457 12th Street

By now you all know that while I don’t entirely hate vinyl siding, I still love to dream about what’s underneath it. But you know what’s also fun? Looking the other way — at what some of my favorite restored houses looked like way back when. Back in, say, the 1980s. Bring on the vinyl!

Fortunately for me, the New York City Department of Records (aka Municipal Archives) has digitized the “tax photos” they took of every single building c. 1980 (they did this as well c. 1940). So for today’s post I’ve rounded up some of my favorite South Slope gingerbread houses — the ones I talk about a lot here! — and compared them back to what they looked like pre-restoration. All historic photos below are presented courtesy of the Municipal Archives.

What some of our favorite South Slope wooden houses looked like c. 1980 >

We’re enamored with the pretty little house at 286 14th Street

Building of the Day: 337 12th Street [Brownstoner]
Best Block to Pretend it’s the 1950s [L Magazine]
Architecture: Harlem’s Oldest House [Harlem + Bespoke]
Brooklyn Garden Playhouse [theSweeten]
House of the Day: 250 Cumberland Street [Brownstoner]

Over the river and through the woods…

Don Draper grew up in a pretty great house! [AMC Mad Men Season 6 Episodes]
Before and After: Home Exterior [Better Homes and Garden]
Modern Take on a Traditional Farmhouse in Missouri [Dwell]


229 11th Street

I left the world of preservation advocacy over a year ago, and in the time since I’ve focused much more on education, research and writing. I’ve always been drawn to the celebratory side of things – I prefer to “slip historic preservation into the drink,” as Chelcey likes to say. But sometimes, circumstances come along that leave me no choice but to make a big fuss. The planned demolition of a significant portion of one of my favorite streetscapes is one of them.

Eleventh Street between 3rd & 4th Avenues was one of the first blocks I wrote about after starting the Wooden House Project (a photo of the block is our Facebook profile picture). Those of you who came on our Gingerbread Houses of the South Slope walking tour earlier in the month heard me say how special it was — that it would be worth visiting this block in a few years to see a beautiful and cohesive block of restored wooden houses (only a very small handful of houses on the end of the block are brick). Something that would change our perception of these homes as disposable. The renaissance has been in full swing here for several years — an inspiration to wooden rowhouse owners everywhere. And an inspiration to me. I used to walk down this block every day on my way to my old office in Gowanus. It reaffirmed all my reasons for starting the Wooden House Project.

Brownstoner broke the news back in May that permits had been filed for the demolition of the six easternmost houses on the north side of the block: 233 – 243 11th Street.

Not happy about this >


Just around the corner from where I live are 382 & 384 11th Street, two of my favorite twin frame houses in the South Slope. Something about their simplicity just speaks to me. Besides that, they’re the only two houses on the block that have porches. Since porches were a very common feature on early wooden rowhouses, it occurred to me that others on the block probably once had them as well.

I consulted the New York Public Library to find out for sure >

Today’s Ask an Architect query comes from Catherine, the owner of a lovely frame house in the South Slope. Her question is being answered by Joseph Vance of Joseph Vance Architects, a full-service architectural firm located in Brooklyn with extensive experience in townhouse renovations. Have a question for an architect about your wooden house? Send it our way!

Q: We will be redoing the front of our frame house next summer. Is it necessary to patch up holes/gaps on the brick under the siding in a brick-filled frame house? We did this on the back of our house, but the contractor for the front of the house is saying it is not necessary.

A: The brick you see in your exterior wall is there to provide some level of fire protection and is not structural. It is not necessary for the mortar joints to be tight but it would be a good idea to fill in any holes that are a half brick in size or larger. However to give some added solidity to your house (in the wake of what could have been much higher winds during Irene) I suggest having the contractors GLUE AND NAIL the new wood sheathing (beneath the new siding) to the exterior. A heavy construction adhesive like PL 400 should be used. Be sure they use galvanized or stainless steel nails or staples. Also be sure they flash above all window and door openings AND properly install an air barrier like Tyvec.

As a bonus Catherine sent us photos documenting the renovation of the rear of her house (and just to clear up any confusion, Joseph Vance was not affiliated with this). Enjoy!


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295 13th Street

Some shots of the lovely “gingerbread” houses in the South Slope.

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I noticed recently that a restoration is happening at 158 14th Street, between 3rd & 4th Avenues in the South Slope. Excited, I snapped a photo, eager to check out Google Street view to see how the house had looked prior.


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Earlier this week I did a little digging into the history of 307 13th Street, a lovely frame house in the South Slope. Richard, the owner, was kind enough give me some insight into his restoration process, which I’ve shared below. I especially love his last point, which taps into why I strongly believe that working with a home’s unique and special qualities benefits the entire neighborhood.

If you own a frame house in Brooklyn and want to share your experience, let me know!


When did you buy the house, and what made you decide to purchase a frame house in the South Slope?
We bought the house in December of 2005, did a little work and moved in January of 2006.  I don’t think we were looking specifically for a frame house, but this house had a good feeling about it.  We could see great potential.  As to the South Slope, we were drawn in by the heterogeneous nature of the blocks.  Rather than long rows of brick or brownstone houses there is variety, both in the building types and in the setbacks from the street which makes the street edge much richer.

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I met Richard, who is an architect, when I was conspicuously standing on the street pointing my camera lens at his front door. That I chose to gawk at his house is not surprising; it’s one of those lovely, set-back frame houses with a wide porch and a sprawling front garden. Uniquely for Park Slope, it’s also, for the most-part, freestanding (according to Richard, a small rear addition is the only part of the house that abuts its neighbor). Richard and his wife purchased and restored the house about five years ago.

Because I work for a historic preservation advocacy organization, I am in constant contact with architects performing work on historic properties. Where this is concerned, my experience has taught me that most architects fall into one of two distinct camps: those who see a building’s history as a burden to overcome, and those who see it as the building’s greatest asset. If Richard’s own house is any indication, I’m pleased to say that he falls into the latter category. Having clearly done his research (his c. 1940 tax photo – shown right – was hanging in his living room), I could tell that he and his wife are incredibly loving stewards of this very special home.

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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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My husband and I own a wood-frame row house in Brooklyn, a borough made famous for its picturesque streetscapes comprised of intact brownstone, limestone and brick row houses. Far less appreciated, though certainly no less wonderful, are the scores of 19th century wooden row houses like ours – peculiar little historic treasures from a simpler time that provide a refreshing respite from the formality of bricks and mortar.

The reason why Brooklyn has so many masonry buildings is simple: wood burns, and in such a dense built environment, if one wooden house catches fire the entire row can be gone in a snap. At a certain point in the borough’s history, fire insurance companies began to prohibit the construction of wood-frame houses by extending the “fire codes” further and further into Brooklyn. The fire codes were extended to different parts of Brooklyn at different times (tune into future posts for more specifics on that), but by the turn of the 19th century wooden houses had been outlawed in most of the borough’s densest neighborhoods.

Regardless of their inherent fragility, the existing wood-frame row houses in Brooklyn have proven themselves hearty enough to survive for over a century. The fire insurance map above, from the New York Public Library, shows the South Slope in 1898 – and it’s striking to see how many houses are depicted in yellow, which denotes wood. A large percentage of these are still around today, masked under all sorts of siding, and in certain pockets of Brooklyn they are being purchased and lovingly restored to their former glory.

Brooklynites by nature hate conformity, and there is something about owning a wood-frame row house in a concrete jungle that makes one feel as if they’ve discovered something very unique and special. The Wooden House Project is intended to be a community for those owners and lovers of Brooklyn’s wood-frame row houses, and my hope is that in building this community these underappreciated, hearty little survivors earn the love, recognition, and preservation they deserve.