Ice Cream Sundaes
Back in 1995, when the NY Times reported on the wooden house at 59 South Elliott Place in Fort Greene, historian Christopher Gray referred to the whimsical blue shingled house as an “ice cream sundae amidst the roast beef of its more prosaic neighbors.” I like that.
What makes this eclectic house stand out is not only its eccentric massing, its recessed columned porch, or its open oriels that project from the top floor in a castle-like fashion (it is also not just because Othniel Boaz Askew lived here until 2003, when he was dramatically killed by the police moments after assassinating his local councilmember on the balcony in City Hall). What one instantly notices on this house are the blue scalloped shingles, which were first added to the facade in 1892 and restored not all that long ago when the house underwent a significant renovation.
The playful shingles that adorn this and many other wooden house facades throughout Brooklyn are known as novelty shingles. They were once nearly as common in Brooklyn as aluminum siding is today, but have survived on only a select few houses. In most cases, they were a later addition, as they were in vogue primarily in the late-19th century after most frame row houses had already been built. They were cut in a variety of shapes and applied in interesting patterns.
Greenpoint, which is full of delicious surprises, has excellent examples of novelty shingles. Those at 109 Noble Street were added to this 1856 building sometime in the 1880s (this is also when the cornice was added). The shapes are fish-tailed, saw-toothed, and flat-edged, and the entire composition is a Victorian delight.
I had the pleasure of speaking about novelty shingles with Brooklyn-based architect Joseph Vance. By his estimate they last for a couple of decades, then eventually dry out and require replacement as they are apparently very tough to paint over. Joseph also offered me a long and fascinating account of the history of siding on frame houses, which I intend to share in a future post.
I’m a gigantic nerd. I become ecstatic when I come across these things. Readers, are there any novelty shingles in your neighborhood? Please feed my obsession by submitting your photos in the comments!