UPDATE 12/8/13: The winner of the book, generated by random.org, is commenter #1. Congratulations, Julia!
Comment on this post by Sunday, December 8, for a chance to win this vintage copy of You Don’t Have to Be Rich to Own a Brownstone by Joy and Paul Wilkes.
A FRIEND recently gifted me with this relic, published in 1973 by Quadrangle/New York Times Co. According to the jacket copy, the book “puts to rest the myth that only the rich or super-rich can buy and renovate a city house.”
Today, of course, that myth is the sad truth, but 40 years ago, a person could indeed pick up one of many unrenovated houses going begging in Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods for a mere $30,000 or $50,000, with just a few thousand down.
That’s what the authors of this how-to did: they bought a house in 1970 (488 Second Street in Park Slope) with a pair of friends , renovated the lower duplex for themselves, by themselves, and survived to tell the tale.
Having read the book and re-lived those heady days of rubble and plaster dust, I’ve decided to pass the book along. To be entered in a random drawing to win it (which I will carry out using random.org), just comment on this post by Sunday December 8. Say anything: tell us if you are kicking yourself for not having bought a brownstone or three in the 1970s, or if you’re too young to have had the opportunity to blow, or just say “count me in.”
The book is well-written — one of its authors, Paul Wilkes, is a professional journalist who went on to write many books about spirituality, and the other is Joy Carol Haupt, an inspirational speaker; the two of them were co-founders of CHIPS, Christian Help in Park Slope, a soup kitchen and shelter on Fourth Avenue that’s still going strong. (They divorced shortly after completing their renovation and publishing the book.) It’s illustrated with black-and-white photos of their renovation and a few others, all displaying hallmarks of the era like exposed brick and tin ceilings. Their co-homeowners and upstairs neighbors were Lou and Jane Gropp; Lou went on to become editor-in-chief of Elle Decor and House Beautiful, and here you can see where it all began.
Some parts of the book are laughably outdated, but much still rings true and even helpful, in sections like Assessing what you can do, Step by step planning for a renovation, and Hints for living in a house under renovation. There are descriptions of architecture and wince-inducing house prices in brownstone neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and some references to other U.S. cities as well. Even today, the litany of a brownstone’s negative attributes sounds all too familiar: too many walls, not enough closets, a bathroom “so narrow you had to slip into it sideways,” water-stained floors, cracking and falling plaster, ancient appliances, ‘modernized’ mantels, and acoustical tile ceilings. All that can often still be found, for a handsome price.
The book brings back the earliest stages of gentrification, when the Dime and the Williamsburgh refused to lend money in the brownstone neighborhoods. And there’s a revealing reprint of an 1971 article by Paul Goldberger for the Wall Street Journal which describes Park Slope as a “dense inner-city neighborhood where raucous black and Puerto Rican children play in the streets, where several drug-rehabilitation centers treat area addicts” and where the “neighborhood’s main commercial stretch, Seventh Avenue, had become a sleazy stretch of failing shops and a promenade for prostitutes.” Meanwhile, the 3,000 or so “affluent young families” who had moved into the area by the early ’70s were busy “slaving away every night and weekend,” restoring gaslight chandeliers, stained glass windows and marble mantels, and holding block parties, even as they stepped over drunks in the gutters.
Comment for a chance to win the book…then read it and weep!
Oh, Paul Goldberger, you missed the point!
These historic houses have always had so much to offer, even if the neighborhood falls on hard times, the houses survive.
Love it! This book would fit so nicely on my shelf between “New Life for Old Houses” and “Wood Motifs in American Domestic Architecture.” I have been very inspired by the 1970s Victorian house revival. I spent a lot of time in grade school in the ’70s pouring over Conran’s The House Book, reading books of Victorian floor plans, and photographing the Victorian houses in my neighborhood.
Someone I worked with wrote a novel called “The Brownstone Cavalry,” peripherally about what became known as the Park Slope syndrome: “Now that the renovation is finished, we don’t have anything in common anymore,” followed by reasonably amicable divorce.
I’m still kicking myself for backing out of a deal to buy a completely renovated townhouse on Union between 7th and 8th for $260,000 in 1981. It had a working gas light in the front yard, beautiful bronze chandeliers, marble mantlepieces (one of which had it’s duplicate in The Brooklyn Museum). Unfortunately, I got cold feet at the last minute and lost my $10,000 down payment. Within a couple of years, it was worth well over a million dollars.
Interesting, as always.
Yes, I agree with the last poster…. your blog is one of few that I subscribe to because it is always entertaining and most often full of good ideas! I purchased a circa 1895 Cottage in Newport which I rent out (I live in NYC) all due to your inspiration of buy & hold. Happy Holidays Cara!
This is awesome!!! It rings so true for me and my Newark rowhome. Still slogging away (now as a single homeowner) over here in the Brick City. I love it.
Don’t count me in as I have t many books!! However, I enjoyed your post.
As the owner of a Bed-Stuy brownstone, I could use this!
Aha, couple of new people came out of the woodwork. Good to hear from all of you — and so far your odds are pretty good of winning that book! Chris T, I’m honored to be your virtual real estate coach and glad you feel there’s entertainment value here (I do try;-)
Brownstones may be expensive in Brooklyn, but they can be surprisingly affordable in other cities! First time poster…but have enjoyed the blog for many years.
Always enjoy reading your posts. Thanks.
You’ve inspired me and I just bought a copy. In today’s dollars, seems a lot of the brownstones in the “emerging” and inexpensive areas would be only about $160,000 today (based on typical salaries).
Good point, Cate. I never thought of it that way: “in today’s dollars.”So prices haven’t really risen quite as astronomically as it seems.
They’ve risen astronomically. Back then a $30,000 or $40,000 brownstone in an “emerging” area would be the equivalent of buying a place for $160,000 today. That would be a great price. Instead brownstones in Bed Stuy and Crown Heights are starting at $800,000 or so. (This is based on what they say in the book about salaries — assuming $20,000 a year then is equivalent to $80,000 now.)