Brownstone myths & mysteries, Part 2

Two more strange bits of lore connected to Victorian row houses, in Brooklyn and elsewhere:

p1020028One is the coffin niche, an arched alcove in the wall at the top of a flight of stairs.  For  years, I assumed these were convenient places to stash religious statuary and/or vases of plastic flowers. They are certainly handy for turning the corner from staircase to hall with a large piece of furniture. But there’s debate as to whether their  intended purpose was to allow clearance for a coffin in days when people died at home.

The whole coffin niche thing could be urban legend, some say, because why not just carry the body downstairs for laying out in the parlor?  But some brownstones were multi-family dwellings even back then, others point out, and it’s possible that bodies were laid out for viewing in upper floor apartments, necessitating an architectural invention like the coffin niche.

Even more arcane is the supposed custom of adding a finial to the top of a newel img_87962post upon making the final mortgage payment on a house.  I had heard about this somewhere and wanted to do it back in December 2001, when we finished paying off the 15-year mortgage on our house in Cobble Hill.  I went to a local wood shop and had them make a round finial for the plain newel post at the foot of the stairs on the parlor floor (at that point the house was 150 years old; had no one else ever had a mortgage on it, or had they just not heard about the supposed custom?)

Anyway, the finial looks nice and the satisfaction lasts longer than a bottle of champagne.

Rent a bonafide modernist icon

4This one is for the architectural adventurists: an experimental structure designed in 1950 by Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell, on Siesta Key near Sarasota, FL. Small (800 sq. ft.) and strange(but very cool!)-looking, the Cocoon/Healy Guest House (click link for slide show) has a curved roof made of steel straps, and glass walls with wood jalousies. Two bedrooms, one bath; boat dock; fully wired. Available for year-round rental at $1,250/month, unfurnished (you wouldn’t need much). For further details, contact Martie Lieberman, 941/724 1118,

Could this be your warm-weather pied a terre?

Brownstone Mysteries Explained


THE parlor floor of the 1850s Brooklyn row house where I live is pretty intact, with moldings, mantels, an elaborate plaster arch in mint condition, and a 3-foot-wide rosette in the center of the ceiling, from which dangles a gilded chandelier (and some people think I’m a strict modernist!)

Shortly after moving here in November 2006, I noticed that the rosette had dark spaces in the scrolly plasterwork that looked like deep black holes.  Turns out they ARE holes.  According to the handy reference Bricks and Brownstone, the New York Row House 1783-1929, these were vents for the fumes that came out of the gaslight that once hung from this fancy centerpiece. The holes trapped the fumes and carried them into the chimney flue, then outdoors.  It is startling to see something so obsolete and low-tech still in place, and I wonder how many others have them.  Are they rare or a dime a dozen here in Boerum Hill?

The same book revealed why such a classy house has such crummy floors. Instead of the 150_5038patterned oak parquet you get in a lot of later 19th century Park Slope houses, this house has simple 4″ pine strips,  none too fine looking.  Why?  Very simple: the fashion in the 1850s was for wall-to-wall carpets!

Power looms invented (by Erastus Bigelow) in the 1840s enabled cheap production of woven tapestry carpets. “By the 1850s,” writes Charles Lockwood, “nearly every middle-class family proudly put a thick floral-patterned carpet in the parlor.”

The floors were never meant to be seen.  Today, they are, and they look oddly rustic, especially stained yellow-orange, as mine are <ugh>.

Why I Love Philadelphia, Part 1


PHILLY HAS SOME 2,400 MURALS livening up the blank sides of buildings throughout the city.  Some of them are really gorgeous. They add so much color to the streetscape, especially in winter. Every time I see one, I think, “Why can’t New York do something like this?

Below: ‘Four Seasons’ series, Queen Village/Bella Vista21-lanza-park 139_3972139_3971dsc02225

End-of-year bargain$ in Columbia County CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP!!!

“Recessions create opportunities” – Warren Buffet

Today I scouted properties in Columbia County, ranging from 145K all the way up to 265K (laughable prices for New Yorkers).

Horrendous weather.  Nothing made my heart sing, personally.  But man (and woman), there are deals up here, especially with some cash.  Camera malfunction prevents me from posting pictures, but click on live links below for more info.

–    Best investment. COPAKE LAKE, asking 199K. A PAIR of houses near the lake, with winter view (good enough!) of said lake from deck of one and front porch of the other. Could bring 42K/year in rental income, with a little fixing and maybe a Domino-magazine rehab (one is a ‘70s-looking brown chalet, the other a white-painted 1940s cottage).  Yes – that’s right – in a few years, you could make back your investment.  And you could use them once in a while.  Wonderful with kids.  Downside? Jet skis and near neighbors could be annoying in summer.

–    Most attractive.  ANCRAM.  265K.  Stone’s throw from the Ancram Opera House (that’s what the sign says).  Solidly built, super well-maintained, 1930s bungalow, loads of windows, parquet floors, huge kitchen with pre-war built-ins.  Perfectly livable as-is.  4 acres, gorgeous backyard going down to a ravine and up a hill; not a house in sight (in back).  Old shed and garage in good shape.  Clean dry basement.  All painted a cheerful ochre yellow.  What’s bad? Well, 82’s a little busy for some. And there’s a manufactured home next door, but it’s a super fancy one.

–    Most historic. ANCRAM 169K.  Adorable, fixed-up eyebrow Colonial (early 19th c.) with columned portico. You can see why they perched it, 200 years ago, at the top of a hill, looking west – it’s still the same Berkshire mountain view.  PROS: Damn cute. Great kitchen with farmhouse sink, wood stove, finished attic loft bedroom, v clean.  CONS: Only ½ acre, near the intersection of 82 and Doodletown Road (which, despite its name, can be fairly busy.

–   Most secluded. 145K. HILLSDALE/AUSTERLITZ. At the end of a long, wind-y, muddy road. A tiny, rough cabin, painted turquoise. 4×4 porch kind of falling down.  Listing says 1920 but doesn’t look that old. Those are the cons.  The PLUSES: it’s FOUR wooded acres on the Green River – which is more of a trout stream.  Wooded.  Ya want privacy?  Ya got privacy.  Rt. 22 is up above the property, not far away, but you’re not aware of it.