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I’M JUST BACK from Florida’s Gulf Coast, where I attended Sarasota Mod, a conference aimed at educating the public (and hopefully saving) the city’s stock of innovative post-WWII housing and public buildings. But before I delve into all that — and delve I will, on this blog and in a piece for Architectural Record — I couldn’t resist a post about another, earlier love: 1920s Mediterranean Revival-style cottages. Sarasota developers built them to meet the needs of people beginning to discover the charms of what had been wilderness a few decades before.
Top, not a cottage — that’s Ca’ D’Zan, an over-the-top Venetian-style palazzo built for circus impresario John Ringling and his wife Mable in 1926, now restored and re-furnished down to the original china and silver. We were treated to dinner on the terrace there, below, sunset included.
One lunch hour, I strolled the back streets of Sarasota’s business district and found, in the shadows of condos and parking garages, a few 1920s buildings that have survived the relentless march of commerce. Can you spot one in the photo below?
What fun it was to come across Burns Court, below, a rare, intact street of stucco cottages, each painted and decorated with Florida flair. Built in 1926 by developer Owen Burns (who also built Ca’ D’Zan), Burns Court is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Just east of Orange Avenue, in the streets around Laurel Park, there’s a whole neighborhood of wood-frame 1920s bungalows. Below, a small apartment complex in that red-tile-roof, arched-windows ersatz Spanish style so beloved in the Twenties. Most, though not all, of the homes in the Laurel Park area are well-maintained, with landscaping that is beyond lush, sometimes obscuring the houses from the street.
Must add this guy to my mailbox archive:
THIS LISTING FOR A 1950s BUNGALOW in the Maidstone Park section of Springs (East Hampton), N.Y., surprised me. I thought I knew every house in the area, not just because of my real estate interests, but from my frequent walks down to the bay.
This one had completely escaped my notice. And yet it’s a house that, were I now in the market for a starter home in the area, I might give serious consideration. It’s the kind of fixer upper that gets my juices flowing. It’s small and manageable, it’s got an interesting shape, it’s one of a kind, and it’s set back on a bit of a rise, off a quiet street.
Couple of red flags: possible mold and/or mildew issues. I walked in (the back door was open) and it had the dank feel of a house that had been closed up for a while. Also, while the neighbors on either side and across the street seemed OK, the house on the other side of the back fence seemed to have a bit of a hillbilly vibe, with junk in the yard. But that’s how it goes in the “real” Hamptons.
As an asking price in this neighborhood, a short walk to Gardiner’s Bay and to a lovely marina, 356K is not a terrible place to start. The listing, with a dozen photos, is here.
Am I nuts, or does anyone else see potential here?
TWO WEEKS AFTER SANDY, my friend M., who has invested huge sums of money and energy fixing up a 1930s bungalow, above, in the far reaches of Queens, New York, has just had her first experience with FEMA. A few blocks of vintage bungalows in the beachside community of Far Rockaway, survivors among a onetime colony of thousands, took a beating in the recent storm.
Most of the time, the beachfront location is a plus. M. thoroughly enjoyed her first summer in her bright, colorfully renovated bungalow, whose interior is shown here. She had even been considering living there full-time, as many of her neighbors do. After Sandy’s havoc, she’s probably not so sure.
Power has not yet been restored. The water went as high as 3’3″ in M’s basement (fortunately she has one), ruining her brand new boiler and hot water heater. FEMA came last Friday to assess the damage. M. says the assessor seemed generous on his visit, noting damage she had missed and putting it all in his report. Twenty four hours later, with efficiency I never imagined the Federal government capable of, she had an email from FEMA. The decision: M was to be given a grant of $499.99 (why not a round $500?) and offered a Federal loan of 50K. “So much for that!” she says.
M.’s report from the front today: “The situation out there is getting desperate, not so much in the bungalow colony, especially with the weather warming up a bit, but elsewhere. Utter devastation and too many poor people, too much public housing. Lines for food and supplies everywhere. Nothing much open business-wise and I wonder how many of them will reopen. Looks like a Third World country.” Transportation is still disrupted; the commute to Manhattan, normally under an hour, can take four.
Rockaway’s unique bungalow community will survive and who knows? In years to come, the whole area may see a turnaround. But it could take decades. Right now, focus is all on clean-up. “It’s exhausting,” M. says. “And I was one of the least hard hit.”
To read the back story of M’s search for a Rockaway bungalow and see photos before and during renovation, go here.
Among the perennially popular posts on this blog are two that constitute a bungalow-by-bungalow tour of the colony as it looked in February 2012. Rainy Day Rockaway, Part I is here For Rainy Day Rockaway, Part II, go here.
WHAT’S A DESIGN PEDIGREE WORTH? Quite a bit, in the case of this 500-square-foot bungalow just sent to market by fashion designer Cynthia Rowley (who bought another mid-century Montauk house recently for 820K and probably doesn’t need two of them).
The pedigree is not Rowley’s, A-list celeb though she is. It’s that the house was designed in the late 1930s by architect Donald Deskey, best known for his elegant Art Deco contributions to Radio City Music Hall, for the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. He called it the “Sportshack,” declaring his intention to “overcome the public’s aversion to factory-built homes by using open spaces, new materials, and practical decor.”
Kitchen cabinets look original
In 1940, a Sportshack was exhibited as part of an industrial design show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, kitted out as a hunting cabin with rifles and duck decoys. This particular one was erected in the Ditch Plains area of Montauk in the ’40s. As it stands, the house has just one bedroom and one bath, but it sits on a lot of nearly an acre and could be expanded.
For the official listing and many more pictures, click here.
What M.’s bungalow looked like when she bought it in January of this year. The green X’s alert firefighters that the house is unoccupied.
…and how it looked last week, with a ‘rough coat’ of stucco.
THIS WORK-IN-PROGRESS, an early 20th century bungalow in Far Rockaway, N.Y. — one of perhaps 450 remaining of a colony that once numbered thousands — is owned by a woman after my own heart. A longtime reader of my blog, she e-mailed me recently in response to my plea for blog-worthy ideas when my creative well had run temporarily dry. M., who prefers to remain anonymous, told me she had purchased (coincidentally — not because of my blog) one of the bungalows pictured in a post I did last summer about the bungalows of Rockaway — “the most derelict one” — and was in the process of fixing it up. I was immediately dying to find out more about this woman who had the nerve to buy a falling-apart bungalow in the far reaches of the borough of Queens, albeit 1/2 block from the ocean.
The renovation, which will “not be luxe,” is coming along, she wrote in last week’s email. “The exterior is almost complete; the interior will start next week.”
This afternoon, M. and I had a long phone chat. We soon found we were kindred spirits on a number of levels. A college professor with a grown son, now single, she has been “buying properties that are a mess, fixing them up, and selling them” for 15 years, including two apartments on the Upper West Side and a couple in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Like me, M. has fond memories of Far Rockaway in the 1950s, when she spent time there in a bungalow owned by her grandparents.
I’m going to let M. tell you about it in her own words.
casaCARA: What on earth possessed you to buy a derelict cottage in Far Rockaway?
A couple of years ago, summer in a Brooklyn apartment started to get to me. I felt caged and claustrophobic. As a college professor, I’m supposed to be writing in the summertime. I thought of buying a place in Massachusetts and got close to doing so, but backed off because the commute didn’t appeal to me, and I don’t own a car.
Then it came to me. I remembered that my grandparents owned a bungalow in Far Rockaway that my mother never tired of talking about. They bought it in the 1930s. They were a large Italian immigrant family with 11 kids. They lived in East Harlem and did not have the money to buy a house, but they could scrape together the money for one of those little bungalows. This got the kids out of the city for the summer. The older ones watched the younger, and my grandparents came on weekends.
<-M.’s mother standing on the beach in Far Rockaway, summer of ’48
I got this brainstorm to find my grandparents’ bungalow and buy it. Turns out it doesn’t exist anymore. I stumbled on the website of the Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association of Far Rockaway and emailed Richard George, a pioneer in the area. I give him a lot of credit. Without him, all of this might have been lost. I said I was interested in buying a bungalow to work in as a writer’s retreat. I figured I would put heat in and also use it in the winter.
I asked him to tell me which realtors sell the bungalows, and he said, ‘It doesn’t work that way. Come on out and let’s talk.’ I did that in September 2009, and finally closed on a bungalow in January 2011. It’s all word of mouth; nothing is listed. Some were in foreclosure, and I bid but lost out. Finally, through word of mouth, came this particular bungalow. The sellers’ grandparents had owned it and it hadn’t been lived in for over 5 years.
They suddenly decided to sell and Richard George let them know I was looking. They wanted $65,000 cash; they didn’t negotiate. It had to be all-cash because of the condition; it would have been impossible to get a mortgage. There was no electric — the meter had been stolen — and no water. Raccoons were living in the attic, and feral cats inside the house. It was just sitting there rotting. The yard was an eyesore; people had been using it as a dumping ground.
Let’s backtrack a bit. What was your reaction when you first saw the neighborhood?
The first time I went out was in mid-September ’09. It was a beautiful day, and that helped. I walked three blocks from the A train stop at Beach 25th Street. The only person I saw was a crossing guard, but I walked through what seemed to be a well-tended middle-class neighborhood and saw signs of active gardening, which encouraged me.
I knew where my grandparents’ bungalow was; it was around Beach 35th Street. From the train I had seen empty roads going up to the boardwalk, like ghost roads. It was all razed and overgrown, but the street signs were still there. I felt my mother’s presence more strongly than since I lost her in ’98. I felt she was telling me, ‘This is the place for you – go!’
I felt, I’ve got to do this, or a piece of New York history will be gone. I felt my family history going down the drain. A great-great-grandfather of mine was Matthew Perry, Commandant of the Navy. He lived at the Brooklyn Navy Yard [in buildings that have deteriorated beyond salvation]. There was this family attachment and my love for restoration, and the importance of these historical buildings and the feeling that they should be preserved.
CC: When you got to the bungalows, what did you think?
The bungalow colony was a little daunting, but there were enough that had been refurbished that you could see the potential. You could look and say, ‘Oh yes, these places can be made adorable, really sweet.’ But others, you’d think, ‘What blight, how horrible.’
The one I bought was one of the worst, but after 2 years of looking, when this deal seemed like it was going to work, I didn’t feel I had a choice. If I did, I would have chosen one that wasn’t quite so derelict. It’s not a normal real estate transaction. You need an owner ready to sell at a price you can afford or to win in a foreclosure situation, which is very difficult. I felt I had to go for it.
“A little daunting”
Where do things stand now with the renovation?
The outside’s done, the stucco’s on, and I’m coming down the home stretch. The porch had to have new footings. There’s a new roof, new windows, new electric. It’s a wood frame structure, and the walls behind the stucco were actually good.
I found a local contractor. We had to get plans, an engineer’s report, and have an asbestos inspection – 24 samples. Fortunately, the place was asbestos-free. I didn’t move walls or raise ceilings. It remains to be seen if the wood floors can be saved. I wasn’t able to salvage anything from the kitchen or bath.
This is one of the larger bungalows at 700 square feet, all on one level, with three small bedrooms to the left of the front door, and a living room, kitchen, and bathroom to the right. Some of them are smaller, and so close together you can reach out the window and hand someone a cup of sugar in the next house. But this one came with a side lot which has a public easement.
I’m going to do some IKEA, paint the ceiling light blue, and do ’50s wallpaper in the bathroom and one of the bedrooms.
And the final renovation budget?
Right now, to tell you the truth, I don’t know. It’s still not done, and the plumbers are a big question mark. I was going to spend $50,000 and it looks like I’ll be close or slightly over.
Have you seen changes in the neighborhood in the past two years?
A few bungalows have turned over, but it’s not a sea change. There are quite a few left intact on Beach 24th and Beach 25th Streets that make a sort of colony on the ocean. Others are piecemeal, a couple here and there, some next to 1970s houses.
There are some bungalows that have mortgages of $300-400,000. There was a lot of mortgage fraud out there. You can see the mortgage balances on Property Shark. They’ll be coming up as foreclosures, but they’re not available now.
The white section on the right is new stucco, applied over wire mesh.
M. hopes to be in her bungalow by August 1st. After the first stressful months of renovation, she’s feeling very positive, as well she should.
I felt immediately I wanted to do this: ‘A little place that won’t overwhelm me, that I can maintain. It’s adorable, it’s historic, it’s exactly right.’ Then came the difficulty of actually doing it. But given what I started with, the transformation is way better than I ever imagined.