Getting on for 4PM yesterday, I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to get out of my apartment. The sun had been teasing in and out all day. It would suffuse the front windows of my ground-level brownstone apartment with sudden, glorious light and I would make a move toward the door. Then, just as suddenly, all would go dark and gloomy, my motivation would flag, and I’d collapse on the couch again with my phone. This cycle repeated itself about five times.
But in the last hour of daylight, I rallied. With formal exercise options limited to the occasional Zoom class and some desultory stretching, the mainstay of my regime, such as it is, is walking the streets. Fortunately, I live in Brooklyn, New York City’s most architecturally rewarding borough, so it’s never dull.
I headed out of my own neighborhood of Prospect Heights and into Fort Greene, toward the grand park designed in the 1860s by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who also envisioned Manhattan’s Central Park. Fort Greene Park, top, is a 30-acre square full of majestic old trees, surrounded by blocks of brownstones and rising to a central mound that is one of the highest points in Brooklyn. The hill is topped by a towering Doric column commemorating the 12,000 who died on a British prison ship in New York Harbor during the Revolution, itself surrounded by a fine stone plaza that makes an obvious destination.
I walked along Cumberland Street, above, where rare wood frame houses with front porches, dating to the mid-19th century, are unusually numerous, and back along South Oxford, another street with much to admire, including the cheerful yellow buildings below.
I was glad to observe a couple of my favorite parkside bar/restaurants, Cafe Paulette and Walter’s, below, on corners right opposite the park, apparently thriving and filled with semi-outdoor diners on this relatively mild mid-winter Saturday.
Brooklyn was in the midst of rapid transformation from low-rise to hi- when the pandemic hit. As much as I would prefer it to remain just as it looked 150 years ago, no one sought my opinion. Some construction projects seem to have stalled out; others seem to be proceeding apace.
Although still ludicrously out of scale with the surrounding four-story row houses, I find some of the new residential towers bearable — the masonry ones that recall the stocky, substantial buildings of the Art Deco era. The really tall glass towers going up along Atlantic Avenue offend me. They don’t belong here. They are ugly to my eye and likely to age poorly, but, again, I wasn’t asked.
My final reward for rousing myself to action was a vibrant sliver of sunset as I headed back to my sofa. The late-day light glinting off the western facades of the gargantuan new buildings made me think, so be it. The world moves on.
If you are an old-house aficionado, you may already know about the candy store of vintage American architecture that is CIRCA. and the constellation of old-house websites and Instagram pages that surround it, bursting with eyebrow Colonials, Victorian gingerbreads, American Foursquares, Italianate jewel boxes, historic churches and more.
These covetable buildings are all for sale. Elizabeth Finkelstein, who has a Masters from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in historic preservation and writes a column for Country Living magazine, along with her husband Ethan, a digital designmeister, founded the sites to share their love of old houses while indulging their obsession with searching listings far and wide. They are not real estate brokers; the user-friendly sites link to the official listings.
The Finkelsteins call their enterprise “a curated online marketplace.” From dire fixer- uppers for $1,000 to properties with National Historic Landmark status, from humble one-room cabins to a San Francisco Beaux Arts masterpiece for $10 million, it’s a rabbit hole you’ll enjoy falling into.
What intrigues me most, bottom feeder that I am, is the sister site Cheap Old Houses, which focuses on listings under $100,000. The catch? Maybe that they’re mostly in far-off (from NYC, at any rate) and possibly far-right places like Ames, Iowa, and Vicksburg, Mississippi. There are intrepid folks, documented in a 2019 story in New York magazine, who will buy an old house sight unseen for a pittance, then move across country to sleep on an air mattress in an unfamiliar place to renovate on a shoestring. That’s not me anymore. But as eye candy and fantasy fodder for an armchair renovator, these sites are pure delight.
Top to bottom: Lexington, MO, sold for $60,000; Towanda, IL, $150,000; Bristol, CT, $175,000; Bergton, VA, $70,000
You can check out CIRCA and CIRCA-adjacent websites and follow them on Instagram for free, or get three weekly newsletters for $12/ month, including a “secret” Instagram feed plus Cheap(ish) Old Houses, Cheap Old Farmhouses and Cheap Old Houses Abroad, which promise a total of 2,000 additional listings.
CIRCA has been around as a website since 2013, Cheap Old Houses as an Instagram feed since 2016 (now with 1.4 million folowers!) “We started @cheapoldhouses because we were enchanted with the untapped beauty that is hidden in so many pockets of this country,” reads Cheap Old Houses’ About page. “These homes tell the stories of the everyday people who lived here, worked here, and made America what it is… They are not the fancy landmarks—they are our true history.”
I commend them for doing their part to help save it.
I AM BACK in Brooklyn for the winter and turning my attention to another of my vintage properties, one that hasn’t had much love in recent years: a four-story brick in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, located conveniently but noisily between two major arteries, Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenue.
Doesn’t look like much, perhaps, with the fire escape and all, but it has history. I found out recently that it was built in 1835 by a mason named Ezekiel C. Frost, who had a Fulton Street address. It was a pretty fancy house at one time; you rarely see a Brooklyn row house with windows on the hallway stair landings, which this one has.
There’s no stoop, just a couple of steps up to the front door, surrounded by original carved wood moldings in a plain but obvious Greek Revival style. The parlor floor’s high ceilings were once bedecked with ornamental plasterwork.
When we bought the building vacant in 1979, it was unlivable, an utter wreck, with graffiti on the inside and other relics of NYC’s bad old days (metal gates across windows, steel apartment doors). The pipes had frozen and burst; the boiler was useless. But a few decorative details, including fluted moldings around the tall windows on the parlor floor, had miraculously survived.
It took us four years to renovate the building, much of it hands-on, into three rental apartments — a ground floor one-bedroom, which replaced a former bodega; a 4-bedroom duplex on the parlor and third floors, above, created by installing an interior stair; and a top floor two-bedroom.
There were even a few shards of plaster detail left forty years ago, but we were so naive about historic preservation, we didn’t save them. I cringe to report that the bits and pieces of plaster we threw away in 1979 suggested our house may have had something akin to the plasterwork in the 1832 Old Merchant’s House, below, a historic house museum on East 4th Street in Manhattan, though not as ornate.
The house had a hectic history, which I delved into one Saturday morning last month at the Brooklyn Historical Society. In a two-hour workshop called “If These Walls Could Talk,” held in the hushed late-Victorian library of the BHS on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights, we were introduced to various resources and materials, including maps, land conveyance documents and residential directories. There are also invaluable websites, notably the digitized archives of The Brooklyn Eagle, a daily newspaper that began publishing in the 1850s. (I wasn’t a total newbie at this; I did a similar workshop a few years back, researching our Cobble Hill building.)
That afternoon, I spent a further few hours in the library, coming away with a real sense of lived history, of the specific individuals who worked, ate, socialized on the very same wide-plank floorboards we’ve sanded and re-sanded and patched and filled, because they’re too full of character to replace.
Most moving of all were some 1850s classifieds in the Eagle, advertising ponies for sale, lost earrings, musical instruments (“French tremolo $20, Spanish guitar (a gem, only $35), English concertina $20”). Real people with real lives, who wore top hats and bustles and took meals at a communal table, meals probably prepared in what is now our basement boiler room.
Housing classifieds in the same paper of the same period were even more revealing. Seems the house may never have been used as a single-family home, but was always a multi-unit building. Individual floors and rooms were advertised to let, with or without board.
TO RENT – A beautiful parlor floor in a first class house; gas, water, &c. In good order; inquire of Mrs. Scott from 10 A.M. to-morrow till 3 P.M.
BOARD – Gentlemen and their wives, or five or six single gentlemen, can be accommodated in pleasant front or back rooms, on first or second floors, with good board. Cars pass the door.
Among the other intriguing things I found out:
The house’s original address, as the street name was different in the 19th century. That was key to finding out other things, but not all. Land conveyance documents are based not on addresses, but on not-to-scale lot drawings showing measurements from nearby street corners.
The house was likely built as a spec project right around the date I had surmised. It is a less grand version of the 1832 Old Merchant’s House, a historic house museum on East 4th Street in Manhattan, similar in proportion, detail and layout.
It changed hands, as did most of the other lots on the block and in the neighborhood, many, MANY times over the course of Brooklyn’s 19th century building and real estate booms.
There were births and deaths in the building, not to mention foreclosures and bankruptcies and day-after-Christmas visiting hours, when a pastor lived there in the 1890s.
That because of all the frantic flipping, continuing into the 20th century, my wasband and I have owned the building far longer than anyone else ever did.
It may have been this last startling realization that recharged my sense of responsibility toward this historic, if degraded, property. It spurred me to plan a spiffing-up, this coming winter, of the public halls, which haven’t been painted in many years and are sorely in need of new floor tile and stair carpet.
My cosmetic improvements are happening at a time when the house is about to be dwarfed by a mixed-use complex known as 80 Flatbush (renderings above — it’s the weird basket-shaped thing), with two towers of 40-something and nearly 70 stories. Ezekiel Frost would be very surprised.
The construction will take eight years. But this house is a survivor, and it will go on.
OCTOBER HAS BEEN A MONTH for remembering my love of old houses, which is why I started this blog in the first place, and for being blown away once again by the beauty of Long Island’s South Fork. That includes my own humble half-acre, above and below, whose fall colors are more brilliant than at any time in the decade I’ve been here.
They say it’s because of all the rain we had this season (which continues). Usually, the oak trees that dominate this region turn dull brown in fall, while the red maples and golden hickories are fewer. This year, it seems, the oaks haven’t turned yet and so remain green, while the others have colored up in timely fashion. It’s so blazingly beautiful that for once, I’m not suffering FOMO over not being in New England or the Hudson Valley.
Meanwhile, an article in the East Hampton Star about some local historic preservation awards for two recently restored Colonial-era houses caught my eye, and I trotted over to check them out. One is the early-18th century Hiram Sanford House on Egypt Lane, below, a plain and modest structure behind which new owners are building some kind of modernist bunker out of shipping containers (don’t ask).
Around the corner from it, un-awarded, is an even cuter house of similar vintage, below, which I only noticed because I parked in front of it.
The more outstanding preservation project is the Gardiner Mill CottageGallery,below, a 1750 saltbox with leaded windows. It sits on an open 3-1/2 acre lot that has remained intact in East Hampton Village since 1638, and also contains an 1804 windmill. The building is now a new art museum, open weekends only, with rotating exhibits of historical landscape paintings.
Nearby are two more of the oldest English Colonial houses in the country, Mulford Farm and the so-called “Home Sweet Home” museum, below, plus another fine windmill. I’ve been to these numerous times, and to the lovingly maintained kitchen garden that sits between them.
From there I spotted a house across the main road, below, that appears to have equal historic integrity, with asymmetrical windows and a steeply pitched roof (for shedding snow?) Certainly more than two centuries old, it just sits there with no awards, plaques or fanfare.
Maybe it’s because I haven’t been to Europe in a while so I’m not jaded, or maybe it’s because I’m about to go back to NYC for the winter, but suddenly, the architectural heritage of this pretty town looks especially rich to me.
I can’t say I’m ready to go back to the city, exactly, but it’s been a good long season and things are winding down. The coleus in my window boxes are only a frost away from turning black and falling over.
I’ve planted about 1,000 early bulbs — tarzetta daffodils, crocus, glory of the snow, winter aconite — here and there throughout the property, to welcome me back next spring.
The city has its charms, and I’m determined to rediscover those, too, this winter. But it doesn’t have this:
EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. – Among the things that are NOT bogus about this area’s reputation is its importance in the history of modern art. What is even more remarkable is that it continues — not with the physical presence of famous figures like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem deKooning, Robert Motherwell and dozens of other Abstract Expressionists who had strong Hamptons connections in the mid-20th century — but in the ongoing abundance of art fairs, art shows, art galleries anda unique waterfront studio where members of the public can take classes and set up at easels on a drop-in basis: The Art Barge in Napeague, moored halfway between Amagansett and Montauk.
It’s a former World War II naval vessel, towed to this spot in 1960, an inspiration of Victor d’Amico, then education director at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. With the later addition of a second level, there’s a downstairs painting studio ($50 for three hours of camaraderie, though it’s usually a bunch of silent, focused individuals getting walk-around instruction and encouragement from the Barge’s teachers), and an upstairs library and multi-media workspace, where a long wide table with stools on either side runs the length of the space, meadow views to the south, harbor views to the north.
That’s where, in June, I took a one-week workshop called the Bauhaus Preliminary Course, five 3-hour morning sessions exploring the teaching methods of the German art institute, whose short existence (from 1919 until shuttered by the Nazis in 1933) belies its enormous influence on world art and design in the decades since.
Fortunately, I have no ego investment in being an artist, because I soon discovered that among the 12 students in the class, I was the only one not already a visual artist of some sort, and way out of my league. Still, it was fun, messing around with materials from the block-long window ledges (the “junk buffet,” including such things as pieces of netting, foam insulation, feathers, astroturf and on and on) to make collages; cutting, arranging and squinting at pieces of colored paper as we learned principles of color; making rubber stamp textile designs and then trying our hand at weaving; and finally working with tempera paints in a way I hadn’t since 3rd grade.
I’ve since gone back to visit and walk along the deck watching sea birds and water snakes and dogs in the meadow, and have checked out the nearby modernist home of Victor D’Amico and his wife Mabel, also an art educator and prolific sculptor and assemblage artist, many of her works made with driftwood and found beach objects. Now known as the Mabel and Victor D’Amico Studio and Archive, it offers free public tourson Wednesdays and Saturdays by appointment.
The house itself, a humble affair built in the 1940s with recycled materials and the D’Amicos own labor, was one of the first modernist beach homes in the area. With concrete and linoleum floors, glass walls, pegboard cabinets, open shelving and Eames chairs, it has a mid-century modern aesthetic, as well as a look of having been constructed on a shoestring. Yet it stands, artful and atmospheric, and is being considered for local landmarks designation, which would offer it some protection from demolition. It seems the least the community can do.