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Landmarks Conservancy Saves Fort Greene Brownstone

Bendix Anderson in Bricks & Bucks on November 13, 2019

Fort Greene, Brooklyn

Landmarks Conservancy, Fort Greene Historic District, brownstone rowhouse, co-op.

A crumbling wooden newel post (left) and a historically accurate cast-iron replica (images courtesy of the Landmarks Conservancy).

Nov. 13, 2019

The brownstone at 6 South Portland Avenue in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, needed a lot of work. “The stairs were crumbling to a point that it was almost a trip hazard,” says Andrew Parker, president of the co-op board. 

Weather and time had also cracked the brownstone blocks of the building’s facade, and the original cast-iron newel posts at the base of the front steps had been replaced with improvised wooden replicas covered in black paint. “I removed one with my hands one day,” says Parker. “It was just rotted plywood.” 

But the six-unit co-op was self-managed, and none of the shareholders had any expertise in restoring an 1870s-vintage building. “We all have careers in different fields,” says Parker. “No one has time to be onsite and play general contractor every day.” 

But there was hope. The shareholders had heard of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, an organization that provides low-interest loans along with technical assistance to buildings that meet unique criteria. The building must be located in a designated Historic District or in a neighborhood that has been deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The South Portland Avenue co-op met both criteria, so the board applied for a loan from the conservancy’s Historic Properties Fund about five years ago. 

“They weren’t ready,” says James Mahoney, project and accounting manager for the conservancy, noting that the co-op was still paying down its underlying mortgage. The board re-applied in 2017 and decided to push ahead. “They had paid off their mortgage,” Mahoney says, “and were in a better position to take on additional debt.” 

The conservancy loaned the co-op $200,000, with an interest rate of 5 percent over a 15-year term. The monthly payment roughly matched what the co-op had been paying on its underlying mortgage. Little pain, lots of potential gain. 

Using hand-held pneumatic hammers, workers removed previous repairs and patches and brought the facade down to its original brownstone. They then applied three coats a stucco-like composite, the top layer a visual match to the original brownstone. “It’s like a three-layer process of building up the stone,” says Mahoney, who served as project manager throughout the job. 

The contractors also recreated original floral details and coats of arms that had once been carved into the brownstone around the tall front door and windows but had chipped away over the years. Someone had added a carved face over the front door. “It is a little unusual,” Mahoney says. “It’s not an original detail, though it was there when the Fort Greene Historic District was created in 1978.” 

Like many Brooklyn rowhouses, the building was one of four nearly identical structures built side-by-side. Two of the neighboring quadruplets are still standing, with many of their details intact. Craftsmen carved stone and concrete to recreate decorative flourishes at 6 South Portland Avenue. The co-op also received permission from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission the keep the face over the front door. 

In a crowning touch, the project architect arranged with a company in India to create historically accurate, cast-iron newel posts for just $8,000 – including shipping. The conservancy provided technical support to the board throughout the project. “Our involvement is kind of unusual,” says Mahoney. “Most banks are just hand over the money. We’re with the borrower through the whole process.” 

The nonprofit Landmarks Conservancy was created in 1973 to provide technical and financial assistance to owners of historic buildings. In 1982, the Historic Properties Fund became part of the conservancy after the federal government sold the massive Archive Building in Greenwich Village. Money from commercial rents in the building is one source of revenue for the Historic Properties Fund, which has provided more that $290 million in loans to 260 properties throughout the five boroughs. The fund currently has a total of $9 million in assets. 

PRINCIPAL PLAYERS – LENDER: The New York City Historic Properties Fund. ARCHITECT: Easton Architects. CONTRACTOR: A. Malek Contracting.

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