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.