Brooklyn the Beautiful: Clinton Avenue


MY 2008 Honda Fit has nearly 100,000 miles on it and keeps on chugging. Its the best city car I’ve ever had. (You should see me wedge its 108″ into a 109″ parking space.) Occasionally it needs maintenance, however, and recently I brought it into the shop for new struts and springs.

Walking home, I took a route new to me, at least as a pedestrian. I’d driven along Clinton Avenue before and knew there were outstanding houses there, but there’s nothing like being on foot for really observing your surroundings.

There are probably more freestanding Victorian mansions here than anywhere else in Brooklyn — remnants of the robber-baron days when wealthy industrialists chose this area, near the East River and the ferries to Manhattan, to built their family homes.

Along a several-block stretch of Clinton Avenue from Fulton Street almost to the river, there are more-elegant-than-usual brownstones, detached Greek Revival houses with porches and lawns, and smaller freestanding houses in a variety of architectural styles, some quite playful.

The neighborhood is called Clinton Hill, and along with Columbia Street in Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope’s “Gold Coast” (Prospect Park West), it’s one of the best places to see how the 1% lived in 19th century Brooklyn.


BROWNSTONE VOYEUR: High Victorian Rental in Clinton Hill

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.


The Outsider: Reader’s Garden in Clinton Hill

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.

The Insider: Clinton Hill Classic in Modern Dress


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.

Literary Brooklyn

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