Owners Plan to Restore Historic Heights Home 70 Willow Inside and Out

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Patrick W. Ciccone is a historic preservation consultant and real estate development adviser. He is perhaps best known as the co-author of a forthcoming edition of the late Charles Lockwood’s classic brownstone bible, “Bricks and Brownstone.” He is the historic consultant on the renovation of 70 Willow Street, one of Brooklyn’s most important historic homes.

After speaking with him this week over email, we realized our previous stories about the renovation did not give a complete picture of the plans. The house’s new owners, Grand Theft auto creator Dan Houser and his wife Krystyna, who purchased the 1839 Greek Revival mansion for a record breaking $12,500,000 in 2012, are planning an extensive historic restoration of the property inside and out. Ciccone is working with the owners and the architects, Richard Bories and James Shearron of Bories & Shearron, on the project.

As we have discussed in detail elsewhere, such as Building of the Day posts, Dutch colonial descendant and Revolutionary War era reverend Adrian Van Sideren built the house, one of the oldest in the Heights. (The photo above shows the house as it appeared in 1922.) Subsequent notable owners included Tony Award-winning Broadway stage designer Oliver Smith.

Four large color plates in the revised edition of “Bricks and Brownstone” show the house’s famous sweeping oval staircase and the front and rear parlors of the house, with their full-height windows, a black marble mantel and extraordinary Greek Revival wood work, columns with anthemion motifs and doors. Extensive pictures from the house’s previous restoration can be seen on the website of architects Baxt Ingui.

We spoke to Ciccone in more detail about the house and what they have in store. (Note: Some of our questions below were constructed after the fact, for ease of reading.)

Brownstoner: The proposal calls for replacing the famous rear double-decker porch, where Truman Capote, who briefly rented in the house, wrote and entertained, and which he wrote about in his essay, “A House on the Heights.”

Patrick W. Ciccone: The current porch is one-story and wood. It may be visually similar to the one Capote wrote about but it was entirely replaced in kind in the early 2010s. No historic fabric remains. The new porch is double height and iron.

BS: Can you tell us more about the style of the original porch and when it was built?

PC: The first version of the porch dates from circa 1900 — the house had no wooden porch from 1839 to 1900. (Unlike many other house in Brooklyn Heights, which had rear tea porches.) It’s a simple, sort of picturesque wooden porch. It later had a two-story portion added and later demolished sometime in the mid-20th century. The current wooden porch is an in-kind replacement of the original severely deteriorated one, circa 2011 or so, I believe. So if one is taking the George Washington Slept Here/Truman Capote Drank Martinis here approach, it is not the same porch.

BS: Other plans include changing the color of the house from yellow to red, which the owners said was its original shade, according to Curbed.

PS: It’s removing the existing paint (from 1995) and restoring the original brick — not a matter of paint color.

BS: What was the LPC reaction to the first proposal for the exterior changes, presented January 6, in your view?

The commission universally thought the design was extremely thoughtful, sensitive, and for the balance historically appropriate.

The only point of contention was whether to keep the later 19th century doors and ironwork or not, where the commissioners were somewhat divided, and which is why a vote was delayed. [Commissioner] Michael Devonshire, who has the most direct knowledge of the era’s architecture and materials (his firm does work at Merchant’s House) was enthusiastically for the design.

BS: As for the interior renovation, which is, of course, a private matter and not subject to LPC review, the application for a permit filed with the Building Department says, “new partitions, doors, flooring and interior finishes.” That sounds like a gut renovation. Could you tell us more about the plans?

PS: The DOB permit doesn’t cover historic fabric, or at least describe it accurately since it’s not their bailiwick…the entire design is largely a restoration of existing fabric, with a few select alterations to restore lost Greek Revival details.

The original interior of the house is very intact — other previous owners had removed a few of the mantels, and some of the original partitions also have been lost, but there’s astonishingly well-preserved plaster, moldings, etc. The owners and architects are committed to preserving and restoring the overwhelming balance of what’s there, and keeping the floor plan effectively the same, etc.

This really is the rare case of a house owner with means doing a sensitive restoration with existing fabric rather than blowing the inside and rear up. This is an incredibly sensitive restoration.

Landmarks Sends 70 Willow Reno Plans Back to Drawing Board [Brownstoner]
Landmarks to Consider Alterations to Truman Capote’s Old Brooklyn Heights House [Brownstoner]
Photo via Bowery Boys

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