These Walls Talk: Story of an 1830s Brooklyn House

I AM BACK in Brooklyn for the winter and turning my attention to another of my vintage properties, one that hasn’t had much love in recent years: a four-story brick in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, located conveniently but noisily between two major arteries, Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenue.

Doesn’t look like much, perhaps, with the fire escape and all, but it has history. I found out recently that it was built in 1835 by a mason named Ezekiel C. Frost, who had a Fulton Street address. It was a pretty fancy house at one time; you rarely see a Brooklyn row house with windows on the hallway stair landings, which this one has.

Land conveyance document showing the builder’s sale (of a possibly uncompleted house, as he had just bought the lot four or five months earlier) to John W. Hyatt on February 23, 1836. Hyatt owned it a couple months before flipping it to someone else… and so it went.

There’s no stoop, just a couple of steps up to the front door, surrounded by original carved wood moldings in a plain but obvious Greek Revival style. The parlor floor’s high ceilings were once bedecked with ornamental plasterwork.

When we bought the building vacant in 1979, it was unlivable, an utter wreck, with graffiti on the inside and other relics of NYC’s bad old days (metal gates across windows, steel apartment doors). The pipes had frozen and burst; the boiler was useless. But a few decorative details, including fluted moldings around the tall windows on the parlor floor, had miraculously survived.

The parlor floor as it looks today.

It took us four years to renovate the building, much of it hands-on, into three rental apartments — a ground floor one-bedroom, which replaced a former bodega; a 4-bedroom duplex on the parlor and third floors, above, created by installing an interior stair; and a top floor two-bedroom.

There were even a few shards of plaster detail left forty years ago, but we were so naive about historic preservation, we didn’t save them. I cringe to report that the bits and pieces of plaster we threw away in 1979 suggested our house may have had something akin to the plasterwork in the 1832 Old Merchant’s House, below, a historic house museum on East 4th Street in Manhattan, though not as ornate.

The house had a hectic history, which I delved into one Saturday morning last month at the Brooklyn Historical Society. In a two-hour workshop called “If These Walls Could Talk,” held in the hushed late-Victorian library of the BHS on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights, we were introduced to various resources and materials, including maps, land conveyance documents and residential directories. There are also invaluable websites, notably the digitized archives of The Brooklyn Eagle, a daily newspaper that began publishing in the 1850s. (I wasn’t a total newbie at this; I did a similar workshop a few years back, researching our Cobble Hill building.)

That afternoon, I spent a further few hours in the library, coming away with a real sense of lived history, of the specific individuals who worked, ate, socialized on the very same wide-plank floorboards we’ve sanded and re-sanded and patched and filled, because they’re too full of character to replace.

Most moving of all were some 1850s classifieds in the Eagle, advertising ponies for sale, lost earrings, musical instruments (“French tremolo $20, Spanish guitar (a gem, only $35), English concertina $20”). Real people with real lives, who wore top hats and bustles and took meals at a communal table, meals probably prepared in what is now our basement boiler room.

Housing classifieds in the same paper of the same period were even more revealing. Seems the house may never have been used as a single-family home, but was always a multi-unit building. Individual floors and rooms were advertised to let, with or without board.

TO RENT – A beautiful parlor floor in a first class house; gas, water, &c. In good order; inquire of Mrs. Scott from 10 A.M. to-morrow till 3 P.M.

BOARD – Gentlemen and their wives, or five or six single gentlemen, can be accommodated in pleasant front or back rooms, on first or second floors, with good board. Cars pass the door.

Among the other intriguing things I found out:

  • The house’s original address, as the street name was different in the 19th century. That was key to finding out other things, but not all. Land conveyance documents are based not on addresses, but on not-to-scale lot drawings showing measurements from nearby street corners.
  • The house was likely built as a spec project right around the date I had surmised. It is a less grand version of the 1832 Old Merchant’s House, a historic house museum on East 4th Street in Manhattan, similar in proportion, detail and layout.
  • It changed hands, as did most of the other lots on the block and in the neighborhood, many, MANY times over the course of Brooklyn’s 19th century building and real estate booms.
  • There were births and deaths in the building, not to mention foreclosures and bankruptcies and day-after-Christmas visiting hours, when a pastor lived there in the 1890s.
  • That because of all the frantic flipping, continuing into the 20th century, my wasband and I have owned the building far longer than anyone else ever did.

It may have been this last startling realization that recharged my sense of responsibility toward this historic, if degraded, property. It spurred me to plan a spiffing-up, this coming winter, of the public halls, which haven’t been painted in many years and are sorely in need of new floor tile and stair carpet.

My cosmetic improvements are happening at a time when the house is about to be dwarfed by a mixed-use complex known as 80 Flatbush (renderings above — it’s the weird basket-shaped thing), with two towers of 40-something and nearly 70 stories. Ezekiel Frost would be very surprised.

The construction will take eight years. But this house is a survivor, and it will go on.

Posted in BROOKLYN, HISTORIC PRESERVATION | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Appreciating October: Old Houses & Fall Color

OCTOBER HAS BEEN A MONTH for remembering my love of old houses, which is why I started this blog in the first place, and for being blown away once again by the beauty of Long Island’s South Fork. That includes my own humble half-acre, above and below, whose fall colors are more brilliant than at any time in the decade I’ve been here.

They say it’s because of all the rain we had this season (which continues). Usually, the oak trees that dominate this region turn dull brown in fall, while the red maples and golden hickories are fewer. This year, it seems, the oaks haven’t turned yet and so remain green, while the others have colored up in timely fashion. It’s so blazingly beautiful that for once, I’m not suffering FOMO over not being in New England or the Hudson Valley.

Meanwhile, an article in the East Hampton Star about some local historic preservation awards for two recently restored Colonial-era houses caught my eye, and I trotted over to check them out. One is the early-18th century Hiram Sanford House on Egypt Lane, below, a plain and modest structure behind which new owners are building some kind of modernist bunker out of shipping containers (don’t ask).

Around the corner from it, un-awarded, is an even cuter house of similar vintage, below, which I only noticed because I parked in front of it.

The more outstanding preservation project is the Gardiner Mill Cottage Gallery, below, a 1750 saltbox with leaded windows. It sits on an open 3-1/2 acre lot that has remained intact in East Hampton Village since 1638, and also contains an 1804 windmill. The building is now a new art museum, open weekends only, with rotating exhibits of historical landscape paintings.

Nearby are two more of the oldest English Colonial houses in the country, Mulford Farm and the so-called “Home Sweet Home” museum, below, plus another fine windmill. I’ve been to these numerous times, and to the lovingly maintained kitchen garden that sits between them.

From there I spotted a house across the main road, below, that appears to have equal historic integrity, with asymmetrical windows and a steeply pitched roof (for shedding snow?) Certainly more than two centuries old, it just sits there with no awards, plaques or fanfare.

Maybe it’s because I haven’t been to Europe in a while so I’m not jaded, or maybe it’s because I’m about to go back to NYC for the winter, but suddenly, the architectural heritage of this pretty town looks especially rich to me.

I can’t say I’m ready to go back to the city, exactly, but it’s been a good long season and things are winding down. The coleus in my window boxes are only a frost away from turning black and falling over.

I’ve planted about 1,000 early bulbs — tarzetta daffodils, crocus, glory of the snow, winter aconite — here and there throughout the property, to welcome me back next spring.

The city has its charms, and I’m determined to rediscover those, too, this winter. But it doesn’t have this:

Posted in HAMPTONS, HISTORIC PRESERVATION, LANDSCAPING, LONG ISLAND | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Art-Making for All in Amagansett

EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. – Among the things that are NOT bogus about this area’s reputation is its importance in the history of modern art. What is even more remarkable is that it continues — not with the physical presence of famous figures like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem deKooning, Robert Motherwell and dozens of other Abstract Expressionists who had strong Hamptons connections in the mid-20th century — but in the ongoing abundance of art fairs, art shows, art galleries and a unique waterfront studio where members of the public can take classes and set up at easels on a drop-in basis: The Art Barge in Napeague, moored halfway between Amagansett and Montauk.

It’s a former World War II naval vessel, towed to this spot in 1960, an inspiration of Victor d’Amico, then education director at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. With the later addition of a second level, there’s a downstairs painting studio ($50 for three hours of camaraderie, though it’s usually a bunch of silent, focused individuals getting walk-around instruction and encouragement from the Barge’s teachers), and an upstairs library and multi-media workspace, where a long wide table with stools on either side runs the length of the space, meadow views to the south, harbor views to the north.

That’s where, in June, I took a one-week workshop called the Bauhaus Preliminary Course, five 3-hour morning sessions exploring the teaching methods of the German art institute, whose short existence (from 1919 until shuttered by the Nazis in 1933) belies its enormous influence on world art and design in the decades since.

Fortunately, I have no ego investment in being an artist, because I soon discovered that among the 12 students in the class, I was the only one not already a visual artist of some sort, and way out of my league. Still, it was fun, messing around with materials from the block-long window ledges (the “junk buffet,” including such things as pieces of netting, foam insulation, feathers, astroturf and on and on) to make collages; cutting, arranging and squinting at pieces of colored paper as we learned principles of color; making rubber stamp textile designs and then trying our hand at weaving; and finally working with tempera paints in a way I hadn’t since 3rd grade.

I’ve since gone back to visit and walk along the deck watching sea birds and water snakes and dogs in the meadow, and have checked out the nearby modernist home of Victor D’Amico and his wife Mabel, also an art educator and prolific sculptor and assemblage artist, many of her works made with driftwood and found beach objects. Now known as the Mabel and Victor D’Amico Studio and Archive, it offers free public tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays by appointment.

The house itself, a humble affair built in the 1940s with recycled materials and the D’Amicos own labor, was one of the first modernist beach homes in the area. With concrete and linoleum floors, glass walls, pegboard cabinets, open shelving and Eames chairs, it has a mid-century modern aesthetic, as well as a look of having been constructed on a shoestring. Yet it stands, artful and atmospheric, and is being considered for local landmarks designation, which would offer it some protection from demolition. It seems the least the community can do.

Posted in HAMPTONS, HISTORIC PRESERVATION, LONG ISLAND | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Perennials on Parade + Shopping for an Instant Cottage Garden

The morning after I got back from my Italian vacation — April 3rd, I think it was — I called my plumber out on the East End of Long Island and said, “Charles, would it be jumping the gun to turn the water on now?” It would be, he said. “There was ice in the bucket this morning.” I don’t know what bucket he was referring to, but never mind that.

Point being, I had to wait another week before heading out to my mostly-unwinterized glorified bungalow. When I did arrive, car full of bags and boxes, the water was on and the toilet flushing, but the landscape was decidedly wintery. I hunkered down in my only insulated room, known as the great room, where I kept my new wood stove cranking, and slept there on an air mattress for a month, venturing into the rest of the house only for quick trips to the bathroom or kitchen to heat up a bowl of soup.

April’s delights, including a new rustic cedar gate (or arch or trellis), separating the lower garden from the upper garden, two kinds of epimedium, solomon’s seal and those very satisfying purple muscari along my impromptu wood-chip path

But I wanted to be out there, rather than in my city apartment, to catch the unfolding of the garden from the season’s beginning. It was the first spring I could expect some early bulbs, like muscari (grape hyacinth) and tiny hybrid tulips planted the fall before, and I didn’t want to miss anything.

May’s offerings, including the annual azalea and rhodie shows, plus rodgersia, the big-leaved brownish thing everyone always asks about, enkianthus, broom, flag iris

In the past, I’d never been able to start my season before mid-May, so the sunniness of my wooded half-acre in early spring, absent its dense canopy of leaves, was a revelation, as was the speed with which things came out of the ground.

The greening happened visibly day by day, almost hour by hour, once it got started, helped by the extra-abundant rains of May and June, said to be 50% more than normal for the period.

June’s white alliums, rose campion, astilbe, ladies mantel, and my instant cottage garden. One impulsive day I decided to do something with the four raised beds in the sunny center of the property, which up till then had been filled with catmint from years past, aggressive evening primrose, and some cottage favorites from upstate (rudbekia, obedient plant, coneflower). In two trips to the nursery, I added yarrow, delphinium, mallow, coreopsis, nicotiana and more — mostly perennials purchased in bloom. I’ll keep adding to it.

Yes, I worked, but not like a demon. Not like in the old days, when I was first clearing the property and establishing the garden. An hour here, two hours there, which leaves plenty of time to appreciate what Nature, with a bit of help from me, has wrought.

Lilies, day and otherwise, lead the way into July, along with hydrangea, drumstick alliums and later-blooming native rhododendrons

Posted in COTTAGE LIVING, GARDENS & GARDENING, HAMPTONS, LONG ISLAND | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Hey, Last-Minute Summer Vacation Planners! Rent My Glorified Boho Hamptons Beach Bungalow

Up for a beachy idyll of two weeks, eight weeks or something in between? Contact me for more info: caramia447 [at] gmail [dot] com

I can’t fault you for not having made summer plans yet, because I’m kind of a last-minute type myself. In fact, I’ve just finished setting up my house in East Hampton/Springs, N.Y., for July and/or August rental ($3,000/week, minimum two weeks).

The main attraction: it’s a five-minute walk from what still seems to be the Hamptons’ best-kept secret: the wide, sandy crescent of Maidstone Beach on eminently swimmable Gardiner’s Bay.

  • Swim in Gardiner’s Bay, at unspoiled, never-crowded Maidstone Beach, a 5 minute stroll from the house, or in the ocean at Amagansett (10 minutes drive)
  • Walk the scenic ‘loop’ through Maidstone Park, or along nearby Gerard Drive with Gardiner’s Bay to one side and Accabonac Harbor to the other
  • See egrets and ospreys, wild turkey and deer (not on my property, however; I’m fenced:-)
  • Nap on the deck, watch the sun set over the jetty, picnic at Louse Point, make bonfires on the beach or in my fire pit
  • Shower outdoors, grill on the brick patio, hang out on the porch at the Springs General Store
  • Paddleboard or kayak in the bay
  • Do yoga at one of several nearby studios
  • Surf or party at Montauk (25 mins. by car)
  • Farm stands, greenmarkets, nurseries
  • Yard sales, antiquing, shopping
  • Art shows and galleries, live performance at Guild Hall, music at Stephen Talkhouse, historic house tours, vineyard wine tastings at Wolffer and Channing Daughters
  • Garden tours + garden visits at LongHouse ReserveMadoo, Bridge Gardens
  • Check out the new arts center at Duck Creek, which has an ambitious program of outdoor jazz concerts (a mile away!)
  • Restaurants and bars galore
  • Explore historic Sag Harbor (20 minutes), Shelter Island (30), the North Fork, Block Island (day trip by ferry from Montauk)

The 1,400 square foot house, begun in the 1940s as a fishing cabin and expanded and renovated over the years, sleeps 6 in three bedrooms (one a separate cabin/studio) with one full bath, a huge outdoor shower, spacious decks for sunning and dining and half an acre of landscaped gardens.

There’s a master bedroom with comfortable queen bed; 2nd bedroom with two twins; as well as a separate studio with double bed and space for additional cot or crib (bathroom is in main house). There’s also a queen-size air mattress for overnight guests.

Quirkily enough, there are two main living areas: a sitting/dining room adjacent to the kitchen with sofa, chairs and fireplace, as well as a high-ceilinged great room with comfy seating and another large table for dining or working.

Like Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner (whose home and studio is a mile away) and the other artists who flocked to this region in the postwar years, there’s no dishwasher and no air conditioning, but there are ceiling fans and room fans (and, unlike back in the day, Wi-Fi).

If I can help make your last-minute summer vacation plans happen, please email me at caramia447 [at] gmail [dot] com

Posted in HAMPTONS, LONG ISLAND, PROPERTIES FOR RENT | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

BOOK REVIEW: 111 Places in Brooklyn That You Must Not Miss

When I saw that Brooklyn had been newly added to the list of international travel destinations covered by the German publisher Emons in its 111 Places series (joining the Twin Cities; Verona, Italy; Malta; Liverpool and other less-expected spots), I have to admit I allowed myself a small scoff.

As a Brooklyn resident for 42 years, my jaded self doubted there were many sites in the book I hadn’t at least heard of, if not been to.

When I read the bio of the author, John Major, and found out he’s a newcomer to the borough (only 12 measly years), my certainty grew.

How wrong I was. The book soon reminded me of Brooklyn’s unknowable vastness and the multitudes it contains. Most shamefully, that I’m barely acquainted with all that’s happened in Bushwick, Williamsburg and Greenpoint over the past couple decades, which are outside my traditional Brownstone Belt stomping ground.

Barge traffic on the Gowanus Canal and Downtown Brooklyn as seen from the Smith-9th Street subway platform

There were some listings I expected to see, including such old favorites as Sahadi, Bargemusic, the Kings Theatre, the site of Ebbets Field, the harbor view from Fairway Market in Red Hook. Like all 111 entries, each has a full page devoted to it, opposite tantalizing photos by Ed Lefkowicz.

Fish Friday at Acme Smoked Fish in Brownsville, the only day it’s open for retail sales

But so much in the book was new to me that I was forced to shed my arrogant (albeit very Brooklyn) attitude. I was impressed by the author’s hip, offbeat selections and stunned at my ignorance of the answers to such questions as:

  • Where were Woody Guthrie’s ashes tossed after he died in 1967? (The rocks near West 37th Street and the boardwalk in Sea Gate)
  • Where can you do laundry, drink beer and play pinball all at the same time? (Sunshine Laundromat in Greenpoint)
  • …take a pole dancing lesson, starting at “Level Zero”? (IncrediPOLE Studio, also in Greenpoint)
  • …buy smoked fish at wholesale prices from a company founded in 1905? (Acme Smoked Fish in Brownsville, Fridays only for retail customers)
  • …find Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s childhood home? (1584 E. 9th St., Midwood)
  • …discover what became of Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay? (It’s now the Cherry Hill Market, with Russian and Azerbaijani specialties)
Cakes and pastries at Cherry Hill Gourmet market in Sheepshead Bay

111 Places in Brooklyn is a smartly written, nicely designed package that pays homage to places even longtime locals don’t know about. Nor does it shy from dark chapters in Brooklyn’s history, like the 1903 execution of Topsy the elephant in Coney Island and the site of the infamous 1960 Park Slope plane crash.

Black Gold, a vinyl, coffee and antique shop hybrid in Carroll Gardens

Last year, the same publisher put out 111 Places in Queens That You Must Not Miss. I was born there, so surely there can’t be much I don’t know.

Posted in BOOK REVIEW, BROOKLYN | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, with a Pit Stop in Noto

Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples is the most amazing place you’ve never heard of. At least I had never heard of it, until I began planning a trip to Sicily a few months back.

Turns out Sicily’s south coast has an ancient Greek temple complex said to be the most outstanding outside the Acropolis in Athens (and unlike the Acropolis, it has the advantage of feeling undiscovered).

But first came Noto, above, a half hour from Syracuse, a hill town of quiet (except for the church bells) Baroque beauty. For lack of time, we breezed in and out. Noto had to stand in for Modica and Ragusa, which are surely worth extended visits as well. Can’t do it all, I kept telling myself.

Noto’s long, elegant promenade, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, is centered on — guess what? — a grand and glorious Duomo, built or re-built, as were all the towns in the southeastern corner of Sicily, in the early 18th century following a devastating earthquake in the 1690s.

An hour’s stroll through Noto’s relatively un-touristed streets, a pistachio/almond granita in a café, a peek into a few of the town’s fifty antique churches, which were more restrained on the inside than their intricate stonework façades would suggest, and we were on our way again.

Choosing (blind) one of several routes suggested by the GPS, we ended up taking a three-hour drive to Agrigento, which encompassed everything from ugly urbanity (Gela, an industrial port) to heart-stopping beauty, deep in the countryside. There were fields of wildflowers, infinite sea views and agriculture on a grand scale — greenhouses filled with tomato plants, olive orchards, wine grapes reaching over the hills into the distance.

We arrived after dark at the Villa Goethe, below, in Agrigento’s historic center. The B&B is so named because the German poet actually stayed in the building in the 18th century as a guest of the then-owner, a baron.

Though the old town has a bunch of highly rated restaurants one can’t possibly sample in a two-night stay, Agrigento draws visitors mostly for those 5th century B.C. temples, seven of them in total. Each was dedicated to a different god or goddess, not all known, but Zeus, Heracles and Juno (or Hera) were among them.

The temples are strung out along a mile-long walking path, interspersed with 500-year-old olive trees. They are in varying states of preservation, from barely to incredible. All have now been stabilized, a feat made possible in recent years with the help of EU funding. Needless to say, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Visitors are now able to scramble over most of the ruins, without a guard in sight, though not over the Temple of Concordia, the least ruined of them, above, which vies with Athens’ Parthenon in terms of preservation, scale and grandeur.

The bronze sculpture, below, depicting the fallen Icarus is a monumental contemporary work.

The Agrigento temples were built of an ochre-colored, locally quarried limestone, not the white marble of the Parthenon. Otherwise, they’re architecturally similar.

A couple of the temples are little more than fallen stones against the perfect Mediterranean sky, overrun in Sicily’s full-on spring with wildflowers of purple and yellow, rosemary and other fragrant herbs.

The Temple of Zeus was the largest of them, once held up by telamon, or figures that are the male equivalent of the caryatids of the Acropolis. One — at least 30 feet high — remains at the site, below, lying horizontal on the ground.

Another is displayed at Agrigento’s extraordinary archaeological museum, an absolute must to round out an understanding of the temple sites and the culture that produced them.

The museum has a vast collection of Greek Attic pottery from the area that the Met must surely covet. The scenes on the red-and-black vases, exquisitely etched and painted (and signed, often by both painter and potter) offer a trove of detailed information about life in that era.

If all that’s not enough, the Valley of the Temples also contains a sunken garden of some 12 acres called Kolymbethra, below. It’s set in a deep pool, dug by Carthiginian prisoners of war in the 5th century BC, but later filled in and used for agriculture.

It’s now an Edenic citrus grove where we gorged once again on stolen fruit, from bitter citrons tasted and quickly thrown away to the sweetest blood tangerines.

Rarely have I been so reluctant to end a vacation. A final day of roaming in Rome, mostly camera-free, was a nice and necessary buffer. We stayed at the faded grand dame Hotel Quirinale, enjoying its vintage cage elevator and Negronis in a 1950s ballroom-turned-guest-lounge.

We wandered the streets, checking on the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona and other greatest hits, just to make sure they were still there (they were, and crawling with tourists). One highlight: an outdoor lunch of pasta with cheese, pepper and truffles at La Maretta, a restaurant in the Regola neighborhood where most of the patrons were actually speaking Italian.

Posted in ITALY, TRAVEL | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments