The Case of the Crumbling Wallabout House
69 Vanderbilt Avenue is on the corner of Park Avenue, in the shadow of the BQE in Wallabout. We get more inquiries about this house than we do about about any other wooden house in Brooklyn. I’m not sure why. Well – wait, that’s a lie. I know exactly why. First, it’s really, really old – and obviously so. The house dates from c. 1850. Second, it’s in absurdly bad shape. Third, the “sister” next house next door (presumably built at the same time) is in impeccable condition, making for a shocking contrast. Fourth, it’s landmarked. So what’s the deal?
There was a time during my tenure at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation when all I did was work with the City to fix a similar situation at 43 MacDougal Street. Also deteriorating, also landmarked. We jumped up and down, we fought, we kicked and screamed (these things take an awful lot of letter writing). The Department of Buildings would pass it off to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, who would pass it back to the Department of Buildings, who would pass it to the Fire Department, and the whole cycle just kept repeating itself. I’m not going to blame the City agencies – they were only doing their jobs, acting on what falls within their jurisdiction under the current system. The frustrating thing is that the current system in certain cases just doesn’t work as quickly as it needs to.
Which brings us to 69 Vanderbilt Avenue.
This house is owned by a man named Louis Somma, whom I am told grew up there. The beautiful house next door (just sold) has been occupied for the past several years by Gil Winter, a fantastic neighborhood advocate who for years has worked hard to get his neighbor to clean up his act. The problem is, Somma no longer lives there, nor do his tenants, who were forced to leave after the Department of Buildings issued the building a full vacate order in 2009. According to inside sources, Somma now lives in the Rockaways.
Fortunately for Winter, the buildings do not share a party wall and are actually structurally independent. This has saved him many-a-headache, though problems do persist. For instance, until the building was recently sealed by the City, squatters would break in and start fires in the fireplace. In 2008, when Winter got Somma to agree to let an inspector go through his house, he was told that the foundation of No. 69 was so deteriorated that it is was in severe danger of falling down. We can blame this in part on the structural issues caused by the BQE, in part on the fact that the house lays at the bottom of a hill (right in the flood zone), but mostly on the fact that it hasn’t been loved in decades.
Enter: The Landmarks Preservation Commission. While Gil and others on the block were hard at work trying to get something done about this, a coalition of neighborhood groups including the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project (MARP), the Historic Districts Council (HDC) and the Historic Wallabout Association were heavily involved in securing landmark designations throughout Wallabout. Back in 2005, MARP had commissioned the historian Andrew Dolkart to write a cultural resource survey of the neighborhood in the hopes that the City would landmark a large swath of the neighborhood. Though what was finally landmarked in 2011 was significantly smaller than what Dolkart had proposed, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) did nonetheless give us the Wallabout Historic District, which encompassed one lovely block of Vanderbilt Avenue between Myrtle and Park.
And after much contention, they agreed to include in the district the very last building on the block: 69 Vanderbilt Avenue.
The inclusion of this sad little building in the Wallabout Historic District was no small achievement on the part of the neighborhood advocacy groups. In agreeing to this, the Landmarks Preservation Commission essentially took on a monster, and the rest of us got a little spark of hope. The building had been – for a long time – a Demolition by Neglect lawsuit just waiting to rear its ugly head (You can think of a Demolition by Neglect lawsuit as being the exact opposite of what it sounds like — it doesn’t force an owner to demolish a building, it forces an owner to make sure the building does NOT end up requiring demolition. In other words, the City has the legal right to sue an owner of a landmarked building in the event that the building is so neglected that it is in danger of falling down. For this we can thank the Demolition by Neglect Law, passed in 2005).
So, the building is now landmarked. What happens next? I placed a call to John Weiss, Deputy Counsel at the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Among other duties, John handles many of the LPC’s Demolition by Neglect lawsuits. For someone with that kind of difficult job, John is an extremely nice person who is always willing to talk to me, even on stressful days at the LPC. Thank you, John!
According to John, the LPC began as they do all of these cases: by sending the owner a letter encouraging him to voluntarily restore the building. When that didn’t work, a lawsuit was filed with the Kings County Supreme Court, which ruled in the City’s favor on January 10th, 2013. Following this, the LPC sent Somma another letter asking for a response by April of this year, but still to no avail. Since then, the LPC has referred it back to the law department. The ball is now in their court.
One thing to bear in mind is that the type of work that the LPC is asking the owner to perform is very basic in the great scheme of things. They cannot force him to perform a perfect 1850s restoration. In fact, they can’t force him to “restore” anything; they can only force him to make sure the house is no longer in danger of demolition by neglect. Nonetheless, the fact that the Commission has taken this on is a very good thing. But my guess is that unless someone other than Somma invests in this property, we’ll be looking at a very sad situation for quite a long time.
Brooklyn has precious few pre-Civil War wooden houses left. Anyone want a fun project?