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?

 

Judge Jacob Tysen House next to Snug Harbor, a hidden treasure of S.I. History

Image

What are those disturbing inappropriate capitals on the columns of this Greek Revival building? See below.

Just outside the East gate of Snug Harbor Cultural Center stands a little know historic home that bears witness to the rich history of this fascinating institution. Barely seen behind high iron gates and vegetation is the Judge Jacob Tysen house, where the physician to the (Sailor’s) Snug Harbor institution once lived.

Find the lack of appropriate capitals on those facade columns disturbing? Here is one in storage in the basement.

Here is one of the original capitals in storage in the basement. It is in an eclectic style, beyond Corinthian.

During Open House New York, 2013 it was possible to tour the house with its curator. The exterior does not bode well, but the interior is exceptionally well preserved, retaining its architectural integrity and decorations from a century ago. It is owned by the Historic Richmondtown organization. Several decades ago there were plans to move it to Richmondtown, but fortunately, that plan was never realized. However, the house has seemingly dropped down in Richmondtown’s list of priorities, and completely dropped off the radar of Staten Island’s attractions promoters. Now that the Snug Harbor Cultural Center is becoming an important home to cultural institutions, Isn’t it time to restore this magnificent house more carefully and open it to the public?

Marvel Architects: from rowhouses to the Governors Island Ferry Terminal

Today I was interested in seeing some photos of the State Street townhouses that Marvel Architects designed for Downtown Brooklyn. They are a beautiful reinterpretation of the traditional Brooklyn rowhouse, and could help inspire a new wave of rowhouse construction in that borough. On Staten Island, rowhouses have been constructed in increasing numbers in recent years in more densely urbanized areas like St. George. Unfortunately, they are invariably ugly, cheap and badly designed. In St. George a few hideous rowhouses are sprouting up in various patches of cleared land and there is the potential for many more. Here is an image of some recently built rowhouses. They are awkwardly placed, at odds with the hillside they occupy, with high, narrow stoops that look haphazard and unfriendly. Their style seems to be dictated by what is cheapest rather than what is uplifting and appropriate. Their appearance is saved only by the greenery that mercifully obscures their facades. Marvel, where are you?

townhouse

Compare these to the rowhouses going up in Brooklyn.

While there, I came upon renderings of the Battery Maritime Building (Governors Island Ferry Terminal) project underway now. The renderings are still mysteriously void of detail, and look like ghostly wrappings more than actual architecture, but perhaps that is the aesthetic goal.

The BMB on the Marvel website.

Westervelt Avenue homes

Westervelt Avenue is on the other side of Fort Hill from the ferry, so people with only a vague acquaintance with the St. George area may not know much about it. It stretches from Richmond Terrace to Victory Boulevard, and is one of the earliest streets to have been developed. There are dozens of fine 19th Century homes on Westervelt Avenue, ranging from small row houses (Horton’s Row at the Victory Boulevard end) to large family residences. Some are well maintained, others are sleeping beauties just waiting for a prince (with deep pockets).

Across from Hamilton Avenue, near Richmond Terrace.

Across from Hamilton Avenue, near Richmond Terrace.

Midway along the avenue, near its highest point

Midway along the avenue, near its highest point

Horton's Row, toward the Victory Boulevard end of Westervelt, built 1880-1882

Horton’s Row, toward the Victory Boulevard end of Westervelt, built 1880-1882

 

 

 

 

 

Renovation vs. Restoration. Throw me the money!

Is it ever better to renovate, to completely renew the style and form of a house, rather than restore it to its original condition? I guess so, though I have a feeling in most such cases it would be better to just tear it down and start from scratch. If a house is worth keeping, then it is generally worth keeping in its original shape. Trust the architect – he or she may not have been a genius, but he had a complete vision of the place, firmly set in a historic context, and that means a lot. Yet, people can’t stop themselves from fooling with their houses. And the results are often monstrous.

mongrel

Take this home on the hill above Westervelt Avenue. Someone must have lived there in the 1960s and decided he was not satisfied with the earlier, probably wooden facade. Brick is modern, brick is strong and easy to maintain, so brick it is. It is also now a sorry mongrel, with a mansard roof and wooden cornice that have no relation to the modernist poker face below.

hotmess

Then further along the hill, one of those hot messes that can spoil the finest day of neighborhood strolling. Good Lord, what happened to this house? People obviously have more money than they know what to do with. Why don’t you just throw some of that money at me and leave your poor house alone? I think everyone would be a lot happier then.

Wintry Westervelt Avenue

Getting kind of hot around here? Cool down contemplating this view on Westervelt Avenue in the snow.wintrywestervelt

After posting this picture, I decided to take a walk to Westervelt Avenue and see how the house looked in the heat of the July Fourth weekend.

IMG_2194I had to stand there a few moments to be sure it was the same house. It was such a disappointment. The house looked wearied by summer and the scruffy greenery around it was only adding to the annoyance. How much happier it looked in winter! I also found that it was not directly on Westervelt Avenue, but about 100 feet uphill from it, on another street called….. WINTER Avenue! Now, can someone fix it up so that it looks just as crisp and healthy in summer as in winter… or would that necessitate changing the name of the street?