We Renovated Own Brownstone — It Was a Million Laughs
From the May 10, 1971, issue of New York Magazine. This article was featured in Reread: Real Estate Mania, a newsletter miniseries that resurfaces classic stories of ever-rising rents, the next hot neighborhood, and some truly nightmarish living situations from the New York archives. Sign up here to read them all.
We are coming now to the days that separate those who really love New York from those who merely are having an affair with her.
The latter, having recently returned from Miami and Aspen, now are stocking up on plastic highball glasses for East Hampton and Wellfleet. They will not be here long. Soon those who remain will be either those who cannot escape or those who will not. And in both those categories you can count the brownstone owners.
They will not escape, except perhaps for brief and guilt-ridden weekends at the country places of those more fortunate, because they have work to do. The inside work of the long winter months is over — the painting and plastering, the pleasant consultations, over sherry or a Carlsberg, and in the one room fit to receive company (“Better not sit there; the floor’s a little weak”) with the New Architect. It is time now for the heavy renovations of summer, for the endless unsuccessful attempts to reach the New Architect and his friend, the Contractor. Also the brownstoners cannot escape because they are broke. Not poor; broke.
That is the life of a New York City brownstone owner, a member of a group as hardy and paranoid as sixties Southern White Liberals and seventies Weatherfolk; a person without a single true friend in the worlds of government and commerce, a sitting duck for all sorts of manipulation, frustration, and repression; but a person, quite possibly one of the very few such still around, who has commitment and an actual, demonstrable love for the city, although he or she would be shy about admitting it to anyone but another brownstoner.
There are about as many levels of status, station, and prestige among brownstoners as there are in the Indian bureaucracy, so I had better declare quickly the transparence of my own credentials. I have been a brownstone owner for only four years; the house had been mostly restored, lovingly, when we got it; it is in Cobble Hill, that part of Brooklyn that has become so brownstonized, in the manner of the Heights (i.e., there are almost no more for sale), that one almost does not include it anymore in one’s list of dynamic neighborhoods where young gutsy professionals are fighting against tremendous odds, etc.
We have not undertaken a major renovation; for that reason alone, many who have would not consider us true brownstoners. But I did break my arm while removing the kitchen ceiling to expose the beams, and the break was of such magnitude that they called all the interns and most of the residents to see it and they kept me in the hospital four days, and when someone, or I myself, asks was it worth it, I reply that it probably was, because, while the arm did not heal properly, the ceiling job is beautiful. And my wife fell through a hole in the floor once, and was saved from a 10-foot drop only because she is built like a woman. And when we compare notes — the bruises that still adorn her hips and the crooked wrist that predicts the weather for me — we figure we are entitled to call ourselves real brownstoners. Or maybe really brownstoned.
You have to be out of your mind to undertake the ownership of a brownstone, of course. Whether you renovate or not, you will find arrayed against you a variety of evil forces and you will get practically no relief, except, perhaps, the expectation that your property will increase in value. To quote Mayor Lindsay quite out of context from his January, 1970, inaugural speech (the one after the people in Queens got to him), “… it is best not to plan on promises and dreams … There will still be a city that often seems determined to frustrate those who love it most.”
And frustrate them it does, if brownstone owners may properly be included among those who love the city most. They know the truth of Lindsay’s other inaugural utterance that “it is not easy to live with turmoil and difficulty.” Taxes, the rising kind, are perhaps the universal grievance they mention first and most. Izzy and Grace Cohen, our neighbors and brownstone owners for some years now, and ones who have been through the renovation bit and have something nice to show for it (they have actually been included in a House Tour), express this bitterness easily. Says Izzy:
“We come in and we take buildings that are really ready to be destroyed, and would be if it weren’t for the young, dynamic, ambitious couples who buy them. Any other purchaser would tear them down and put up some kind of ugly, amorphous, high-rise things that make happiness for no one. We come in, we paint and repair and do the kind of work that no commercial person would do. We kill ourselves to fix the houses and nobody helps us. We get nobody coming to advise us, and mostly people coming around to harass us with inspections and crap like that. And then the next thing that happens is they come around and reassess us because we’ve killed ourselves to do all this and our taxes go up.”
Taxes are only the sharp tip of the iceberg. A brownstoner has great difficulty getting a bank loan. He lives in constant dread of the Power of Eminent Domain. In our neighborhood alone, which is a Historical Area, within the past year there have been assaults on brownstones from Long Island Hospital (which won) and from an ambitious couple of state representatives who tried to quietly push through legislation which eventually would turn Atlantic Avenue, and a lot of property on both sides of it, into a superhighway (they lost, at least temporarily).
There are contractors who lie, cheat, steal, and don’t do the work, and there are those who never show up. Some parts for a house built in the 1850s simply do not exist in the 1970s, and you have to make your own. And there is the simple brownstoner tiredness, accompanied by a chronic hacking cough that comes from breathing plaster dust all the time, and a depression from the knowledge that you go barefoot in your own home at your own peril, and the further knowledge — no: certainty — that you will never be finished.
There is the strain it puts on a relationship, a strain so great that some people flatly say that owning a brownstone will wreck a marriage. This has not been my experience. Yet. The strain of not having a real kitchen for about six months while my arm mended and while my wife and I triplehandedly hauled out seven carloads of broken plaster in large Baggies was therapeutic, if anything. I think. My wife and I, and our daughter, really did feel as if it was us against the enemy, and when the project finally was finished, we could look back on it (or up on it, since it was a ceiling) and know that we had jointly succeeded at something. We stare at the kitchen ceiling an inordinate amount of the time, and if guests don’t comment on it we show it to them.
It is far more likely that if the marriage is in bad shape anyway, the brownstone will hasten a breach. A lady whom we know, who shall be called here Geraldine, is currently getting a divorce and as soon as that is final she will be the 28-year-old sole owner of a 110-year-old brownstone in Fort Greene that she and her former husband bought a year and a half ago. The house was a wreck when they moved in; they quickly spent $24,000 on it, most of that to renovate the tenants’ rooms so that income could start flowing. Geraldine still does not have a kitchen.
Geraldine thinks that she and her ex-husband got the house in lieu of having a child. “It was going to be a focal point for our energies, the kind of thing we would both do together,” she said. “I think it was much healthier than having a real child, because a house you can sell.”
But things didn’t work out. The husband was gone a lot; they ended up not doing a great deal together after all. It is impossible to say which affected the other — the house or the marriage — the more, but Geraldine does feel qualified to make some general observations:
“lf you get a house and the only things you have to do are cosmetic things, like painting and sanding the floors, I think that can be great for a marriage. If you’re walking into a shell, it’s not going to break up a strong marriage, but for one that’s got real holes, it just brings everything to the fore. Basically, the people who buy these houses are very middle-class, as much as we don’t want to think we are. We’re used to comfort. We can deal with intellectual problems. But here, you’re faced with the fact of living with roaches and no kitchen and walls falling down, and it’s kind of more than you can handle.”
Geraldine said she still uses the house as a sort of child; she still carries on a love-hate relationship with it, and at the moment she hates it, because she doesn’t feel comfortable in it. Presumably she will feel more comfortable when she gets a kitchen. But she plans to stick with the house.
“My reaction,” she said, with the smile of someone who is very much into women’s lib but who has not totally overlooked the advantages of occasional hypocrisy, “is very tempered by my divorce. I’m getting the house. I’ll live rent-free here, including taxes, heat, and everything. It’s better for me financially because if we had put all that money into a savings account we would have spent it and there would be no money to split when we got divorced. This is a very selfish point of view, I’ll admit.
“Also the house says to me that I don’t ever have to marry again if I don’t want to. I can live free the rest of my life, or I can turn it into cash. And that, psychologically, is great.”
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage to owning a brownstone is the City of New York. The city, which gets so much of its charm and vitality from brownstones and the people who restore and live in them, couldn’t care less about brownstones. Just to see what would happen, the other day I called the Housing and Development Administration and asked an operative there what city programs were of benefit to brownstone owners. The·operative was flabbergasted. There was something, he said, about municipal loans, and something about federal programs, and there used to be something about 221[d] 3, but he wasn’t really sure, because the city did very little thinking about brownstones per se. The city didn’t even know how many there were (neither does anyone else). “It’s not a legal term,” the fellow said. “It’s really a fictional designation.” I strongly disagree with this last. If there is anything that is non-fictional, it’s living in and working on a New York brownstone.
If you want information of the sort that the city doesn’t have, you must get it the same way you find out about an honest lumberyard or a good neighborhood restaurant — by word of mouth, by talking with other young, dynamic, etc. This, of course, is inefficient, but it is perhaps the only way and besides, it’s more exciting and intriguing, and it appeals to the brownstoner’s innate and highly developed paranoia.
Carefully, lovingly, the recipes are handed from family to family, neighborhood to neighborhood: caustic lime and potash of soda for marble. Joseph Walas the fireplace man. Illustrated Catalogue of Plaster Ornaments (from the Decorators Supply Corporation of Chicago), a treasury of reasonably priced plaster ceiling medallions, cornices, and moldings.
Similarly, you learn by word of mouth where to steal things — bricks, shutters, doorknobs, doors. The Model Cities area in Bedford-Stuyvesant is particularly hot right now. Late at night you can see the brownstoners, in their microbuses, their Squarebacks, or with rented panel trucks, cruising through the demolition areas like amateur hoods casing a candy store. Some cannot bring themselves to steal; they have arrangements with demolition workers to “save” usable items from destruction.
Old brick, especially, is valuable — more costly right now than new brick. When a building comes down, arrangements are made by the demolishers to sell the rights to the bricks to “brickies,” individuals who haul them away and re-sell them, many of them to nouveaux riches city-fleers who are building homes in Jersey and want the old-world touch, or whatever they want in Jersey.
It is the duty of the brownstoner to intercept the bricks at some point before the brickie gets them, either through outright stealing or through bargaining with the second-echelon demolition people. Stealing them can get tiring; old bricks weigh about four pounds apiece. Through one or more of the devices mentioned above, we managed this year to lay an old-brick floor in the back yard. It took about 2,000 bricks, and I calculated that I picked up each brick at least four times. That is sixteen tons, about which a song has been written, and it almost completely cured my slipped disc of the year before.
You learn a lot of things — the right way to strip paint off shutters, where to find or steal the shutters in the first place, how to buy trisodium phosphate in 50-pound drums at 10 cents a pound, rather than in brand-name preparations at 98 cents a pound. Some of this information you can get from formal sources, such as the Brownstone Revival Committee, but most of it you learn by hit-or-miss, trial-and-error, by busting your arm, slipping your disc, falling through holes in the floor, and talking with other people in the same sinking boat.
You overcome your fears of electricity, plumbing, heights, and petty larceny convictions. You learn how to live vertically, instead of horizontally as in apartments. You make piles of things on the bottom floor and hope somebody will carry them upstairs, and after a week or so you carry them up yourself. You learn to get two of many things, one for upstairs and one for downstairs.
And you learn to cope with that phenomenon called the New York Hardware Salesman. He is, as they say, a strange breed, something between a true humanitarian with an encyclopedic mind and a New York cabdriver. He can spot an amateur a mile away, especially one who comes into the store on a Saturday morning.
The salesmen at my hardware store (note the brownstoner’s use of the possessive in situations such as this), Sam’s Hardware, the Home of a Million Items, of Court Street, Brooklyn, are masters at their trade; they are at their best on Saturday mornings when the tiny store is especially crowded with lowly apartment dwellers from the Heights who have set aside half a day to install a bookshelf. I used to get the treatment myself — cold stares, rough teasing, sometimes a real emotional outburst of Callas quality — when I would walk in and say I needed a thingamajig for a cold-water faucet.
Zeke or Izzy (no relation to my neighbor) who usually handle that part of the store would ask me what size and what kind of fittings, and of course I would not know, and I would slink back home and return with the broken part so they could match it. Now, because of experience and the sheer volume of business I do with Sam’s, I can go there (not on Saturday; they appreciate my thoughtfulness in this) and I get superior service.
In the presence of all this, you end up establishing a set of Rules, Axioms, and Corollaries, some of them specific, some general, all of crucial importance to the maintenance of a brownstoner’s sanity. To wit:
(1) Distrust architects generally, especially those who speak of saving the world. Frequently those guys are worse than useless in a struggle with the Buildings Department.
(2) Do not fear that once you become a homeowner, you will automatically become more conservative. Your special status as a brownstoner will help you. As Geraldine put it: “You vote exactly the same way you did before, but with more pain.”
(3) Do a specific major job — exposing kitchen beams, replastering an entire wall — only once. The first time, you feel good about it. The second time, you hate the house.
(4) Any given job takes twice as long as you thought. And costs three times as much. And behind the smallest task, such as relocating an electrical fixture, there is a massive job, such as rewiring the entire house. The component parts of a brownstone have an ecological balance all of their own, and sometimes it is wiser not to disturb that balance.
(5) Once you have started on an extensive job, you are certain to run out of essential parts or materials at about 6 p.m. on a Saturday. (5 [a]) It will not take you long to discover that many Jewish hardware stores are open on Sunday.
(6) Always carry a screwdriver. When Izzy and Grace Cohen were “acquiring” doorknobs for their house, they passed a demolition site and Grace had only a nail file. Izzy got angry at her for this.
(7) Always look in garbage cans. You can never tell what you may find.
(8) Brownstoners do not necessarily all have gray hair. It’s sometimes plaster dust and antique-white latex paint. They do, however, all look haggard and worn.
(9) Assume that the fellow who sold you the house is less than totally candid. One purchaser was impressed with the previous owner’s apparent sincerity: Before turning over the house, the p.o. was cleaning the trim on an appliance and had scratched it; he insisted on ordering and paying for a new piece of trim. But after Moving Day, the purchaser discovered that a free-standing wall on his four-story house had a bulge in it.
(10) You can replace all the plumbing except for one short stretch, and that one short stretch will burst. In our case, it was the stretch from the house to the center of the street. I was looking out the window when the man came to fix it. He drove up in a purple Cadillac Coupe de Ville, got out, adjusted his overalls, and extracted from the trunk a pick and shovel. Please, God, I moaned, let him not ring my doorbell. He did.
(11) Do not go to a lumberyard on a Saturday, or two days before or after a major holiday (they, too, have office parties), or before, during, or after a World Series. Forget about buying ordinary, or common-grade, lumber. That which we get in New York is green, split, warped, and rotten.
(12) Wall studs are not 16 inches apart and probably never were.
(13) When you are in deepest panic over something, try to calm yourself with the knowledge that the damn house has been there 100, 110, 120 years, and it hasn’t fallen down yet, and it probably won’t fall down on you even though you are middle-class and probably deserve a tragedy.
(14) About the time you have all the rooms in such shape that you can walk into them and sit down, you will start thinking about a place in the country, which you can’t afford either.
If all this sounds depressing and dreary, it is probably because I meant it to be, for I am a brownstoner, and, like so many of my fellows, I want and need to brag and complain about what a tough life it is. It isn’t, really, of course. Brownstone living is the finest living there is in New York City. The advantages are manifold and they certainly outweigh the disadvantages, I think. Every brownstoner has his favorite examples.
When we moved in, we put on a Doors album and turned the volume knob on the amplifier all the way up to 10 for the first time in our lives. After I (and two friends, and three six-packs of Rheingold) hung the basket chair in the parlor, people on the sidewalk outside stopped and stared, and I learned to read their lips: They were saying things like “Beautiful!” and “Fantastic!”
I once spent a week on my neighbor, Mr. Santo’s, extension ladder, trying to scrape the encrusted paint, literally 14 layers of it, off some molding that runs around the outside of our 10-foot-tall parlor-floor windows. I tried paint remover, lye, and finally a blowtorch. At the precise moment that I finished, the truck from the firehouse down the street rolled by, on its way back after a false alarm, and one of the men on the back of the truck yelled “Congratulations” and another flashed me the peace, or maybe the victory, sign.
Some owners say the greatest thing is not being strapped to a rising apartment rent; some say it is the delight of not hearing someone walk around upstairs; some enjoy not having to tell the kids not to roller-skate on the living-room floor.
Izzy and Grace Cohen keep bees in their backyard, and they have a peach tree there, which I enjoy, too, since our yards are abutting. They can look at our dogwood tree and the goldfish pond we made out of a washtub, and they can watch us ice-skate in the winter. They dig getting Chinese food really from Chinatown, and belly-dancing, and haggling with the merchants on Atlantic Avenue — all things they could not do before, when they fled to Long Beach in an abortive attempt to solve the Housing Problem — and then they come home, or wake up in the morning, to a piece of nature. “That little patch of grass in the back,” Izzy says, eyes almost damp, “is a big thing. It’s something you can look at. You have all this privacy and all this space and you can breathe, plus you can look out in that garden and you can keep your bees and you can look at your·peach tree. You can have a party on all four floors; you can have two or three fireplaces.”
Grace says: “You get a feeling of the continuity of things from the house. You know that once there were ladies with long dresses walking through the house.”
“Yes,” adds Izzy. “You’ve got the feeling of a smaller city. You walk into the house and you see that you’ve got this space, and it’s private, and it’s all yours, and there’s a 13-foot ceiling with molding across it and dust on the molding — all of which is a headache, but you look up and see all these lovely old touches and you sort of feel the whole history of New York City, and you’re living in it. And the important thing is, it works. It works as a family unit.”
For me, the most delicious single thrill of owning a brownstone, aside from getting my arm out of the cast, came one morning when I was staring out the window. Two young men in chino pants and button-down collars were scouring the gutter in front of our house. One used a broom and the other held a dustpan. When the dust pan was full, one of them would dump it in our garbage can. When they were finished, they hid the garbage can so it could not be seen from the street.
It was not the week before a mayoral election, so I knew Lindsay had not sent the young men to impress me. I ran downstairs and out the door and asked them if they had a warrant.
No, they chuckled. They were there, they said, to photograph my house for a book they were doing on brownstones. Why this particular house, I asked, the pride rising in my very throat. Because the Landmarks Commission, in a mimeographed tract on Cobble Hill, had described it as “unique.” They showed me a copy.
Was it all right for them to proceed with the picture-taking? Certainly; would they like some coffee and to hear all about the house? They declined; they had to hurry, because the alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations would soon switch, and cars, like trash in the gutter and garbage cans, would disturb the picture.
I was excited, of course, but the excitement was tempered by sorrow that the Landmarks Commission had not voluntarily sent me a copy of that mimeographed tract that called my house “unique.” Being a city agency, they must have printed, at my expense, at least 5 million of them. It would have made me feel so much kindlier toward my city if my city had let me know that it thought my house was “unique.”