BROWNSTONE VOYEUR: All the Details in Boerum Hill

IMG_0263BROWNSTONE VOYEUR is a joint project of casaCARA and Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn. Look for it every Thursday on both sites.

THIS HAS BEEN MY comfortable home away from home for the past two weeks. It’s my dear friend Nancy’s brick row house in Boerum Hill, and it’s classic.

Built around 1870, the house retains many of those coveted Victorian “details,” including spectacular plaster work in the dining room (painted an historic blue-gray), original pocket doors with etched glass, an over-the-top pier mirror, right, between the front parlor windows, a black marble mantel in Eastlake style, long four-over-four parlor windows, and wood floors so old and thin if they’re sanded one more time they’ll turn to sawdust.




Nancy bought the house in 1987 – it was the first house she looked at – and furnished it with a mix of found and inherited antiques. Particularly intriguing (and sort of useful) is the piece she calls “the chest of 1,000 drawers,” a cabinet used for fittings by a jewelry maker. It had been left in her previous home, a loft on Fulton Street in Manhattan.

All the paintings on the wall are the work of David Fisch, a close friend of Nancy’s, who died in 1993.




IMG_0248Nancy travels frequently to Amsterdam, and there’s something of a European feeling about the place, I’ve always thought – the velvet textile used as a tablecloth in the dining room, the collection of old copperware on display throughout, the enormous glass-fronted cabinets full of art books.


I could live here quite happily. Oh, right – I have been.

Homeless by Choice

I’ve seen about a dozen apartments in the past week, and none of them made my heart sing.

There have been a couple — two in the same building on Henry Street in Cobble Hill, a parlor floor and the one above, both available immediately at $2,500 — that made my heart hum a little tune, however.

The one downstairs

The one downstairs (parlor floor)

The one upstairs

The one upstairs (third floor)

The lyrics go like this:

Where oh where will I put my queen size bed

And what about my 8-foot-long bookcase

But look at those nice long windows

And how lovely it would be to have coffee on the terrace out back

The one upstairs has more space

But the one downstairs has a load of charm

The one upstairs has a better layout

But the one downstairs has moldings and a mantel

The one upstairs has more light

But the one downstairs has that terrace

Both of them cost more than I intended to spend

But the neighborhood is safe and convenient

Oh the other hand, it’s so bo-ring

I lived there 25 years ago

Do I want to run into people from the old days

Or do I want new adventures (and restaurants) a couple of neighborhoods over?

Basically, I enjoy the apartment hunt. It gets me in to see a lot of old houses (and, more often than not, mourn what’s been done to them).

It reminds me of the time my sister and I went to Just Shades on Prince Street looking for lampshades for a pair of fabulous figural bases she’d scored at an auction. I could have stayed there all day, trying different shapes and sizes. When we’d found the best option, I was disappointed. I wanted to keep going, because I was having so much fun.

Finding a place to live — whether a house or an apartment, to buy or to rent, is always a game — of comparison and compromise. With 500 new Craigslist postings for Brooklyn apartments this morning alone, I think I’ll keep playing.

BROWNSTONE VOYEUR: Classic Modern in Cobble Hill

01-exterior1850s HOUSE, 1950s FURNISHINGS. Who would guess the combination could be so natural?

Brownstone Voyeur’s first foray finds us in Cobble Hill, at the home of interior designer Julia Mack and her husband John, an architect. They live on three floors with their son Jeremy, 14, daughter Alison, 11, and French bulldog, Trixie.

The Macks bought the ‘neglected dump’ in 2002 and spent a year upgrading the mechanicals. The 20’x40′ building had been used as rental apartments; the first order of business was pulling out four nasty kitchens and four baths.

Happily, the house’s original moldings, panel doors, wide-plank floors, and turned stair balusters were intact, along with a spectacular carved marble mantel in the front parlor.


Now, clean white walls form the backdrop for mid-20th century furniture classics. Some were handed down by Julia’s parents and grandparents; others are re-issues, many from Herman Miller for the Home.

Lots of items come from budget-friendly stores like Bo Concept (the living room credenza), Room & Board, and Modernica (the spacey ‘Ellipse’ chair).


Love that shag rug! The quirky metal wall art, below, is made out of bedsprings.



The vintage mahogany dining table and teak console, above, are perfectly sympatico with an  ultra-contemporary glass light fixture from Artemide. The paintings are by Cobble Hill neighbor Noel Yauch.

The kitchen, designed by the homeowners, is super-sleek. Floor-to-ceiling cabinets of book-matched walnut veneer provide a ton of storage.


A curtain of nylon string on a hidden track divides the master bedroom from a dressing room carved out of the central core of the 2nd floor.


The undulating plywood screen in the master bedroom is an Eames icon, the ’40s boudoir chair a family relic.


The family/TV room is on the 2nd floor at the front of the house.


That’s Jeremy, below, in Julia’s home office, which is painted an energizing red.


The homeowners found the 1920s soaking tub in place when they bought the house. The double sinks are in the kids’ bathroom on the top floor.

Thanks for visiting. How does it feel to be a brownstone voyeur?


Brownstone Decorating: Parlor Tricks

DECORATING A 19th CENTURY PARLOR  for 21st century life can be a challenge.

Kathryn Scott

Brooklyn Heights / Kathryn Scott

Brownstone parlor floors tend to be:

  • long and narrow
  • dark in the middle

and have:

  • no obvious place for a TV
  • no obvious place for a sofa (the Victorians sat on nothing longer than a love seat, and very stiffly at that)

So what are ya gonna do?  What seems to work best, when a parlor floor is one long (say, 13 x 45 foot) expanse, is putting the sofa parallel to the two front windows, a foot or two in front of them, perpendicular to the long wall.

The other possibility is lining up that 8-foot sofa with the long wall, but that often blocks either the entry door from the front hall (bad feng shui), or the beautiful marble mantel (don’t you just love Brooklyn?)

Boerum Hill / Julia Mack

Boerum Hill / Julia Mack

Take a look at how these Brooklyn-based designers dealt with the thorny where-to-put-the-couch problem: all the same way, as described above.

Cobble Hill / Julia Mack

Cobble Hill / Julia Mack


Brownstone Mysteries Explained


THE parlor floor of the 1850s Brooklyn row house where I live is pretty intact, with moldings, mantels, an elaborate plaster arch in mint condition, and a 3-foot-wide rosette in the center of the ceiling, from which dangles a gilded chandelier (and some people think I’m a strict modernist!)

Shortly after moving here in November 2006, I noticed that the rosette had dark spaces in the scrolly plasterwork that looked like deep black holes.  Turns out they ARE holes.  According to the handy reference Bricks and Brownstone, the New York Row House 1783-1929, these were vents for the fumes that came out of the gaslight that once hung from this fancy centerpiece. The holes trapped the fumes and carried them into the chimney flue, then outdoors.  It is startling to see something so obsolete and low-tech still in place, and I wonder how many others have them.  Are they rare or a dime a dozen here in Boerum Hill?

The same book revealed why such a classy house has such crummy floors. Instead of the 150_5038patterned oak parquet you get in a lot of later 19th century Park Slope houses, this house has simple 4″ pine strips,  none too fine looking.  Why?  Very simple: the fashion in the 1850s was for wall-to-wall carpets!

Power looms invented (by Erastus Bigelow) in the 1840s enabled cheap production of woven tapestry carpets. “By the 1850s,” writes Charles Lockwood, “nearly every middle-class family proudly put a thick floral-patterned carpet in the parlor.”

The floors were never meant to be seen.  Today, they are, and they look oddly rustic, especially stained yellow-orange, as mine are <ugh>.