Staten Island needs a Wooden House Project of its own!

There are many lessons to be learned from the gentrification of Brooklyn. For Staten Island, one of the most relevant is the revival of the wooden framehouses.

There is a reawakening of interest in the woodframe houses of Brooklyn that is bringing beauty to neighborhoods once thought of as ugly, substandard and ripe for destruction and rebuilding. This renaissance comes as a surprise, since wooden houses have always been seen as the ugly stepsisters of the elegant brick and brownstone townhouses that, for most people, characterize Brooklyn charm. The sturdy row houses of brownstone, carefully built and beautifully ornamented, have always been valued as important assets in the urban fabric, and even during their darkest days of neglect they rarely suffered the indignities of thoughtless refacing and degradation. The wooden houses, however are quite different. Generally older and built in a variety of individualistic styles, they were not treated with kindness or understanding by their twentieth century owners. In only the rarest of cases have they survived intact to this day. However, in the new century they have come into their own, as an appreciation for their uniqueness and wide range of styles and histories takes hold. In a turnaround of fate that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, a considerable number of old Brooklyn woodframe houses have been allowed to shed their aluminum siding and have been returned to their original beauty, or in some cases, to a beauty they have never had before.

For several years three inspired and dedicated preservationists, Elizabeth Finkelstein, Chelcey Berryhill and Sara Durkacs, have been writing the Wooden House Project website and blog. The original focus of the blog was the stock of wooden houses in Brooklyn, but it has since broadened its view to Manhattan and elsewhere as well, as the ever restless writers have grown. The scope of the “project” has grown, too, perhaps beyond what these writers could have hoped for. It seems that the Wooden House Project website has tapped into a nascent movement and has given that movement a voice, a look and a forum. Even as the writers have moved on to other interests and other places, their website has continued to inspire, and, if I am reading the tea leaves correctly, convinced them to continue their project, even as they personally pursue new interests.

I grew up in a wooden house in Brooklyn. It was one of two typical frame houses with old fashioned porches sitting side by side on an original block of Bergen Street. An original block because before that this was farmland. The house was built in the 1870s and it still retained its original cladding of wooden shakes, having never suffered the re-siding or renovations that disfigured so many others. However, with the passing of time, the house slowly dried up and cowered down in a weedy lot, until it was finally demolished in the late 1980s. I imagine how nice that house might look now, were it to have survived until today, and been restored. In Brooklyn the glass is half full and half empty, so many wooden houses destroyed, so many others still standing, still hoping to be selected for a celebrity makeover.

Tale of two St. Georges, both wood, both historic. One neighborhood is baronial, meticulously preserved, highly valued. The other is just hanging on, hoping for a better day.

Tale of two St. Georges. Both wood, both historic, but one neighborhood is baronial, meticulously preserved, highly valued. The other is just hanging on, hoping for a better day.

A highland street in St. George

A highland street in St. George

On Staten Island’s North Shore, the situation is quite different. There are no brownstones. Instead there are many large wooden residences that are over 100 years old. These are to be found at higher elevations, away from tawdry commerce and where the harbor views are often spectacular. Many of these have been beautifully restored in St. George, Stapleton Heights and elsewhere. Then there are the lowly woodframe houses built for more modest residents. There are many more of these, entire neighborhoods characterized by one and two family detached houses from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mostly at the lower elevations near the shore. Some have distinctive facades, mutilated or not, many come with surrounding gardens, some paved over, some full of trash, some lovingly tended. They are in dire need of the attention that those large manors on the heights have long enjoyed. With modern improvements to the streets and urban context, these historic houses can form the core of charming, human scale neighborhoods in places like Mariner’s Harbor, Stapleton, Rosebank that would be unique in the city.

The area between Tompkinsville and Stapleton is a prime example of an extensive woodframe neighborhood with great potential.

A lowland street in St. George.

Take a look at the neighborhood between Stapleton and Tompkinsville, for example. It is full of wooden houses waiting to be restored, all along a dozen quiet streets, a stone’s throw inland from the URL development now under construction at the old Homeport site. For some images to the area, click here: Exploring the forgotten hollow between Stapleton and Tompkinsville.

Some people are already on the case and are restoring these neglected homes, but despite the hard work of these individual homeowners, there is still no critical mass, no forward momentum. What is lacking is the vision, the will and the market. Perhaps if we had such a wooden house movement like the one that this Brooklyn blog champions, we would be on our way to revitalizing these wooden neighborhoods. I am sure that the wooden house movement will eventually take hold on Staten Island as well. Hopefully it will happen before many more local houses succumb to the fate that befell my old Bergen Street home.

Two homes on Hendricks Street. One with its beautiful original natural shakes, the other showing the signs of fussy, inappropriate renovations and subsequent neglect. Which one is a harbinger of the future?

Two homes on Hendricks Avenue. The darker one with its beautiful original natural shakes, the other showing the signs of fussy, anachronistic renovations and subsequent neglect. Which one is a harbinger of the future?

 

St. George Courthouse prepares for discovery

courthouse06minAfter years of dusty, dead slow construction, the new state Supreme Court Building in St. George is finally getting ready to make its case.  The St. George courthouse is nearing completion, shedding its plastic netting and construction fences and revealing itself to the world. And it is a revelation, far more engaging and integrative into the fabric of the neighborhood than one could have feared. courthouse02minFor years now, the busy facets of its facade seemed to bode ill for the finished product and the variety of materials and jagged lines of the structure looked garish and too aggressive. However, with the fences coming down one can see that there is a connection between the bulk of the courthouse and the nearby buildings, and that the materials blend in well with the 20th Century mix all around it. In addition, the placement of the courthouse behind the hillside park allows it to maintain a comparatively low profile for pedestrians on Hyatt Street. Even the odd rampart roofline, which looks a bit clumsy from the neighborhood behind the courthouse, has a certain appeal when viewed from the harbor, giving the St. George skyline a certain Gibraltar-esque quality. (The first two numbers of St. George’s telephone exchange, 44, by the way, refer to “Gibraltar,” so the analogy is apt.)

The main entrance on Central Avenue hugs the hillside, gently sloping down with it. The garage component of the project is seen in the distance.

The main entrance on Central Avenue hugs the hillside, gently sloping down with it. The garage component of the project is seen in the distance.

The shabby office buildings from the 1960s on St. Marks Place have a new neighbor from a new century and they get along like tres amigos.

The shabby office buildings from the 1960s on St. Marks Place have a new neighbor from a new century and they get along like tres amigos.

 

The courthouse nestles behind the park, letting the bulk of the hill take precedence. The park still has a long way to go.

The courthouse nestles behind the park, letting the bulk of the hillside take precedence. The park still has a long way to go…

 

… but when it's done, it will give St. George a proper town square.

… but when it’s done, it will give St. George a proper town square.

The courthouse was designed by Ploshek Partnership, which has, for some odd reason, recently changed its name to Ennead Architects.

This is the same firm that created the new entry pavilion to the Brooklyn Museum, the Rose Center at Hayden Planetarium and many other bright, innovative buildings going up in New York and elsewhere. A look at their website shows that they are very, very busy indeed.

A look at the rear aspect of the project shows that some problems persist. St. Marks Place is still an eyesore across from the courthouse with its string of haphazard and poorly maintained housing. The parking component of the project, the St. George garage,  has been open for several years now and the leafy vines that soften its facade in the warm months become grey bristles in winter. And that special blight of Staten Island, frayed and tangled telephone wires, line the sidewalk.

The vegetation rising up the side of garage is grey and leafless during winter.

The vegetation rising up the side of garage is grey and leafless during winter. And they can’t possibly be planning to leave that mess of wires, can they?

 

They can't possibly be planning to leave that mess of wires, can they? If only the solution were as easy as Photoshop!

If only the solution were as easy as Photoshop!