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?



Armajani’s Lighthouse sculpture hiding in plain sight.

The sculpture consists of a pedestrian bridge and stair house connecting the terminal and the waterfront.

Siah Armajani’s sculpture consists of a pedestrian bridge and stair house connecting the terminal and the waterfront. It helps create a visual corridor leading to the historic buildings there.

One large art installation that is part of the ongoing St. George waterfront revitalization project seems to be all but invisible in all the reportage. Siah Armajani’s 1996 lighthouse sculpture and pedestrian bridge stands apparently unseen and definitely closed behind the chain link fences and bus ramps leading into the ferry terminal. Now that the waterfront area just beyond it is finally being restored, and the upland parcel of land is being developed, it seems to be the right time to assess the added value that this work brings to the area.

the vertical bars of the lighthouse sculpture echo the effect of sunlight on the railings on the upper story of this warehouse building.

the vertical bars of the lighthouse sculpture echo the effect of sunlight on the railings on the upper story of this warehouse building.

It may not be a great wonder to look at on its own, but when viewed in context it has some very noteworthy qualities. It is in a style that seems to bridge the gap between 19th century warehouses along the waterfront and the 21st Century ferry terminal, thus giving its bridge theme an appropriate visual aspect. Its placement also creates a visual corridor for the restoration area, giving it a separate identity from the modern developement to be built on the upland segment of this parcel. In March of 2014 the Lighthouse Point development project, which includes retail, condos and a boutique hotel, received final approval and construction may begin later this year. And just as importantly, the sculpture serves a practical purpose, as its stairway, when reopened, will provide a welcome alternate route into the terminal, allowing pedestrians from the waterfront (and Bay Street Landing) to avoid the depressing crawl underneath the ramps. The stairs will undoubtedly afford a spectacular view of the harbor and the ongoing construction. According to a report in DNAinfo a few months ago, it is in for a restoration of its own, after being left to decay practically since the day it was completed. According to the report, repairs to the structure should begin in the summer of this year and be completed by Spring, 2015… that is, if anyone can find it.


Hard edge or soft? The impact of construction on the St. George shore.

With construction presumably about to begin on two large waterfront projects in St. George, the New York Wheel and the Empire Outlets, the question arises what will be the impact of these mega projects on the shoreline. The water’s edge is a problematic area,

The water's edge in front of the Empire Outlets site.

The water’s edge in front of the Empire Outlets site.

scarred by decades of neglect. rampant trash accumulation, runaway water pollution and a weedy, rock filled terrain. The recent park construction has greatly improved the shore with the creation of a carefully delineated soft edge. However, it is a delicate balance of shoreline1nature and human use and one wonders how the tremendously increased human traffic that is in store for this area will impact that shoreline. Among the many things that the North Shore community must be vigilant of during the construction of the wheel and the mall is the effect these will have on the quality of our shoreline. The dark, slimy rocks and the turgid harbor water may not be the most picturesque water’s edge in the world, but it has its own modest beauty and it deserves to be treated respectfully.

The shoreline itself is not part of either project, and it remains the responsibility of government agencies. And since soft edge shoreline stabilization is the preferred approach nowadays, according to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, it is unlikely that the shoreline2shoreline is in for a hardening (seawalls, stone-filled wire baskets, etc.). But soft edge shorelines need constant maintenance, and this one will be particularly vulnerable to degradation from the changes coming just a few yards away, with increased run-off from construction and ongoing use, and the probability of increased trash accumulation. In addition, there are proposals for new and expanded ferry service which will most likely require more docking structures in the water. How are the developers and the city planning on meeting the challenges that these new conditions create?

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


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?

What’s going on atop the Governors Island Ferry Terminal?

NYC - Battery: Battery Maritime Building

NYC – Battery: Battery Maritime Building (Photo credit: wallyg)

Nothing piques the curiosity like a secret, and that goes for whatever is happening on the roof of the beautiful old Beaux Arts building that is our neighbor when docking in Manhattan. Right next to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal (Whitehall Street Terminal), is the ornate Battery Maritime Building, known to most people as the Governors Island Ferry Terminal. Lately there has been an awful lot of activity on the roof, the old rooftop addition has been demolished and now scaffolding has gone up for new construction. But just try and find some real information about what is going on and you will be faced with a kind of omertà. So you have to follow the crumbs. The most logical website to look on for information is probably the NYCEDC site. There one finds a press release that describes an elaborate plan to open up the second floor Great Hall as a specialty foods marketplace and education center, and to build a boutique hotel on the roof. However, the press release is from 2007! Which will leave you wondering how much these plans have been changed and “value engineered” (read cheapened) over the past six years.

There is a new article on the Governors Island Alliance site, which mentions the Dermot Corporation and the “Poulakakos Family” as the contractors charged with developing the interior, but does not mention any of the other players in the 2007 article. The Dermot website has a couple of vague looking renderings from a distance, and mentions Ismael Leyva Architects. It does mention a “public” Great Hall and a 67 room hotel, so those seem to still be on track. At the Ismael Leyva site I found a couple more renderings of what is presently being constructed on the roof there. They show bland looking blank walls facing all four directions, like a privacy fence made entirely of glass or metal. It might be presumed that these well known and undeniably competent architects are planning something that will not compete with the historic facade, but there is no way of knowing for sure about this, since the website does not give any detail at all about the ongoing project. The Poulakakos Family is another enigma, and a google search brings up the fact that they run several Downtown establishments. There is a NYTimes article about their involvement in the Pier A renovation, just up the shoreline from the Battery Maritime Building and that it is (surprise, surprise) shrouded in secrecy!

No press releases, no clear renderings, no community review, no timetable or estimated completion date… What Is Going On?

Clarence Barrett and the classical soldier pointing down the street

There are so many things to look at in a city like New York that some things become very familiar even though we have never taken the time to fully understand what they mean. For instance, when walking down Hyatt Street toward the bus shelter at the foot of Bay Street, there is a classical figure pointing toward the bay. Why is he doing that? I took a couple of pix there the other day, copied down the name Clarence Barrett and searched it online, and there are the facts, like magic. I still don’t know why he’s pointing, but I don’t really care so much, since I now know about Major Clarence T. Barrett.

The allegorical figure pointed vaguely at New Jersey and the continent beyond. Major Barrett rendered distinguished service during the Civil War.

The allegorical figure pointed vaguely at New Jersey and the continent beyond. Major Barrett rendered distinguished service during the Civil War.

Major Clarence T. Barrett was an important figure in Staten Island government during the post Civil War era and it is fitting that he should have such a pleasant peaceful triangle of green dedicated to his memory just above the bustle of Bay Street.

The small water fountain carved into the back of the base is still visible, but non-functioning since 1945.

The small marble water fountain affixed to the back of the base is still visible, but it is non-functioning since 1945.

The memorial was moved to this location in 1945, and it is perfect spot. However, the water fountain was disconnected at that time, and the back of the base has deteriorated so much that the writing there is quite illegible. It may be too late to restore the text there, but if that small water fountain could be restored and reattached to the city’s water supply, that would make this a welcome oasis indeed. For more detailed information about Clarence Barrett and the Major Barrett Triangle, click here for Parks Department description.

Staten Island OutLOUD presents Moby Dick at Fort Wadsworth

English: Illustration from an early edition of...

English: Illustration from an early edition of Moby-Dick (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tomorrow, Saturday, that elusive whale makes an appearance at Fort Wadsworth, courtesy of Staten Island OutLoud, an organizer of unique literary events. So if you are unfamiliar with the beautiful fort, or with the wonderful novel by Herman Melville, come out on this midsummer weekend. A message form Beth Gorrie. She is the animator of OutLOUD and is a Staten Island local treasure.

Staten Island OutLOUD invites you to our annual Moby Dick celebration this Sat July 27, 6:30pm at Fort Wadsworth.  Free. Music by SI Philharmonic.
Plenty of free parking in the Visitors Center lot, then walk about 50 ft to the spectacular Harbor Overlook.  Bring friends, bring family.  Bring the kids!  Good for all ages.
Beth Gorrie

Here is a link to the OutLOUD website.

Fort Wadsworth

Fort Wadsworth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)