In July 1938, Metropolitan Life Insurance announced that it would immediately commence construction of “a self-contained ... apartment community” that would include commercial and recreational facilities, 66 acres of open landscaped space, as well as a central heating plant and 51 building clusters, comprising 171 building entrances. The entire complex would cover 129 acres, only 27% of which would be built on and 22% would be for streets and “parkways.”
A design board was established to plan and carry out the construction of Parkchester. It was headed by Richmond H. Shreve, whose firm had designed the Empire State Building, and members chosen for expertise as engineers, landscape architects, builders and urban planners. The contractors were Starrett Brothers & Eken, Inc. the builders of the Empire State Building and the Williamsburg Housing Project.
The original site was bi-sected by one street, Unionport Road, that ran from the Northwest end of the property to the Southeast corner. This street was widened to 110 feet (wider than Fifth Avenue at the time) and a second street, Metropolitan Avenue, of equal width, was laid out from the Northeast to the Southwest. The two streets intersected in the center of the property where they were interrupted by a landscaped oval, with a fountain at its center.
Metropolitan Life built and paid for the two public streets, sewers, water mains and the center islands that run the length of Metropolitan Avenue and Unionport Road, and then deeded them over to the City of New York.
The typical City street grid is completely absent at Parkchester. The “x” pattern formed by the crossing of Unionport Road and Metropolitan Avenue divides Parkchester into four quadrants. To control traffic and enhance safety and the pastoral quality of the site, there are no through streets in any of the quadrants. Privately maintained roads and drives allow access for parking, deliveries, service and emergency vehicles.
Areas for active and passive recreation are distributed throughout the complex and include the recently redeveloped North Ballfield and subsidiary ovals in the South, East and West Quadrants. The buildings, which vary in height from 7 to 13 stories, include 12, 271 apartments.
There are three core plans and five wing plans and these are mixed throughout the development to provide great variety, but because of the regularity of the components, resulted in great economies in the construction. Clusters are generally spaced 60 feet apart and with varying orientations to maximize light, air and views of the landscaped areas from the apartment windows. Each apartment has a windowed kitchen and bath with cross ventilation in many of the units. The casement windows and oak parquet floors installed during the original construction were an unusual amenity in housing of the time intended for residents of modest income.
In the area of the complex nearest the IRT subway stop at Hugh Grant Circle (now the Number 6, Parkchester Line), the developers created a shopping center of over 500,000 square feet, largely integrated into the residential structures, but also including a movie theatre with 2000 seats and the first branch of Macy’s outside the flagship at Herald Square. Sub centers were created for retail and service shopping including laundry facilities through the other quadrants.
Finally, in addition to existing trees, thousands of flowering shrubs and new trees, ground cover and other plantings were added throughout the property, and with grassy lawns and shaded paths, are the glory of Parkchester, which was designed as a true urban oasis. And so it remains to this day.