NYC Landmarks Brouhaha Spotlights Forgotten Sites


IN A MOVE THAT COMES AS A GREAT RELIEF to those who care about New York City’s historic architecture, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has reversed its recent decision to drop nearly 100 properties from its calendar, where many had languished for five years or more. It’s an administrative maneuver that doesn’t necessarily save anything, but at least insures that these properties — all of which were in the initial stages of being designated as landmarks, with research, public hearings, and a vote to follow — will remain under the oversight of the LPC and can’t be willy-nilly altered or, God forbid, demolished.

Top: c.1880 Second Empire cottage, Snug Harbor, Staten Island


Mid-19th c. Ploughman’s Bush Building, North Bronx

Local preservation groups, including including Landmark West and the Historic Districts Council, went ballistic when the decision to remove the properties from LPC oversight was announced just after Thanksgiving. The outcry succeeded in getting the LPC to keep these 100 or so properties on the calendar.


St. Barbara’s Church, 1910, Spanish Baroque, Bushwick, Brooklyn

For me, the eye-opener was an email from the New York Landmarks Conservancy, showing a number of fine and important buildings throughout the five boroughs that I had no idea were quite unprotected. The images in this post come from that email.


Curtis House, c. 1850 Romantic Revival cottage, Staten Island

Better-known and much-beloved sites that remain in this netherworld — for the reversal of the ‘de-calendaring’ was merely a postponement — include Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery and the neon Pepsi sign in Long Island City.


Left to right, above: 2 Oliver Street, 1821 Federal style townhouse, Chinatown; 138 Second Avenue,1832 Federal style rowhouse, East Village; 57 Sullivan Street, 1816 Federal style townhouse, SoHo

For New York Times coverage of the LPC’s original plan to chop the list of proposed landmarks, go here; and to read about the reversal of the decision, here. 

All About Wallabout

THERE’S A BLOCK in west Clinton Hill, or maybe it’s north Fort Greene, though most people would have just called it “near the Navy Yard.” Now the neighborhood’s got a proper name, or rather, gone back to its original cool name — Wallabout, from the Dutch waal-bogt or ‘bend in the harbor.’ Anyway, it’s a block I’ve always admired, an amazing hodgepodge of 19th century styles, with a preponderance of wood frame houses and porches that are rare in Brooklyn.

Last summer and fall, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and City Council recognized this one block — Vanderbilt Avenue between Myrle and Park Avenues — as the “Wallabout Historic District” and what that will mean I don’t rightly know, except I hope it means the houses that are about to fall down are propped back up.

For not only is the block a mishmash of styles, it runs the gamut of conditions, from spiffily fixed up to near-collapse and even condemned, with the huge red Xs the Buildings Department uses to indicate “Don’t go in here at any cost.”

I took my car for an oil change at a garage on the corner of Vanderbilt and Myrtle, and took advantage of the opportunity to walk the block and record a few of my favorite buildings.

This group of three at the far end of the block, hard by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, incorporates the grande dame of the block (1820s, maybe?) and a pair of smaller buildings, below, one in seemingly fine repair and the other on the verge of extinction.

To see what these same two houses looked like in September 2009, go here.  

Above, a house I seriously considered buying in 2000 for $330,000 and rather wish I had. I was daunted by three feet of standing water in the basement. Someone else took the challenge, renovated, and painted it an outstanding sunflower yellow.

See below for more about Wallabout, from the Historic Districts Council website:

Wallabout, a neighborhood in Northwestern Brooklyn near the former Brooklyn Naval Yards, is noted for having the largest concentration of pre-Civil War frame houses in the city. In addition to Greek and Gothic Revival wood homes with original or early porches, cornices and other details, brick and stone row houses in Italianate and Neo-Grec styles along with masonry tenements line the streets between Myrtle and Park Avenues. James Marston Fitch, founder of Columbia University’s Historic Preservation Program, described the buildings in 1973 as an “outdoor architectural museum in themselves.” The homes were built as working-class and middle-class housing, and designation of this area would complement the Fort Greene and Clinton Historic Districts to the south built primarily for more affluent households.

Dutch settlers named this area Waal-bogt, meaning a bend in the harbor. Walloons (French-speaking Protestants from what is now Belgium) settled here as early as 1624. Through the 18th century, the area remained rural. During the Revolution, dozens of infamous British prison ships docked in the nearby Wallabout Bay. An estimated 11,000 American soldiers died there and were buried in shallow graves along the waterfront. In 1801 the federal government opened the Brooklyn Naval Yard nearby. The yards operated for more than a century and a half until its 1966 decommission. Over the decades, many of the homes in the district were built for employees of the yards.

Residential development of the area in the 1830’s, 40’s, and 50’s coincided with the rapid population increase in the city of Brooklyn. Being part of the flatlands along the East River, Wallabout was not looked upon with the prestige allotted to neighboring Fort Greene or Clinton Hill. As the century progressed, industrialism spread through the East River waterfront including DUMBO, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Wallabout. Neighborhood industries included Consumers’ Biscuit and Manufacturing Company, the Drake Brothers Bakery, Rockwood Chocolate Company (whose factory is now listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places), Giddings & Enos (manufacturers of gas fixtures), and the Mergenthaler Linotype Company. The Wallabout produce market operated from 1890 until World War II.

In a neighborhood full of wonderful homes, there are a few residences deserving special note. Some of the area’s earliest homes dating back to the 1830’s can be found on Vanderbilt Avenue. In 1878 the wealthy Pratt family built five neo-Grec style brownstones on this block, the first of their many speculative ventures. No. 99 Ryerson Street is believed to be the only surviving New York City home of poet Walt Whitman. Rudophe L. Daus, one of Brooklyn’s leading late 19th-century architects, designed the Queen Anne style red brick tenement at 93 Clermont. The building retains its ornamental terracotta trim as well as its entrance hood and iron railings. Only one structure in the district is presently designated a New York City Landmark, the Lefferts-Laidlaw House at 136 Clinton Avenue. This impressive, temple-fronted Greek Revival Style house was built c.1836-1840.

In the 1970’s the area was twice proposed as a historic district, by the Fort Greene Landmarks Committee as part of the Fort Greene HD and by the Landmark Commission’s staff as part of a Brooklyn survey. Like much of western Brooklyn, the general low-rise density of Wallabout has recently begun to feel the brunt of new, over-scaled development. In addition, decades of poor maintenance have resulted in the loss of character in some of the buildings, as well as enticingly open lots prime for development. The Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project has, with funding from the Preservation League of New York State, sponsored a cultural resources survey and has helped establish a residents’ association – the Historic Wallabout Association – with the goal of preserving this neighborhood. The first step, re-zoning the area to better fit the existing built fabric and encourage appropriately scaled development, is currently moving forward. The next step to preserving this special neighborhood would be to designate part of the area as a historic district.

For more information, visit:

Spare Us the ‘Fancy Houses’

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.”


Concrete Survivor in Gowanus


THE CORNERSTONE of the future, much-anticipated Whole Foods in Gowanus will be this odd remnant of New York City’s industrial past.

The Coignet Stone Company Building, one of the nation’s first concrete structures, has always been a puzzlement, standing by itself on the corner of Third Avenue and Third Street as if waiting for something to happen around it.

It stands because it was landmarked in 2006 by The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission as a pioneering example of concrete construction in the United States. The 2 ½-story, Italianate-style structure, designed by William Field and Son, was built between 1872 and 1873 to house the concrete manufacturer’s main office.


The building originally was part of the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company, a five-acre factory complex near the Gowanus Canal that manufactured artificial stone, a type of concrete invented by Francois Coignet in Paris in the 1850s. The factory supplied the arches and clerestory windows in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, the ornamental details for the Cleft Ridge Span in Prospect Park, and the building materials for the first stages of construction at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History.

Photo: Tom Rupolo/Urban Landscape ->

It may look like brick and limestone, but it’s made entirely of concrete. The 25-by-40 foot rectangular structure was built to showcase the durability and versatility of Coignet’s inventive product. The company was reorganized and renamed the New York Stone Contracting Company in the mid-1870s, and continued to manufacture Coignet stone until 1882. Shortly after, the building housed the office of the Brooklyn Improvement Company, which was instrumental in Brooklyn’s residential and commercial development during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Coignet building is not owned by Whole Foods (which will include a 20,000 square-foot greenhouse on the roof), but it will be incorporated into the supermarket’s design and given a new roof and exterior repairs.


Photo: Nathan Kensinger via Brownstoner

BROWNSTONE VOYEUR: Flying Colors in Fort Greene


BROWNSTONE VOYEUR is a joint project of casaCARA and Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, taking you behind the facades of those intriguing houses to see what’s inside. Look for it every Thursday on both sites!


DK HOLLAND’S house is the kind of place that makes people say, “I can’t believe this is New York City.”


The property consisted of three lots when DK bought it in 1990: a three-story, 1,800-square-foot building that was a tack house before the Civil War; a one-story structure, originally a stable, now occupied by Olea, a Mediterranean restaurant; and a vacant lot in between, on which DK built a wooden extension with a new kitchen and side porch, “grafted on”  to the original brick house, and created an enclosed garden with a flagstone patio.


DK did a top-to-bottom renovation in 2002-4. She added the front porch and opened up the second floor as a loftlike bedroom/study. The renovation exposed original brick and ceiling beams, which she painted white, and she retained later 19th century additions, including wainscoting and staircases. The furnishings are country-ish, bought mostly at auction in Vermont.


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