Brooklyn wreck Susan B. Elkins house lastly restored
It’s finally back from the dead. After years of decay and destruction, Crown Heights’ last remaining timber frame mansion, the Susan B. Elkins House at 1375 Dean Street, has been polished and buffed in preparation for new residents.
It was an intricate conservation saga for the Italian-style Greek Revival style house circa 1850. Thanks to the efforts of local residents and the Crown Heights North Association, it was saved from a developer’s wrecking ball at the last minute in 2006 when the city turned it into an individual Landmark declared.
But his future was far from secure. As the house went from owner to owner, water seeped in uncontrollably and vandals and thieves robbed it of all remaining interior details. In 2011, a developer bought it and promised to restore it to its original glory, but let it deteriorate even further and was sanctioned for neglect for demolition before releasing it back on the market for many times its purchase price.
In 2014 the house was bought in disrepair, developer Amber Mazor bought the property and proposed restoration and conversion to condominium to make the project financially viable.
But this plan did not go smoothly either.
The renovation meant that Mazor had to adhere to the modern city zone. However, the requirements for modern urban zones collide with the landmarks: According to the zoning rules, the side courtyards must be at least three meters wide – or there may be no side courtyards at all.
And because the house is made of wood, it cannot have more than two units.
After a number of false starts with Landmarks and the DOB, Mazor finally came up with a successful plan in collaboration with architect Richard Goodstein of Nc2 Architecture: transform the house into two buildings of two units by building a party wall inside and adding a recess on side extensions camouflaged from the street, with movable slatted frames that are dark in color to make them disappear in the shade.
When Mazor took over, the house was on the verge of collapse, he said. “The challenge was to rebuild it and not take it apart at the same time,” he told Brownstoner.
After the back of the house, which sits on top of a hill, was carefully excavated by hauling dirt over the side gardens (it took six months), the crew removed deteriorated parts of the house, raised it on stilts, and put in a steel frame into the structure, then lowered the house back onto the foundation.
At the same time, they have raised the roof slightly (the change is not visible from the street) to turn the top, partially high floor into a full story.
A surprising amount of the original exterior material has been preserved, including about 70 percent of the original clapboard that has been removed, patched, and reinstalled, Mazor said. Three of the porch pillars have been safely stored off-site and are original; A fourth pillar and the porch track spindles were recreated based on the tax photo from the 1940s.
The beautiful wooden cornice with beads and roller strips (which, Mazor pointed out, resemble sausages) is original. The crew removed it, stripped it off, tidied it up, and put it back on the house.
The front door trim and transom are also historic. What is referred to in the designation report as the “sensitive hump border”, the tip strips around the skylights were newly created.
The house was built around 1856 and was inhabited by the Elkins family until the beginning of the 20th century – including two daughters who were artists and inventors. It has a colorful and varied history: Eartha Kitt was a frequent visitor “before she got famous,” according to Brownstone Detectives, and at one point the house belonged to Christ Church Cathedral, whose director worked with and collaborated with Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association Son was the first Prime Minister of Barbados. In the 80s and 90s it was a group home and treatment center.
Mazor spent 15 years restoring striking brown stones with his design company Perfect Restoration in Brooklyn Heights. After redeveloping the house across the street at 1372 where he now lives, he set up the Komaru Enterprises development company to restore Susan Elkins’ home.
“I love Brooklyn architecture, old structures – mostly decaying structures,” he said.
The interior of the house, which was removed a long time ago, is now completely contemporary, but the apartments are no ordinary white boxes.
Mazor wanted the units to feel like townhouses, so they are large maisonettes with elements referring to the building’s past: modern gas fireplaces, extensive interiors based on the quarter round moldings that appear on the outer cornice, stairs made of original rivets, modern pocket doors and reclaimed bricks.
Now, two years later, two of the units have been launched and construction is complete.
Construction fences still hide part of the house from the eyes of passers-by, but what is visible is a complete turnaround from the ruined and neglected state of the house that neighbors had to live with for years.
The clapboard was painted light blue. A railing now extends over the wide porch. Lintels, sills, and shutters have been added, and the cornice is now standing out and painted clear white.
Locals are happy to see the building saved, several told Brownstoner. More than 100 passers-by stopped to ask workers what was happening during construction, Mazor said.
Eventually, the slope of the front yard will be littered with green bushes, just like in the 1940s tax photo.
The restored exterior is too long a shell and now conveys the vision of the house as it was originally intended – a gracious country villa built on the former outskirts.
[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise | Story by Susan De Vries and Cate Corcoran]
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