Spare Us the ‘Fancy Houses’

DSC_0002PROSPECT HEIGHTS in Brooklyn was designated a New York City Historic District  in 2009. Now any external changes to a house’s appearance are subject to the guidelines and regulations of the city’s  Landmarks Preservation Commission. No longer will it be possible for something like the crazy-quilt travesty, left, to occur.

This, er, unique facade is on St. Marks Avenue near Carlton. I pass it frequently and it never fails to shock me. It’s beyond “remuddling,” a  term coined by Clem Labine, the original publisher of Old House Journal. More like “radical bastardization.” Why oh why would anyone do such a thing to a 19th century brownstone? Seems impossible that someone could fail to appreciate the charms of, if not the individual house, at least the uniform row.

A little light was shed on the “How could they?” question by a friend in Cobble Hill many years ago. There was a house on Amity Street with a similar ‘permastone’ treatment — I believe that’s what it’s called. The house belonged to the mother-in-law of this friend, whose husband was of Middle Eastern origin. She told me that her mother-in-law had created this monstrosity in the 1950s, saying she wanted her house to look like one of the “fancy houses in Damascus.” So that explains something. I haven’t been to Damascus; perhaps the house wouldn’t look as out of context there.

Today, I drove down Amity to see whether that facade is still there. It isn’t. Then I drove down Pacific, to delgadobefore-300make sure I hadn’t mis-remembered the street. It wasn’t there either (does anyone else recall that house, or did I dream the whole thing?) Anyway, I surmise the building was restored when I wasn’t paying attention, and now blends perfectly with its Victorian neighbors.

Yes, the good news is that such a building is salvageable. At great cost, of course. A year-old post on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s blog tells the story of Joe Delgado, a Wall Street trader turned licensed contractor who bought the four-story building, right, in Clinton Hill in 2007.


The building was “a disaster,” the article reads. “A previous owner had covered the building’s facade with white Permastone, added pink awnings, installed an after-hours club and two bars in the basement, and rented the top floor to drug addicts.”

Hard as it may be to believe, the Landmarks Commission told Delgado the building had once been a carriage house.

waverly-front-300<— AFTER

Delgado located a photograph that showed “a little girl on the steps of a brick double townhouse built in the 1870s. Prompted by the photograph, Delgado removed a massive addition from the back (complete with the club’s tiny stage and shag carpeting). He restored the facade and the original window lintels and sills, which had been hidden behind the Permastone. He also rebuilt the cornice and back wall, and installed exterior doors custom-built from antique wood to replicate the doors in his photograph.”

The house now looks like this, left. It’s good to know that even a house as badly compromised as this one can be rescued. “Finding the photograph made things easier,” Delgado said, “but not less expensive.”


About cara

I blog (for fun) here at casaCARA, and write (for money) about architecture, interiors, gardens and travel for many national magazines and websites.
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5 Responses to Spare Us the ‘Fancy Houses’

  1. Astor C. says:

    Very good post, but until I reread it I wasn’t completely sure whether the restored house was the one you remembered or not. ( I guess it wasn’t.) Also, can Landmarks force the owners to get rid of the offensive facade in PH? These houses though do remind me of the found art work on those houses in Philly (a la Watts Towers). So maybe there is a place for some sort of remuddling.

  2. cara says:

    Right, Astor, the ‘after’ in the post is the one in Clinton Hill. The one I remembered was in Cobble Hill. Good question, as to whether Landmarks can force an owner to un-remuddle a house. I don’t think so; they’re probably grandfathered in or something. Because Cobble Hill has been a Historic District since the early ’70s, I think, and the ‘fancy house’ on Amity was there later than that. There was also that Permastone one on Clinton between Baltic and Kane that I’m just now remembering, next door to a real swell Queen Anne type house. That was re-done, but I don’t know if it was because of Landmarks or just a more sensitive new owner.

  3. Joe says:

    Studying the before and after photos, I’m curious to know how or why the door on the left was moved? In the “before” pic, it’s flush left, but in the “after” pic, it’s been moved one “section” to the right. Which position was original and how would one know? I assume there are other buildilngs nearby from the same era which indicate which is correct? And I wonder if he restored the interior? Interior photos would be fun to see…. go knock on the door. :-)

  4. Joe says:

    Also the left door seems to fit into the space perfectly and with beautiful wood, while the right door looks like a Home Depot nightmare of a rectangle squeezed into an arched space. Does that qualify as historically architecturally accurate?

  5. cara says:

    Well, Joe, maybe that’s where the door was originally? My guess is that he was doing such an extensive renovation anyway, moving the door would be the least of it… As for the inappropriate door on the right, I’m sure Landmarks would not approve. Perhaps the job wasn’t quite finished when the picture was taken.

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