Last Saturday, lunch with friends brought me to Brooklyn Heights. There, on a tiny street called Willow Place, I was transfixed by a Mystic Crazy Stable--an old house so compelling and fascinating that I can hardly breathe when I first spy it. No, not the one on the right, very funny (although that one has its own tales). I mean the little blue antebellum relic on the left, paint peeling ravishingly from its columns. The bizarre juxtaposition of 1840s neo-Classic and 1960s moderne was noted here some years ago in Brownstoner. An anonymous neighbor commented:
"The 'Tara' house on the left has been owned for approximately 35 years by two academics (both with impressive careers) who renovated it extensively initially and then, suddenly...stopped. Why they did so is probably not the business of Brownstoner, but to those who do visit the street and stand outside this house and make mean comments, I'd like to say, hey!--in the summertime, when windows are open, people inside can hear conversation on the street."
Mean comments? I worship the place. It looked lived-in, not Boo-Radleyish, with fresh yellow pansies in some pots out front; I willed an owner or resident to emerge and chat (no luck), and yearned for my imaginary handheld GPS/data device, the HouseHistorian, which would yield construction dates and all cool stories of record for any intriguing building in New York at curbside. (Uploading the data for every block and lot in the city would be the hard part, the technology would be easy!)
Since my gizmo doesn't exist (yet), I came home and found out what I could. Architecturally, the house is the last survivor of a colonnaded row, much like this adorable set of contemporaries that survive directly across the street (above; compare to a picture from 1936 by Berenice Abbot, here). Architecture author Francis Morrone writes of these gems in An Architectural Guidebook to Brooklyn:
The "colonnade row" was a popular concept in the Greek Revival 1830s and 1840s...Thirteen square wooden columns screen four redbrick row houses that have doorways flanked by columns of the same design, though much smaller in scale. Note that right across the street...is a single house of exactly the same design, as though it were originally a part of the row but decided it preferred living on its own and moved across the street. Actually, there was once an identical row of four houses on this side of the street, of which two were torn down and one altered beyond recognition, leaving just this one.
Bricks and mortar aren't enough when you're smitten. Like the Brother from Another Planet, I want to know what happened there just by touching the flaking columns. So I looked up my little blue survivor in the digital archives of the Brooklyn Eagle and the New York Times. In October 1856, a yellow-fever scare virtually turned the street into a ghost town. (City health officials pronounced the danger overblown.) The peaceful little house witnessed this scene of domestic violence (above) on July 24, 1867. On April 16, 1881, it saw the arrest of one John Torpey for "having burglariously entered the cellar of John Recka's beer saloon at No. 28 Atlantic avenue, on the night of the 12th inst., and stolen a keg of beer. Justice Ferry held the prisoner for examination."
In 1878, resident Mrs. Jane Burk, aged 60, was seriously injured falling from an Atlantic Avenue streetcar. And there was real tragedy: At the turn of the last century, two children's deaths were reported here (age recorded only as "less than one year"): Nellie McKay in October 1902, and James Guilfoyle in July, 1903.
Of course, that's just what made the papers over 160-odd years. Imagine the stories that will never be told, in this or any old house you pass. Funny enough, Spouse and I happened on a real-estate agent's open house the very next day in Carroll Gardens, and we toured a brownstone (of later vintage) that had been gutted and renovated to "like-new" condition. It was luxuriously appointed but an utter bore, its ghosts all silenced.