Everybody Wants to Live Someplace Special
Marvin Meltzer moved from St. Paul to New York City, where he became the architect who reimagined affordable housing in the Bronx.
Marvin Meltzer sits comfortably in the Eames lounge chair in his living room on East 49th Street in New York wearing glasses and a black hoodie. The 80-year-old architect is telling the story of how he came to build and renovate so many affordable housing projects in the Bronx.
It began with a complex of 20 vacant buildings next to Crotona Park back in the borough’s bad old days of the late 1980s. The economy had taken a dive, and along with it the luxury construction market. Meltzer (B.A. ’59, B.Arch. ’61), who had designed, rehabbed, and built much fancier structures all over Manhattan, thought his career might be over. “Here I am a big shot architect and developer,” he says. “Now I’m driv-ing up to the Bronx, sitting in my car, waiting for the police to come to take us into these buildings because the drug dealers have them all booby trapped.” He remembers a person standing on a nearby rock giving a kid a haircut, but obviously keeping an eye out for the police, while the kid screamed.
Meltzer threw himself into the renovation project, which he describes as “probably the biggest and most sophisticated nonprofit housing development in the country,” at the time. “I built my architectural philosophy on, you don’t need a lot of money to do a really good piece of architecture,” he says. “It doesn’t matter who it’s for, what it is. It’s all about architecture.”
During his long career, Meltzer has designed and built or rehabbed hundreds of buildings all over New York and elsewhere, including Bradhurst Court in Harlem, a homeless shelter in Yonkers with a ramp for shopping carts, and the luxury apartments at 45 Wall Street. In 2002, he received a lifetime achievement award from the New York Society of Architects for “an illustrious career that has added to the betterment of architecture in New York City.” He’s also received awards from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the National Association of Home Builders for best aﬀordable multifamily project.
Many more Bronx projects followed that ﬁrst one, often featuring Meltzer’s playful use of color: He favors an exterior product called Dryvit, which is inexpensive, sturdy, and comes in many hues. These projects ended up being some of his most rewarding. “Every time you ﬁnished a building, they had this sort of celebration and all the politicians came and took all the credit for it,” he says. “And I remember sitting in this rear yard. And there was this one woman who’d moved in with two kids. The night before she was sleeping in a shelter.” At this, Meltzer’s eyes ﬁll with tears. “She gave a talk. And I had all these colors, right. There were lots of pastels and she was from the Caribbean. And she said, ‘This reminds me of home.’
“You realize the impact you can have on people’s lives just by doing what you do.”
Meltzer was born in St. Paul. His dad was an Orthodox rabbi in a now-gone synagogue near the Capitol. “But he really made a living killing chickens in the cellar of our house,” he says. “In those days, the farmers would bring in the chickens from the farm. And my dad would kosher kill them and my brother and I would deliver them. He had this whole thing set up. There was a lot of blood and feathers. It never seemed strange to me.”
Meltzer spent two years in a rabbinical seminary in Chicago—his father wanted him to be a rabbi—before attending St. Paul Central high school, followed by the U. “Everybody went to the University of Minnesota,” he says. “All my family. All my friends.” Meltzer could always draw well, but he didn’t think he could make a living as an artist. Architecture was a natural choice and the U’s School of Architecture was one of the best in the country.
But even though architecture was a ﬁt with Meltzer’s skills, the profession was still viewed as an unconventional option. “I was Orthodox,” he explains. “I was the second Jew to ever attend the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota. Architecture was not a Jewish profession. In many places in the country, it’s still not.” For his thesis, he designed a synagogue for his father.
Just after graduation, Meltzer was drafted into the Army and stationed at Governor’s Island in New York. “I thought I died and went to heaven,” he says. “The place was like a country club. And here I was a 15-minute ferry ride from Manhattan.”
New York changed his life. “One of the ﬁrst powerful impulses I had about New York City was that there are a lot of Jewish people in New York and there are a lot of Jewish architects in New York. And it made it easier to practice architecture and start a business.”
He met and married his wife, Dale, a psychotherapist, in 1974. They have two kids, a daughter, Rachel, who teaches urban policy at the New School, and a son, Eli, who is an architect based in Brooklyn.
Meltzer’s very ﬁrst project, for a ﬁrm out of California, was to design the exterior light ﬁxtures for Madison Square Garden, which opened in 1968. He went on to work at several firms before starting his own business designing nursery schools and playscapes. Then he formed Britton Development, Ltd. with a partner and began renovating properties on the Upper West Side which, at the time, was run-down and full of vacant buildings.
“Little by little, I ended up doing a new building, which was my whole goal,” he says, referring to the Enclave condominiums he built in 1986 on East 52nd Street. “I had planned this whole thing that every time we did a project that it would be bigger and more exposed than the one before. That’s how you get more work, you market the stuff you build. And if what you build is good, then you will get more.”
Meltzer counts his Minnesota-ness as an asset to his career. “This Minnesota nice is legendary,” he says. “And it’s true. How many people I met and do meet that when I tell them I’m originally from Minnesota, they immediately think I’m a nice person. And I am nice, that’s not the point. But, I was very aware that in my relationships with people that they would like me.” He says his ability to stay within budget also served him well, along with his knack for solving thorny problems and designing for problematic sites. The Roscoe C. Brown Jr. apartments in the Bronx, completed in 2011, were constructed partly on a giant rock outcropping.
Deborah Ippolito, who was director of business development for Meltzer for seven years beginning in the early 1990s, calls him a quick-thinking, inventive architect who put as much effort into affordable housing as he did their luxury projects. “Marvin had quite a reputation already when I joined him for doing [affordable] housing, which is sort of a market that’s not very sexy, particularly at this time. Who wants to go to the Bronx? Marvin saw this as an opportunity rather than a negative, a chance to do something different.
“I think he is at his best when there are difficult challenges, when others would rather walk away from the deal,” she says. “He puts on this cap like, how am I going to figure this one out?”
Meltzer has reinvented his career many times, sometimes after what he calls “defining moments.” In 1995, after losing a lawsuit he was sure he would win, he partnered with David Mandl, an architect and beloved friend, who died in 2007. Together, they ran Meltzer/Mandl Architects, a firm of 45 employees, and built a reputation of renown. Now, rather than retiring, he has partnered with his son, Eli. “Professionally and in all ways it is an extraordinary experience to be in business with your son. He’s very smart and he’s also a Hasid.”
Meltzer says he has never chased the shiny object and that has made all the difference. “I didn’t get into it for the money. I got into it for the architecture… My mantra has been, everybody wants to live in someplace special.”
Jennifer Vogel is the editor of Minnesota Alumni.