Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A look at today's brownstone

Rafael Vinoly Architects; Marilynn K.Yee/The New York Times
Left, a rendering shows East 64th Street with No. 162 razed and replaced by a fritted glass structure with a bowed facade by Rafael Viñoly. Right, No. 162 as it looks today.
WHEN Charles Lockwood’s now-classic book “Bricks and Brownstones” was published in the early ‘70s, there was only one thing to do with an old New York town house — restore it to within an inch of its pristine 19th-century glory. The brownstone revival movement had started a few years earlier, and in Manhattan and growing swaths of Brooklyn, the talk on the street was of marble stoops, brass doorknobs, wide-plank pine floors and original wainscoting — the fancier the better.      
Impeccably restored town houses still set the tone today for most brownstone neighborhoods. But it’s increasingly common to find vintage town houses sheathed in glass, aluminum and other relentlessly contemporary materials. Especially in Brooklyn, rear facades are being opened up — “blown out” is the term architects use — to provide large doses of light and air. Many of these reworkings take the form of sweeping glass rear walls, designed to transform spaces that for all their charm are typically small and dark. Some changes boggle the imagination: Preservationists still talk about owners who sought to install a lobster tank atop a newly acquired town house.
Although the neighbors aren’t always thrilled about such developments, they don’t automatically storm the barricades in protest. Some even engage in cordial conversations with their neighbors and the architects, the goal being to end up with a design that makes everyone happy.
This is what happened on East 64th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues, a stretch of town houses edged by trees and graceful bishop’s-crook lampposts. Though not protected by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the block has its share of bay windows, decorative pediments and Juliet balconies. The ornate homes will soon be joined by a second Modernist facade.
No. 164, a five-story building owned by Anthony Faillace, the founder of a hedge fund, sits behind a boxy natural granite facade punctured by oversize maroon steel-framed windows, designed by Michael Rubin Architects. Next door at No. 162, a 19th-century town house will be razed and replaced by a six-story structure featuring a bowed facade of fritted blueish-gray glass. The architect is Rafael Viñoly, whose high-profile creations pepper the globe. The owner, Eduardo Eurnekian, a prominent Argentine businessman, plans to use the building for offices and residential space.
In Mr. Viñoly’s opinion, the new building will be a good neighbor, even if it initially turns some heads. “The facade being replaced is undistinguished,” he said. “And imitating an architectural vocabulary simply because it’s there isn’t an appropriate response nowadays.”
And Kenneth Laub, a commercial real estate broker who created and for many years led the block association, couldn’t be more pleased.
“Both Mr. Eurnekian and Mr. Viñoly consulted with us about the design,” said Mr. Laub, whose 8,000-square-foot town house across the street, complete with atrium, portable frescoes and eight working marble fireplaces, is on the market with Halstead for nearly $28 million. “Originally Rafael proposed a facade with dark brown metal louvers, which to be honest we weren’t crazy about. But we talked, and I suggested some ideas, and he was very cooperative. What they ended up with is much softer and nicer.”
Mr. Laub realizes that the story could have ended quite differently. “But both men say they love what this street has become and they want to get along with their neighbors,” he said. “Name a street as beautiful as this. And if Viñoly’s building is impressive and brings greater credence to the street, we’re happy.”
Ask architects and urban historians why infatuation with the look of the traditional 19th-century town house, a beloved feature of so many New York neighborhoods, seems to be waning in some quarters, and the answers are many and varied.
To start with, the city’s vintage town houses aren’t getting any younger.
“When the brownstone revival movement started, the effort was to restore buildings,” said Brendan Coburn, a Brooklyn architect who so radically transformed his Carroll Gardens row house that everything behind the red-brick facade is brand-new. “But in the past 40 years these houses have aged a lot. Many have fallen apart. They need major electrical and mechanical work.” If the innards of a building are being redone and a facade is crumbling, he said, an owner might choose to redo the entire look.
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