Why this Blog Exists

To make the case for expanding the Park Slope Historic District

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.


Eric McClure said...

Kudos, John, for this great historical tale.

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