MOCA Exhibition Celebrates the Legacy of Chinatown’s Most Prolific Architect

Poy-Gum-Lee-On-Leong-Tong-83-85-Mott-Street.-Presentation-Drawing.-1948-Ink-and-watercolor-on-paper-Courtesy-of-the-Poy-Gum-Lee-Archive.

Poy Gum Lee: On Leong Tong, 83-85 Mott-St.; Presentation Drawing.-1948. Courtesy of the Poy Gum Lee Archive.

When visitors walk through Chinatown’s winding streets, they are bombarded with all sorts of sights, sounds and aromas. Even if you’ve lived in the neighborhood your entire life, sensory overload can set in pretty easily. For this reason, most people do not associate Chinatown with historically significant architecture. Kerri Culhane’s new exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America, however, could begin to change that perception.

The show is called Chinese Style: Rediscovering the Architecture of Poy Gum Lee (1923-1968). It is made up of more than 80 artifacts, including photos, architectural drawings and blueprints. The exhibition is on view until the end of January, along with another project, Sub-Urbanisms: Casino Urbanization, Chinatowns and the Contested American Landscape.

Culhane is an architectural historian who’s spent more than a decade documenting important sections of the Lower East Side, including the Bowery, Little Italy and Two Bridges. She’s also associate director of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council. A few years ago, in preparing an application for the Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District, she became intrigued by the works of Poy Gum Lee. His name appeared repeatedly in Department of Buildings permits until the 1950s. She was curious to know his story. Culhane’s search for answers took her on a three-year exploration covering two continents.

Poy-Gum-Lee-portrait-ca.-1918-Photographic-print-Courtesy-of-the-Poy-Gum-Lee-Archive.

Poy Gum Lee-portrait, 1918. Courtesy of the Poy Gum Lee Archive.

Lee was born on Mott Street in 1900 and attended the Pratt Institute, M.I.T. and Columbia. In 1923, he went back to China with his family, becoming a prolific and sought after architect. During World War II, Lee fled China and returned to New York. He worked for the New York City Housing Authority, and became the go-to building designer in Chinatown. Lee’s distinctive style combined Art Deco and Modernism with Chinese design flourishes. He died in 1968.

Culhane has been cataloging Lee’s work throughout the neighborhood, with help from his family, which shared a large number of drawings and documents for the project. Noteworthy sites include the On Leong Tong/Chinese Merchants Building (83-85 Mott St.; see drawing at the top of this article), the Kimlau Memorial (at Bowery and East Broadway) and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association Building (60 Mott St.)

During a recent press preview at the museum, we asked Culhane about Poy Gum Lee’s lasting legacy in Chinatown and what she hopes visitors will take away from the exhibition. “I am hoping that this is a way for people to recognize that there is tremendous value in the architecture in Chinatown that may go unrecognized because it’s misunderstood,” she explained. While some of Lee’s buildings are widely admired, others are easily overlooked. “There’s so much going on in Chinatown that… it can be hard sometimes to make out that there is some sense of place there.”

“We have examples in Chinatown ,” she added, “of an internationally regarded architect from an extremely prolific practice in China who brought ideas of Chinese architecture… to Chinatown.” The exhibition tells the story of the Chinese American experience through the eyes of a messenger (Lee) who was influenced by two very different cultures.

Believe it or not, not a single one of Lee’s Chinatown buildings is a New York City landmark. Generally speaking, neighborhood property owners are strongly opposed to landmarking. In preparing the successful nomination for the National Register, Culhane said, “the idea I had was to really celebrate the histories of these buildings so that the value is seen in what they represent. That’s still my goal… I hope the value is recognized so that they are preserved. I think they are important in Chinatown, as landmarks, as symbols, and I hope that’s reflected in the show.”

Culhane will be participating in a MOCA Talk Thursday, October 8 at 6:30 p.m. The Museum of Chinese in America is located at 215 Centre St. More information about the exhibition can be found here.

Poy Gum Lee, Perspective Drawing of Theater, 1967, Pencil on paper, Courtesy of the Poy Gum Lee Archive.

Poy Gum Lee, Perspective Drawing of Theater, 1967, Pencil on paper, Courtesy of the Poy Gum Lee Archive.

Poy Gum Lee, Kim Lau Memorial, 1960, Pen on paper, Courtesy of the Poy Gum Lee Archive.

Poy Gum Lee, Kim Lau Memorial, 1960, Pen on paper, Courtesy of the Poy Gum Lee Archive.

Poy Gum Lee at the Drafting Table, ca. 1940, Photograph, Courtesy of the Poy Gum Lee Archive.

Poy Gum Lee at the Drafting Table, ca. 1940, Photograph, Courtesy of the Poy Gum Lee Archive.