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?

 

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What’s to become of Stapleton’s shoreline?

As construction at the new waterfront development at the former Navy Homeport in Stapleton gets underway, we turn our attention to the shoreline. What will the new waterfront esplanade look like?

One rendering on the NYEDC website is of a charming inlet of restored wetlands,

New-Stapleton_The-Cove-Rendering_0

but a larger view in the next rendering shows that the wetlands area is just a small part of the esplanade, homeport-map

and that most of the waterfront will consist of concrete walkways and hard edge sea walls. New-Stapleton_New-Stapleton-Waterfront-Rendering_0staplshore03minIs this consistent with the stated goal of creating soft edged shorelines within the harbor? To learn more about the NYEDC’s Waterfront Vision and Enhancement Strategy click here.

Let’s look at what is there now. The shoreline is in terrible shape and will need a complete restoration. However, it is easy to see that there is much potential for a pleasant interface of land and sea.  In fact, a far larger segment of the waterfront could be dedicated to wetlands than is shown in the renderings.

 

staplshore01minThis waterfront was an active longshore area in the past. Debris from the light rail line that serviced the dock facilities are still there, including rusting rails and ties. Around these old rail lines are many discarded cobblestones, now green and wet. It is probably too much to ask for a restored light rail service, considering that the Staten Island Railroad is just 100 yards away, but perhaps the cobblestone pavement can be reinstated to give a link to the waterfront past.

hardedge01minHere is where the hardedge presently begins in front of the Ironstate construction site. It is clear that this seawall is a far less satisfying aesthetic experience than the wetlands. If there must be such a section of wall, are there ways to mitigate it, as is being done on Governor’s Island? Additionally, are there plans for a ferry dock here to connect Stapleton by sea with the rest of the harbor? If there is any hope of modifying the present plan for the waterfront, we should be discussing these things now and engaging the EDC on possible changes.

 

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.

 

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

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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.

Telephone Poles: the monster that devoured Staten Island

What is one urban renewal initiative that could have an enormous impact on the aesthetic appearance of the North Shore? Bury those unsightly telephone and utility poles. I mean UNSIGHTLY in all caps.. unsightly beyond any reasonable expectation. Unsightly and UNSEEN, like the movie The Monster That Devoured Cleveland, which was eternally playing in the town that Dobie Gillis lived in but was never seen. What I mean is, humans have the ability to ignore the things that they don’t want to see, and it is amazing to hear the responses I get when I mention telephone poles to people around here. “What telephone poles?” is the usual response. WHAT TELEPHONE POLES???????!!!!! Are you kidding me??? Here is the charming funky block of Wall Street between St. Marks Place and Stuyvesant Place, first with its telephone poles in all their chaotic glory.

wallstbigpolesOh, those telephone poles. 

Now, how Wall Street looks with all those mad poles photoshopped away. Umm, maybe you can see a difference.

wallstnopoles

The burial of the telephone lines have their advantages and disadvantages in terms of maintenance and cost. Can’t we begin to have a serious discussion about getting rid of these hideous blights on our streetscapes?

Staten Island Ad Absurdum: South Avenue

tugtiresThere are places along the Kills separating Staten Island from New Jersey where industrial sites come right up to the water. They are certainly not pretty places, but they do  keep up the traditional economic activity that animates this area. Then there are other places where the lush green vegetation of these low flung marshlands have reclaimed land, or have remained fairly natural through all these years of development, at Fresh Kills and in green patches elsewhere. These areas show the great potential for a rebirth of this natural estuary as parkland and they remind us how Staten Island’s geographical isolation in New York (as opposed to the centrality of the New Jersey areas on the opposite shore) has spared us from a more extremely industrial fate. And then there are the maritime dumps – places where old boats, industrial equipment, machinery and plain old trash have accumulated washed up, driven over and trucked in, to tugportraitcreate an insult to the concept of shoreline. Here at the far end of South Avenue is just such a spot, a boat graveyard and trash heap that despoils the waters of the Arthur Kill just across from the southern tip of the mysterious green wilderness of Pralls Island. This is a fragile ecosystem that needs far more care, exemplified by the bird sanctuary on Pralls Island, a place where egrets and herons thrive. It was seriously harmed by an oil spill in 1990 when 700 birds died. Hopefully the opening of the Fresh Kills shoreline as parkland during the next few years will spur interest in this shore and will lead to a clean up of these sites.

tugwaters