Why this Blog Exists

To make the case for expanding the Park Slope Historic District

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Remembering Bob Makla

Vale of Cashmere, Prospect Park
photo: forgotten-ny.com

News has arrived that one of Park Slope's "Elder Statesmen", Robert Makla, is no longer with us.

We used to run into Bob at various civic events around town, and gradually came to know a bit about him. Apparently he was a great advocate of the city's parks and we think he founded, or co-founded, an organization called the Greensward Foundation that published books and maps about the city's parks.

One of our earliest memories of Bob is of him staffing the Greensward Foundation table at the old "New York is Book Country" street fair, which was suspended after the 9/11 attack and never resumed. We recall buying a really lovely map of Prospect Park from Bob and we think the map was published by his organization.

Later Bob would show up at the occasional Park Slope Civic Council meeting, and entertain the Trustees with tales of the old days in Park Slope. We ultimately learned that Bob had served as President of the Park Slope Civic Council during the crucial years of the late 1950s-early 1960s, and some credit him with revitalizing the moribund South Brooklyn Board of Trade by renaming it the Park Slope Civic Council and commencing the annual House Tour during his tenure.

Still later, we took our own children to the occasional Prospect Park clean-up organized by Bob and the Greensward Foundation. We recall Bob paid particular attention to the Vale of Cashmere. Bob recounted how the pools were featured in the film "Sophie's Choice." Our girls didn't pay much attention, but they had a good time falling into the mud at the pool's edge. One of our family's shoes is probably still embedded in the mud there to this day.

CB6 District Manager Craig Hammerman on Robert Makla: Always dressed to the nines, with his signature bowtie and suspenders, Robert Makla was a familiar attendee, avid supporter and eager participant at Brooklyn CB6 general meetings. He often started off by reminding us that he was born at NY Methodist Hospital, and with the exception of serving our country oversees in the armed forces, spent his whole life living in Park Slope.

Bob’s message was often simple, and eloquently delivered. To paraphrase…Parks are special places, where people of all races, incomes and interests mix. They reconnect people to nature. They feed the soul serving as inspiration to artists and dreamers, poets and planners. They provide a source of jobs, particularly maintenance jobs, which are harder and harder to come by. Jobs, he often said, were the key to restoring a sense of pride and productivity to the least fortunate among us. And, once park space is gone, it is not so easily replaced. It is therefore the job of every citizen to defend, preserve and care for the wonderful green and open spaces throughout our City. Of course, his favorite spot was his beloved Prospect Park, the crown jewel of all of New York City’s parks.

Bob’s presence was electric, his words were stirring, and he will be sorely missed. I, for one, will especially miss his periodic call to conscience, which always seemed perfectly timed to fit into the Community Board’s 3-minute speaking limit at general meetings.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Liberty Row

In June, 1887, the American Architect & Building News, a trade periodical that later evolved into today's American Architect, carried news of a quartet of buildings to be erected on the west side of 7th Avenue, 21 feet north of 10th Street:

"Building Intelligence; Houses; Brooklyn, N. Y.," AABN vol. 21, no. 599 (Jun. 18, 1887): p. xiii.
– "Seventh Ave., w s, 21' 6" n Tenth St., 4 four-st’y brick and brown-stone stores and dwells., tin roofs; cost, each $8,000; owner, Chas. Nickenig, 368 Eleventh St.; architect, W. H. Wirth."

A few weeks later, the same publication listed plans for the building to occupy the corner lot itself. The builder and architect are the same as in the earlier listing above:

"Building Intelligence; Tenement-Houses; Brooklyn, N. Y.," AABN vol. 22, no. 601 (Jul. 2, 1887): p. xii.
– "Seventh Ave., n w cor. Tenth St., four-st’y brick store and tenement, tin roof; cost, $10,000; owner, Charles Nickenig, 368 Eleventh St.; architect, W. H. Wirth."

Given these listings, one might reasonably expect to find a group of five related structures occupying adjacent lots on the northwest corner of 10th Street and 7th Avenue in Park Slope. And indeed there are five such buildings standing there today:

7th Avenue & 10th Street - n w corner
William H. Wirth, architect
Charles Nickenig, builder - 1887

It is a fine row of 5 mixed-use (flats over stores) buildings, still nearly unchanged since they were built in 1887. The original commercial space on the corner building's ground floor has been converted to residential use. This kind of conversion was opposed by the ROSAS organization, since it tended slowly to kill off a commercial street.

The corner building features one of those marvelous cantilevered corner window bays projecting into the center of the intersection, and is crowned by the name "Liberty". One suspects the building is named for the Statue of Liberty, which can be glimpsed on its harbor perch from many South Slope blocks. The Statue was dedicated on October 28, 1886, not many months before plans for these buildings were filed.

Both the builder, Charles Nickenig, and the architect, William H. Wirth, are by now quite familiar to readers of this blog. Among other buildings, Nickenig built Acme Hall at the corner of 9th Street, and Nickenig and Wirth collaborated on Acme's Hall's neighbors between 9th & 8th Streets.

The row features highly distinctive brick and terra cotta work including small brick arches where one would normally expect to find a wooden or pressed metal cornice. Separating each building is a column of rusticated brownstone blocks.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

CB6 Landmarks/Land Use Committee Hearing - Brooklyn Paper

In case you missed it...

The Landmarks/Land Use Committee of Brooklyn Community Board 6 held a public hearing Thursday evening.

The public hearing addressed the proposed Park Slope Historic District extension.

LPC Executive Director Kate Daly spoke briefly and answered questions about the extension.

Park Slope Civic Council representatives, property owners in the proposed extension, and other members of the public spoke in favor of the proposal.

No one spoke against the proposal.

The Landmarks/Land Use Committee voted to recommend that CB6 support the proposal.

The Brooklyn Paper wrote a fairly accurate article about the hearing, reproduced below (with our clarifications at the bottom):

457 12th Street
Brooklyn Paper

Slope historic district expansion moves ahead
By Gary Buiso

Community leaders threw out the welcome mat for the extension of Park Slope’s historic district on Thursday night, arguing that its protections are worth any inconvenience experienced by property owners.

The Landmarks/Land Use Committee of Community Board 6 unanimously approved the first phase of the Landmark Preservation Commission’s initiative, an area that includes about 500 buildings across eight square blocks in the South Slope.

The three-phase proposal, if approved, would make the neighborhood home to the largest historic district in the city — but the long-anticipated extension won’t be happening any time in the immediate future.

Landmarks said it is so busy creating districts across the city that it will not even be voting on Park Slope’s district for at least a year.

“There is no set time line,” explained Kate Daly, the executive director of the commission. “But the commission understands the importance of this to the community.”

The extant historic district was created in 1973, and includes most of the brownstone blocks on Eighth Avenue and Prospect Park West, and additional blocks in Northern Park Slope.

The first phase expands to the south by including blocks between Seventh and Eight avenues, from Seventh Street through 14th Street, and areas adjacent to Bartel Pritchard Square.

The measure drew unequivocal praise from those who spoke at the committee’s hearing, held on a damp night inside the Old First Reformed Church on Carroll Street.

“This is about preserving the connections people have to the community,” said Peter Bray, chairman of the Park Slope Civic Council’s Historic District Expansion Committee.

“When I walk down the streets of Park Slope, I want to know that I walking near the same buildings that three generations of my family walked before me,” he added.

The civic group began working on an extension proposal in 2007, fearing the threat of new, architecturally inappropriate development.

Historic districts block such development, and also require property owners to win approval from Landmarks for virtually all exterior alterations — which often tacks on extra cost and layers of bureaucratic red tape.

And that doesn’t sit well with everyone in the neighborhood.

“If I have to repair my fa├žade, I’m not sure I want to go through jumping through bureaucratic hoops,” said Ninth Street resident Ed Lemansky as he left the church.

But supporters said it would be worth it.

“I am willing to bear whatever additional regulatory burden to maintain the street I love and the village atmosphere,” said 10th Street resident Stephanie Doba.

The agency is currently examining the second phase of the extension, an area that includes buildings in the northern edge of the existing district along Flatbush Avenue. Boundaries have yet to be delineated, Daly said. A third phase is also planned.

In its totality, the three-phase extension could include 4,000 buildings, dwarfing Greenwich Village’s district by over 2,000 structures.

Public hearing on the expansion at the Landmarks Preservation Commission (1 Centre St. in Manhattan) on Oct. 26 at 12:30 pm. The agenda can be found at www.nyc.gov.

Save the Slope sez:

Actually at this time, there have been no discussions
at all regarding a "third phase" between the Park Slope Civic Council and the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Indeed we hope there will be a 3rd phase, and a 4th and a 5th and beyond.

For that matter, all we know about a "phase 2" is that LPC is looking at the area. We are still working on phase 1!

Finally, the correct link to the Oct. 26 meeting agenda is here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A "Cinderella" Story On Berkeley Place

The following article, by Park Slope Civic Council Trustee & Historic District Expansion Committee member John Casson, appeared in the September, 2010 Civic News. The article recalls the earliest days of preservation in Park Slope with a particular focus on the "Cinderella" program from Brooklyn Union Gas Company:

A "Cinderella" Story on Berkeley Place

This summer, a “For Sale” sign appeared in the front courtyard of 211 Berkeley Place. While the four-story house may look like many other brownstones on the block, it occupies a unique place in the modern history of Park Slope. This house helped launch the turnaround of our neighborhood from one in decline to the vibrant community we know today.

Berkeley Place - 7th/8th Avenues - n s

My wife and I first learned about 211 Berkeley Place (between Seventh and Eighth Avenues) in 1966, when we read about it in The New York Times. The house, which according to the article had been vacant for several years, was purchased for $15,000 by the Brooklyn Union Gas Company. What the article did not mention was that the company made the purchase mainly to help solve its own business problem.

At that time, many gas customers were moving out of the city, often leaving empty buildings behind. As the company couldn’t dig up its pipes and join the exodus to the suburbs, its only hope for growth was to encourage economic development and increased gas consumption in its service area. This led to its decision to show how dilapidated structures could be transformed into up-to-date residential and commercial structures that used a wide range of gas appliances. The brownstone on Berkeley became the first of its “Cinderella Projects.”

439 13th Street -
Brooklyn Union Gas "Cinderella" Sign

At the time Brooklyn Union purchased 211 Berkeley Place, Park Slope seemed to be in an irreversible decline. Fifth Avenue was known not for its restaurants as it is today but for its drug dealers. A bar bereft of customers could be found on almost every block on Seventh Avenue. Many of the original one-family rowhouses that had been converted into rooming houses to serve Navy Yard workers had few tenants. People were beginning to move to the suburbs and increasingly abandon Park Slope.

After acquiring 211 Berkeley Place, the company evicted the resident pigeons and rodents, and transformed the brownstone into two handsome duplex apartments. While taking care to preserve many of the brownstone’s Victorian details, the company installed heating and air-conditioning systems, grills, patio heaters, exterior entrance lights, fireplaces, ovens, and burners — all fueled by gas, of course — in both apartments. The Times article also mentioned that the Park Slope Betterment Committee would be conducting a walking tour of the neighborhood. After taking this tour, my wife and I decided to buy a house in Park Slope.

Evelyn and Everett Ortner, Joe Ferris, and a few other like-minded individuals established the Betterment Committee to preserve their historic neighborhood. They realized that unless people began to purchase, renovate, and move into houses in Park Slope, its decline would be impossible to reverse. In order to attract people to the neighborhood, the committee began to conduct walking tours that not only introduced people to the community but also showed them houses that were for sale, had been recently purchased, or were being renovated. The tours drew attention to Park Slope’s confluence of attractions: handsome historic rowhouses on attractive tree-lined streets; spacious homes that could be purchased and renovated at a reasonable cost; proximity to Brooklyn’s principal cultural attractions; access to several subway lines for a quick and inexpensive commute to Manhattan; a welcoming group of homeowners who were new to the neighborhood; and the opportunity to participate in an enticing adventure.

Even with these advantages, there were many obstacles to renovating a house in Park Slope in the 1960s and 1970s. Our parents and friends thought we were crazy for buying a dilapidated house in a declining neighborhood. Park Slope was redlined, which meant very few financial institutions were willing to provide mortgages and homeowners insurance. Most of the houses were in need of a great deal of work — and few of us realized how difficult renovations would be. We had to deal with lead plumbing and electric wiring that had been installed when Edison was alive. There were layers and layers of lead-based paint, carcinogenic and flammable paint stripping products, and other materials such as joint compound that contained asbestos. Nonetheless, houses priced from $15,000 to $35,000 seemed such a bargain that purchasing and renovating a Park Slope home appeared to be well worth the risk.

In 1974, after extensive research by the Ortners, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission designated about one quarter of Park Slope a historic district. Today, we do not have to deal with neglected houses very often. However, we now find that inappropriate, often shoddily built new buildings and out-of-keeping renovations are appearing in non-landmarked blocks in our community. This is why the Park Slope Civic Council has made expanding the historic district’s boundaries a top priority.

Thanks to the work of the Council’s Historic District Expansion Committee, Phase 1 of this effort — encompassing more than 600 buildings in the South Slope — is currently being considered by the LPC to be included in a larger historic district. The Committee is also about to begin work on Phase 2, which will extend protection to 600 buildings in the North Slope.

And 211 Berkeley Place, after sheltering the same two families for four decades, will soon become the home of a new generation of residents. The Park Slope story continues. — John Casson

More information on the Historic District Expansion Committee is available at www.parkslopeciviccouncil.org/historic-district.

Friday, October 8, 2010

35 Prospect Park West

In case you missed it... the ubiquitous "Montrose Morris" posted a nice set of before-and-after photos on Brownstoner this week, featuring a great shot of the building that once carried the 35 Prospect Park West address:

35 Prospect Park West - then
Photo: New York Public Library

According to the Park Slope Historic District's Designation Report, the building was the residence of George C. Tilyou, who built Steeplechase Park in Coney Island.

Somewhere, probably from our late father-in-law, we heard the story that Tilyou's widow, Mary, sold the building to developers on the condition that she could occupy one of the penthouse apartments for the rest of her days. We have no idea whether this is true or not, but it's a nice story. Do the facts support this tale?

A website gives George Cornelius Tilyou's dates as 1862-1914.

Another website says that the present-day apartment tower was constructed in 1929 by Emery Roth.

35 Prospect Park West - now
Emery Roth, architect - 1929

Yet another website says that Mary E. Tilyou, George's widow, lived in the tower until her death at 103 in the 1950s.

So it certainly seems possible that Mary Tilyou made some kind of an arrangement with Emery Roth!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Reader's Questions: Building Research

We haven't figured out how to be notified on the rare occasion when someone actually posts a comment to this blog. It's basically just a matter of chance, so if you ask a question and we don't respond in the comments, it's probably because we didn't see it! If you really want to reach us, email us via the Park Slope Civic Council website.

At any rate, we just noticed the following comment from "Christopher" in response to our August post about the west side of 7th Avenue between 10th & 11th Streets:

7th Avenue & 10th Street, n w corner

Impressive! how did your researchers go about finding 1880s building permits? There are some buildings in the area I'd like to do the same with. 145 14th Street is my family's old homestead.

Thanks for reading, Christopher!

The building permits and original documents that we featured in our earlier post are on file at the Brooklyn Department of Buildings. The Park Slope Civic Council has been fortunate to receive a few very small grants that have funded a couple of interns who have actually gone into the DOB stacks, pulled files for some blocks in our "study area", and photographed them. We only have a few of these files online so far, but it is our intention to image more of these documents and to make them available online for future researchers.

145 14th Street is apparently west of 4th Avenue, which is outside our "study area," so unfortuntately we have no information to share about that building.

Someday maybe someone with a huge amount of time and disk space will image the entire Brooklyn DOB files and make them available online.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Emmett Grogan: West Park Sloper

Readers with long memories may recall our earlier post about bank robber Willie Sutton, part of our occasional "Outlaws & Outsiders" series. We claim Sutton as a "West Park Sloper" because he lived in Dean Street between 3rd & 4th Avenues.

Actually the Sutton case came to our attention by way of yet another West Park Sloper, Emmett Grogan, who grew up on 4th Avenue in the "West Slope" and was an eyewitness to Sutton's capture, as recounted in Grogan's slightly fictionalized autobiobraphy Ringolevio: A Life Played For Keeps.

Grogan is perhaps best remembered these days as a founder of the San Francisco Diggers. As recounted by their website, the Diggers were an "anarchist guerilla street theater group that challenged the emerging Counterculture of the Sixties and whose actions and ideals inspired (and continue to inspire) a generation (of all ages) to create models of Free Association". The Diggers emerged in part from the famed San Francisco Mime Troupe, and reached an early apex during and after the "Summer of Love" by organizing free food and a free store ("It's free because it's yours!") in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury community.

We are thus honored to welcome Emmett Grogan into the pantheon of Greater Park Slope Outlaws & Outsiders. We highly recommend his book Ringolevio to students of Brooklyn and of the 1960s.

It is said that Grogan originated the V-for-victory "peace sign" and the expression "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." Which is a true statement, if you think about it...

Digger poster

Emmett Grogan died in 1978 on the F train, en route to Coney Island, apparently of a heart condition exacerbated by heroin use. So, apparently, Emmett Grogan took his last subway ride through Park Slope.

Bob Dylan's 1978 album Street Legal is dedicated to Emmett Grogan, West Park Sloper:

Grogan's legacy resonates in Brooklyn's contemporary blogosphere. One of the authors/personae of the fascinating blog "Who Walk In Brooklyn" is named "Kenny Wisdom", the protagonist of Grogan's book Ringolevio.