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MY 2008 Honda Fit has nearly 100,000 miles on it and keeps on chugging. Its the best city car I’ve ever had. (You should see me wedge its 108″ into a 109″ parking space.) Occasionally it needs maintenance, however, and recently I brought it into the shop for new struts and springs.
Walking home, I took a route new to me, at least as a pedestrian. I’d driven along Clinton Avenue before and knew there were outstanding houses there, but there’s nothing like being on foot for really observing your surroundings.
There are probably more freestanding Victorian mansions here than anywhere else in Brooklyn — remnants of the robber-baron days when wealthy industrialists chose this area, near the East River and the ferries to Manhattan, to built their family homes.
Along a several-block stretch of Clinton Avenue from Fulton Street almost to the river, there are more-elegant-than-usual brownstones, detached Greek Revival houses with porches and lawns, and smaller freestanding houses in a variety of architectural styles, some quite playful.
The neighborhood is called Clinton Hill, and along with Columbia Street in Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope’s “Gold Coast” (Prospect Park West), it’s one of the best places to see how the 1% lived in 19th century Brooklyn.
THIS MAY DAY in Brooklyn is a drizzly one. Still, Brooklyn’s brownstone streets are exquisite in spring. Don’t tell anyone… they may decide to move here in droves.
Dogwoods have been in their prime these past couple of weeks, lighting up the fronts of dark-hued row houses with blossoms of pink and white.
P.S. It’s not just dogwoods. See below.
LATELY I’VE BEEN LAX in posting links to The Insider, my weekly interior design/renovation column that appears every Thursday morning on the Brooklyn real-estate website Brownstoner.com. For the record, I’m aggregating the most recent here, and resolve (Happy New Year!) to be more consistent in the future.
“I live in Brooklyn. By choice.” So begins Truman Capote’s cheeky essay for the February 1959 issue of Holiday. The travel magazine had hired the writer pre-Breakfast at Tiffany’s, when he was practically an unknown, to craft a piece about his then-down-at-the-heels neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights, which they ran without even putting Capote’s name on the cover of the issue.
They published the article with just four black-and-white photos by a young photographer named David Attie, the result of several days spent in the Heights in the spring of 1958, at Capote’s rented digs on Willow Street (Attie photographed him there, above, though Capote actually lived in the ground-floor apartment and not in the part of the house with the grand staircase) and then along the gritty waterfront and the area’s back streets.
Attie captured a horse cart filled with flowers for sale, children in school uniforms doing their homework on a stoop, a barber shop, a wedding reception, an antique store, waiters at Gage & Tollner, the Promenade in the rain.
Meanwhile, boxes full of negatives from that shoot lay untouched in the Manhattan brownstone where Attie, who went on to have a long career in commercial photography, lived until his death in the 1980s. Only very recently, Attie’s son Eli, a TV writer, was motivated to look carefully through this trove for reasons he explains in an afterword.
He brought them to the attention of The Little Book Room, the boutique publisher that had brought Capote’s evocative essay out in book form years earlier, and the result is this brand-new, profusely illustrated edition, Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir by Truman Capote with the Lost Photographs of David Attie.
The regrettably brief essay, in Capote’s breakneck writing style, is pure fun. He introduces us to an old-money matron who insists he sign a petition and adopt a stray cat, pokes around in George Knapp’s curio shop, informs us that the St. George Alley, adjoining the cinema that existed until last year, was a “shadowy shelter for vagrants, wino derelicts who wandered over the bridge from the Bowery.”
He whips us back nearly sixty years to the days when Brooklyn had a working waterfront where you could sometimes — who knew — dine on ships at the invitation of the crew.
“I, for one, am always quick to accept, embarrassingly so if the hosts are Scandinavian; they always set a superior table from larders brimming with smoked “taste thrills” and iced aquavit. Avoid the Greek ships, however; very poor cuisine, no liquor served except ouzo, a sickly licorice syrup; and, at least in the opinion of this panhandler, the grub on French freighters by no means meets the standards one might reasonably expect.”
The whole thing is a delicious read, but it’s the atmospheric photos of the streetscape, still familiar yet not entirely recognizable, and the people, caught in the act of living their ordinary lives, that make this book exquisitely nostalgic — at least for those who, like myself, remember the New York City of that era in vivid childhood memories, when kids thought nothing of jumping into the East River for a swim on a hot day.
UPDATE: It’s rented!:-)
ASK MY KIDS, they’ll tell you: Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, is a great place to grow up. Especially on Verandah Place, the most coveted block in perhaps the most charming neighborhood in brownstone Brooklyn. It’s a row of mid-19th century brick carriage and mews houses, with a vest-pocket park right across the street and a highly regarded public elementary school two blocks away. Never was there a better street for skateboarding or jumping rope; car traffic is minimal. The river, the harbor and Brooklyn Bridge Park are a few blocks away; so are the best Middle Eastern and Italian groceries you’ll find in NYC.
And how often does a four-story, five bedroom, three bath townhouse with a great garden come up for rent on Verandah Place, especially one that’s just undergone a two-month spiffing up from top to bottom? Not often, let me tell you. If I could afford it, I’d live there myself (and did, for 20 years), but right now, it’s for rent, with a long lease possible.
Our 1850s townhouse is bright and ridiculously charming, full of simple details that characterize its classic architecture: original cove moldings, four-panel doors, rare black marble fireplaces (two working) and harmonious, perfectly square rooms.
Live there, work there — the garden level would lend itself beautifully to use as a studio or professional office, or as a guest suite, play or media room.
The entire house is freshly painted, with newly refinished floors. The kitchen has custom cabinets, honed granite countertop, Sub-Zero fridge and Viking stove next to a large dining room with wood-burning fireplace.
But why take my word for it? Have a look at my many photos, below. The official listing is here. Check out the professional photos on the realtor’s site (especially if you want to see the park across the street), or contact me at caramia447 (at) gmail (dot) com for further details.
P.S. Scroll all the way down to read some quirky factoids I’ve pulled together about Six Verandah Place and its location.
Parlor floor entry. Stairs go down to studio/garden level. Library/den to left, formal parlor ahead to left, beyond classical columns.
Library, den, media room, what have you. 15’x15′. Closet to right, double entry doors.
Come on in to parlor/living room. Door straight ahead leads to wrought iron balcony down to garden.
Major gap here: The photos above show just two angles on a 15’x22′ room with a marble mantel and two six-over-six windows overlooking the garden. Now up we go to the second floor…
Room straight ahead can be used as study or small bedroom. Overlooks garden. I wrote many a magazine article there.
View from dining room into hallway. Staircase, of course, original.
Dining room. About 15’x18′. Marble fireplace burns wood. Knoll credenza stays.
Bathroom on second floor has stall shower, washer/dryer, window overlooking street.
Coming up to top floor landing…
Master bedroom has skylight, arched windows, two closets, overlooks garden, rooftops.
2nd top floor bedroom.
3rd top floor bedroom.
Top floor bathroom with deep soaking tub.
Oh, wait! There’s another whole floor downstairs, on the garden level… and a full storage basement below that.
Two room studio can be used for myriad purposes. Guest suite, playroom, teen hangout, professional office. Another access to garden.
Garden-level bathroom has full tub, 1940s green tile.
Private garden with slate patio.
THE LORE OF SIX VERANDAH PLACE
- The house is pre-Civil War, built in the mid-1850s.
- It has more original interior detail than any other on the block (and I’ve been in most of them). That includes 4 marble mantels, cove moldings on the parlor floor, and the staircase/balusters. The ornate fixture in the front entry hall was once a gas fixture and is original to the house.
- Legend has it that the house is part of a row of five, all built by one gentleman on Warren Street for his five daughters and their families. These were not carriage houses, though there are several on the block; they were always one-family houses.
- The house is backwards! (That may be true of the whole row of five.) What is now the front facade of the house was originally the rear facade. If you stand in the garden and look up, you see its full size.
- The house is backwards probably because access was from Warren or Henry Street. There must have been an opening or possibly a road that ran through what is now the back garden in the 19th century.
- The rear parlor (living room) was originally the front parlor. We opened up the hallway and inserted the columns (which are salvaged porch columns) in the late 1980s, shortly after we bought the house.
- We also raised the ceilings on the top floor in the two back bedrooms (when we bought the house, those two rooms were an attic you couldn’t stand up in) and added the three arched windows.
- The kitchen dates from 2000. Cabinetry is custom maple, and the appliances (Viking, Bosch, Sub-Zero, etc.) have all been professionally refurbished.
- Cobble Hill Park became a park in the 1950s. Prior to that there was a church there, and Verandah Place was gated. The church was torn down, and a supermarket was set to go up in its place. The community objected, and the park was created. The sandbox is centered on a unique concrete dolphin that has been there since the ’50s and was preserved in a 1989 park renovation.
Want more info? Email me: caramia447 (at) gmail (dot) com.