Why this Blog Exists

To make the case for expanding the Park Slope Historic District

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Acme Hall's Neighbors

The story of Park Slope's Acme Hall, on the northwest corner of 9th Street and 7th Avenue, is fairly well-known these days; Ruth Edebohls chronicled its history in an article published on Bob Guskind's inimitable "Gowanus Lounge" blog. Ms. Edebohls states that Acme Hall was built in 1890 by C. Nickenig.

Perhaps less well known is that Charles Nickenig apparently also built the rest of the block running north from Acme Hall to 8th Street, a row of seven mixed-use buildings containing flats over ground-floor commercial space:

314-326 7th Avenue - unprotected

Plans for the five buildings closest to 8th Street appeared in both the Brooklyn Eagle and the American Architect and Building News in March, 1889:

"Building Intelligence; Stores; Brooklyn, N. Y.," AABN vol. 25, no. 689 (Mar. 9, 1889): p. xviii.
– "Seventh Ave., w s, 22' s Eighth St., 4 four-st’y brownstone stores and dwells., tin roofs; cost, each, $7,000; owner, Chas. Nickenig, 437 Ninth St.; architect, W. H. Wirth; builder, not selected."
– "Seventh Ave., s w cor. Eighth St., four-st’y brownstone store and tenement, tin roof; cost, $8,000; owner, Charles Nickenig, 437 Ninth St.; architect, W. H. Wirth; builder, not selected."

Brooklyn Eagle, March 02, 1889, p. 2 ("Houses - Lots")

Note the two errors in the Eagle citations above: the first listing reversed "street" and "avenue", while the second listing mangled Nickenig's name.

A few months later, the Eagle carried a notice regarding the rest of the row, two buildings closer to 9th Street:

Brooklyn Eagle, June 22, 1889, p.1 ("Real Estate")

The architect was William H. Wirth, whose work we last encountered in 6th Avenue, in a row of small brick houses designed for builder Thomas Butler.

The 7th Avenue buildings are brownstone-faced, and the upper floors of each feature a three-sided projecting window bay surmounted by ornate swags just below the elaborate cornice:

The orientation of the window bays alternate so that the buildings stand in matched pairs; except for the mismatched paint, the pair below could easily be mistaken for a single building:

Such an orientation places the entrances to the upper floors next to each other on the ground floor. In the pair of buildings shown above, the upper-floor entrances have been combined into a single doorway. The combined entry may have been a later alteration; as shown below to the left, some of the building pairs still have separate entrances to the upper floors:

The buildings are in near-original condition, still housing flats above and shops on the ground floor, just as they have done since they were first constructed in 1889.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Builder Charles Peterson in 15th Street

People walking 15th Street between 8th Avenue and Prospect Park West pass a handsome row of white houses, each two stories of limestone over a brownstone basement floor:

15th Street, between 8th Avenue and Prospect Park West - unprotected

Most of the houses have a full-height, three-sided bay; on some the bay is rounded. The stoops alternate, in ABAB pattern, between "straight" and L-shaped configurations.

The houses are nearly identical to other rows within the district such as this row on the north side of 9th Street, in the park block; the similarities extend even to the alternating straight and L-shaped stoops:

9th Street, between 8th Avenue and Prospect Park West - Park Slope Historic District

According to the Park Slope Historic District Designation Report, the 9th Street row was constructed in 1902-03 for William H. Reynolds, to designs by Brooklyn architect Benjamin Driesler. According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the 15th Street row was also begun in 1902, by builder Charles Peterson:

Brooklyn Eagle, November 11, 1902, p. 18 ("New Buildings")

All of these houses of course post-date the great Columbian Exposition of 1893, which showcased the "White City" to the throngs that packed the Chicago fair for its 6-month run, and which helped finally to draw the curtain on brownstone's long dominance in urban neighborhoods like Park Slope. Our friend Francis Morrone has said one can generally estimate the age of a Park Slope building by its color: if brown, earlier than 1893; if white, later than 1893.

Note that these houses, though white on the upper two floors, still retain a brownstone stoop and basement floor. Perhaps it was hoped that brownstone at the base would be less likely to show the dirt from the gritty streets?

We believe that the Charles Peterson who built these houses is the same Charles Peterson who constructed the full blockfront on Prospect Park West between 6th & 7th Streets:

Prospect Park West, 7th to 6th Streets - Park Slope Historic District

And we suspect it is the same Charles Peterson who built the "wrong-way" houses in 8th Avenue, just off Flatbush, whose backsides face their distinguished neighbors across 8th Avenue:

8th Avenue, Lincoln Place to St. Johns Place, Park Slope Historic District

The plans created a huge stir in their day and actually caused gentlemen to leave the Montauk Club! Click here for more of this story... It is our personal theory, never before seen in print, that Peterson's architectural affront in 8th Avenue commenced Park Slope's long decline from its 1890s "Gold Coast" status, a decline that would not be turned around until the "brownstoner" movement of the 1960s.

Charles Peterson's 15th Street row is outside, but adjacent to, the current Park Slope Historic District; the line runs down the rear lot line between 14th and 15th Streets. The Park Slope Civic Council has asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission to consider this block in a proposed expansion to the historic district.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Disappearing Act in 1st Street (What the LPC Likes, pt. 2)

The photograph below will be familiar to anyone who walks uphill in 1st Street between 7th & 8th Avenues in Park Slope. All of these buildings are within the current Park Slope Historic District.

475-475A-477-479-481 1st Street - Park Slope Historic District

To the left, #475 & #475A 1st Street are the last two of a row of six two-story-over-basement houses built in 1877. The Park Slope Historic District Designation Report characterizes these houses as "rather modest".

To the right is the beginning of a long row of fourteen brownstones built from 1887 to 1889. As originally built, these houses were two-and-a-half stories over a basement floor, with small windows set into the cornice on the 3rd floor. At the rear, these houses rise to a full third story.

The house in the center, at #477 1st Street, once matched its companions to the right. But in another example of a long-ago remuddling that would probably not be allowed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission today, someone pulled down the cornice and built up the front of the third floor to create a full three-stories-over-basement house.

Very recently, however, and with the full approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, its neighbor to the left at #475A, originally a "rather modest" two-story-over-basement house, has seen substantial alteration too. Within the last year or so, the owners have added a half-story at the rear of the roof, to create a two-and-a-half stories over basement house. In addition, the house has gained a very handsome and spacious full-width rear extension at the basement and first stories. Thus this "rather modest" house has become rather more spacious indeed.

The casual observer will note none of these changes from the sidewalk. Below is the view from the sidewalk, directly across the street:

475-475A-477-479 1st Street, Park Slope Historic District

Only when one ascends from sidewalk level does the roof extension become visible. See if you can pick it out in the photograph below, which was taken from the top of the stoop directly across the street:

475A-477 1st Street, Park Slope Historic District

Here is a closer view in case it is difficult to make out:

475A 1st Street, Park Slope Historic District - detail

The additional half-story -- understated, tastefully done, and completely invisible from the sidewalk, in contrast to its remuddled neighbor to the right -- exemplifies the kind of substantial change that the Landmarks Preservation Commission permits. This case also exemplifies how the LPC does not "freeze" development within historic districts. In combination with its new rear extension, this house has been greatly expanded, but at no impact to the historic district.

Our congratulations to the owners of #475A 1st Street on a successful and sensitive transformation. And welcome to Park Slope!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

11th Street: Another One Bites the Dust

A reader has brought to our attention news that the old building at 561 11th Street, on the north side of the block between 7th and 8th Avenues, is no longer with us.

Below is the original building, as captured in our comprehensive photo archive of Park Slope, winter 2007-2008:

561 Eleventh Street - 2008

We don't have the "vital stats" (date, builder, architect) on the original building, a two-story-over-basement single-family house. The stoop appears to have been a modern reconstruction. It was clearly a historic, "vintage" building, dating from the late decades of the 19th century, during Park Slope's first wave of construction.

Thus we suspect the original building would have been considered a "contributing" building, had it been included in a historic district, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission would have given careful review, and would perhaps have denied, an application for a permit to demolish this building. In which case it would have still been with us today.

Instead, a new, small apartment house is rising on the site:

561 Eleventh Street - 2010

We have no idea if the new building is great architecture or not. Personally we prefer the old building. One wonders, though, what has really been gained in this process? The new building is not dramatically larger than the old one. The old building could have been a 1- or 2-family; the new building appears to be a 3-family. Perhaps we have managed to squeeze another couple of people into Park Slope, which is great. Probably someone has made a lot of money in this transaction, or hopes to.

But the one certainty is that we have lost a bit more of Park Slope's historic fabric and unique "sense of place".

If you know of any other losses underway in Park Slope, or if you would like to help us expand the Park Slope Historic District, please let us know through the contact link on the Park Slope Civic Council's website.

Friday, January 1, 2010

White & Willensky on Park Slope

Whilst remembering the inimitable Norval White over the past few days, we pulled our copy of the AIA Guide to New York City off the shelf to see what he and co-author Elliot Willensky had to say about Park Slope and its historic district:

The first draft of the Historic District originally included only the park blocks. The Slope, emerging as the latest brownstone rediscovery of the upper middle class, was soon recognized as a precinct containing a rich fabric of row housing both within and beyond those initial arbitrary boundaries. The district finally designated reaches northwesterly from the park blocks to encompass part of the richness of Sixth Avenue between Berkeley and Sterling Places. And even with the expansion, good and great architecture thrives on the Slope outside the district lines.

6th Avenue & 3rd Street, southwest corner - unprotected