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In partnership with Cogswell Lee DevelopmentGluck+ Architects will in 2018 wrap a new construction atop the former site of The Streit’s Matzo Factory at 150 Rivington Street. The building that housed the factory is currently being cleared and Gluck+ has designed a new development that, from the ground up, will bring 45 luxurious one- to three-bedroom residences to the burgeoning downtown neighborhood. As Principal, Charlie Kaplan is the lead housing architect involved in reimagining the Lower East Side locale, and in the following interview he discusses Gluck+’s careful and calculated approach to renewing the historic site.

The Lower East Side is a historic and still somewhat gritty neighborhood, while the new building you’ve designed is very modern. What was your vision in terms of how it would fit in and interact with the surrounding neighborhood?

Charlie Kaplan: As designers, we always think about the overall volume. There are different ways to approach that. We wanted it to be a very simple mass to fill out the corner. Because it’s a corner site, we thought it was important to fill it much like the original matzo factory. We wanted the new building to do that in a simple way. That was an important starting point.

The other thing that we felt strongly about was that it does want to be a modern building. It’s not like all those buildings there were built at the same time. It’s a hodgepodge of different buildings constucted at different times and different styles, and so we thought it made sense within that context to build a building of our time.

We latched onto the grittiness and the rhythm of the neighborhood. There’s a lot of up and down of the existing buildings. There’s tall, there’s short, there’s a lot of different styles you’ll see if you look down Rivington Street. There’s a lot of variation in the pattern of the existing facades there. It’s not similar to brownstone Brooklyn or to some of the Upper West Side streets where you get a brownstone fabric, or there’s a lot of repetition of the same thing, which has a certain kind of aesthetic, but that’s not what we have here. We have a collage of different styles. So we wanted to pick up on that sort of liveliness, and we saw it as a kind of rhythm. We came up with the idea of these panels that alternate, not in an asymmetrical way but in a variegated way. We were trying to pick up on the rhythm of the neighborhood.

The shape and the outline of the new and old building are very similar, but you opted to go with glass. Why is that?

Charlie Kaplan: It is a corner site, so we were trying to reflect the fact that it’s open and capitalize on the view and the light and the air that’s there. If you’ve ever been up on top of the Matzo building, there are incredible views in all directions.

You see a lot of new buildings in the city that are all glass, and then you see some buildings that are what we architects call a punched open building; It’s solid with openings in it. We wanted something that was in between because people like to have views and light and air, but people also want privacy. We introduced these panels which are opaque, and used those so it’s not a completely glass building. There is a way of closing it up. It’s roughly about 50 percent closed and 50 percent glass.

If you live in an all-glass building, you have your shades drawn all the time. It’s very open and undifferentiated. By having these alternating patterns, it creates the feeling of scale and rhythm on the inside that makes it feel habitable. And then the finishes are soft. They’re modern, but they are soft. The colors are muted. There’s a rich wood floor that brings a lot of warmth to it.

How do these “privacy panels” work?

Charlie Kaplan: The panels don’t move. They are not in front of glass; there’s a wall behind them. It’s a panel that we designed, which is cast. We designed it in our office. We had a local shop use a 3D printer to create them. And then ultimately we had a shop CAM [ computer aided manufacturing] a foam block in the exact shape of the panel, and then we cast the panels over that foam block. We essentially made a mold and we cast the panels in a reinforced polymer resin.
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The apartments have an unusual feature in the translucent, sliding doors that allow residents to customize their space. Have you ever done that before?

Charlie Kaplan: We haven’t done it in a condo or multi-family project in the city, but we’ve used sliding panels often. We do a lot of single-family homes, and we use them a lot in projects because we find people want to have a space that’s intimate one day, and the next day they want to have company over and open it up. They want to have that flexibility, and we have found that it’s a great amenity. In our office, we have a bit of a Japanese influence. Peter Gluck, who is the founder of the firm, lived and worked there for a number of years when he was younger. So I think some of those influences come from there. A traditional Japanese house is very small, and yet they can feel very large because of the different ways you can configure the spaces. So we were picking up on that.

The finishes in the interiors are modern, yet the overall effect is of a classic design. This is also reflected in the façade of the penthouses. Can you explain that dialogue?

Charlie Kaplan: What’s interesting about the inside to me is that even though the finishes are very modern, the overall effect is very classic, particularly in the way that the ceiling and the beams are sculptural. This also relates to the facade of the penthouses. I think that people don’t want a vanilla box. They want to feel that their space is crafted and customized and is scaled and proportioned the way that a classical room is. Classical rooms have crown molding that defines the ceiling. Sometimes there’s a chair rail that gives it scale and relates to the table and the chairs. There are all of those cues in classical architecture that make a room feel habitable.

We used some different tools with the goal of creating a similar effect, like the way that the kitchens are designed. It has a drop ceiling over the island that relates to the configuration of the cabinetry and makes it feel like a sculptural space. The cabinets have a custom detail. All of the pulls for the cabinet are custom and they are very tactile. When you touch them, your finger fits in the groove. They’re also very visual. They create a division to the cabinetry that’s on a human scale.
An employee at Streit's working the machinery just before the factory shuttered. Image by Joseph O. Holmes

Did you have any interaction with the family that owned the building?

Charlie Kaplan: We had a lot, and we’ve had a lot since. We’ve become quite friendly with the family. I think it’s bittersweet for them, and in some ways for us. It was this amazing place. Our office is obviously filled with architects, and when the people on our team went into the factory, people’s eyes were popping out just seeing all the equipment and the machinery dating back to the 1920s. We spent a ton of time down there just looking and photographing the operation that was going on there. We all fell in love with the place. But I think it’s bittersweet because the place wasn’t so much defined by the building. It was the fact that there was this factory in a tenement building, that’s what was so cool about it.

They moved of their own accord because it was costing them too much. It’s an amazing place, but by the same token, once they moved, and we went back there, and all the equipment and the machinery and the operation were gone, it was just an empty shell. The building itself was probably special at some point, but all the detail on the outside had been stripped off. You don’t want to hang on to something that wasn’t vibrant anymore.

What do you see in the Lower East Side’s future?

These moments in time are the most exciting. The Lower East Side is evolving right now. In some ways, it’s the most exciting time. If it becomes completely gentrified, it’s not so interesting. If it just stays the way it always was, in some ways it’s not so interesting either. If there’s a way to make that change so that it can stay exciting and stay vibrant, that’s the best. But that’s more than just the architecture. It has to do with city politics.

We feel our job on this building was to make a building that is of today and is exciting. It fit on the one hand, and on the other it’s new and refreshing. We think that’s part of the character of the way the Lower East Side was, and part of how it should be going forward.
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Additional Info About the Building

Contributing Writer Jillian Blume Jillian Blume is a New York City based writer who has published articles widely in magazines, newspapers, and online. Publications include the New York Observer, Marie Claire, Self, MSN Living, Ocean Home, and Ladies Home Journal. Jillian received a master's degree in Creative Writing from New York University and teaches writing, critical reading, and literature at Berkeley College.