Is Brownstone Brooklyn Doomed to Being Manhattanized?

On May 29, 2012 Christina Gough from the Society for the Architecture of the City gave the keynote speech at the Cobble Hill Association General Meeting. Her talk was called “Can Cobble Hill Avoid Manhattanization?” (though presumably her remarks apply to much of Brownstone Brooklyn). Carroll Gardens Patch reprinted the entire speech yesterday and we’ve followed suit on the jump. (The Brooklyn Eagle also has a summary here.) For those with shorter attention spans, however, we’ve excerpted one paragraph up front.

How do you Manhattanize an old town house? First, you pay a seven or eight figure price to buy it. Then you destroy it—except, of course, for the street front, if it is in an historic district. You gut it. Your toss any Federal or Greek Revival woodwork into the convenient garbage scow outside the front door. You cut in new windows. You tear out the lower back wall. You change the floor levels. You remove some floors altogether to create double height rooms. That, your architect triumphantly explains, reduces your Floor Area Ratio! You expand the back with a rear yard addition; you expand the top with a rooftop addition; you expand underneath with new underground levels, which may include a swimming pool, a dog-grooming-room and other such essentials. If the swimming pool is of Olympic dimensions, you may ask to excavate the entire rear yard as well, turning the existing garden into a roof terrace. Your landscape architect and his arborist will testify that this will have no impact on the neighbors, because the roof of an Olympic-style swimming pool can be incredibly verdant and beautiful, when planted with trees with shallow root systems, such as crab apples! Or bamboo, perhaps. And your engineer will explain that of course there is no danger; excavation will be painstakingly monitored and the shoring will be state of the art!

Click through to read the entire text of the speech…

Thank you for having me here tonight, and thank you for all the good work the Cobble Hill Association has done over at least a quarter of a century to further the cause of historic preservation, which is my topic.

Manhattanization, why is it a threat? What has Manhattan become, that anyone should fear its example?

Manhattan, the borough of too many, too big, too tall, too sparkling, too luxurious new buildings? Too many computer-generated designs? Too many sharp elbows? Too many things you must, absolutely must have? Too many non-negotiable demands? Too many zeroes on the prices? Too much destruction? Too much new zoning that turns out not to work the way people thought it would? Too many investment bankers? Too many pressures on the Landmarks Commission? Too much fake parkland that turns out to be for business use? Manhattan, the home base of the ersatz environmental consultant? The billionaire-subsidized not-for-profit organization? The expansionist university that uses eminent domain? The public research library that stores its books in New Jersey? The City Time computerized payroll project that defrauded the City of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, some (but apparently not all) of which were refunded in a $500 million settlement under the supervision of the Manhattan US Attorney?

But leaving all that aside, what about the historic buildings? Let me tell you about what I see, living in the Greenwich Village Historic District, and monitoring the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

How do you Manhattanize an old town house? First, you pay a seven or eight figure price to buy it. Then you destroy it—except, of course, for the street front, if it is in an historic district. You gut it. Your toss any Federal or Greek Revival woodwork into the convenient garbage scow outside the front door. You cut in new windows. You tear out the lower back wall. You change the floor levels. You remove some floors altogether to create double height rooms. That, your architect triumphantly explains, reduces your Floor Area Ratio! You expand the back with a rear yard addition; you expand the top with a rooftop addition; you expand underneath with new underground levels, which may include a swimming pool, a dog-grooming-room and other such essentials. If the swimming pool is of Olympic dimensions, you may ask to excavate the entire rear yard as well, turning the existing garden into a roof terrace. Your landscape architect and his arborist will testify that this will have no impact on the neighbors, because the roof of an Olympic-style swimming pool can be incredibly verdant and beautiful, when planted with trees with shallow root systems, such as crab apples! Or bamboo, perhaps. And your engineer will explain that of course there is no danger; excavation will be painstakingly monitored and the shoring will be state of the art!

Not every Manhattan application has all of these features, but most that come before the Commissioners have multiples of them. Thousands more are resolved at staff level, reducing gardens, transforming old walls and decimating old interiors.

At the Landmarks Commission, a former staffer described a meeting to examine the plans for a townhouse renovation. “So I said to them, ‘What is this water feature?’ and they said, ‘It’s the lobster tank.’” Not a lobster tank, the lobster tank.

Similarly, a commissioner mildly asked a Carnegie Hill homeowner, “What are your uses on the top floor? could you possibly stop the elevator at the floor below? because in your proposal, the elevator bulkhead is really so visible from the street?” and the lady replied, “The top floor? It’s for my gymnasium. I have to have it. I work out every day!” She didn’t seem to see anything odd about this. How could she walk upstairs?

In 1967, Norman Podhorertz wrote, “One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan.” Would it were so today. Now, snobbism is reversing, and Manhattan’s cupidity is trending toward Brooklyn. You see it in the New York Times. Manhattanites love the innovative restauranteurs, the interesting people, the artists! The little boutiques! And the townhouses, sold for only a few million dollars, a fraction of what they might cost in parts of Manhattan. Their perception of value is commencing, with looming architectural consequences.

In the 1970s, when the city was bankrupt, rows and blocks of historic district buildings desperately needed maintenance and conservation. They needed to be occupied by understanding owners, the brownstone revolution. Now everything is different, the neighborhoods have become so desirable that the houses need protection not so much from leaks and cracks and dry rot, as from the over-scaled attentions of what we now call the one percent, and their retinues, their decorators, consultants, architects, arborists, fitness coaches, publicity people, lawyers, and so on. And it’s not easy, because these people want what they want and they expect to get it, and they have clout.

A couple of years ago I surprised friends by buying a novel called Love in Time of Cholera. The novel was about something else, but the title aptly describes what it is like hoping, or trying, to take care of historic places, buildings that someone might love, in the midst of an epidemic of demolition and ostentatious new construction, generated by a moneyed society with no ties to the past and no interest in the visible world.

The Landmarks Law so far has absolutely prevented site assemblage in historic districts, which is the chief reason why the real estate industry hates historic preservation: within a district, you can’t buy up groups of small historic buildings and demolish them for a skyscraper. And there are fairly stringent protections for the part of the district that everyone can see, the streetscape.

The hard part is the architecture behind the façade. The Cobble Hill Association has been a leader in the fight to preserve it, to preserve the whole design of buildings, the blocks, and their interior gardens. Incredibly eloquent testimony has come from here (and elsewhere in Brooklyn) about the need to preserve the old rowhouse layouts, the natural world that has grown up in the backs, the relationships formed across the garden fences, the benefits for children, the beauty of the old places, the importance of being able to live watching the trees, the sun, the moon, the stars. The poetry of this has not persuaded government, or not persuaded it sufficiently.

The news from the front is that such concerns have been heard but mainly addressed with tiny, tiny steps in the right direction, through partial revisions of certain Landmarks Commission rules, opening the door to more discretionary decisions, but always bearing in mind the possibilities of future litigation, dreading the most ingenious interpretation that money could buy of some jurisdictional ambiguity or arguable constitutional protection.

It is easy to laugh at the caution in those modified rules, but they reflect a gigantic public relations problem. As an antiquarian with limited horizons, I had to be told who Norah Jones is. Not so the New York Post and the Daily News, who apparently chronicle her every move, and find it incredible, not to say shocking, that a person who has sold 40 million albums worldwide would actually have to ask outside permission before ripping up her old house to suit her fancy.

What is this Landmarks Law? Haven’t the bureaucrats gone too far? Isn’t it time for some deregulation? Why are we meddling with private property? Making a star’s life miserable? Dictating what people can do with their own homes? Red tape! Delay! It’s intolerable. The Real Estate Board of New York and the Building Trades Congress would agree. And indeed only last month the City Council reviewed a dozen bills to amend the Landmarks Law in ways that would restrict the powers of the agency, with the enthusiastic support of the Real Estate Board. It’s a real question, how much landmarks preservation the New York oligarchy will tolerate, before tempers flare and power brokers move to undo almost fifty years of civic effort by lovers of history and architecture and tradition.

One experienced lawyer speculated over dinner that if the St. Bartholomew’s decision were appealed today, the Supreme Court under Justice Roberts would probably jump at the opportunity to review it, and then, that the present Court might vote 5-4 to overturn the famous Appeals Court decision, that New York City had the right to regulate a skyscraper to be built above a landmarked church. That, reinforcing the decision in Penn Central, was the judicial decision that put the Landmarks Law on solid ground.

So, how to hold on to preservation’s gains, without meanwhile seeing Brooklyn’s landmarks undermined by cautious, Manhattanizing regulation?

First, don’t give up yet. Think of Oliver Twist, and keep asking for more. Try to make more people understand the virtue of what you have here, of old Brooklyn and its roots.

Many houses in Cobble Hill were built later than what is thought of as the Federal period, but the builders were so conservative that the dominant Federal layouts did not change. Raising the parlor floor, daylighting it from both ends, the garden-side windows mirroring the street-side windows, and a wide framed opening between the two bright rooms, daylighting the staircase with a window on the landing—those wonderful amenities are destroyed if a rear yard addition is tacked on. People cant about modern transparency, but it doesn’t match the brilliance of the play of light in the old rooms.

Or the sweep of back gardens seen from the corners of Cobble Hill rowhouse blocks, still often left open, so that all the gardens of the block taken together are more than what is described by that much-abused expression, the donut hole, better called the garden core of the block. Those original gardens form a double T, the yards of the side streets open to view, the side walls of the adjoining houses windowless—this is a configuration largely unique to Cobble Hill today, but it was not always so. 19th century street atlases show the same layouts in parts of lower Manhattan, but you will not be surprised to hear that those open spaces were built over by investors and expanders long ago, and now, parts of the upper east side have block centers that are absolutely solid with rear yard extensions, as everyone grabbed what footage they could get.

The attitude of the LPC towards special rules for individual districts is not welcoming. There are now more than eighty historic districts and only a few have their own individual rules or masterplans. While technically each district must have a special character, which is outlined in its designation report—and unfortunately that character sometimes outlined more clearly when the designation report is recent—issuing rules reinforcing special character in each district, retroactively, would be a somewhat Herculean task.

A bill was recently introduced in the City Council that would require individual district rules to be issued for every historic district. Some observers saw this as a hostile real estate industry move to slow down today’s rapid rate of designation.

At that public hearing, Landmarks counsel stated that existing rules are widely applicable and individual district rules may not be necessary. However, as some of you know, the City Administrative Procedure Act (CAPA) specifically allows the public to petition for new rules. Please forgive me if this is more than you ever wanted to know about administrative procedure, but it would be an interesting experiment to obtain professional drafting of proposed rules governing only those factors that make a certain historic distinctive, without letting the proposal become too lengthy a wish-list, and without altering the larger administrative framework of the rules and the landmarks law. To my knowledge, nothing like this has been initiated by a community post designation. The Stone Street Masterplan emerged as part of a deal to induce property owners to accept designation; on the other hand, Riverdale (which was designated in 1990) was the first case of a garden suburb with freestanding houses, and Riverdale rules were initiated when the preservation department saw that it would be impossible to administer a garden suburb as if it were a grid of closed blocks; the same thinking applied to the later Douglaston Masterplan.

Masterplans represent another administrative alternative; there is an adopted CAPA Rule that authorizes the LPC to adopt district masterplans as if they were certificates of appropriateness, that is, without the publication, hearing and notification procedures required under CAPA, so they could be quicker and easier to obtain. There is nothing preventing anyone from submitting a proposed district masterplan, but also, there is no requirement for the LPC to review it.

An interesting variant on these procedures was adopted when Sunnyside Gardens was designated in 2007. The LPC published a manual declaring that while existing CAPA rules were not being modified or amended, nevertheless those rules would not apply to the historic central garden spaces, called Courts, in this garden city. Because of their significant role in the design of the complex, major alterations affecting the Courts would require review by the full commission leading to a certificate of appropriateness, just as if they were on a street front. Note that this policy was adopted despite damaging alterations and additions that had already been made in some Courts prior to designation. Such a policy, with its manual, is another model that could provide help in rear yard controversies.

Further, it is possible to ask for revisions of existing rules to provide needed protections that are important in certain districts, but regulated on a citywide basis, with building typology, not location, as the determining factor. I have unsuccessfully tried to do this with rear yard window patterns in Federal houses. (As a matter of policy, the LPC already protects the pattern of the top story windows and the cornice of any historic house that is part of a row.) However, the LPC has drafted typology based rules for bracket signs in all districts, so this is a viable model.

The LPC is now experimenting with a new rule that directs the staff to consider not just the conditions described in the old rear yard addition rule, but all the existing conditions on the block in determining whether an application for a rear yard addition requires full commission review.

When such items are on the calendar, I know you will be there to reinforce the understanding of the special character of the Cobble Hill rowhouses and gardens and the inimitable character of your neighborhood. I will try to be there too.

Thank you.

32 Comment

  • This kind of awful remuddling has been going on for years in both Manhattan and Brooklyn and will probably increase as more houses are bought by people with more money than taste. However I think MOST people who buy old houses (even most rich people) have enough sense to NOT destroy historic interiors and consider preserving these as the main point behind buying an old house. After all, there are plenty of high rise condos for the yahoos.

  • cp

    she should mention that after 100 or 200 years times change and owners should be allowed, under reasonable circumstances, to alter their homes.

    norah jones is a good example. she just wanted to add windows to the windowless side of her house and make them match her other windows, making them indistinguishable and appropriate for the time the house was built. they said no. then they said she could have some windows. this just shows how overboard they are since the majority of us want to preserve our homes yet still have some modern conveniences invented since the 19th century.

  • Uhm seriously? The preservation community in NYC has jumped the shark. What exactly is your problem with someone remodeling the INTERIOR of his/he house?!?! Are we really arguing here that LPC should be able to tell a homeowner what sort of light fixtures he can buy in his living room? Totally absurd. If someone wants to renovate their garden or strip a brownstone of its original INTERIOR details why is it the general public’s concern???

    I mean I am all for historic preservation, but sometimes the “antiquarians” go so far that it make a mockery out of the entire movement and undermines the legitimacy of reasonable landmarking efforts.

    • Well within their rights and perfectly legal, no matter how wretched their taste might be. However I personally think that an historic house is held in trust for future generations and wanton destruction of the interior is simply wrong. YRMV.

    • brownstoneshalfoff

      “If someone wants to renovate their garden or strip a brownstone of its original INTERIOR details why is it the general public’s concern???”

      Because in the end, you don’t really own “your” property. The City does. The public does. You own the rights to rent it from the public via DOF. LPC is merely trying to make you, the tenant er “owner”, return the historic property, upon resale of those rights, back to the public the way you found it.

      ***Half Peak Comps Euroding***

      • how is that, again? I guess you could make the argument that the city (“the people”) ultimately own the land under the house. But the house itself? That’s like saying the “the people” own my car because it was manufactured in a factory on land that “The public” owns.

        • All of this makes the argument for preserving an historic interior sound like something wild-eyed, left wing, and radical. Actually, despite my own political liberalism, the argument I’m making for voluntary interior preservation, as a trust for future generations, is as conservative as you can get.

  • A great article. But the point should be taken that as times change, our expectations for altering the interiors of houses also changes. This is not to suggest that all such changes should be allowed, but all changes to original interiors are not bad.

    No one would now say that changes such as adding showers to bathrooms that originally included only bathtubs, adding additional bathrooms, expanding and modernizing kitchens to be used by families rather than the staff, adding AC, adding laundry machines, or taking down some walls in a extra deep interior to get natural light to the center of the floor etc. are bad things … they are things we have come to accept as normal changes to old homes.

    There will always be a tension about new changes, as things gradually become accepted changes. Some changes will, in hindsight, have been seen to be bad ideas. So while I might like opening up a lower level to a garden to bring in light and connect the lower level to the garden, which is now often used as an outdoor dining room, others may think this goes too far. Many other changes that I think go too far in altering a historic house (cement floors in the parlor, anyone?), like massive rear extensions that cut up the garden block, are widely accepted by others.

    I’m not advocating here, just noting that as our lives change over time, such disagreements are inevitable.

  • I agree with Bob.

    Also, I’ve heard her testify at LPC hearings as to specific projects, and she’s a dogmatic crank, not a voice of reason. She’s been stridently opposed to some renovations that have gone on to win awards from the rest of the preservation community.

    • Thanks–it’s nice to have someone agree with me. However, I must point out that these interior changes, however drastic, would NEVER come up at an LPC hearing. Interiors of private homes can’t be designated under our landmarks law. Only spaces open to the public can be designated as interior landmarks. Preserving the interiors of our historic homes is a matter of (IMO) personal responsibility and (again IMO) taste and admitedly subjective aesthetic choice. Anyone is free to disagree and do whatever they like (subject, of course, to DOB regulations). “I disagree” is a perfect counter argument to what I suggest, but I reserve my right to refer to individuals who destroy historic interiors as yahoos, or worse–as if anyone cares :-)

  • “A dogmatic crank” – perhaps. But a useful, thoughtful, reflective piece on how buildings change. Christopher Gray

  • Seriously – is this from The Onion?

    My row house was built for 6 families on three floors, probably had an outhouse in the backyard, and had 6 coal-burning stoves. Anyone vote I revert it back?

    BTW – Can I really build an indoor pool? Count me in! Seriously – is a there a SINGLE example of Brooklyn townhouse with a pool?

  • Seriously – is this from The Onion?

    My row house was built for 6 families on three floors, probably had an outhouse in the backyard, and had 6 coal-burning stoves. Anyone vote I revert it back?

    BTW – Can I really build an indoor pool? Count me in! Seriously – is a there a SINGLE example of Brooklyn townhouse with a pool?

  • On another note, I like to poke fun at Manhattan, but this crosses the line into actual city-bashing. I mean – what’s the point of living in New York City if you hate it that much?

  • Manhattan…arguably the most desirable place in this country to live, work and shop – sounds awful!

  • prospectmonkey

    Entire brownstones are no longer affordable to the middle class. Being sold to the upper class also means they have the moolah to do whatever they want to the interior and backyard. That’s why you own something…If you disagree with that, you are talking your own book…

    (do you call being able to put down 400K and float 9K a month on housing middle class??)

    anyone want to put odds that Mrs. Gough lives in a brownstone that she bought some 20 or 30 years ago?

    • no-permits

      “anyone want to put odds that Mrs. Gough lives in a brownstone that she bought some 20 or 30 years ago?”

      that or she is bitter about not buying back then.

    • no-permits

      “anyone want to put odds that Mrs. Gough lives in a brownstone that she bought some 20 or 30 years ago?”

      that or she is bitter about not buying back then.

  • We all love brownstones, but let’s not forget that they were for the most part slapped together as the early 20th century version of mass-produced track homes in the ‘burbs. There’s nothing inherently holy about their construction.

    If CBs want to protect the curbside, fine, but let’s calm down all the villification of people who want to alter the interior or backyards of their own homes…

  • We all love brownstones, but let’s not forget that they were for the most part slapped together as the early 20th century version of mass-produced track homes in the ‘burbs. There’s nothing inherently holy about their construction.

    If CBs want to protect the curbside, fine, but let’s calm down all the villification of people who want to alter the interior or backyards of their own homes…

  • Saw that pool on a house tour (must have beeen that one…it was nearby there, and there can’t be two within blocks, or can there?) While it sounds cool, what struck me is that house smelled like chlorine the minute you walked in the door. I’d hate that….would need some kind of air seal to work for me.