Pining for the Joseph Steele House

Maybe it’s near where you live and you pass by all the time or maybe it’s in a neighborhood you get to less frequently, but it’s a house that you have an emotional attachment to even though you’ve never set foot inside. For us, that house is the Joseph Steele House on the southeast corner of Lafayette and Vanderbilt. Whenever we walk by (which is frequently) we’re always hoping we’ll get to see something we haven’t before: Maybe the garden door will be open a crack and we’ll catch a glimpse of what the back stair look like. Or maybe a light will be on in the dining room and we’ll get to see if there are moldings on the ceiling. And, of course, there are the fantasies of someday living there. We’re not the only one with a certain affection for this place. Here’s what the AIA Guide has to say about the 1850 charmer:

An extraordinary relic from the days when these precincts were farm country. Greek Revival, with elegant narrow clapboards, a bracketed cornice with eyebrow windows, and a widow’s walk with a view of the harbor in those open, early days. It wears its age well, with dignity.

Indeed. For those of you coming to the Clinton Hill House Tour this weekend, make sure to and gaze at this beauty for a few moments. Do any readers have particular houses that they’ve formed similar attachments to?

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  • Nice example of Greek rev from the era but the color is ugly. looks like something at the “old looking area” at six flags.

    The round dormer-like thing on the top is called a widow’s walk?

  • I love this house, too– it’s one of my favorites in the neighborhood. Does anybody know anything about the people who live here? It looks to be pretty well maintained, but I never see anybody going in or out. And can we get this one added to the tour, last-minute-like? :)

  • OMG, I love this house. One of my favorites in the area. The houses on Clinton Ave are my all time favorites though.

  • i’ve seen an older woman sweeping the steps. so someone definitely lives there!

  • I went to school on Clinton Ave and everyday on my way I would stop and marvel at this house! It is such an amazing piece of history in the nabe! Love this house – When I was little we used to call it the seaseme street house.
    Love it!

  • Love the house too, it’s looked almost exactly the same for the last 30 years. I remember being curious about it in the 70′s when my friends were going to Pratt. One of my other Clinton Hill faves is the large Queen Anne frame house on Clinton between DeKalb and Willoughby, I don’t know the number. Always wanted to see the inside of that one too. Even in the 70′s and 80′s it was a standout in all ways.

    I have many local favorites in Crown Heights, especially 903 Park Pl, corner of New York Ave, and the huge turreted house on St. Marks across from the Children’s museum (855 St. Marks) Someday, you never know….That’s why house tours are so much fun.

  • i passed this all the time during my childhood / teen years and i never really thought about it. it was / is unique though and as a 38 year old living outside of nyc it makes me feel nostalgic.

  • I kinda like the color (and 10:55, my response to your comment is best left unprinted).

  • Love this house, as does my 10 year old daughter, it’s the rotunda on the top she wants!

  • Not again. Sigh. 10:55 is not me – well, you know the drill.

  • Is it a widow’s walk when it’s enclosed in glass, as this one is? Or is this a cupola?

  • The brick house at 8th avenue and 3rd street in Park Slope…… Be still my heart.

  • i always loved that house!!

    unfortunately i wont be able to make it on sunday–how often do the tours happen?

  • Someone told me that two sisters live in the house. It highlights that Clinton Hill (known with Fort Greene as the Hill in the nineteenth century) was subject to different waves of development, and that the solid looking rowhouses replaced free-standing mansions and country houses before them. It is a bright (yellow) spot on an otherwise dark corner. (Altho it is better since the Catholic school opened up its fence).

  • I was told by some old chap on that corner one day when I was asking about the house, that the tower at the top was used as a lookout for ships coming into the harbor. (you could see that far in those days, natch) The house belonged to an Admiral.

  • well, whatever the round thing is called, she loves it.

  • That makes sense Asparagus – it definitely has that “ship captain’s” house look to me (seen a lot of them, having grown up on LI).

  • The cupola or lantern on top of the house illuminates the central stairhall and provides natural ventilation as hot air rises to it. A widow’s walk is usually an open platfrom surrounded by railings. There may be one behind the cupola.
    I always heard that the house is owned by two spinster sisters.

  • an older couple live in the house

  • I too love this house but I also have to point out the two limestone carriage houses at 237 and 239 Waverly Ave between Dekalb and Willoughby. I think they were built by the Pratt family. Love them!

  • Love this house too but my dream house is 106 Pierrepont, a flawless and wide 5-story brownstone with stained glass and gargoyles. I fantasize about winning the lottery and showing up on their doorstep with a cash offer; sigh.

  • I wonder if the dishwasher is Miele.

  • No, they definitely have an old orange one which was installed in 1967 and works just fine thank you very much. Another interesting house is around the corner on Clinton next to the yard for the congregational church. Very mysterious and dark. Okay I am waiting for the privacy mavens to point out we shouldn’t be peeking in our neighbors windows. But, didya ever notice that it is the newer, wealthier folk in the hood who leave their windows undraped and open to peering eyes while the longer term residents have shades, shutters and curtains to keep the outside out?

  • love the carriage houses all along Waverly. One of those would be my ideal crash pad. Hall St. between Dekalb and Willoughby also have some interesting carriage houses.

  • Wow. I so seriously dig this house. I love it. I walk past it and look at all the things to do – painting, repairs, etc. (I just can’t HELP MYSELF), the cracks and work and think about where I would start and what I would do first and would I keep the yellow. Yes! But a slightly less lemon color. That house is just wonderful. Somebody told me that it was a shipowners house and that the cuppola was a kind of tower to see north to the river. That didn’t seem quite right though. The other day I was wondering if you could use it as a greenhouse and grow roses up there. It looks like the little extension on the left is an add on. I love it.

    I also covet the house on the southeast corner of Greene and Washington. And the old frame on the southeast corner of Lafayette and Adelphi. Gotta buy those Lotto tickets.

  • my vote would be for the stand-alone brownstone mansion between Dekalb and Willoughby. It’s on a huge lot. The lights are almost always off; seems deserted.

  • I always smile when I walk by the big blue second empire building (now a music school) on 9th Street between fourth and fifth avenues.

  • Actually this cupola does seem unusally large and tall. Perhaps it is a lookout as well as a lantern.
    Also I would bet that no dishwasher has ever seen the inside of this house.

  • Over the past 18 years, I’ve seen the house get repainted (always the same yellow, with white trim) several times.

    Lots of work!

  • Donatella:

    Are you referring to the house on Washington — if so, that is owned by Pratt. They bought it from a couple about 5 years ago to use it for fundraising. I guess they need some money to get it going. They had someone come in and raze the yard after buying it and then have not touched it.

  • It is definitely a widow’s walk. Many old homes in Edgartown, Ma (Martha’s Vineyard) and Nantucket have them. It seems like such a landlocked place to have one now, but back in the day there must have been a sweeping vista to the river.

  • I.too. love the house. I feel transported back in time everytime I walk by.

  • Me too, I covet the brick house on the corner of 3rd Street and 8th Ave. The current owners take such beautiful care of it, however, something I could never afford to do. It has copper gutters. Lovely.

  • love this house too… there use to be (still is?) a sign on it saying something like, “don’t try to steal my house, we don’t want to sell”. !!

  • Mine is the stand alone georgian on the corner of 8th Ave and 3rd St. in Park Slope. you once featured it here. It seems like a nice family lives there. The garden is well tended. I want to be invited in for homemade coffee cake and fresh brewed coffee, piping hot. No one could ever be unhappy living in a house like that, right..?

  • Just noticed that 8:34 beat me to the punch on that one. I’d love to know how much they paid for that house. My guess would be they bought it about 15 years ago for an ungodly amount like ~ gasp ~ half a million dollars.

  • I can remember when Brownstones in Park Slope were going for $35,000 … late sixties, early seventies… I gasp when I see the asking prices these days.

    It’s wonderful to see so many younger folks as in love with these beautiful homes in the different neighborhoods of Brooklyn as I have always been …

    Happy home hunting!

  • Music school on 9th street–old Higgins mansion, owner of Higgins Ink, maker of India ink, before ballpoint pens

  • Well, I’ve in the nabe for 6 years, witness almost no activity when I pass, and have noticed the 2 elderly women on occasion when I’ve passed. Once, hanging out on the stoop, another coming home from grocery shopping. There’s something kind of sad and forlorn about that place, like it hasn’t had the windows opened up, or good times in quite a while. All it needs is a weeping willow in the front, and maybe some overgrown shrubs and lots of cats, and it would complete the “Grey Gardens” feeling I get from it sometimes. I hope they never demolish it, and put some hideous modern structure in its place

  • i used to live across the street from that house for many yrs. I LOVE it..the colour..everything..the owners’ niece (does not live there) seems to be in charge of the occasional paint job, etc. If I could afford and they were selling it would be soo mine.

  • Got scared the other day when I saw a guy who I believe to be one of those guys who pays cash for houses ringing the bell of the yellow house and chatting up the guy who answered. They seemed flattered by the attention of whatever sort it was. I wonder how many people have gotten up the courage to tell the owners they will buy it from them. I bet lots of people through the years. I was on a walking tour of Ft. Greene/Clinton Hill one time and the guy doing the tour said one time they actually all got invited in and saw the place. He said it was nice, but really, really run down. That was in the 90′s though, so who knows what it’s like inside now.

  • Two elderly sisters live here, and they are rumoured to be descendants of Captain Clinton, which the ‘hood is named after. They are very nice and have no intention of leaving, and it is one of my favourites as well. The widow’s watch strikes my curiousity.

    This is not a POS, however. Forte Towers qualifies for that catagory. Every week it looks more hideous!

  • I believe (although I have no confirmation) that the sisters who live there are the Skinner sisters, and I suspect they are related to Cornelia Otis Skinner, who wrote an autobiography called something like “Family Circle” about her family in NYC during the turn of the 20th century. I think the house described in the book was this yellow house – her family was a well known acting family at that time, along the lines of the Barrymores.

    I believe many MANY naive types have attempted to make offers for this house over the years, and have been firmly turned down. The sisters are looking pretty frail these days though. Who knows what will happen – all I know is that they are not fools.

  • This my friends is NOT a widow’s walk. A widow’s walk is a platform with railing.