Period-Inappropriate Windows


CAPITAL IMPROVEMENT underway at my building in Cobble Hill — our former family home, now rented out to another family. I’m replacing three top-floor windows at the rear of the house — two in the master bedroom and one in a smaller bedroom next door.

Should be straightforward, right? Of course it’s not, because when we raised the roof in those two rooms, back in 1987 — it was originally attic crawl space you couldn’t stand up in — we created arched windows. Replacing them now requires either new, custom-fabricated all-in-one units or modified millwork so that the original fixed fanlights, which are fine and which I still like, can stay in place.

These arched windows are not accurate for the 1850s date of the house, but they’re in the back, so Landmarks was never an issue. And they sure looked pretty — before they started falling apart, that is. They’re not insulated, all wood, and perhaps they were never primed properly. They’ve virtually rotted, with panes falling out.

The rotting windows are six-over-six; at the time, I thought that was the proper historic configuration. Now I understand it’s likely they were two-over-two, and that’s what’s going in instead. That will line up properly with the mullions in the existing fanlight, which the previous sash never did (a neophyte’s design mistake). And instead of replacing the whole arch with a single unit, I’m having the fanlights at the top modified to accommodate new Marvin windows, which will be insulated, with ‘true divided lights’ (real instead of fake mullions) — aluminum clad on the outside, wood on the inside.

I’m using one of two contractors I met with, both recommended by Dykes Lumber, a local building-supply company: the one who showed up on time, took careful measurements, followed up as promised with an emailed proposal, and generally inspired confidence. The other guy was rushed, answered calls on his pager, took a few digital pictures but no notes or measurements, and gave me an on-the-spot rough estimate. It happened to coincide almost exactly with the one I received from contractor #1 a couple of days later, but his general demeanor made me not want to hire him.

I didn’t call any of the other names I had collected from neighbors and online resources. I’m going with my gut on this one. And even though the whole deal is going to cost six grand [frowny face], it feels good to be doing right by the house this time.

Super-Skinny West Village Townhouse, $4.3million

21320_17865“My candle burns at both ends

It will not last the night;

But ah my foes, and oh my friends,

It makes a lovely light!”

– “First Figs,” Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1920

I’D LONG KNOWN THAT 75-1/2 BEDFORD STREET, aka the Edna St. Vincent Millay house, was the narrowest house in the West Village, if not all of New York City, measuring just 9-1/2 feet wide. I’d wondered what it would be like to live in such a sliver of a house, and what it looked like inside.

Now we know. The house is on the market for $4.3million (it sold in 2000 for $1.6 million). Interior photos on the realtor’s website reveal that the 1850s brick townhouse with the Dutch-style ziggurat-shaped roofline has been re-done to the nines.


It retains bits of original detail, like wood ceiling beams running crosswise (short ones!), with sterile modern kitchen and baths.


Nowhere does the listing mention the width of the house, or its square footage, but perhaps what it lacks in size it makes up for in the charm of its location and the famousness of its residents. The poet Millay, the anthropologist Margaret Mead, and the actor John Barrymore all lived in the diminutive dwelling at various times.


There are 3 bedrooms, 2 full baths, and four wood-burning fireplaces. Go here to read all about it.

Prospect Heights Landmark District Shell 499K


IF LOCATION REALLY WERE EVERYTHING in real estate, what’s left of this 1850s frame house on lovely Carlton Avenue would have been snapped up long ago — maybe a couple of years back when when the asking price was 899K, or when it dropped to 699K — even though it’s in truly nightmarish condition.(Someone should shoot a scary movie there while there’s still time.)


I’ve seen some daunting rehab projects in my time, but this one ranks with the dauntingest. Uninhabited for thirty years, the three-story building is just about standing. The rear extension is falling in on itself altogether, and the top floor was cordoned off at Sunday’s open house, where a steady stream of the curious, including myself, were asked to sign release forms before entering, just in case anyone should fall through the floorboards or get beaned by a piece of falling ceiling.


Having seen the post about the house on Brownstoner last week, and read through the many comments — equal parts conjecture and fear-mongering, probably well-founded (though if there’s mold, that would be the least of it) — I just had to take a look.


For one thing, it’s right around the corner from my apartment. For another, it’s 2011, and my acquisitive urge is beginning to stir. I bought investment properties in 2005 (Philadelphia), 2007 (Philadelphia), 2009 (East Hampton, N.Y.) and if I’m to stay on schedule, this would be my year to add to the portfolio.


But this is not a project for me, alas. I don’t have the resources, the stomach, or the patience to deal with Landmarks. Also, on the minus side, the house is petite — 20’x25′, though it could be built out to 60% of its 20’x80′ lot. The building next door is equally derelict, and that one’s not for sale, so the house, even when spiffed up, will be adjacent to an asphalt-covered eyesore.


On the plus side, besides its location in prime Prospect Heights…well, that’s about it for the plus side.


Will the right buyer come along at the unheard-of-around-these-parts price of 499K?


Bohemian Splendor in Cobble Hill


ONE OF THE GREAT THINGS ABOUT BLOGGING is making new friends. Lula and I met only a few months ago, when she stumbled upon my blog and contacted me. We soon discovered we are neighbors in two places. She has an adorable cottage a few blocks from mine in Springs (East Hampton), N.Y., as well as a parlor floor she’s owned for 16 years in a classic 1850s Italianate brownstone in Brooklyn, top and below, virtually around the corner from where I lived for two decades (though we had never run into each other).


She lives in a state of Bohemian splendor, presently suspended in mid-renovation. Having peeled off old wallpaper, the walls have a Venetian plaster look but await further plaster and paint. The ceiling has been stabilized in parts where it was falling down. There are nearly intact plaster cornice moldings all the way around, with what Lula calls her ‘Shakespearen troupe’ of faces. A new kitchen is in the cards, and there’s a potential terrace at the back which is just tar paper, no railings, at the moment.


Most of the elaborate plaster cornice is in great shape, above. Other parts, below, not so much.


Lula is grappling with the questions endemic to living on the parlor floor of a brownstone.


  • Where to put the kitchen so it’s functional but unobtrusive? Right now it’s in the middle and will probably remain there for plumbing reasons, but in what configuration?
  • How to create a bedroom with privacy? She’s got a small one in the former hall space at the back, and uses the back parlor as a sort of den/guest room, above — but could it be better used as a master bedroom or dining room (currently in the kitchen area)?
  • And what about those magnificent original wood doors and moldings? Were they painted back in the day (she thinks so) and should they be painted again, or refinished and stained? Should perhaps the doors be left wood and just the moldings painted?


All that remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the place has great cozy charm. With all that original detail, antiques acquired piecemeal over the years, an overstuffed sofa, plants on the window sills, and faded Oriental rugs, it feels much like being back in the Victorian era, for real.


After my first-ever visit to Lula’s apartment, we went and checked out the new Fork & Pencil warehouse on Bergen Street, above, a few-months-old, crammed-full, well-vetted consignment store — a spin-off of the smaller storefront on Court Street — whose proceeds go to non-profit conservation, arts, and other organizations. It’s more Lula’s kind of place than mine, filled with traditional antiques, but more to the point, I don’t need anything at the moment. Browsing there is purely a theoretical exercise for me. I admire, appreciate, and move on. Don’t need anything, thanks!


We had a civilized late lunch nearby at Broken English, the sort of self-conscious industrial chic space one used to expect only in Manhattan. I’m glad it’s come to Brooklyn, because my rigatoni with marinara and basil was scrumptious, and the salad, bread, and olive oil were tops. You can tell the quality of a restaurant by its bread and salad, I once read, and I think that’s on the mark. Broken English is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Ignore the snarky online reviews from amateur critics and give it a try. It’s a welcome addition to the nabe, in my book.

Brownstone Mysteries Explained


THE parlor floor of the 1850s Brooklyn row house where I live is pretty intact, with moldings, mantels, an elaborate plaster arch in mint condition, and a 3-foot-wide rosette in the center of the ceiling, from which dangles a gilded chandelier (and some people think I’m a strict modernist!)

Shortly after moving here in November 2006, I noticed that the rosette had dark spaces in the scrolly plasterwork that looked like deep black holes.  Turns out they ARE holes.  According to the handy reference Bricks and Brownstone, the New York Row House 1783-1929, these were vents for the fumes that came out of the gaslight that once hung from this fancy centerpiece. The holes trapped the fumes and carried them into the chimney flue, then outdoors.  It is startling to see something so obsolete and low-tech still in place, and I wonder how many others have them.  Are they rare or a dime a dozen here in Boerum Hill?

The same book revealed why such a classy house has such crummy floors. Instead of the 150_5038patterned oak parquet you get in a lot of later 19th century Park Slope houses, this house has simple 4″ pine strips,  none too fine looking.  Why?  Very simple: the fashion in the 1850s was for wall-to-wall carpets!

Power looms invented (by Erastus Bigelow) in the 1840s enabled cheap production of woven tapestry carpets. “By the 1850s,” writes Charles Lockwood, “nearly every middle-class family proudly put a thick floral-patterned carpet in the parlor.”

The floors were never meant to be seen.  Today, they are, and they look oddly rustic, especially stained yellow-orange, as mine are <ugh>.