At long last, it’s back from the dead. After years of deterioration and vandalization, Crown Heights’ last remaining wood frame villa, the Susan B. Elkins House at 1375 Dean Street, has been buffed and polished in preparation for new residents.
It’s been a complicated preservation saga for the circa 1850s Greek Revival-Italianate style house. Thanks to the efforts of local residents and the Crown Heights North Association, it was saved from a developer’s wrecking ball at the last minute in 2006 when the city declared it an individual landmark.
But its future was far from assured. As the house passed from owner to owner, water seeped in unchecked and vandals and thieves robbed it of any interior details still remaining. In 2011, a developer purchased it, promising to restore it to its original glory, but let it fall even further into ruin and was sanctioned for demolition by neglect before putting it back on the market for multiples of his purchase price.
In 2014, the house in dire condition, developer Amber Mazor purchased the property and proposed a restoration and conversion to condos to make the project financially viable.
But even this plan was not smooth sailing.
The conversion meant Mazor had to comply with modern city zoning. But modern city zoning requirements clash with Landmarks: Zoning rules say side yards must be at least eight feet wide — or there must be no side yards at all.
And because the house is wooden, it cannot have more than two units.
Finally, after a number of false starts with Landmarks and the DOB, Mazor, working with architect Richard Goodstein from Nc2 Architecture, hit on a winning plan: Turn the house into two two-unit buildings by building a party wall inside, and add recessed side extensions camouflaged from the street with slatted, moveable screens painted a dark color so they disappear into the shadows.
When Mazor took over, the house was on the brink of collapse, he said. “The challenge was how to rebuild it while simultaneously not taking it apart,” he told Brownstoner.
After painstakingly excavating the rear of the house, which sits on a hill, by carrying out dirt via the side yards (it took six months), the crew removed deteriorated sections of the house, raised it up on stilts, and inserted a steel frame into the structure, then lowered the house back down onto the foundation.
At the same time, they raised the roof slightly (the change is not visible from the street) to turn the top partial-height floor into a full story.
A surprising amount of original material survives on the exterior, including about 70 percent of the original clapboard, which was removed, patched and reinstalled, said Mazor. Three of the front porch columns were safely stored off site and are original; a fourth column and the porch-rail spindles were re-created based on the 1940s tax photo.
The beautiful wood cornice with bead and reel moldings (which resemble links of sausage, Mazor pointed out) is original. The crew removed it, stripped it, cleaned it up and put it back on the house.
The front-door trim and transom are also historic. What the designation report calls “delicate cusped surrounds,” the lacy moldings around the attic windows, were re-created.
The house was built circa 1856 and was lived in by the Elkins family — including two daughters who were artists and inventors — until the early 20th century. It’s had a colorful and varied history: Eartha Kitt was a frequent visitor “before she became famous,” according to Brownstone Detectives, and at one point the house was owned by Christ Church Cathedral, whose head worked with Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and whose son was the first prime minister of Barbados. In the ’80s and ’90s, it was a group home and treatment center.
Mazor spent 15 years restoring landmarked brownstones in Brooklyn Heights with his design-build company Perfect Restoration. After rehabilitating the house across the street at No. 1372, where he now lives, he formed development company Komaru Enterprises to restore the Susan Elkins house.
“I love the architecture of Brooklyn, old structures — decaying structures mostly,” he said.
The interior of the house, long ago stripped, is now completely contemporary, but the apartments are not quite standard white boxes.
Mazor wanted the units to feel like townhouses, so they are large duplexes with elements that relate to the building’s past: Modern gas fireplaces, substantial interior trim based on the one-and-quarter round moldings that appear on the exterior cornice, staircase treads fashioned out of original studs, modern pocket doors and reclaimed brick.
Now, two years later, two of the units have been put on the market and construction is wrapping up.
Construction fencing still hides part of the house from the view of passersby, but what is visible is a complete turnaround from the devastated and neglected condition of the house that neighbors had to live with for years.
The clapboard has been painted a bright blue. A railing now stretches across the broad porch. Lintels, sills and shutters have been put in place and the cornice now stands out, painted a crisp white.
Locals are happy to see the building saved, several have told Brownstoner. More than 100 passerby stopped to ask the workers what was happening while construction was underway, Mazor said.
Eventually, the slope of the front yard will be dotted with green bushes, just as in the 1940s tax photo.
Too long a shell, the restored exterior now conveys the vision of the house as it was originally intended — a gracious country villa built on what was once the edges of town.
[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise | Story by Susan De Vries and Cate Corcoran]
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