Out of Context, Fugly or Brilliant? Some of Brooklyn Heights’ Most Controversial Buildings

With preservationist tongues wagging in anticipation of the proposed “modern” structure at 27 Cranberry Street, we thought it would be interesting to open up the discussion regarding some of the neighborhood’s other “controversial” structures.

To get the discussion started, here’s a list of some  so-called “out of context”  buildings in Brooklyn Heights:

We’ve just scratched the surface, so please add your suggestions in the comments below.

28 Middagh Street – Despite the fact that it has an award winning interior restoration, this 1829 home draws the ire of the current AIA guide which says that its facade has been “mutilated beyond recognition.”

As for how it got that way,  Brown Harris Stevens broker Gabriel Ford told the Brooklyn Eagle, “Sometime after 1940, someone removed the front stairway, added asbestos shingles, created a side entry and added a two-car garage…In their mind they probably thought they were modernizing it, but it looked horrible.”  Cranky preservationists aside, the one car garage here makes it a sweet deal for some.

222 Columbia Heights – The demolition of the Cornell Mansion (built in 1865) in the mid 1950s was one of the motivating events in the Brooklyn Heights historic preservation movement.  In 1982 a new structure took its place.

123 Joralemon Street –  In 1993, architect Joseph Stella was commissioned by its owner, Malcolm Fein, to do minor renovations to the structure, a modest suburbanesque home. He proposed a larger project utilizing the maximum amount of space allowed by law on that lot. The result of his vision is the modern carriage house featured on the 2008 BHA House Tour. However, not everyone in Brooklyn Heights seemed to be tickled by this new addition.

Stella quotes Heights Landmark District pioneer Otis Pearsall as saying, “These 1990′s experiments in ersatz history by Joseph Stella…use a variety of historical references largely foreign to indigenous Heights architecture, to produce what strikes me as a Disney-like mockery of historic preservation.”

The Brooklyn Eagle’s Henrik Krogius is also not a fan saying it  lacks any depth in architectural detail; it is flat as a stage backdrop… [the] “1950′s one-story ranch-house building that [that 125 replaced] though certainly a curiosity in the Heights, ought to have been preserved as part of the Historic District”.

The Margaret Apartments –  The original 1889 Hotel Margaret designed by starchitect Frank Freeman burned to the ground during the last stages of developer Bruce Eicher’s renovation in 1980.  After grappling with the Landmarks Preservation Commission,  Eicher sold the lot to the Watchtower who successfully argued for the right to build a new structure at the same height as the original.  What stands today is nothing close to Freeman’s brick, terra cotta and pressed metal masterpiece. [Above Flickr photo by Wallyg]

Jehovah’s Witnesses Dormitory and Library Facility – 119 Columbia Heights, built in 1970, is one of the earliest designs in the area post landmarking.   The main portion of the building screams 1970s “futurama” while the attached row house facades keep it from stinking up the vibe rest of the block.  And in 100 years, preservationists may be kvelling the work here by Ulrich Franzen as much as they do over an 1800s brownstone.

Flickr photo by zzzombiekitty

322 Hicks Street Apartments – Eye of the beholder indeed.  This structure, approved by the LPC in 2002 is, in the words of the 2010 AIA Guide to NYC a “worthy attempt to break out (or rather stretch out) of the brownstone mold by inflecting the brick facade and emphasizing the horizontal.”

For those wondering how the LPC may feel about the “modern” proposal for 27 Cranberry consider this quote.  ‘Brooklyn Heights has a long tradition of new buildings being contemporary,”  Brian Hogg, director of preservation at the landmarks commission told the New York Times in 2002.  He added that the design was ”exciting in its underlying inspiration between old and new buildings.”

What buildings would you add to the list?

A couple of footnotes – The award winning rebirthing of 36 Grace Court by Tom van den Bout and Brenda Nelson created a new benchmark for righting the aesthetic crimes of past generations.  Time will tell if  the owners (or future owners) of properties such as  27 Cranberry, the Poplar Precinct, 100 Clark Street etc follow their example.

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  • Cranberry Beret

    The AIA description of 28 Middagh Street refers to the old asbestos shingle version, not the house’s current iteration. (In fact the description of most of the Middagh houses hasn’t been updated.)

  • Joe2: The Joe-ening

    322 Hicks reminds me of a red version of a dorm I lived in in college that was designed by a prison architect.

  • Topham Beauclerk

    I’m surprised you don’t mention the neighbor of 322 Hicks St which is unimaginably, infinitely uglier.How on earth was it ever given a pass by the LPC but then, quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

  • http://loscalzo.posterous.com Homer Fink

    @cb – thanks I’ll look up and revise.

    @tb – my list is just a starting point, thanks for adding

  • James

    Why the hate on the little carriage house? There were carriage houses in Brooklyn Heights. It looks far better than those prison-styled hellholes.

    Build more fake carriage houses!

  • http://loscalzo.posterous.com Homer Fink

    @james … I love that house, the interior is really well done.. it was on the bha house tour a couple of years ago…

  • benita berman

    What about Cadman Towers which replaced several Greek Revival townhouses on Clark Street?

  • Jorale-man

    The building at the top of the article seems reasonably harmless – the color of the brick matches that of its neighbors and the lines are mostly square and not on weird angles. By contrast, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Dormitory and Library Facility is a real blight – it doesn’t attempt to complement its surroundings or match the human scale of the Heights. (I believe that’s what they called “brutalism” back in the early 70s.) I hope current builders can learn from past mistakes in all this.

  • my2cents

    Cadman Towers is by far the biggest travesty, both in scale, concept, and in style.

  • http://loscalzo.posterous.com Homer Fink

    I kept Cadman out just for the reason that it’s a shanda on a totally different level. I’m more curious about attitude towards new construction in the Heights and more specifically our gut (and/or knee jerk) reaction to any new proposal. In other words, let’s talk about our feelings…

  • William spier

    The Witness “Dormitory and Library” building on Columbia Heights is stunning while the Margaret Apartments is a small step better than socialist modern housing in East Berlin.

    Just wait and see what will rise in the old garden at 20 Henry Street. After a few years of fighting with the original investors on size and placement, it seems an exhausted Landmarks did not care if 3rd rate architecture was situated in the old garden as long as it was a relatively small structure.

    I think that the new central addition to Bridge Harbor Heights (across the street from 20 Henry) which was designed (I believe) by Charles Platt is successful. A good look at that structure might be in order before new ones arise in empty spaces.

    The old police station on Poplar Street might soon get the rehab it deserves. I think it is a splendid piece of Georgian architecture and must be rehabbed without any modern additions. (say on the roof)

  • my2cents

    The way buildings are approved in this part of town these days *usually* prevents anything terrible being built in a residential area, but it also prevents anything good from being created that will be worth preserving 100 years from now. I was down by fulton fish market the other day (think beekman street, peck slip, etc), and I was really impressed at how many brilliant contextual modernist structures stood cheek by jowl with some of the oldest buildings in our city. It definitely bears study.

  • Cranberry Beret

    Ahh, but were those new structures built to the maximum allowable size? That’s my main beef with the 27 Cranberry proposal – the McMansion aspect.

  • Topham Beauclerk

    Modernism isn’t the enemy; bad architecture is. Who could possibly object to a modernist building if it were designed by someone with the talent of, say, Frank Lloyd Wright?

  • my2cents

    A lot of people, Topham. Sadly so. I’m in your camp, but there are a lot of people who would rather have a fake federal style brick sh*thouse (with steel frame and subzero appliances, of course) than a Renzo Piano or David Adjaye building in the neighborhood.

  • my2cents

    Look at what happened when Walentas wanted to put a Jean Nouvel structure in the park! People went ballistic. And yet we were being gifted a free structure by a world class architect for all to enjoy.

  • AEB

    It isn’t a matter of modernism (whatever one means by THAT) vs. the traditional (which can’t be recreated honestly anyway), but rather of suitability.

    That has to do with scale and appropriateness to the site and community. One mustn’t buy an architectural “brand” simply because it’s hot, or even if it’s superlative, without carefully considering that one lives intimately with the buildings in one’s neighborhood, day-in, day-out.