Mews-ing in Cobble Hill


Cobble Hill Park, Brooklyn

WHAT IS IT ABOUT A MEWS that I (and others) find so irresistible? Nineteenth century brick carriage houses are neither as elegant nor as large as your classic high-stoop brownstones, but in neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, they can cost just as much.

I guess you can’t put a price tag on that sense of being hidden away in a place time forgot, where people never stop exclaiming — even after years of residence — how remarkably quiet it is, how hard it is to believe you’re right in the middle of the city.


Verandah Place, looking west

The dictionary definition of a mews is “a street lined by buildings originally used as stables but now often converted into dwellings.” It’s a chiefly British usage, apparently. In this country, use the word ‘mews’ and you’re likely to hear, “Oh, you mean that little alley with the cute brick houses?”



I should know about living in a mews. For twenty years, from the mid-’80s until a few years ago, my family lived on Verandah Place in Cobble Hill, in a house we still own. There are other carriage houses in the neighborhood, but it’s the only mews (Brooklyn Heights has three that I can think of: Love Lane, Hunts Lane, and Grace Court Alley). I remember the original ad that brought us to the “coveted mews block,” and how I knew instantly that yes, I would be happy there. It was an ideal place to raise kids, on a traffic-free lane perfect for skateboarding and ball-playing.

Only a few of the houses were actually stables or carriage houses, with doors wide enough for carriages to enter. DSCN0437A couple still have intact pulleys, used for raising bales into the hayloft. The rest were small working-class dwellings. Ours is one of five built in the 1850s for (legend has it) the daughters of a homeowner on neighboring Warren Street.

There wasn’t always a park across the way. Until the 1950s, there was a church, and Verandah Place was gated. (I’d love to know where the name came from and whether some of the houses had verandahs. I’ve never seen them in a mews, but cast-iron balconies were not unheard-of in the area). The church was torn down, and a supermarket set to go up in its place. The community objected, and Cobble Hill Park was created in the 1960s.

I was reminded of the international appeal of the mews when I saw the one in central London, below, in last month’s New York Times real estate section. The pink house, once a stable, has 2BR and 2 baths and is on the market for the equivalent of $2.4million, more or less what the Cobble Hill mews houses would go for today. Click here to read all about it and see a slide show of the interior. 


Shelter Island ‘Folk’ Victorians 495/595K


SHELTER ISLAND IS AN IDYLLIC PLACE, tucked between the North and South Forks of Long Island and accessible only by ferry. In its northwest corner is an almost perfectly preserved community of 1870s cottages with steeply pitched roofs and distinctive wood trim, along with more elaborate houses of the 1880s.

That corner of the island is Shelter Island Heights, with a total of 141 vintage houses on roughly 300 acres. About 100 of them were built by the Methodist Episcopal Church which, for eight short years in the 1870s, used the area for religious camp meetings. Frederick Law Olmstead had a hand in laying out the  park-like open spaces, curving roads, and groves of trees.


The first wave of construction consisted of about 70 cottages with steeply pitched gable roofs and elaborate wood trim, similar to those found at camp meeting sites like Oak Bluffs in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and Ocean Grove, N.J.,

Two such houses, top, in Shelter Island Heights — next door neighbors, in fact — are now on the market. Both are circa 1879, with water views, as well as occasional views of cars lined up to board the North Ferry for Greenport.


5 Clinton Avenue, for 495K, above, is an unheated 4BR, 1.5 bath cottage with a wraparound front porch and open second floor balcony. Go here for more info and pics.

2 Waverly Place, asking 595K, below, is similar, but with 3 BR, electric heat, and a large side yard. There more info here.


Both are convenient to charming and low-key shops and restaurants, as well as tennis, beach, ferry, and marina.

Please note: I am not a real estate broker, nor do I have any financial interest in the sale of any property mentioned on this blog. I just like spreading the word about unique, historic properties and what I believe are solid investment opportunities.

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>.