Courtesy of the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection.

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Where warehouses now stand in the shadows of the Gowanus Expressway, wooden houses once dotted the streets.

Historic image courtesy New York Public Library



Ninth Street in Park Slope developed earlier than most other streets in the neighborhood and was once lined with lovely villa-type homes (many of them wooden), such as those depicted above. The Van Brunt Post Office stands in their place today.

Historic image courtesy New York Public Library

Humboldt Street was once a colonnade row! This spectacular block went through some big changes just after the above photo was taken in 1922. By the time the following photo was taken 13 years later (1935), things had begun to look very different. Would you ever guess this was Greenpoint?!

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1856 Brooklyn Fire Engine

Why are we at The Wooden House Project so obsessed with frame houses? Because by the turn of the century, their construction in many of Brooklyn’s densest neighborhoods had been outlawed. Like the finest of antiques, if lost today Brooklyn’s wooden houses could not, by law, be replicated. And this is all because of the “fire limits” that were first imposed on the borough well over a century ago and established boundaries within which frame construction was forbidden. The fire limits, their extensions, and their projected repercussions were debated heavily throughout the mid-to-late 19th century.

As mentioned in a previous post, early fire limits in 1852 restricted the development of frame houses in the neighborhoods we know today as Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, DUMBO and Carroll Gardens. The decades that followed were major periods of growth for frame-heavy neighborhoods of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Bushwick and Cypress Hills. By the time the 1890s rolled around, the city’s population had swelled. Annexation of the outlying towns was a constant back-and-forth battle, and within the city limits, laws against development of wood frame houses was a consistently “hot” topic.

The front page article from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on May 4th, 1892 (entitled “Fire Limits: Should They be Still Further Extended”) was full of the typical opposing views of the time regarding extending the limits.

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Historic images courtesy New York Public Library


Wooden houses are abundant in the Fort Greene Historic District, and they’re the fun kind; rather than dominating the neighborhood, they surprise you when you notice small clusters intermittently wedged between bricks and brownstones. According to the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation report, the detached pair of transitional Greek Revival/Italianate houses at 329 & 333 Adelphi Street are the two oldest wooden houses in the district, built together ca. 1848. No. 329 (the corner house) appears more primitive because it has retained its original height and because of its shingles, though they are actually not original to the building. No. 333 once looked just the same, but was later heightened. Something about the wild landscaping adds to the houses’ country feel.

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Historic image courtesy New York Public Library


Windsor Terrace’s best-kept secret might be Temple Court, a wonderful little block that feels more like an alley. Extending from Seeley Street, it dead-ends just before reaching Terrace Place (Terrace Place marks the northern border of the original town of Flatbush; the street grid is skewed on either side). Temple Court is lined on both sides with two-story frame houses. And just to rub in the charm, it also has picket fences (swoon). Pretty darn cute.

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In response to our recent post on Webster Place, a homeowner sent along the following tip regarding the street’s lost porches:

“You mentioned that there used to be more porches. This is, indeed, correct. You’ll notice in the old photo taken from Prospect Avenue, that there are porches built on both sides of the street. Apparently, one of the residents on the west (left) side of the street decided to take his down, sometime in the early ’50s I believe. As all of these porches were interconnected and his house was in the middle; the rest went down, too. I wouldn’t want to have been in that guy’s shoes…”

Oops.


On April 16th, 1852, the City of Brooklyn passed a law forbidding the construction of wooden houses in the neighborhoods we now call Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, DUMBO and Carroll Gardens. Because Brooklyn Heights was one of the first “suburbs” of Manhattan, and because it was included within the early fire limits, its surviving frame houses are today some of the oldest in the borough.

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!

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I know exactly what you’re thinking: MacDougal Alley is not in Brooklyn. Nor does it contain a single wood-frame house. No, I haven’t gone mad and yes, I’m aware of both of these facts. I’m venturing into Manhattan today in order to make a point.

MacDougal Alley is a row of multi-million dollar stables-turned-homes, built originally (like the neighboring Washington Mews) in the early-to-mid 19th century to service the wealthy residents of Greenwich Village. But the alley was not always this desirable. The stables had fallen into disrepair by the late 19th century, after the elite classes had migrated uptown.  In 1994 Christopher Grey wrote a Streetscapes article in which he offers The Sun’s turn-of-the-century description of MacDougal Alley: a “dirty, foul-smelling court,” given over to “back-alley gamblers and the rougher element.”

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The Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide was a weekly report of building/construction activity in and around New York City that began publication in 1868. The entire archive through 1922, which thanks to Columbia University is now available to view online, is an incredibly valuable tool for anyone looking to research the history of their house. Architectural historians love the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide because it includes all weekly sales, mortgages, conveyances and building permits filed in Brooklyn and Manhattan in addition to articles about the New York real estate world.

I love the publication for other reasons as well. The pages are filled with gorgeous hand-drawn illustrations that accompany both building-related articles and product advertisements.

Columbia’s Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide database is searchable, which means there are limitless possibilities to find information pertaining to building construction dates, sales, leases, construction materials, trends in architecture, etc. The list goes on and on.

I’ve spent far too many hours getting lost in these pages, and if my days were free of responsibility I’d scour them all to date every frame house in this fascinating borough. It’s just too hard to resist getting wrapped up in the nostalgia of it all.

 

 


Today the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to designate the Wallabout Historic District, which encompasses approximately 55 buildings on Vanderbilt between Park & Myrtle Avenues in north Brooklyn. Wallabout contains the largest concentration of pre-Civil War era wood-frame houses in the entire city, and many of them have been lovingly preserved despite a lack of landmark protections so far. Two beauties are 143 & 145 Vanderbilt Avenue (shown above), built together in c. 1850.

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Over the years, the beauty of Brooklyn’s wood-frame row houses has been masked under all sorts of siding. The average passer-by has no way of knowing that underneath the siding could lie the bones of something magical.

Fortunately for us, the NYC Department of Records (aka the Municipal Archives) possesses a fantastic collection of photos that allows us to peel back the siding for a peak at what lies beneath. One only needs to know the home’s block and lot number (which can be searched HERE) to view its “Tax Photo” for free on microfilm at the Municipal Archives, or to order a clean copy for around $35.00. Tax Photos were taken by the City in the years between 1939 and 1941 as a tool for appraising properties, and in that time they snapped a photo of every single building in all five boroughs of New York. Today the collection is an invaluable tool for anyone looking to restore their house or research the history of their neighborhood.

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Those who yearn for the simple comforts of a wooden porch must take a stroll down Eleventh Street between 3rd & 4th Avenues in Brooklyn. This is one of the few blocks in the South Slope that is lined almost entirely, on both sides, with wood-frame row houses. It’s only fitting that the frame resurgence should be here in full swing.

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