Rainy Day Rockaway, Part II

MORE OF FAR ROCKAWAY, with its stock of c.1920s beach bungalows. We start with the stylish cedar-sided, tin-roofed surfer shack, above, and visit an enclave tucked behind and a few steps above Beach 24th Street, where the houses have some actual gardening space. Bottom, the reason these onetime, sometime charmers were built here in the first place: the beach and its historic boardwalk.

See also Rainy Day Rockaway, Part I.

Rainy Day Rockaway, Part I

VINTAGE BEACH BUNGALOWS in New York City. Yes, they still exist, though in numbers much smaller than they used to, and on only two blocks in any significant concentration: Beach 24th and 25th Streets in Far Rockaway, in the distant reaches of Queens. I was there the other day to visit a friend who’s just finished renovating one of the more dire specimens, to see her dramatic improvements. (Read M.’s ‘before and during’ story here. ‘After’ photos to come.)

She gave me a tour of the district. M. knows the back story on each and every bungalow. Who lives there, for how long, whether they own or rent, what kind of work they do, how many kids they have, the state of their health, and more. It’s a friendly community, and M. has met a lot of people in the 2 or 3 years she’s been working on finding, buying, and fixing up her place.

Each bungalow has its individual character. Some are painted bright Caribbean colors, a couple look like the surf shacks you might have found in the Venice Beach of old. Many retain their original striped awnings. Some have new roofs and smooth stucco; others are sadly peeling and sagging.

Weather-wise, it was a dull day, good for capturing the melancholia of these stalwart 1920s cottages. Enjoy the tour, and be sure to let me know in the comments which you like best.

For more information on Rockaway bungalows, and to see another of my previous posts on the subject, go here.

WordPress is balking at so large a post; to be continued in Rainy Day Rockaway, Part II.

The Insider: Letting in Light in Prospect Heights

BROWNSTONER READERS have their knickers in a collective twist over the townhouse featured today in “The Insider,” my weekly interior design/renovation column.

I knew that the poured concrete floor on the parlor level wouldn’t go over well with this group, which tends more toward restoration than modernist re-interpretation. The fact that some original woodwork and mantels were removed are more cause for apoplexy.

The second (master suite) floor is gorgeous, I think, with ebony-stained wood floors and what seems to be the latest trendy luxury in Brooklyn brownstone renovations, the dedicated ‘bathing room.’

Go here to read all about it and add your own comment to the fray.

Saving East Hampton’s First Artists’ Studio

Thomas Moran Studio in 2008

EAST HAMPTON’S MAIN STREET, formally laid out in 1648, is a) very pretty tree-lined boulevard with a pond full of the requisite swans, and b) a trove of historic sites. I admit to not having fully explored it yet. Some, like Mulford Farm and ‘Home Sweet Home,’ two of this country’s earliest examples of English colonial architecture, I ran to right away when I first bought a house here almost three years ago. Others I’m just finding out about.

Shoring-up efforts

Recently on NPR I heard a guest talking about the restoration of the Thomas and Mary Moran home and studio at 229 Main Street. Thomas (1837-1926) is known primarily as a painter of the American West in the Hudson River School style (his paintings of Yellowstone have hung in the White House and Capitol Building); his wife Mary Nimmo Moran (1842-1899) was an etcher and landscape painter. Turns out their 1884 cedar-shingled, Queen Anne-style home and studio — which I’d never really noticed, so overgrown is the property — across from the town pond and cemetery in which both are buried, was the first artists’ studio in East Hampton.

Thomas Moran, “Easthampton, Long Island”

It’s been a National Historic Landmark since 1965, but that hasn’t prevented it from succumbing to the ravages of time. It’s been unoccupied for the past eight years and some sections, on the verge of collapse, have been shored up, but much more work is needed.

Thomas Moran’s ink drawing of studio interior

Restoration and fund-raising efforts are ongoing. A fund-raiser in Manhattan — a one-night exhibition of the couples’ artwork at the Babcock Galleries, 724 Fifth Avenue — is scheduled for Tuesday, March 6. Tickets are $100. For more info, go here.

Hard to believe that in a province as wealthy as East Hampton, no government money or private benefactor has come forth in a big way, and that it must be such an uphill battle.

Etching by Mary Nimmo Moran

All About Wallabout

THERE’S A BLOCK in west Clinton Hill, or maybe it’s north Fort Greene, though most people would have just called it “near the Navy Yard.” Now the neighborhood’s got a proper name, or rather, gone back to its original cool name — Wallabout, from the Dutch waal-bogt or ‘bend in the harbor.’ Anyway, it’s a block I’ve always admired, an amazing hodgepodge of 19th century styles, with a preponderance of wood frame houses and porches that are rare in Brooklyn.

Last summer and fall, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and City Council recognized this one block — Vanderbilt Avenue between Myrle and Park Avenues — as the “Wallabout Historic District” and what that will mean I don’t rightly know, except I hope it means the houses that are about to fall down are propped back up.

For not only is the block a mishmash of styles, it runs the gamut of conditions, from spiffily fixed up to near-collapse and even condemned, with the huge red Xs the Buildings Department uses to indicate “Don’t go in here at any cost.”

I took my car for an oil change at a garage on the corner of Vanderbilt and Myrtle, and took advantage of the opportunity to walk the block and record a few of my favorite buildings.

This group of three at the far end of the block, hard by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, incorporates the grande dame of the block (1820s, maybe?) and a pair of smaller buildings, below, one in seemingly fine repair and the other on the verge of extinction.

To see what these same two houses looked like in September 2009, go here.  

Above, a house I seriously considered buying in 2000 for $330,000 and rather wish I had. I was daunted by three feet of standing water in the basement. Someone else took the challenge, renovated, and painted it an outstanding sunflower yellow.

See below for more about Wallabout, from the Historic Districts Council website:

Wallabout, a neighborhood in Northwestern Brooklyn near the former Brooklyn Naval Yards, is noted for having the largest concentration of pre-Civil War frame houses in the city. In addition to Greek and Gothic Revival wood homes with original or early porches, cornices and other details, brick and stone row houses in Italianate and Neo-Grec styles along with masonry tenements line the streets between Myrtle and Park Avenues. James Marston Fitch, founder of Columbia University’s Historic Preservation Program, described the buildings in 1973 as an “outdoor architectural museum in themselves.” The homes were built as working-class and middle-class housing, and designation of this area would complement the Fort Greene and Clinton Historic Districts to the south built primarily for more affluent households.

Dutch settlers named this area Waal-bogt, meaning a bend in the harbor. Walloons (French-speaking Protestants from what is now Belgium) settled here as early as 1624. Through the 18th century, the area remained rural. During the Revolution, dozens of infamous British prison ships docked in the nearby Wallabout Bay. An estimated 11,000 American soldiers died there and were buried in shallow graves along the waterfront. In 1801 the federal government opened the Brooklyn Naval Yard nearby. The yards operated for more than a century and a half until its 1966 decommission. Over the decades, many of the homes in the district were built for employees of the yards.

Residential development of the area in the 1830’s, 40’s, and 50’s coincided with the rapid population increase in the city of Brooklyn. Being part of the flatlands along the East River, Wallabout was not looked upon with the prestige allotted to neighboring Fort Greene or Clinton Hill. As the century progressed, industrialism spread through the East River waterfront including DUMBO, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Wallabout. Neighborhood industries included Consumers’ Biscuit and Manufacturing Company, the Drake Brothers Bakery, Rockwood Chocolate Company (whose factory is now listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places), Giddings & Enos (manufacturers of gas fixtures), and the Mergenthaler Linotype Company. The Wallabout produce market operated from 1890 until World War II.

In a neighborhood full of wonderful homes, there are a few residences deserving special note. Some of the area’s earliest homes dating back to the 1830’s can be found on Vanderbilt Avenue. In 1878 the wealthy Pratt family built five neo-Grec style brownstones on this block, the first of their many speculative ventures. No. 99 Ryerson Street is believed to be the only surviving New York City home of poet Walt Whitman. Rudophe L. Daus, one of Brooklyn’s leading late 19th-century architects, designed the Queen Anne style red brick tenement at 93 Clermont. The building retains its ornamental terracotta trim as well as its entrance hood and iron railings. Only one structure in the district is presently designated a New York City Landmark, the Lefferts-Laidlaw House at 136 Clinton Avenue. This impressive, temple-fronted Greek Revival Style house was built c.1836-1840.

In the 1970’s the area was twice proposed as a historic district, by the Fort Greene Landmarks Committee as part of the Fort Greene HD and by the Landmark Commission’s staff as part of a Brooklyn survey. Like much of western Brooklyn, the general low-rise density of Wallabout has recently begun to feel the brunt of new, over-scaled development. In addition, decades of poor maintenance have resulted in the loss of character in some of the buildings, as well as enticingly open lots prime for development. The Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project has, with funding from the Preservation League of New York State, sponsored a cultural resources survey and has helped establish a residents’ association – the Historic Wallabout Association – with the goal of preserving this neighborhood. The first step, re-zoning the area to better fit the existing built fabric and encourage appropriately scaled development, is currently moving forward. The next step to preserving this special neighborhood would be to designate part of the area as a historic district.

For more information, visit: