A Very, Very, Very Fine House: The Stories Behind Five of Brooklyn’s Most Interesting Houses

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146 1/2 Java Street,
Greenpoint
Picture the typical Brooklyn home: it’s a brownstone, right? But over the last few years, Brooklyn’s wood-frame rowhouses have experienced a surge of interest both residential and historical. The reason might have been financial, at first—last year the Wall Street Journal reported that wooden houses were going for between a million and 1.7 million dollars, a full million less than a “brownstone in Park Slope proper.” But, as attested by restorationist, tour-leading groups like the Wooden House Project, the recent interest in Brooklyn’s wooden homes is aesthetic, as well.

Wood-frame homes were primarily constructed for working-class residents, so they are more heavily concentrated in and around historically industrial neighborhoods like South Slope, Greenpoint, and Gowanus. They typically have wide-plank (rather than inlaid-wood) flooring and simpler interiors. They’re also old: in many areas of Brooklyn, constructing wooden houses has been outlawed for over 100 years due to the risk of fire. Many have since been covered up by vinyl siding.

146 1/2 Java Street is one of several beautifully restored timber homes in Greenpoint, and our very favorite. It was built in 1899, according to the city’s PLUTO dataset, and at one point was the residence of one member of Greenpoint’s “Slaughter Gang,” which in 1930 committed a string of 20 robberies during which victims were “unmercifully beaten up as well as robbed,” according to a report in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.


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232 Clinton Avenue,
Clinton Hill
Charles Pratt was a trendsetter. After he hired the architect Ebenezer L. Roberts to build this mansion for him in 1874, other wealthy oil executives and businessmen followed, and soon Clinton Avenue was one of the richest and most opulent residential streets in the nation.

Pratt was also a generous man—he founded and endowed nearby Pratt Institute, and built three other mansions on Clinton Avenue as wedding gifts for his sons. (They’re now all landmarked as part of the Clinton Hill Historic District.) But 232 is the pièce de résistance—a stately, unshowy, brick and brownstone mansion, constructed in the Italianate style, with Neo-Grec elements. The inside was similarly tasteful, with High Victorian details in the floors, woodwork, and painted ceilings.
Pratt lived in the mansion until 1890, when he moved to his country estate in Glen Cove, Long Island. Afterward, Herbert Lee Pratt, one of Charles’ sons, lived in the house for a while; his tenure is perhaps most noted for his installation of a huge statue on the parlor floor, said to be the largest representation of a bison in bronze ever.

The youngest Pratt son, Harold, was the last to live in the house; he left in 1916. In the 1930s, the family sold the house to St. Joseph’s College. It is now named Founder’s Hall and houses the college’s faculty nuns.


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155-57-59 Willow Street,
Brooklyn Heights
This trio of three-story Federal-style rowhouses have been listed in city directories prior to 1830
(a data map created by the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications estimates a construction date of 1829). They’re so old that the houses don’t sit exactly parallel to Willow—the street was reoriented sometime after they were built.

Federal-style architecture was characterized by formal restraint, smooth facades, and classical symmetry. These houses were built using brick laid in Flemish bond and are perhaps the best surviving examples of early 19th-century Federal rowhouses. Nos. 155 and 157 have the original pitched roofs and dormers, according to Charles Lockwood, author of Bricks and Brownstone: The New York Row House 1783-1929 . An underground tunnel leads from No. 159 to No. 151, where a post-Civil War stable once stood. The tunnel is lighted by a skylight, which you can still see in the pavement near the gate at No. 157.

In the early 1950s, Arthur Miller owned No. 155 and wrote The Crucible there, and a plaque outside No. 157 says that the underground tunnel was used to hide runaway slaves on their journey northward to Canada.


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79-81 Decatur Street,
Bedford-Stuyvesant
79-81 Decatur Street looks like a French chateau squeezed into a row of Bed-Stuy brownstones and rowhouses. The fanciful building, dubbed the Clermont Apartments, was constructed in 1891 for Stuyvesant Heights’ expanding middle-class population by Montrose Morris, a prominent Brooklyn architect whose beautiful Beaux-Arts revivals are scattered across the city.

Morris was known for his use of decorative rooflines, Romanesque arched windows, elaborate entryway carvings, bays to add space and light, and brick and terra cotta building materials. The Clermont is made of brick, limestone, and pressed steel trim, and represents Morris’ second attempt at an esoteric style known as French Gothic Revival, or Châteauesque, which combines late Gothic and early Renaissance architectural elements with a flair borrowed from the chateaux of 16th-century France. Nevertheless, the building features several of Morris’ signature stylistic elements, including bunched windows and a turreted mansard roof with dormers and finials.

The Clermont was restored in 2003 by Danois Architects and is now an eight-unit co-op building. Morris liked to place his buildings so that they would dominate the street, and this one, which sits right atop the sidewalk, is no exception. It will catch your eye.


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The Hunterfly Road Houses,
Crown Heights

In 1838, James Weeks, a stevedore and freed slave from Virginia, bought a plot of land in Central Brooklyn from Henry C. Thompson, another freedman. Bounded by present-day Fulton Street, East New York Avenue, Ralph Avenue, and Troy Avenue, Weeksville, as the village came to be known, quickly became a thriving destination for African Americans, boasting its owns newspaper, school, and the highest number of African American-owned properties and businesses.

Following the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, New York City expanded deeper into the borough, and Weeksville was gradually swallowed up by Crown Heights. But in 1968, the historian James Hurley led a search to rediscover the historic village. On a flyover tour of the area, Hurley saw that four houses just north of Bergen Street were crookedly angled—they faced an old dirt lane wending across the block. The lane was the remnant of Hunterfly Road, which ran along the eastern edge of the old Weeksville. The houses, in disrepair but still occupied, were one to two-and-a-half story wood-frame dwellings, erected no earlier than the 1860s.

The Hunterfly Road Historic District was established to supervise restorations, and now the four houses are under the auspices of the Weeksville Heritage Center, which has a museum on the grounds and leads tours of three of the homes (the fourth burned down in the 90s; a replica is now used as an office). The houses are furnished to reflect different time periods in the village’s history. 1700 Bergen, the house pictured above, dates from the 1880s, and has been refurbished to circa 1900 with several turn-of-the-century amenities, including an icebox in the kitchen and a radio in the “best room.” The two-story house was inhabited by three generations of the Johnson family, beginning in the early 1900s.

Photographs by Rory Gunderson

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