One of the iconic images of Brooklyn’s built environment is the brownstone, a particular typology of row house that in recent decades has come to symbolize, to some, a certain type of quiet, charming, familial existence, and to others, trends of revitalization and rapid gentrification. But the borough’s historic character isn’t entirely built in stone. Before a series of fire limits made their construction illegal in the 19th century, many row houses were built using wood frame construction. In neighborhoods like South Slope, Greenpoint, and Bushwick, wooden houses whose histories can date back to the Civil War are often hidden beneath layers of utilitarian vinyl siding — a new icon of contemporary Brooklyn housing. Those wooden houses that remain are some of the oldest in the city, but many have suffered through years of neglect and gone largely unappreciated, until now.
Dismayed by how little attention was paid to these houses, writer and historian Elizabeth Finkelstein launched The Wooden House Project, a blog and series of tours that showcase Brooklyn’s wood frame houses and the very personal work being done to restore them. Bringing together a diverse community of people interested in history, preservation, and built identity, the project draws attention to these unique pieces of the borough’s built environment and provides a resource and inspiration for owners and non-owners alike. Finkelstein took us on a tour of South Slope to talk about the history and future of these “hearty little survivors” and the project’s work to help them “earn the love, recognition, and preservation they deserve.” –D.R.
Tell me a little bit about the Wooden House Project and how it got started.
I’ve always been interested in history and architecture, and my professional background is in historic preservation. The first time I was ever in a wooden house in Brooklyn was when my husband and I tried to buy one in the South Slope. As I did more research, I realized wooden houses make up so much of Brooklyn’s fabric. I thought, “Why is no one talking about these houses?” So I started the Wooden House Project as a community for owners and lovers of Brooklyn’s wood-frame row houses. People started writing to me instantly. Obviously, something was being overlooked. My collaborators and I all do it in our free time, this is totally a labor of love.
Any niche topic will have its enthusiasts, because people with a connection to a topic are excited to be part of a group. Wood houses outside of New York City are less interesting because they’re not endangered like they are here. Legally, you can not build a wooden house in the city anymore and that makes them special.
What is the history of wooden houses in Brooklyn?
There are a number of freestanding Dutch colonial farmhouses around Brooklyn but some of the first wooden row houses in the borough were built in the early 19th century in Brooklyn Heights, the first section of Brooklyn to develop and also the first section to impose fire limits that outlawed wood construction. Brooklyn at that time wasn’t consolidated; it was still six towns. In the original city of Brooklyn, of which the South Slope was a part, wood houses were developed a bit later but officials eventually passed similar wood construction bans.
Supporters of wood construction argued that the houses were cheaper to build, allowing those of moderate means to afford homes. Wood houses often housed laborers who came to neighborhoods to work in factories like the Ansonia Clock Factory in the South Slope or industries along the Gowanus Canal. Greenpoint is another example of an area where you used to see a lot of wooden structures, with its tie to the shipbuilding industry and the Eberhard Faber Pencil Factory. These neighborhoods have a heavy concentration of 19th century wooden houses because they were tightly connected to industry and the workers lived in these houses.
457 12th Street demonstrates the intrigue of wooden houses. It’s surprising when you come across it and looks completely different from the big apartment building and brownstones around it. A common misconception is that many of Brooklyn’s wooden houses were early farmhouses. They were usually the first houses built on subdivided lots and often were constructed in clusters. This part of the Slope was mostly developed after wood was not only out of vogue but illegal. So these survivors are really special and you can see that homeowners in most cases take a lot of pride in them. Very little of the ornamentation on this house right now is original. Restorations like this represent a choice to reflect history but not be perfectly accurate to it. There are not many examples of what authentic wooden houses looked like and very few of the wooden houses in Park Slope are landmarked, though this one is part of a larger historic district.
The vinyl-sided houses common in Greenpoint, Bushwick, and South Slope have become part of the current cultural identity of Brooklyn. Since these have historically been working class neighborhoods, many people assume that they have always looked like that, but their history is much more detailed. How did they look originally and how have they changed?
When you walk down a brownstone street in Park Slope, you see a kind of cohesiveness that everybody loves so much about Brooklyn; wood-frame houses once provided that same feeling. Just like today, many of these early houses were built on spec. 363-378 12th Street, for instance, were likely built as a collection and would have had cornices, window lintels, and all the details that Victorian houses had at the time.
These are all historic houses that just don’t show their history.
During the Victorian era, people used shingles as ornament. Then builders and owners realized they could cover the whole house in them, with the added benefit that the shingles would protect the clapboard underneath. But the shingles were wood as well and eventually dried out. So they had to be replaced and the houses started to develop layers of siding. The next material to come was asphalt shingles. Then came aluminum and vinyl, which were easy to maintain. These materials are stacked on top of one another. The nice thing about this is that today homeowners can usually find original clapboard preserved under the layers.
There is a cohesion today, but it’s a different type of cohesion because the houses are all covered in siding. A lot of people I talk to through the Wooden House Project love the vinyl on their house and what it says about working class Brooklyn. When I first started the Wooden House Project my dream was to see all vinyl siding gone. Through my research, I have grown to love and appreciate it. It says something about those who held out during a really hard time in Brooklyn when the only option was to clad a house in vinyl siding because you couldn’t get a loan or afford to do anything else.
How are these houses being restored?
Many people who own these houses get really into their restorations. These neighborhoods were built for the working class and got hit with the siding trend that swept through the city in the mid-20th century, so the houses tend to sell for a little less. I don’t want to sound like someone that thinks nobody lived anywhere until certain people moved in and started restoring the houses; there’s a community here and there always has been. But there’s a real interest right now among first-time homebuyers to buy a fixer-upper. So you get a crowd that is purchasing wooden houses not to buy and flip, but as a serious investment that they will put a lot of time, energy, and love into.
How do you find the houses that you feature on the Wooden House Project?
Sometimes people reach out to us. Sometimes one of us knows somebody who owns a house and lets us inside. We have met a lot of people through the website that just write to us to say, “Oh, you featured my house” or “I live on that street.” We meet a lot of people on the street who are curious about what we are talking about or who see us taking notes about their house or practicing a tour. There is such a land grab in New York right now that owners are usually a little bit skeptical. People think: What’s going on? Are they going to build a stadium in place of my house? When we explain we have a blog about wooden houses they get really into it.
Many residents have information they have researched themselves about their wooden homes that they don’t have a way to share. Do you see yourselves as an outlet for that entrenched knowledge and research?
I think so. I feel a bit of a responsibility to show these houses that have been completely overlooked. In Greenwood Heights, for example, the wooden houses are not in pristine condition or celebrated but they are amazing and a huge part of the history of Brooklyn.
These are all historic houses that just don’t show their history. A lot of wooden house owners don’t know that they own anything special. We met a woman who was a third generation Polish resident of Greenpoint and, until four years ago, her house — that she grew up in and now owns — was covered in vinyl siding. She completely restored it and offered to show us some of the clapboard that she pulled off. No one had ever been interested in her house before in that way. It’s fun for me when people realize you are giving a tour that includes their house and get very excited.
Do most homeowners do a lot of that research for their restorations or do they tend to figure it out as they go along?
A lot of people understand what a brownstone should look like — you can walk down practically any street in New York and see it for yourself. It’s different for wooden houses because there are not that many that are authentically restored. There is no single aesthetic across the board for wooden houses; they reflect the style of the time they were built, just as a brick home or brownstone does.
New York has a lot of resources to find what these houses would have originally looked like. The New York Public Library has an amazing digital gallery. The Municipal Archives has two sets of tax photos of every building in New York City. The first collection, from the 1940s, can help give a sense of what might be under a house’s siding. The second collection is from the 1980s, when the neighborhood was very different and houses were usually covered in vinyl. It’s shocking and fun to see.
Is 337 12th Street an example of a creative restoration from an essentially blank slate?
I think so, and if this house were landmarked the owners probably would not have been able to do this. Outside of the landmark district is the Wild West. The houses that people think of when they think of wooden houses are usually not the original ones. The ones that have been jazzed up are what make people interested in the topic. I love it when the homeowners do stuff like this.
You have said that “most people are sold on preservation, they just wouldn’t call themselves preservationists.” What do you mean?
I hesitate to call myself a preservationist because I think that it’s become very divisive. You can’t always be all or nothing. It’s easy to walk in front of a house and say, “take the vinyl off,” but it’s very expensive to restore and then to maintain it. The fact that people are restoring the interiors and really loving their houses is enough right now. That would not be a strict preservationist viewpoint, but I think that is the situation. A lot of people get turned off by the idea of calling themselves preservationists, but who are putting nostalgic filters on their Instagram photos? People all over Brooklyn! I’ve always been frustrated that the preservation movement has not found a way to connect the dots there.
I love Webster Place because it is a great example of what a typical street in this neighborhood would have looked like. Much of this character in Brooklyn has been lost, but the bones are still here. The two sides of the street used to be mirror images; now they’re very different. These probably survived because they weren’t touched. Sometimes a poor economy is the best friend of preservation. When there is money floating around, people tear houses down and build flashy new things. These were left and then rediscovered.
I don’t think every single wooden house should stand, but I’ve seen ones go too soon. It would be amazing if everybody restored their house, but it’s the multiple layers of history that make the city so interesting. I think if you don’t appreciate something just because it doesn’t look like a brownstone, you’re going to lose something.