Philadelphia: Fitler Square

BACK FROM TWO BUSY DAYS in Philadelphia and a fair amount of wandering in neighborhoods previously admired only from behind the windshield of my car.

I wanted to go back to Fitler Square, a few blocks southwest of elegant Rittenhouse Square and far quieter. It’s a pleasant residential district of very young families and very old houses (mid-18th century, if the plaques are to be believed), colorful shutters and cobbled streets.

Jersey City Jaunt

SO MUCH FOR PRECONCEIVED — or rather, outdated — notions. I hadn’t been to Jersey City in probably ten years, so when I went there yesterday (a distance of 7 whole miles from my home in Brooklyn) to visit a friend, my first reaction on driving through the streets was a surprised “This is NOT BAD!”

In fact, it’s pretty great. There are plenty of grubby areas inland, but the waterfront sections, with their sparkling views of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, and many blocks around, have been totally spiffed up. It’s not just hi-rise city, either. Fine blocks of 19th century row houses in the historic neighborhoods are likewise in good shape, which means we’ve missed the boat on real estate investment.

For better or worse, depending on your P.O.V., Jersey City has gentrified, and it happened while I wasn’t paying attention. Walking around with my friend Joe (for as long as we could stand in the bitter cold), we passed a brick row house, right, with a nice Greek Revival doorway, colorfully painted, and a ‘For Sale’ sign. “It’s probably over a million,” Joe said. Said I, ever the victim of wishful thinking. “I’m guessing 899K.” Joe quickly found the listing on his iPhone. He was close: the ask is $1.15M, in ‘as is’ condition.

Of architectural delights, there are plenty. They’ve been hiding in plain sight all this time. Have a look.



Heart of NoLibs 2-Family 329K


Northern Liberties street scene

283847941NoLibs? WTF is NoLibs? You might well ask. It’s a silly acronym (is there any other kind?) for Northern Liberties, one of the most happening neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Think of it as the Williamsburg of Philly — established enough to be a secure real estate investment, yet still with development potential aplenty.

Just north of Center City — an easy walk or bike ride — the neighborhood is old and historic, with 3-and 4-story row houses in a variety of styles. It dates back to William Penn’s 1680 plan for the city, when the area was carved up into 80-acre plots (“liberty lands”) to be given away as incentive to those who bought 5,000-acre parcels elsewhere in the colony of Pennsylvania.

I own two buildings in Philly and covet more. When I get listings emailed to me, I look at them. Usually I’m not moved to act, or even blog. But this one, left, is a corner building in a prime spot and apparently decent shape. The ask (down recently from 350K) is in line with current market conditions, and the possibility of renting both units and being immediately in the black makes it seem worth a closer look.


data=Ay5GWBeob_WIPLDYoIWcfVXxvZu9XwJ55OX7Ag,vdn7d-fpjAqTDBft27wBVuuLm3uD_HXVRyJO3BEEF8EgwOeamOmJ187hWjVKu-p76vUhawZrKt4vPrhjn_1RMOJ3_WaZVFqIFcrFmF0_There are two apartments: a 700-square-foot one-bedroom on the ground floor, with outdoor space in back, and an upper duplex with a loft-like living space, above, two attic bedrooms, and a deck.

It’s clear that a cardinal rule of real estate sales has been broken here: the listing photos suck. Bad for the seller; not necessarily so for prospective buyers. I’ll be down in Philly next weekend and will take a few of my own. In the meantime, for more lousy-but-better-than-nothing images, go here.

And for an appointment to view this or other Philadelphia properties, I can wholeheartedly recommend Ken Krauter, the broker I used when I bought my house in Old Kensington, one neighborhood over, in 2007:, 215/450-0605.

Boston: Brick Sidewalks and Boot Scrapers


Edge of Beacon Hill from the Public Gardens

I HAD VISITED BOSTON only twice, so long ago and so briefly I couldn’t even tell you which neighborhoods I was in. So when the time came to plan a little birthday outing for myself, I lit upon the idea of Boston. I was thinking of a magazine picture I kept on my bulletin board for years, of a steep cobbled street in Beacon Hill, with black shutters on red-brick houses. I wanted to see that street.


Hilly Acorn Street in Beacon Hill


Brick sidewalks and boot scrapers


Elegant Louisberg Square in Beacon Hill, onetime home of Louisa May Alcott, present home of John and Theresa Kerry, with townhouses built from 1833-47



Freeestanding mansion on Mt. Vernon Street, Beacon Hill


I did a little advance reading, and discovered that as recently as the 1980s, Boston was a city in decline — losing population and losing heart. And that for a decade or more, the whole downtown area was a miserable construction site, as they dismantled and re-routed the elevated highway that ran through some of the city’s most historic parts. Well, no more. Boston is now scrubbed clean and spiffy, organized and attractive, with obvious pride in itself, its architecture, and its heritage.


The extraordinary 1713 State House in downtown Boston, once seat of the British Colonial government

In a whirlwind day, a friend and I walked through sections of residential Back Bay and Southend, sprawling Victorian neighborhoods that call to mind Park Slope, and Beacon Hill, which has been a National Historic District since the 1950s and whose brick row houses, built in the 1830s and ’40s, have elegant arched doorways and fanlights, curved bowfronts, and fanciful ironwork.



An early frame house in Beacon Hill


Unusual wood facade in Beacon Hill


Wavy window glass on a curved bowfront building facade

To get an inside view of a Beacon Hill townhouse, we toured the four-story Nichols House Museum on Mt. Vernon Street, an 1804 Federal last lived in by Rose Standish Nichols, an ahead-of-her-time women’s rights activist and suffragist who never married and supported herself as a garden designer. The house is filled with arty, eclectic furnishings, faded Oriental rugs, paintings, and accessories brought back from London and other travels.


Staircase in the Nichols House, added later


The dining room, with lincrusta wallpaper and a smallish breakfast table (the last homeowner didn’t entertain much)


Aqua bedroom in the Nichols House


The pink parlor, Nichols House


View of Beacon Hill’s front gardens from the Nichols House

And I had to see the c.1680 Paul Revere House, one of (if not the) oldest standing example of urban architecture in the country, restored in 1908 to its original medieval-English appearance, diamond-paned windows and all. It now looks as it did even before Revere, the silversmith famed for his 1775 night ride to warn American patriots of British troop movements, lived there with his family in the last three decades of the 18th century.


Paul Revere House, the only surviving 17th century building in Boston


Rear view of Paul Revere House

Somehow we managed, with Zagat’s as a guide, to fit four meals into 24 hours, all more than fine: dinner at the cozy, red-walled Franklin Cafe in Southend; French toast for breakfast at diner-cum-cafeteria Paramount in Beacon Hill; a late lunch of oysters, fish chowder, and pale ale at the Union Oyster House, America’s oldest restaurant (since 1826) and a national landmark; and another dinner at the authentically French and justifiably popular Petit Robert Bistro, near our hotel, which, after walking at least five miles yesterday, was all we could manage.

I can enthusiastically recommend the Inn@St.Botolph, in a converted 19th century red-brick building on the border between Back Bay and Southend — crisply decorated, quiet, and central, but with a neighborhoody vibe.

Covetable Carriage Houses


MY POST THE OTHER DAY about a mews alley in Cobble Hill re-opened my eyes to the 19th century carriage houses that still exist in Brooklyn — not in great abundance, which makes those that remain all the more special.

The yellow one, top, on Sidney Place in Brooklyn Heights, probably belonged to some wealthy individual who lived in one of the oversized brownstones on the block.

There’s a concentration of large carriage houses along Vanderbilt Avenue in Clinton Hill, below, a major thoroughfare now as it was in the 1870s or ’80s, when these were most likely built. I’m guessing the larger ones on Vanderbilt were the equivalent of commercial garages or bus depots.




Off Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill, on Nevins and Bond Streets, there are a few carriage houses of simple design, of a piece with the pre-Civil War brickfront row houses there.


Here’s one of my longtime favorites, below. It’s on Pacific Street between Court and Clinton Streets in Cobble Hill. There are half a dozen carriage houses/garages on that same block, right off Atlantic Avenue, a busy omnibus route in the 19th century.