By: Constance Rosenblum
WHEN Charles Lockwood’s now-classic book “Bricks and Brownstones” was published in the early ‘70s, there was only one thing to do with an old New York town house — restore it to within an inch of its pristine 19th-century glory. The brownstone revival movement had started a few years earlier, and in Manhattan and growing swaths of Brooklyn, the talk on the street was of marble stoops, brass doorknobs, wide-plank pine floors and original wainscoting — the fancier the better.
Among the suggestions for modernizing a town house at 338 West 15th Street is to extend the back of the building, left, as shown in the architect’s rendering, right, which also adds a glass-walled penthouse.
Impeccably restored town houses still set the tone today for most brownstone neighborhoods. But it’s increasingly common to find vintage town houses sheathed in glass, aluminum and other relentlessly contemporary materials. Especially in Brooklyn, rear facades are being opened up — “blown out” is the term architects use — to provide large doses of light and air. Many of these reworkings take the form of sweeping glass rear walls, designed to transform spaces that for all their charm are typically small and dark. Some changes boggle the imagination: Preservationists still talk about owners who sought to install a lobster tank atop a newly acquired town house.
Although the neighbors aren’t always thrilled about such developments, they don’t automatically storm the barricades in protest. Some even engage in cordial conversations with their neighbors and the architects, the goal being to end up with a design that makes everyone happy.
This is what happened on East 64th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues, a stretch of town houses edged by trees and graceful bishop’s-crook lampposts. Though not protected by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the block has its share of bay windows, decorative pediments and Juliet balconies. The ornate homes will soon be joined by a second Modernist facade.
No. 164, a five-story building owned by Anthony Faillace, the founder of a hedge fund, sits behind a boxy natural granite facade punctured by oversize maroon steel-framed windows, designed by Michael Rubin Architects. Next door at No. 162, a 19th-century town house will be razed and replaced by a six-story structure featuring a bowed facade of fritted blueish-gray glass. The architect is Rafael Viñoly, whose high-profile creations pepper the globe. The owner, Eduardo Eurnekian, a prominent Argentine businessman, plans to use the building for offices and residential space.
In Mr. Viñoly’s opinion, the new building will be a good neighbor, even if it initially turns some heads. “The facade being replaced is undistinguished,” he said. “And imitating an architectural vocabulary simply because it’s there isn’t an appropriate response nowadays.”
And Kenneth Laub, a commercial real estate broker who created and for many years led the block association, couldn’t be more pleased.
“Both Mr. Eurnekian and Mr. Viñoly consulted with us about the design,” said Mr. Laub, whose 8,000-square-foot town house across the street, complete with atrium, portable frescoes and eight working marble fireplaces, is on the market with Halstead for nearly $28 million. “Originally Rafael proposed a facade with dark brown metal louvers, which to be honest we weren’t crazy about. But we talked, and I suggested some ideas, and he was very cooperative. What they ended up with is much softer and nicer.”
Mr. Laub realizes that the story could have ended quite differently. “But both men say they love what this street has become and they want to get along with their neighbors,” he said. “Name a street as beautiful as this. And if Viñoly’s building is impressive and brings greater credence to the street, we’re happy.”
Ask architects and urban historians why infatuation with the look of the traditional 19th-century town house, a beloved feature of so many New York neighborhoods, seems to be waning in some quarters, and the answers are many and varied.
To start with, the city’s vintage town houses aren’t getting any younger.
“When the brownstone revival movement started, the effort was to restore buildings,” said Brendan Coburn, a Brooklyn architect who so radically transformed his Carroll Gardens row house that everything behind the red-brick facade is brand-new. “But in the past 40 years these houses have aged a lot. Many have fallen apart. They need major electrical and mechanical work.” If the innards of a building are being redone and a facade is crumbling, he said, an owner might choose to redo the entire look.
Also at work are shifting aesthetics that include a greater respect for Modernism. “Tastes change, and part of that change is generational,” said David Hecht, a Brooklyn architect who retrofitted his town house in Clinton Hill. “Contemporary sensibility is more casual, more informal, more flowing. And because town houses are inherently flexible, they can accommodate these changes. It’s part of the continuum of the history, not a departure but the next turn of the wheel.”
Many town-house owners have already updated their interiors; to rethink the facades may simply be the inevitable next step.
Yet another issue has to do with the fact that New Yorkers now worry less about losing precious period buildings because so many town houses are protected by their inclusion in historic districts.
Out front, left, Timm and Kelly Chiusano’s town house on Huntington Street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, retains its original exterior. But when the rear wall was rebuilt during extensive renovations, glass replaced brick, right.
“When landmarking first began nearly 50 years ago, New York was a very different city,” said Thomas Mellins, an architectural historian and independent curator. “There was a widespread fear that everything would be lost. But today many important buildings and neighborhoods are landmarked. So we have more freedom to discover such elements as contrast and surprise. And we’re realizing that Modernism isn’t necessarily a bad neighbor. In fact, it can be a good neighbor.
“There’s a difference between protecting a neighborhood and stifling it,” Mr. Mellins said. “The city doesn’t need to be a Merchant-Ivory stage set to preserve its past.”
As a growing number of people choose to stay in the city and to move to row-house neighborhoods, a wider variety of taste is evident. Mr. Coburn pointed to the strip of 14 ornament-free town houses on State Street in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, described by the designers, Rogers Marvel Architects, as “a respectful dialogue between old and new.”
“Half the neighborhood hates them,” Mr. Coburn said, “and the other half loves them.” He counts himself among the fans.
As evolving attitudes along East 64th Street show, even ardent devotees of traditional town houses can change with the times. Dexter Guerrieri, the president of Vandenberg, the Townhouse Experts, admits to a deep fondness for the crystal doorknobs and brass-accented window sashes in his Brooklyn Heights brownstone. During the renovation of a Greek Revival town house on West 15th Street that he has put on the market for nearly $6 million, Mr. Guerrieri was thrilled to discover original knotty pine wide-plank floor boards beneath the parquet.
Still, he knows that a growing number of town-house buyers, especially in a happening neighborhood like West Chelsea, crave a contemporary aesthetic. So he has prepared detailed architectural drawings for the house on 15th Street that suggest ways a new owner could retrofit the building for a new century. Proposals include a glass wall running up the rear facade overlooking the south-facing garden, topped by a glass-walled penthouse that in Mr. Guerrieri’s opinion “gives the feel of an artist’s loft.” Because the block falls outside the historic district, the landmarks commission would not have to sign off on such changes.
A new look has already come to the brownstone in the West 90s where Alexander Southwell, a lawyer, grew up and now lives with his family. An extension that jutted from the rear wall was torn out and replaced by a sweep of windows. Because the front door is glass and there is no interior door, passers-by can peer in and see slivers of a new double-height living area and an ethereal-looking floating staircase designed by Kinlin Rutherfurd Architects.
Mr. Southwell, who is 41, has warm memories of the house as it looked when he was a child there in the 1970s. “But the changes are terrific,” he said. “For example, thanks to the reconfiguration, we have a mudroom. With three young children, that’s very welcome.”
In Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods, with their profusion of rear gardens, the battle between tradition and modernity often plays out in backyards, with owners substituting glass walls or metal projections for traditional back facades.
Sometimes this works well, as with the brick row house on Huntington Street in Carroll Gardens that Timm and Kelly Chiusano bought in 2008 for about $800,000. “The place had been abandoned for about 15 years and was an utter wreck,” said Mr. Chiusano, who works in sales and marketing at ESPN. “There was no water, no electricity. Basically, we bought a shell of a house.”
As part of a gut renovation, the Chiusanos’ architect, Mr. Coburn, rebuilt the rear wall to feature a huge double-height window. Changes inside included putting the kitchen and living and dining rooms on the garden floor with easy access to the backyard to accommodate the couple’s two potbellied pigs, because, as Mr. Chiusano explained, “Pigs don’t do stairs.”
“Some of the neighbors weren’t thrilled about all the construction,” he said. “But we didn’t get any push-back about the new look.”
Not every rear-yard transformation goes so smoothly. Landmarks commission staff members can cite multiple locations — on Warren Street and Cheever Place in Cobble Hill, for example, and on Clinton Avenue in Clinton Hill — whose neighbors showed up in full force to rail against rear-yard additions at commission hearings.
The commission is paying increasing attention to such changes, and over the last few years has more carefully scrutinized the potential impact of proposed additions on historic buildings and the central green space within the block — the “doughnut,” as some preservationists describe it. A year ago, the commission issued amended rules for staff-level approval of rear-yard additions to reflect this approach. The regulations deal with matters like the size and height of an addition, whether it is visible from the street, whether it would eliminate a rear yard and whether it echoes the scale and character of the house and others on the block.
“In historic districts, the commission always regulated the entire lot,” said Sarah Carroll, the director of preservation at the agency. “But in the last decade we’ve been seeing more applications for rear-facade changes, particularly in Brooklyn, where there hadn’t been as many changes in the rear yards as in the past. And so we’ve been focusing more on the interiors of blocks.”
For neighbors who suddenly find their rear windows facing a stridently contemporary vista, the issue can be huge. Roy Sloane, the president of the Cobble Hill Association and a member of the community board for 30 years, has witnessed their unhappiness firsthand.
“Many people are concerned about the loss of privacy in the doughnut,” Mr. Sloane said, “and almost all extensions are problematic for neighbors, especially large decks or glass walls. People aren’t happy about giving up privacy, and they always oppose such changes if they’re aware of them in time.”
Mr. Sloane is no foe of contemporary design. “Don’t misunderstand me,” he said. “I like Modernist architecture. Can Modernism be integrated into traditional design? Yes, if it’s timeless. But if your intent is to call attention to your house, if you want to treat your house as an experiment, that’s a different story.”
He also worries that if historic districts are transformed too greatly, much will be lost. He wonders if a generation of children will grow up thinking that glass walls and metal trim were part and parcel of the traditional Victorian row house. “I’m in favor of dynamic change in the city,” Mr. Sloane said. “Not everything should be landmarked. But the tiny areas that remain should be preserved. We don’t need Mies van der Rohe everywhere.”
Whatever the explanations for the profusion of retrofitted town houses, one thing seems likely: What at first looked stark and shocking may one day melt into the background, as has been the case with two buildings that seemed aggressively out of place when they arrived.
One is at 18 West 11th Street, where a Greek Revival building was destroyed by a bomb in 1970. Eight years later Hugh Hardy designed an aggressively Modernist brick structure for the site, with an angular facade that jutted out toward the street. The house was recently put on the market byCorcoran for $10.9 million.
And in 1980, at the end of a row of stately brownstones on Columbia Heights in Brooklyn Heights, the developer Bruce Eichner built a distinctly contemporary town house for himself on a prime site with a harbor view.
Both newcomers are now part of the landscape, and maybe understandably. “The glass wall or the extension that at first seemed to stick out, may in time fit in,” Mr. Mellins said.