Springtime Fix-ups in Boerum Hill

1 extCHOOSING EXTERIOR PAINT COLORS is even more nerve-wracking than choosing interior paint colors. After all, everyone will see them. And you have to consider context. You don’t (I don’t anyway) want it to clash with the house next door.

I’m doing some spiffing up at my 3-family rental property in Boerum Hill this month. It’s an 1830s Greek Revival with, remarkably — considering all the trials the building has been through in terms of ownership, receivership, and changing neighborhood over almost two centuries — a nice original doorway, left, with fluted pilasters and egg-and-dart molding.

In addition to a new wood vestibule door, below, which replaced a salvaged French door that never closed properly and had cracked panes of glass (and therefore did nothing to exclude noise and dirt), I’m debating colors for a partial re-painting of the building’s facade.


The block is not landmarked, so I could do chartreuse and hot pink if I wanted, but I’ve decided to stick with the same general scheme as before. When we bought the house in 1979, it was dark red. We changed it to the present gray with white trim — probably a bad idea in any urban environment. I’d love to repaint the entire facade, but that will have to wait. Right now I’m just doing the ground level, from the cornice down, and I’ve chosen a medium gray (Benjamin Moore Platinum Gray) for the concrete section, pale gray (Ben Moore Cliffside Gray) for the wood door surround, and dark gray-blue (Ben Moore Hamilton Blue) for the door itself. Classic, conservative, safe. Very safe, as the paint company pairs the three colors on one of their “Color Preview” chips. Why mess?

As long as we’re discussing the ground floor of this building, I have to admit to making a pretty dreadful design mistake there when I was young and ignorant. The building, when we bought it, had a bodega in the ground floor with an ugly aluminum storefront. The c. 1940 NYC tax photo shows a store with an old wood storefront, but that was long gone. Wanting to convert the ground floor store to an apartment, we decided against restoring the old wood storefront (probably for money reasons, but also practical ones — it seemed less secure than concrete). We built a new solid wall with these odd windows, which look much better from inside than out.

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If I had it to do all over again, I would restore the storefront, as I’ve occasionally seen done. It can still be used as an apartment. There’s one I know of in Carroll Gardens, on Hicks Street and Union, and another that springs to mind on Court between Kane and DeGraw.

Meanwhile, I wouldn’t mind doing some planting in large tubs or containers below those awkward windows. The building next door (to the right in the photo), which has an unusual-for-Brooklyn cast-iron decorative front, has an old clawfoot tub in front with evergreens  that persist year after year, despite passersby chucking trash in there and spotty watering.

Brooklyn Ironwork Etched in Snow


THE IRONWORK OF BROWNSTONE BROOKLYN is extraordinary in any season, but snow makes chunky cast-iron newel posts and scroll-like gates and railings stand out all the more graphically. Before the snow melts completely, I thought I’d share a few images of the infinitely varied 19th century ironwork of my home borough, mostly from Boerum Hill. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg…






Brooklyn ironwork ain’t bad in the sunshine, either. One day soon, it will look like this:


Bouncing Back to Brooklyn


RAINY SIDEWALKS FULL OF SOGGY GARBAGE. Racing to move the car by 8:30AM or risk getting towed away. Crowded buses creeping up Flatbush Avenue. Ah, it’s good to be back.


No, really, it is. The weather was spectacular my first three days back in Brooklyn, and it feels almost like I’m traveling in a new city — London keeps springing to mind — even though I lived here 30+ years before buying my cottage on Long Island a year-and-a-half ago. I’m sure the novelty will wear off, but right now, I’m enjoying exploring my new neighborhood of Prospect Heights, especially the restaurants, cafes, and bars along Vanderbilt Avenue. It’s all new to me: the trendy Australian-owned Milk Bar, where you can get whole grain toast piled with strawberry butter or mashed avocado, and the unpretentious Joyce Bakery, below, very welcoming on a gray morning.


My block is lined with classic, elegant brownstones, and I’m extremely pleased with my garden-level apartment. It’s all a pied-a-terre should be. My main worry, that it would be too dark, has not (like most worries) materialized. The north-facing back bedroom, under the owners’ deck, is indeed cave-like; I wake with no clue what time it is. But the south-facing living room gets lovely warm light that moves from the white marble mantel across my beloved hooked rug, to spatter the opposite wall, painted Benjamin Moore’s Dalila, a strong sunflower yellow, in the late afternoon.


The space feels very familiar. I’ve lived in so many mid-19th century Brooklyn row houses, where the details and proportions are all of a piece. The ceilings are high, even for a garden floor, the parquet is in excellent shape, the window moldings and four-panel doors and wood shutters and iron gates are all original and intact. The kitchen is in the right place (the center of the space) and attractive for a rental apartment; the built-in bookshelves are a godsend. The bedroom, though light-challenged, is huge, and I’ll be painting it too — peachy-pink to warm things up.


My move on Monday was uneventful, except for their having to unscrew the chrome base from the 8-foot-long sofa to get it in the door. Since then, I’ve been unpacking my stuff from storage and filling the car for my maiden voyage back to Springs with items I’ve got no space or use for here. Clothes and shoes (so easy to toss, with the hindsight a year-and-a-half of storage fees will give you) are going to LVIS — the Ladies Village Improvement Society thrift shop in East Hampton. Other things I’ll put in the basement for next spring’s first yard sale.


The book I’m reading in between cartons, and late at night when I’m too wired from unpacking to fall asleep, couldn’t be more appropriate: Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House, Meghan Daum’s amusing memoir of real-estate addiction. I’m relating on many levels to her tales of compulsive house-shopping, frequent moving, and shoestring decorating, feeling smug that my own case is a tad less severe.


Deck Progress and a Find


THINGS ARE MOVING ALONG rapidly here, deck-wise. On Friday, the builders framed out the entire main deck in all its 400-square-foot glory. That’s half the size of the house itself (excluding screened porch), but it’s in proportion to the size of the backyard and already feels inviting.


They didn’t work over the weekend, and I had to either use the front door or jump down from the back door between the new joists and hurdle. Now they’re back, and sounds of industry — sawing, drilling, hammering — fill the air. My neighbors, luckily, are very supportive. They’re thrilled I’m improving the property instead of letting it turn to shit, as was happening for years before I arrived in May ’09.

Now check out this archaeological find, below: a cast iron mortar and pestle, discovered under two original steps leading from the screened porch to the backyard. Must weigh 12 or 15 pounds. I happen to know the previous owner read tarot cards and fancied herself a witch. That’s apparently what her license plate read (a neighbor told me; don’t know if she also had the popular bumper sticker ‘My Other Car is a Broom’). Possibly she used it to mix eye of newt and toe of frog? In any event, it’s old, clearly older than the house. How and why it got there is anyone’s guess.


Usually I divulge the cost of all my home improvements, but I’m going to keep the deck price a secret for now and let whoever wants to field a guess. Hints: I got 4 estimates, three for the approximately the same price I’m paying, and one for considerably more. These are the parameters: 2 separate cedar decks with pressure treated framing — one 16’x24′, the other 6’x10′ with a shower enclosure and bench. There are four men working, and the job will take four days, so they say. Price doesn’t include installation of a new door from the bathroom to the shower deck.

The person who comes closest in the comments will win…something. Not the mortar and pestle, though.

The Ironmonger Under the El

p1020807You must have wondered – as I did – What is all that antique iron doing in the Lowe’s parking lot?  For a while, it was a hopeless jumble, but Roy Vaccaro, whose family has been in the scrap iron business for 100 years, selling radiators, plumbing pipes, and what have you, has gotten it together.p1020815

Four months ago, when his brothers retired and they closed Vaccaro Bros. Scrap Metal on 15th Street between 2nd and 3rd, Roy rented space from a storage company under the F train tracks off 8th Street in Gowanus, which happens to be at the entrance to Lowe’s.  There, in well-organized fashion, he displays metal architectural salvage gleaned from local demolitions — cast iron newel posts starting at $100, fences, gates, window guards, railings, finials, fireplace covers, and pieces thereof.

All is of local origin, Roy says, from Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx.p1020812

“I can tell where a house is by the metalwork,” Roy maintains. “If you go up any street towards Prospect Park, you’ll find less iron. Between 8th Avenue and the Park, it’s 90% stone, very little iron.”p1020809

The best block for ironwork, Roy says, is 10th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in Park Slope — “the most diversified iron around.”p1020811