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WELCOME BACK TO BROWNSTONE VOYEUR, the resumption of a popular casaCARA series in which we go behind the facades of brownstones and other historic Brooklyn housing types to see how folks of today live in the sumptuous spaces of long ago.

“EDITH WHARTON MEETS THIEF OF BAGHDAD”…that’s how Reid Burgess describes the decor of the parlor/garden duplex he and his girlfriend have been working on for almost three years in a classic, detail-laden 1870s Brooklyn brownstone. “People think it’s kind of crazy when we tell them we’re renting,” said Reid, until recently a professional musician who now considers himself a designer/developer. (You can get a look at his first project, a from-the-ground-up ‘little Palladian villa’ in Charleston, S.C., on Reid’s blog.)

Back in Brooklyn, the couple have been busy stripping paint off doors and woodwork, re-painting the place in colors more to their liking, and furnishing with pieces collected from various sources, including eBay, Chinatown, and an auction house in Richmond, Va.

All changes are with permission of the landlord, but still, the couple “had to make virtues out of imperfections,” says Reid. “It’s not a reno where you have complete control of everything. Things I never would have done I’ve learned to think of as interesting.”

For example, they would not have painted the parlor, dining room, and woodwork orange. Some of that they’ve changed, including stripping and staining an arched mahogany door, painting picture rail a dark bronze (it too was orange), and painting other woodwork in Benjamin Moore’s satin-finish Wenge. They also re-painted the back parlor, which they use as a dining room, dark green. But the front parlor remains orange. “We kind of grew to like it,” Reid says.

The front parlor, with its 13′ ceilings, elaborate plasterwork, and over-the-top marble mantelpiece and mirror in High Victorian style, was in very decent shape when Reid and his girlfriend found the place through Craigslist. When they moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn three years ago, Reid says, “It had to be a quintessential parlor. That was the attraction.” The parquet floors, too, with Greek key pattern, were intact and polished.

The white Empire sofa, which Reid says is surprisingly comfortable, was a Craiglist find. Reid paid just a few hundred dollars for it, but he had to drive 17 hours to Pittsburgh and back to pick it up. “That was extreme,” he admits.

The kitchen is in the original hall of the building, off the rear parlor.

Downstairs, the front room is used as a library/guest room, and the back as a bedroom.

The lattice was falling down on the deck off the parlor floor and needed repair.

To dig back into the archives of previous ‘Brownstone Voyeurs,’ click here.


EVERYONE SEEMS TO HAVE LOVED The Outsider last Sunday (41 comments!) It’s one a member of the Brownstoner community sent in — simple, family-friendly, and on a shoestring budget. To take a look at the befores and afters, go here.


Hard as it may be to believe, ten years ago this immaculate 1873 brownstone on one of Clinton Hill’s most elegant blocks was chopped into six SRO [single room occupancy] units, sharing four kitchens between them. Its wood floors were so grimy no one knew they were parquet. Its imposing arched entry door had cardboard panes instead of glass. The sky was visible through holes in the top-floor ceiling.

When the current owners — a couple with two teenagers, who live on three of the four floors and rent out the garden level — bought the building in 2001 and embarked on a renovation, the house more than met them halfway…

To read all about it and see lots more pictures, click here.

17book-articleInline-v2I’M LIFTING THIS ARTICLE WHOLESALE from Channel 13’s email newsletter, MetroFocus. It expands on Evan Hughes’ well-received new book, Literary Brooklyn, by showing pictures of Henry Miller’s childhood home in Williamsburg and the Clinton Hill house where Walt Whitman wrote “Leaves of Grass” (the only one of Whitman’s eight Brooklyn homes still standing). Fascinating! Also Truman Capote’s digs on Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights…but that one’s well-known.

Another Excuse (As if Anyone Needed One) to Fawn Over Brooklyn Novelists  by John Farley

Explaining why he defected to Los Angeles from his “Motherless Brooklyn,” author Jonathan Lethem infamously told the Guardian that Brooklyn had become “repulsive with novelists.”While the literary blogosphere has certainly gazed obsessively toward Brooklyn’s book scene for the better part of the last decade, the truth is that the borough has always been lousy with novelists.

Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, Thomas Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Paul Auster…The list of linguistic legends who resided in Brooklyn goes on and on, but pre-Internet writers were able to be a bit more secretive about their addresses than today’s writers. (Remember which young writerly-couple purchased a $6.75M Park Slope manse in 2005? Hint: Some of the neighbors found their arrival both extremely loud and incredibly close.)

A new book, Literary Brooklyn, by Evan Hughes, sheds (more) light on the subject of Brooklyn authors, past and present. Take a look at the following map, modified from an insert in the book, to find out where your favorite wordsmiths dwelt.


Though some of the houses included in the map have since met the wrecking ball, others still exist.

Here are the three literary homes MetroFocus thinks are worth making the trip to see:

662 Driggs Ave., Williamsburg: Henry Miller’s “Early Paradise”

In several of his novels, including Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring  and Plexus, Henry Miller fondly described his boyhood home at 662 Driggs Ave. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as “the only tooth left in a rotten jaw” — a beautiful brick home surrounded by decrepit shanties. Despite rapid gentrification and ongoing construction in the area, Miller’s description still holds true.

The house is surrounded by an empty lot to one side and a small gaggle of abandoned properties on the other, as if the writer’s words froze this block of Brooklyn in time over an entire century.

70 Willow St., Brooklyn Heights: Truman Capote’s Muse for Rent

In 2010, the house at 70 Willow St. went on the market for $18 million, the most expensive asking price in the borough’s history. Capote certainly didn’t pay that much for the house where he wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. In fact, he didn’t buy it. He rented a room in it from his friend Oliver Smith. But when Smith was out-of-town, Capote purportedly threw wild parties where he drunkenly bragged to friends that it was all his.

99 Ryerson St., Clinton Hill: Walt Whitman’s Holdout

You wouldn’t know it from looking at it (few of the neighbors do), but there’s something very special about this otherwise-plain house at 99 Reyerson St. in Clinton Hill. Of the seven houses that Walt Whitman lived in during his 28 years in Brooklyn, it’s the last one still standing.

In 1848, Whitman — a well-known and respected young journalist — was fired from his editor position at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle due to a political argument with the paper’s owner. Whitman, like this house, quickly faded into obscurity. But after seven years of a leading a quiet, poverty-stricken existence, while living in the house in 1855, Whitman self-published the first edition of “Leaves of Grass” — arguably the most important work in the canon of American poetry — and forever altered the course of  American literary history. Henry Miller, it’s worth noting, called Whitman his greatest influence.

Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life
Author: Evan Hughes
Publisher: Holt Paperbacks
Publication Date: August 2011

DSC_0002PROSPECT HEIGHTS in Brooklyn was designated a New York City Historic District  in 2009. Now any external changes to a house’s appearance are subject to the guidelines and regulations of the city’s  Landmarks Preservation Commission. No longer will it be possible for something like the crazy-quilt travesty, left, to occur.

This, er, unique facade is on St. Marks Avenue near Carlton. I pass it frequently and it never fails to shock me. It’s beyond “remuddling,” a  term coined by Clem Labine, the original publisher of Old House Journal. More like “radical bastardization.” Why oh why would anyone do such a thing to a 19th century brownstone? Seems impossible that someone could fail to appreciate the charms of, if not the individual house, at least the uniform row.

A little light was shed on the “How could they?” question by a friend in Cobble Hill many years ago. There was a house on Amity Street with a similar ‘permastone’ treatment — I believe that’s what it’s called. The house belonged to the mother-in-law of this friend, whose husband was of Middle Eastern origin. She told me that her mother-in-law had created this monstrosity in the 1950s, saying she wanted her house to look like one of the “fancy houses in Damascus.” So that explains something. I haven’t been to Damascus; perhaps the house wouldn’t look as out of context there.

Today, I drove down Amity to see whether that facade is still there. It isn’t. Then I drove down Pacific, to delgadobefore-300make sure I hadn’t mis-remembered the street. It wasn’t there either (does anyone else recall that house, or did I dream the whole thing?) Anyway, I surmise the building was restored when I wasn’t paying attention, and now blends perfectly with its Victorian neighbors.

Yes, the good news is that such a building is salvageable. At great cost, of course. A year-old post on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s blog tells the story of Joe Delgado, a Wall Street trader turned licensed contractor who bought the four-story building, right, in Clinton Hill in 2007.


The building was “a disaster,” the article reads. “A previous owner had covered the building’s facade with white Permastone, added pink awnings, installed an after-hours club and two bars in the basement, and rented the top floor to drug addicts.”

Hard as it may be to believe, the Landmarks Commission told Delgado the building had once been a carriage house.

waverly-front-300<— AFTER

Delgado located a photograph that showed “a little girl on the steps of a brick double townhouse built in the 1870s. Prompted by the photograph, Delgado removed a massive addition from the back (complete with the club’s tiny stage and shag carpeting). He restored the facade and the original window lintels and sills, which had been hidden behind the Permastone. He also rebuilt the cornice and back wall, and installed exterior doors custom-built from antique wood to replicate the doors in his photograph.”

The house now looks like this, left. It’s good to know that even a house as badly compromised as this one can be rescued. “Finding the photograph made things easier,” Delgado said, “but not less expensive.”


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