THANHAUSER – ESTERSON ARCHITECTS

IF DESIGN EVER revived a lifeless building, it would be hard to find a better example than Venture House. This rehabilitation and recovery facility for the mentally ill has occupied a former funeral home in Jamaica, New York, since the fall of 1999. Once a forbidding place where souls rested en route to the next world, it now bustles with people eager to advance their lot in this one.

Venture House hired the New York architectural firm Thanhauser + Esterson to transform the site into a welcoming environment where patrons acquire vocational skills after receiving medical treatment offsite. The organization is modeled on a “clubhouse” concept developed about 50 years ago by Fountain House, a pioneering facility in Manhattan that helps people from all social strata learn to lead more productive lives. Venture House associate executive director Ray Schwartz explains that the design goal was “to create a space that mirrors the work setting outside and promotes a sense of belonging to the community.”

Venture House chose to gut the building, an amalgam of three small structures, and restore the exterior. Devoid of any original details, the interior had become an impossibly dark and convoluted warren of small spaces. Outside, the 1920s Romanesque facade–obscured by graffiti, canopies, and cinderblocked windows–retained little of its original dignity, rising alone on a broad avenue of car lots.

Schwartz notes that the “membership,” about 250 strong, responds best to an upbeat, easy-to-navigate setting that provides a social outlet away from home. To this end, the architects spruced up the entrance and reorganized the interior around a new centralized two-story stair hall capped by a large skylight. The hall not only increases a sense of space, but also floods the building with light and serves as an impromptu gathering spot for patients and visitors.

Working with a constrained budget of $1.1 million, the designers exploited paint treatments and sculptural forms in lieu of expensive materials. They saturated the core and circulation areas with color planes, from the golden glow of the stair hall to brightly accented banisters and doorways, then muted the hues in the surrounding workspaces. While the furniture is limited to off-the-shelf selections, custom touches such as eccentric niches and windows enliven the building and keep sight lines open into remote corners.

Open views and clear circulation promote the idea that no space is off limits. “This project did not offer great opportunity for extensive plan manipulation,” explains architect Jack Esterson. “Curves, angles, or skews would not have been appropriate. The idea was to bring in light, make sure there were very obvious pathways, and end every corridor with a window, door, or some moment of color.”

Members help with upkeep by cooking, cleaning, manning the phones, and assisting administration, so they work all over the building, not just in training rooms. Following a standard clubhouse motif, Venture House features recreational areas including a den-like lounge with sofas and a dining hall whose picture window looks out to a soon-to-be-completed garden.

Such careful design considerations have succeeded in making both members and visitors feel confident. In keeping with similar facilities around the country, the enterprise enables people with long-term illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder to achieve fulfilling lives. What might seem like just another high-minded design actually advances this goal by engaging those it serves in a productive yet protected world, an attractive microcosm from which to brave the leap to the outside.

Contributing editor Juanita Dugdale wrote about edu.com’s Boston offices for the October 2000 Interiors.

USERS’ COMMENTS

EUCHARIA MUODERE I Case Worker

PRISCR EUEE I Administrative Assistant

What is your favorite part of the space?

EM: My unit, the clerical unit, upstairs, on the second floor.

PB: We have a lovely skylight. With all the light, the building is so friendly. The colors are so warm, so inviting…so everything!

Is there anything about the space you would change? PB: Actually, it’s pretty close to perfect. We have little bits to complete, but it’s pretty livable.

What do other people say about the space?

EM: They make comments about the size, the freshness, and how everything matches. And about the skylight.

How does it compare to other facilities you’ve worked in? PB: No comparison at all.

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