Founded 50 years ago in New York City, Covenant House is a nonprofit organization that provides shelter, food, healthcare, and other services to homeless and runaway youth in more than 30 cities across the U.S., Canada, and Central America. Now, after nine years of planning, designing, and construction, Covenant House New York has moved into a brand-new building designed by architecture firm FXCollaborative. Along with its many essential facilities and services, the 12-story shelter, which accommodates up to 150 residents, also offers an inspiring example of how American hardwood can help create a warm, welcoming, and secure environment.
As the architects put it: “The new building balances the dualities at the core of Covenant House’s mission: to be open and welcoming yet safe and secure; to celebrate community and never forget the individual; to stand out yet blend in; and to serve a specific purpose yet be flexible enough to allow for change. The building shell is expressed with strong materials of brick, metal, and glass, while inside, elements of wood and fabric create warmth and comfort. The design creates a place where youth feel at ease, and the building is at home in its rapidly changing West Side context.”
This approach has led to one of the shelter’s most distinctive features: a grand main staircase made of wood that connects the lobby to light-and-airy communal spaces on the second floor. “We wanted a welcoming, inviting entry and stair,” says FXCollaborative associate Cristina Rodríguez-Vázquez, who worked on the project’s design team. “We chose white oak because it gave us a modern, clean aesthetic—and it complied with ‘Buy American.’ Plus, there’s a sense of comfort that we all associate with wood.” Cost was an issue, so the designers looked at systems that would allow for customized construction.
They chose a product from Rulon International—a ladderlike system of solid white-oak slats spaced evenly on easily managed 2-foot-wide panels—for the stair wall. “We used them as a vertical screen that draws you eye up,” Rodríguez-Vázquez explains. The staircase itself was constructed by Lawler Woodwork, who integrated it perfectly with the surrounding panels. The ceiling of the second-floor lounge is clad in white oak too, so “you feel as though you are enveloped and enclosed in the material as you go up the stair,” she adds. Already dubbed “the Stoop” by Covenant House residents, the stair has proved to be just the kind of hospitable and reassuring space the designers had hoped for.
Written by Wendy Silverstein