Francis Morrone on the South Slope

When I was in graduate school I had the fortunate opportunity to assist Francis Morrone with the research for his book The Park Slope Neighborhood and Architectural History Guide, published by the Brooklyn Historical Society. Since meeting Francis on one of his walking tours several years ago, I have always considered him my go-to source for any and all New York history/architecture-related questions (clearly I’m not the only one who has been impressed; Travel and Leisure Magazine just ranked him one of the 10 best tour guides in the entire world). He has authored far too many books, chapters and periodicals to list here, but the most relevant for our purposes include the Architectural Guidebook to Brooklyn, The Architectural Guidebook to New York City, Brooklyn: A Journey through the City of Dreams and The Fort Greene/Clinton Hill Neighborhood and Architectural History Guide. A former art and architecture critic for the New York Sun, Francis also designed, developed, and continues to teach New York City’s first sequence of continuing education courses on New York City history and general urban history at New York University. I am thrilled that Francis has agreed to lend his expertise to The Wooden House Project!

Since Francis lives in Park Slope, I decided to keep our focus there.

During which decades were the majority of the frame houses in the South Slope constructed?
From the 1860s to the 1880s.

What factors instigated their development?
There is almost as much variety among the wooden as among the brick and stone houses. Some wooden houses were cheap row houses built for laborers. Some were freestanding cottages built on newly subdivided farmland by people who were inspired by the pictures in books by Andrew Jackson Downing and Calvert Vaux. But others–the ones I think rivet some people’s attention the most–are the more elaborated wooden row houses, the “gingerbready” ones, that were an attempt to graft the picturesque cottage aesthetic onto the urban row house. These go mostly unmentioned in the standard row house typologies. But most row house styles were attempts to adapt something from freestanding buildings. The Greek Revival row house was an adaptation of the temple front to the 20-foot-wide attached house. (There are, of course, many Greek Revival wooden houses in Brooklyn, though not so much in Park Slope.)

Remember that country houses predate the development of Prospect Park. Litchfield’s house of course, and the well-known house built by someone named Cronin on 9th Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. Litchfield liked the high elevation, and also owned an awful lot of land in the area (the Cortelyou farm), and had designs on establishing a high-class neighborhood on the top of the ridge. The 9th Street house was much more modest and located where it was–farther down the slope–because it was near the only main thoroughfares that had been cut through (Fourth Avenue and 9th Street) in the 1850s. So though neither of those is a wooden house, they do help us understand the geography a little. As the farms were subdivided, they at first attracted modest cottage development, and later row house development. Most of the modest cottages were wooden; a lot of the early row houses were.

In general, what types of people originally inhabited these houses?
The cottagers I imagine were professional people or modestly successful tradespeople who wanted their little patch of suburban green. We can see that some of the houses have the little flourishes that give a hint of sophisticated taste, so there’s Downing influence in the little wooden house, for instance, on the south side of 12th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. (There were about five years on either side of 1860 when the South Slope looked like it was going to develop as a semi-rural idyll.) Some locals think this and other wooden houses in the South Slope were originally farm houses. I don’t think any of them were. They were the first houses built on subdivided farmland. As for the gingerbready wooden row houses, I’d say many of the same sorts of people, as house proud as any brownstone owners. And there were much more modest wooden row houses that housed laborers.

What caused the development of frame homes in the South Slope to cease?
Fire laws, obviously, but also changing taste. The picturesque cottage aesthetic yielded to a taste for the more pompous, and brownstone became a really voguish material. People wanted stone houses.

Why are so many homes to the south and further down the slope built primarily of wood, while the homes closer to the park and to the north are primarily masonry?
It’s mainly when they were built. The development–the urban sprawl–came from west to east. So the changes in fire laws and the changes in taste followed a west to east pattern. I suspect that the kind of high-class enclave envisioned by Litchfield would have been something like early Clinton Avenue, with commodious wooden houses with beautiful gardens, but Prospect Park got in the way of that development.

Do you have a favorite collection or block of frame houses in the South Slope?
I love any of the wooden row houses with intact porches, and where you have a cluster, like on Webster Place, it’s spectacular.