A Lifelong Dream is Fulfilled in Greenpoint
Keramos Hall (photo courtesy Kamen Tall Architects)
By now I’m sure you’ve heard of Greenpoint’s newly-restored Keramos Hall. The project has received much well-deserved recognition of late, as the recipient of the Landmarks Conservancy’s Lucy G. Moses Award and the subject of features in a handful of media outlets concerned about architecture, history and preservation in Brooklyn. A whimsical clapboard building — one hidden under asphalt shingles for decades — has finally come out of hiding. Manhattan Avenue has a new crown jewel.
Well, this is all fine and good. Fascinating history, beautiful building, beautiful restoration. But I couldn’t help but wonder: Why? What would have inspired the owners of this building to invest so much money into an exterior restoration of this scale and quality? This is something you just don’t see everyday, especially when it comes to commercial buildings. I had to find out.
Fortunately for me, my WHP co-writer Chelcey has a contact at Kamen Tall Architects, the brilliant team behind the project. So on a warm spring day last week, I hoped aboard the G train to spend the morning at Keramos Hall with architect Joanne Tall and the building’s owner, Harold Weidman. What I learned from these two gave me more hope in the future of Brooklyn’s architecture than anything I have experienced in the past few years.
But before we go there, a quick history lesson: Keramos Hall was built in 1886-87 by architect Thomas C. Smith, who was a very important figure in Victorian Greenpoint. He owned and developed a significant portion of Milton Street, including his own freestanding residence at No. 136-138, which is just around the corner from Keramos Hall and now houses the Greenpoint Reformed Church.
Smith built a number of notable residences around Greenpoint, but his real claim to fame was his success in growing a failing pottery firm at 300 Eckford Street into what the Landmarks Preservation Commission describes as “the first successful hard porcelain factory in the United States.” The Commission goes on: “The wares created at the Union Porcelain Works enjoyed a reputation for quality and beauty both in this country and Europe. Today, the porcelains produced by Smith are highly prized by collectors and are found in the collections of a number of museums.” The piece shown on the right is part of the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
So now: Back to Joanne and Harold. I should mention that these are two of the kindest, most sincere people I have had the privilege of meeting through the Wooden House Project. Sensitive, knowledgeable and with their hearts in the right place, this is just the kind of restoration dream team anyone would be fortunate to work with. Joanne even let me in on some secrets behind the restoration, which you’ll find if you flip through the photo galleries scattered throughout the post below.
Architect Joanne Tall & owner Harold Weidman outside Greenpoint’s newly-restored Keramos Hall
And as for the “Why?” Well, as I learned from Harold, it all boils down to a man falling in love with a building and devoting his life savings to seeing it restored. That man? Harold’s father, William Weidman.
Obviously I had a lot of questions for William, which he kindly answered in an interview transcribed below.
Elizabeth: William, what you’ve done is absolutely wonderful. This was clearly a labor of love for you. Can you tell me a bit more about what inspired you to do this?
William: Well, Basically speaking, I acquired the building in 1962, and Greenpoint along with the rest of the city was in a state of flux. People were going to suburbia, people were questioning whether the city would, in effect, prosper. It was generally a period of flux and despair, so to speak. But of course, NYC is incredibly dynamic and it came back strong. Quite frankly, I wanted to make the facade change after I saw a photograph of the building that was taken in 1910. I was really struck by the elegance of the Victorian expression, and while it wasn’t the most interesting or the best example of Victoriana, it was nonetheless a very whimsical sort of building.
The fellow who built it was sort of a strange duck. He was a master of many, many crafts including the Union Porcelain Works and I think there’s a lot of whimsy about him, and when I saw the photograph I said I was going to do it. But when? Well, I didn’t know. I didn’t think Greenpoint was ready for it. But I always said that as long I owned it – and it was a building in which I intended to hold because if its excellent location – that I would bring it back. Just after the millenium I started to think about doing it. I felt the time was right for it.
All along, from back when I first purchased the building, I had set aside reserves. Consequently, I had built up a fund of significant proportions to pay for this entire thing. If I had had to depend upon banks to get money when I started in 2008, they would have laughed at me. They were giving no money out for anything. It was the fact that I was able to build these reserves up after many years of putting money aside that I was able to move forward.
Keramos Hall, ca. 1910 (courtesy Kamen Tall Architects)
Keramos Hall, ca. 1940 (courtesy Kamen Tall Architects)
Elizabeth: What was the condition of the building when you purchased it?
William: The building had been occupied. The downstairs consisted of three stores, one of whom was Woolworth’s. The others were a chain bakery and a shoe store. And upstairs you had offices. But the building had been neglected for many years by the prior owner. And when I acquired the building it hadn’t been painted in at least 20 years. The paint was really flaking off and I didn’t have the funds available so I sheathed it with some asphalt shingles, which at least preserved it. However the outline of the former skin literally was laid beneath it. So as soon as we were able to take off the asphalt shingles we saw where the pediment had been and where everything else was.
Keramos Hall prior to restoration (courtesy Kamen Tall Architects)
Elizabeth: Besides the historic photo, what else inspired you to embark on such a large restoration?
William: Well, I just really loved the building. The location was excellent as far as the Greenpoint retail corridor is concerned. Moreover, in the mid-1980s, when they designated the area a landmark district, I was struck in its layout that at the apex – literally – right in the center part of it, they had these two buildings: Keramos Hall and St. Anthony’s Church facing each other. I just knew that if the building was brought back to its former Victorian splendor it would just be an outstanding structure. I did it because frankly I just wanted something nice, I wanted to bring it back to life.
Elizabeth: I just love that you did this in a way that wasn’t just the cheapest and easiest way, but that you really tried to give something back – something that was substantial and quality.
William: Well, I appreciate that very much because I took really the same attitude. All the years I put aside the funds, I paid taxes on it but we just did not take any money out, we left it there for the sole purpose of doing this job. And it wasn’t done on the cheap. I didn’t spare the dollar, so to speak, to do it. I chose the best. We used fine materials, and the general contractor that I had lives in the neighborhood and he took special pride in the job, he recognized the importance and my particular attitude that I was really gung-ho about it. He did a wonderful job.
Harold, William and members of the restoration team take a photo break (courtesy Kamen Tall Architects)
Elizabeth: What has been the response from the community?
William: Oh, it’s been very good – extraordinarily good. I’ve had a number of letters – one of which I read on my address when I accepted the award. It’s very inspiring. And the public – there are so many people who really stop and stare at the building. You know, because nobody in Greenpoint has done anything in a hundred years – literally! And this building all of a sudden stands out really brilliantly! I’ve gotten so many compliments on it and people have thanked me, you know, for making a difference to Greenpoint. And I certainly welcome their statements. I wanted to do it. I really wanted it for Greenpoint.
Keramos Hall today (courtesy Kamen Tall Architects)
Elizabeth: Do you own other buildings around Greenpoint?
William: I do own other some other buildings, only commercial buildings. But they’re ordinary, not like this one.
Elizabeth: What are your plans now that this is finished?
William: Well, I’m not a youngster anymore, I’m 85 years of age. And I’m not interested in tackling anything more at this time, as you can understand. This has worn me down, but it has been wonderful. I’ve run this course, and I’ve done my very best.
Visitors to Karamos Hall are greeted in Greek: Eu Soi Genoito
And this, dear readers, THIS is why I started the Wooden House Project.