We often hear about the American Dream of homeownership being lost to many of us; or that it’s a thing of the past. There is a segment of Brooklyn, however, that would seriously beg to differ with those negative statements, because they’ve been keeping the dream and pride of homeownership alive for over 30 years now: The Brownstoners of Bedford-Stuyvesant, founded in the late 70’s by five Brooklynites, has the distinction of taking home-ownership to a whole ‘nuther level. Literally!
Bed-Stuy has long recognized the beauty and uniqueness of their historical brownstones. To say that members who formed the Bed-Stuy Brownstoners are very passionate about their homes is an understatement. These stately turn-of-the-century homes, many of which were built in the mid- to late 1800’s, and over 100 years old, have stood the test of time. There is nothing currently being constructed on any scale that even comes close to these wonderful homes.
While many of their neighbors were abandoning Bed-Stuy for “greener” pastures, the Brownstoners dug in their heels and began to demonstrate how truly wonderful their community, with lovely, stately classic examples of the finest in architectural design, really was.
The “Tour” was originally designed to familiarize, or reacquaint, residents with the wonderful treasures right in their own backyards instead of seeking them in other neighborhoods. What ensued is a love fest that has grown bigger and more popular each and every year.
This year’s Brownstone Tour can be considered a decided success. Not only because of the turnout, but because this year’s participants featured green conservation, as well as preservation techniques that focused more on recycling than destruction. Unlike the carnage of gut renovation that has become the method of most investors only interested in turning a fast buck, while putting glitzy (read cheap, substandard) fixtures in the buildings to entice the less well-educated buyer, these Bed-Stuy brownstones are exemplary in form and function, choosing quality over quantity.
As usual, ten beautiful homes were selected for this year’s tour. They ranged from single-family usage to a multifamily rental/residential property that had the tenant’s apartment every bit as fabulous as that of the owner.
With so much emphasis on green sustainability and recycling, the properties were selected as much for their exemplary incorporation of the latest principles in those areas as they were for their outstanding architectural integrity.
Many of these homes have been rescued from not-so-benign neglect and horrific deferred maintenance, and lovingly restored, or transformed into masterpieces of beauty, comfort and elegance. 276 Halsey Street’s unique reconfiguration of the basement by the removal of non-load bearing walls, from a bunch of dysfunctional boxy cinder-blocked rooms into an open, spacious, loft-like abode – complete with wide open walls, a working fireplace, bamboo flooring, a walk-in bath tub (to accommodate the wheel chair-bound co-owner), and a huge bedroom to die for! To top it all off, Chana, a design/build specialist, opened the back wall of the basement and installed a picture window in order to give a full view and access to a landscaped backyard!! No longer the dungeon-like atmosphere, the former basement, which ran the entire length of the house, gave everything a sense of expansiveness.
However, it was not the only eye-opener. The parlor floor combined the traditional with the new – blending bamboo flooring with the original classic parquet. Opening the area between the kitchen and the living room gave it more of an expansive feel. The restoration of the wood to its original glory via various stripping methods, revealing the craftsmanship that made this home a treasure back in the day and a masterpiece today. By the way, did I mention that they have a royal blue bathroom, a laundry center with matching royal blue washer and dryer; that the original cupboard that was built into the wall in the basement remains intact? Or that the original beveled glass, a sign of true original craftsmanship, is still part of the cupboard? Did I also mention that the original radiators – both decorative and efficient for delivering heat – were intact? As opposed to cheap baseboard heat, modernized radiators deliver steam heat, still the best and most cost-effective method of home heating.
Putnam Ave. likewise, blended the traditional with the modern, as the Pratt family, its owner, loves to point out. Somehow or other, they were able to move the original mantle piece from the kitchen to the living room; no small feat when you realize that it’s marble and cast iron! Now, that alone took some real imagination and creativity. That done, they opened up the space between the parlor and the kitchen, giving space to include a marble island kitchen. Hidden behind the original cabinetry woodwork is a powder room on one side, a pantry on the other side, and a decorative display cabinet in the center. By the way, the original floor-to-ceiling wooden cabinet was hidden under four coats of ugly paint, which the owners painstakingly and meticulously stripped away using heat guns, citrus strippers and other eco-friendly materials. The latest in appliances are also incorporated in the kitchen, which is designed for entertaining as well as cooking.
The lower level (formerly the basement) has been transformed into a master suite and a room for their young sons – a very precocious three-year-old who couldn’t wait to take everyone to show them his room, and to introduce them to his rocking horse “Clarence.”
The hallway leading past his bedroom to the backyard takes you into a combination entertainment area and play yard for the boys. It was designed for the family by Open House NYC, and consists of a patio made of bluestone, wisteria and pear trees, and lighting that comes on at night to illuminate the area.
Decatur St., which likewise, made very creative use of the basement, had the closet of a lifetime with shoe racks on one wall, compartmentalized spaces for suits, and other items. Owner Christopher Montgomery, the genius behind the concept and a migrant from DC, fell in love with the property and made it into a masterpiece after having gotten rid of the walls that had the basement level divided up to small, useless pocket rooms. The aforementioned closet, itself the size of a small bedroom, actually leads from his master bedroom into a massive bathroom with a 100-jet shower. Talk about sumptuous! But follow the hall past his suite to the zen garden in his backyard and you see why everything is so peaceful, tranquil and gracious.
Make no mistake, transforming these beautiful homes from eyesores into treasures can be quite costly. And, indeed, some of the owners have dug deep into the family coffers to come up with the finances to make it happen. However, most of the owners offset the costs by utilizing sweat equity and the principles of recycling to bring their homes from ancient history into the modern world. Rather than just allowing outside architects or designers to do their homes, they were hands-on, utilizing their own ingenuity. That’s not to say that some didn’t get burned by “jacklegs” who made matters a lot worse before they got better, or that, in one instance, the work was done by contractors; but for most of these properties, the work was done by the owners and their families themselves. Nor were they penny-wise and pound-foolish, either. Where expertise or technology was required, they sought the appropriate licensed technicians to do the work properly -i.e., plumbing, wiring, roofing – avoiding serious problems down the road while at the same time reserving the decorative work for themselves.
In many instances, this meant coming home from work and putting on (or stripping off) that extra coat of paint themselves; it meant stripping the paint and finishing floors instead of sitting in front of the TV. It meant using the money to get the correct appliances rather than cheap appliances from department stores, taking a trip or buying a car. Each and every homeowner would say that it was definitely worth it, and they would definitely do it again.