried that the site would be razed and be turned into yet another location for luxury condominiums.
“We were particularly interested in this building because we wanted to show what is possible when the potential of girls and women is nurtured rather than locked away," said Pamela Shifman, executive director for the NoVo Foundation.
The design competition was judged by an eight-person selection committee comprised of architect Suad Amiry, who has offices in New York and the Palestinian city of Ramallah; Barbara Armand, president of New York nonprofit Professional Women in Construction; Maura Bairley, a social change facilitator whose office is in Brooklyn; site-specific visual artist and printmaker Caledonia Curry (also known as Swoon), who also works out of Brooklyn; painter Julie Mehretu, who has offices in New York and Berlin; Rusti Miller-Hill, program coordinator at Brentwood, N.Y.'s New Hour, which helps formerly incarcerated women transition back into communities; Meri Tepper, AIA, principal of Tepper Architects in Madison, Wis.; and Scheherazade Tillet, executive director for A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit in Chicago that empowers young people while utilizing creative mediums to end violence against women and girls.
“It was clear to the entire selection committee that the [design] team truly walks the talk," Shifman says. "We all feel very confident that Deborah Berke and her team will embrace and welcome feedback from leaders and activists about what they hope to see in this building and use [it] to create something truly remarkable.” According to Shifman, the NoVo Foundation has already surveyed at least 600 activists involved in women's rights to gain insight in how they would like this space to be used.
The Women’s Building, which will be the facility's new name, will revamp the site currently made up of two conjoined volumes. The first structure, a 1931 eight-story, Art Deco building, originally served as a sort-of YMCA for merchant sailors whose ships were docked at the nearby piers and was named “the Seamen’s House” according to The New York Times. It was designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon—the same architects responsible for the Empire State Building. The second structure is a six-story annex, added in 1950 that lays flush to the original building. Doors were installed to unite the interiors of the two.
In the seventies, the site was turned into a medium-security women’s prison “Bayview,” which alludes to the facility's views of the Hudson River, Chelsea Piers, and, on a clear day, the Statue of Liberty, all of which can be seen from the recreational areas on the rooftop. Inside, inmates were randomly dispersed in the 229-bed main building. Interior recreation areas include a swimming pool (which had been used for storage in recent decades) and a chapel fitted with stained-glass windows. Because a majority of the inmates were from New York City, it was regarded as a desired place to serve your sentence, so you could be close to family.
In contrast to its prime location, Bayview has a dark past, even for women’s correctional facilities. “Bayview Women’s Correctional Facility was a site of pain and confinement for so many women who served time there," says Shifman. According to a 2008-2009 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, the penitentiary had the highest rate of inmate-reported incidents of staff sexual misconduct of any prison in the United States.
The site was closed in October 2012, when inmates were evacuated and sent to other facilities before Hurricane Sandy. The building then endured serious damage during the storm, experiencing major flooding in the bottom floors, and has not reopened since.
With this upcoming renovation and reinvention, the Goren Group and NoVo Foundation hope that Deborah Berke and her team will help them to realize a "model of what is possible when we support women and girls," says Shifman. Construction is expected to begin in 2017, and the building to open in 2020.