Chad Smith in the new communal garden of The Amsterdam Vale

By Claudie Benjamin

In NYC, an apartment with outdoor space can refer to access to a fire escape, or a rickety rooftop. It could also describe the luxury of having a well-appointed deck or a penthouse extravaganza.  Another option has been created on Amsterdam Avenue and 83rd Street by architect Chad Smith for Amico property owners.

This truly creative concept transforms a series of flat, uneventful backyards that likely caught the odd bedsheet hung out to dry, that slipped its clothespins; or existed as the resting place for tossed beer bottles.  Reinvented, it is now a very urban celebration of brick and metal that is equally a pocket of calm and greenery for the residents of the five brick four-story buildings that surround it.

What inspires the creative impulse could be anything, anywhere.  For Chad Smith of Smith & Architects, the architect of this project, it might well have been his early awareness of a sense of wellbeing linked to the earth, fresh air and open spaces related to growing and canning ripe red tomatoes at his grandparents’ Western Ohio farm.

The farm experience occurred long before Chad came to NYC, earned a graduate degree at Columbia University and more recently became a proponent of biophilic design.  In short, the term makes a positive link between mental, neurological and cardiac health and awareness of nature.  The idea infuses Chad’s work on The Amsterdam Vale and resonates now with the idea of resilience from the long pandemic months.

Just as in nature, there are subtle, intricate marvels, The Vale has been designed as an unusual renovation of eight late 19th Century walk up apartment buildings integrated by a communal yard. Chad was initially approached by Amico to renovate the buildings’ hallways.  These spaces are now crisp, white and gray passageways with contemporary lighting and patterned floor tiling that Chad says, “were designed to be a contemporary version of the building style they were in, be it Renaissance Revival or Neo-Grec.” Once the hallways were completed, Amico challenged Chad to come up with a way to give the shabby yard some class and distinction.

Chad says Amico typically welcomes innovative design as a way of making their properties more desirable and profitable. He personally likes “projects that enhance the city.”

A lot of the effectiveness of The Vale rests on the great concern given to detail, some unobtrusive, others flamboyant, that all contribute to making being in the environment interesting and enjoyable. The Vale’s major call to attention is its entry: an avenue-front portal that serves the complex’s two sets of buildings. Essentially, it is an abstract sculpture evoking a minimalist vine.  The sculptural element was designed on a computer by Chad and made by a team of specialized metalworkers using computer technology to produce the unbroken sinuous forms.  A crane was used to install the piece above the entry.

A flowering plant called chocolate vine was planted with the idea that its tendrils will eventually grow along these metal vines enhancing the main portal to The Vale during warm weather and exposing the bare sculpture during the cold weather months. Similar sculptural tubing is used to create modernistic vine-like door handles at each of the West 83rd Street entrances.

This metalwork design, Chad says, was inspired by a combination of influences including historic floral carvings on the stone facade of the buildings, as well as metal elements seen in and around the neighborhood such as fire escapes and fencing.  The portion of the facade that backs the vine installation is constructed of panels of variously textured basalt stone, into which is inscribed The Amsterdam Vale‘s initials/logo.

The Amsterdam Vale entrance.

On entering the portico, the left wall features a poem written by the architect that celebrates the idea of a connection of the site back to “Pre-British, pre-Dutch and pre-native American days.”  Echoing this idea is a panel depicting the grid of the contemporary neighborhood superimposed on a topographical rendering that is a portion of the famous NYC Commissioner’s Map of 1811, also known as the Viele Map.

Most dramatic of all is a monumental 3-D tapestry-like work composed of preserved ferns and moss that has been conserved in a way that while not requiring watering, infuses the room with the fragrance of live moss.

To the right as you enter, the importance of home delivery in today’s lifestyle is given prominence.  A convenient package room gives tenants electronic access to incoming packages in a space facing the street which might otherwise be leased to a retail business.

The front part of the multi-level communal garden was created by excavating a lower level.  Some of the large pieces of Manhattan schist found below the surface have been used in the landscape design among chairs and tables placed for relaxing or working in a tranquil setting.

The ongoing, complex maintenance of the buildings and grounds is undertaken by the building management.

On a warm late spring afternoon, a breeze wafted through the young trees of The Vale while Christina Lisije, who lives with her fiancé in one of the buildings, sat in a shady part of the garden working on her laptop. “This place definitely provides added value,” she said. The 71 units are mostly studios and one bedroom apartments.

An integral part of what’s important to Chad about The Amsterdam Vale, is that in addition to providing a relaxing spot of green retreat from the rivers of street and foot traffic, it also surprises passersby with moments of nature-infused delight.  Case in point, Chad said he was stopped by the building by three elderly women.  “They told me they’ve been taking daily morning walks around the neighborhood for some time, but recently since discovering the view into The Vale from the street, they’ve adjusted their route to include this special spot.”


Share This