BOOK REVIEW Garden Guide: New York City

M-Greenacre Park 2NEW YORK in 2011 is truly a great garden city. World-class, I’d venture to say. Yet, as Nancy Berner and Susan Lowry point out in the newly revised edition of Garden Guide: New York City (W.W. Norton, $22.95), as recently as 10 years ago, people were puzzled to hear they were writing such a guide. Gardens in New York City? Really? Are there enough to fill a whole book?

<-Greenacre Park, East 51st Street

Irish Hunger D8Now there can be no doubt. In the past decade, there’s been a great flowering, if you will, of gardens and landscape installations all over the five boroughs. There are the obvious, most impressive recent ones, like Chelsea’s High Line — the conversion of rusty elevated rail line into a well-used planted park — and landscaping efforts at the Battery in lower Manhattan, where Dutch designer Piet Oudolf has brought a naturalistic new aesthetic to the riverfront.

High Line D11The book calls attention to gardens that have been around a long time, but that I’ll bet a lot of newish arrivals to the city (and maybe some oldish ones) don’t quite realize are there, including the attractive, well-maintained botanic gardens in Queens and at Snug Harbor in Staten Island, where they are interspersed among picturesque Greek Revival houses.

Even I, a NYC resident of 40+ years, just ‘discovered’ what the book calls “the crown jewel” of New York City gardens — the Conservatory Garden at 105th street and Fifth Avenue, six acres of romantic magnificence in all seasons — within the last few.

Irish Hunger Memorial, Battery Park City ->

<-High Line


Conservatory Garden

Garden Guide: New York City covers more than 100 gardens open to the public, including the Lotus Garden on West 97th Stret, the only rooftop community garden in New York City; urban farms from the Bronx to Red Hook; and the small plots around such historic houses as the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum, and the Mount Vernon Hotel on East 61st Street (formerly known as the Abigail Adams house).Noguchi Q5

Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum ->

Many of NYC’s gardens are concealed in some way — inside museums, hidden behind skyscrapers, up on rooftops. Probably none of us knows New York City’s gardens as well as we might. This chunky little guide feels good in the hand, fits neatly in the glove compartment, and insures that no weekend need pass without discovering some new-to-you refuge of green.

Must-Go List: Weeksville and Onderdonk


THIS WEEK’S E-MAIL NEWSLETTER FROM Brooklyn Based reminded me that there are still some nearby historic houses in my “I keep meaning to get there” category.

I’ve seen the Lefferts homestead in Prospect Park (not its original location), the 1652 Wyckoff House, oldest in the city, and even went out in search of a obscure, privately owned Dutch colonial house in Flatlands, which I found and wrote about on this blog.

But I have yet to get to one of the most impressive restorations in the city — Weeksville in Crown Heights, a group of three 19th century houses on what was once called Hunterfly Road.


Established in 1838 by James Weeks, a free African American, a decade after the abolition of slavery in New York, Weeksville was a thriving community of laborers, entrepreneurs, and professionals, active in anti-slavery activities and with its own churches, benevolent associations, and even newspapers.


Over time, Weeksville was subsumed by the burgeoning city of Brooklyn and forgotten. In 1968, a few nineteenth century wooden structures, threatened imminently by urban renewal plans, were re-discovered.


Using archaeological evidence, local students, activists, historians, and archaeologists testified before the New York City Landmarks Commission and Weeksville was landmarked in 1971. Three houses, fully restored and decorated to represent different eras in the community’s history, were opened to the public in 2005.

For lots more on visiting Weeksville, and the educational center set to open next year, go here.


One historic house I’d never even heard of is the Onderdonk House, above, the oldest Dutch Colonial stone farmhouse in New York City, on the border between Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Ridgewood, Queens.

The foundations date back to 1660. Most of the stone structure is from the first decade of the 18th century, and there’s a frame addition from 1821. With its gambrel roof, Dutch doors, and central hallway, its architecture has much in common with the dozen or so Dutch colonial houses still extant in Brooklyn.

Again, a community effort in the 1970s saved the Onderdonk House from demolition and raised funds for its restoration. It opened to the public in 1982. Today, the house is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it’s been a city landmark since 1996.

For visitor info on the Onderdock House, go here, and to read a first-person account from a blogger who’s actually been there, go here.

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.”


A Blogger for One Year

A YEAR AGO TODAY, on the parlor floor of a Brooklyn brownstone, I started this blog. Sitting next to me was web designer Ken Smith, whom I’d hired to show me the ropes. I had a vague notion I ought to start a blog as a way to use the photos of apartments and gardens I’d scouted for magazines, and the notes for stories that never came to be. I didn’t want all that effort to go to waste.

Also, I had just published an article in the New York Times Escapes section about my weekend pastime, looking at old houses for sale. I wanted to keep writing about old-house real estate, and other things, without the hassle of pitching and selling the stories to an editor.

Ken steered me to, then to the Tarski ‘theme’ (design template), and then he opened a blank window called New Post and said, “Type something.” I could have written dfghjklytriuytrdcvbnm,lkjhgfrtyuiopl. Instead, without thinking too much about it, I typed what was top of mind at the time, “ISO The Perfect Beach House,” and casaCARA was on its way.

I invited readers to come along on my beach-house quest. Many have. Down the left-hand column of this page, there’s a number approaching 200,000. That’s cumulative hits, or clicks, over the course of the year, not individuals — but it’s still a lot of people, and I’m grateful to all of you for your readership and support (whoever you are).

My house search ended in May with the purchase of the East Hampton cottage where I now reside in happy exile, but my blog kept going. I’ve learned a lot in the past year, about blogging and about myself. I don’t need to live in New York City, for one thing. I’ve met a lot of creative, interesting, thoughtful people “out here,” and anyway, I like the quiet life. At 3:30PM today, determined to wrest all I could out of the fading afternoon, I spent an hour filling up a giant trash bag with twigs and rotting lengths of wisteria vine. I had so much fun, I vowed to do it every day, weather permitting, from now until springtime.

I realize that pleasures that simple do not a very exciting blog make. Not to worry. I’m going to Spain in January (it was 63 degrees in Seville today), blogging all the way. I pledge to start a Hamptons Voyeur series ASAP, snooping inside people’s homes to see how they’re decorated — continuing what began back in Brooklyn as Brownstone Voyeur. And I’m still forever looking at old houses on the market, because I can’t stop.

I’ve learned not to obsess over stats. My biggest day was back in March, when Brownstoner linked to casaCARA for the first time and I got 1,700 hits. Now I average 600-800/day. Granted, a lot of them are people looking for something on raccoons (my all-time top post is “Midnight Intruder,” about a raccoon break-in.)

Midnight Intruder 7,114 More stats
BROWNSTONE VOYEUR: Classic Modern in Cob 4,830 More stats
BROWNSTONE VOYEUR: ‘Updated French Farmh 3,481 More stats
lee-krasner 2,846 More stats
2006_10_05_raccoon 2,693 More stats
BROWNSTONE VOYEUR: In Prospect-Lefferts, 2,193 More stats
BROWNSTONE VOYEUR: Relaxing an Ornate To 1,645 More stats
BROWNSTONE VOYEUR: Good Design Endures i 1,640 More stats
GARDEN VOYEUR: Foolproof Plants for Broo 1,309 More stats
The Hanging Gardens of Brooklyn

Frequently, my motivation flags. At least once a day, I wonder, “Why am I doing this? There’s no money in it.” Then I tell myself, “Just keep going; it’s not yours to wonder why.” Some people enjoy my blog, and that makes me feel good. But it’s not as if I have voices in my head screaming to be heard. It’s more that having a blog keeps me on my toes (literally, trying to peek over gates and fences). It keeps my eyes open, gives me a reason to carry a camera. It’s a platform, structure, communication, fun.

I recommend it.

Ode to the Philadelphia Rowhouse


Fitzwater Street, Queen Village

THERE’S A HUGE, TELLING DIFFERENCE between New York City and Philadelphia in terms of how each values and regards its vernacular architecture.

It’s hard to imagine NYC’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development putting out something as enlightened as the Philadelphia Planning Commission’s well-designed and -written Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual: A Practical Guide for Homeowners, published in 2008 in conjunction with the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

It’s available free by downloading as a PDF (links below) or in print for $10/copy from the Center for Architecture, 1216 Arch Street.

Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual: A Practical Guide for Homeowners
(Download Color: 4.4MB PDF File)
(Download B&W:  3.3MB PDF File)

Thanks to Townhouse Lady for alerting me to this fascinating and useful publication, intended to encourage the renovation and development of Philly’s sprawling rowhouse stock.

There are descriptions of the various kinds of rowhouses, from the diminutive, endemic-to-Philadelphia working-class trinity to the elegant, large-scale townhouses of Society Hill; a bit of history; a fair amount of how-to (e.g. fitting a sink and toilet into a a 5’x5′ space); floor plans; information on mechanicals, structure, and energy-efficiency; maintenance to-do lists; resources, and more.

There’s a detailed review here.

From the intro:

In 2003, the City of Philadelphia was selected to
participate in the National Trust for Historic
Preservation’s Preservation Development Initiative
(PDI). Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight
Foundation, PDI focused on demonstrating the
importance of preservation as a core component
of neighborhood revitalization.
A Comprehensive Preservation Assessment noted
that almost all of the neighborhoods in Philadelphia,
from Mount Airy to Pennsport, are defined by their
rowhouse streetscapes. As a building type, the rowhouse
offers many advantages, but when neglected or poorly
maintained, it deprives homeowners of value. It also
affects the homes nearby. This manual is one of
many projects aimed at celebrating the Philadelphia
rowhouse, helping people understand their value
(in terms of both history and livability), and aiding
rowhouse inhabitants in adapting and maintaining
them as a great model for 21st century urban living.
Philadelphia is a city of rowhouses. Their constant
revitalization and adaptation illustrates the viability
of the city. We don’t cook in basement fireplaces or
use backyard privies as the earliest rowhouse residents
did, but the houses have proven to be so adaptable
that we’ve been able to make them congenial to
the 21st century, even with vastly different family
structures, social ideals, and technology. The intent
of this manual is to help residents value the history
and legacy of the rowhouse and its future as a
comfortable, community-enhancing, energy-efficient
place in which to live.