Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Some recent architecture in Brooklyn Heights

We are all fortunate that New York 2000, by Robert AM Stern, volume five of the oceanic survey, which, according to the author, "chronicles milestones in the city's history over the last thirty years", has just been published. The architectural critic, James Gardner, writing in The New York Sun, states, "Simply put, NY 2000 with its four preceding volumes, represents the fullest and finest historical account of any city ever attempted .......describing in a fluent and co-ordinated narrative each noteworthy building they encounter". The author, Tom Wolfe, writing in Sunday's New York Times, describes Robert AM Stern as one of the "Two most eminent architectural historians in the United States", and Mr. Stern as "the definitive historian of New York architecture."

Architects working in the Brooklyn Heights Historic District, these past thirty years have, unfortunately, not always been subject to oversight and criticism by authorities and critics with the same level of professional expertise, and architectural qualifications as the authors of New York 2000.

In remarks to the Historic Districts Council held at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, and later printed in The Brooklyn Heights Press, March 15, 2001, a popular and successful local community activist, who now fancies himself the arbiter of what should, and should not be built in historic districts, Mr. Otis Pratt Pearsall, "a name largely foreign" to the authors of New York 2000, had a number of curious and uninformed remarks to make about the new architecture in Brooklyn Heights since the 1965 Landmarking decision.

As regards Joseph Stella's 125 Joralemon Street and 21 Grace Court Alley, Pearsall states with the full confidence of his architectural wisdom or lack thereof, that the two buildings are "as remote as it is possible to be" from the "standard of the best possible contemporary design.....These 1990's experiments in ersatz history by Joseph Stella...use a variety of historical references largely foreign (?) to indigenous Heights architecture, to produce what strikes me as a Disney-like mockery of historic preservation." An eager acolyte of the Activist, writing as Consultant Editor for The Brooklyn Heights Press at the time, one Henrik Krogius, another name "largely foreign" to the authors of New York 2000, apparently a graduate of the same august school of architecture as the Activist, and equally lacking in architectural insight or discernment, effuses and totally concurs with the Activist, stating that 125 was ignored by the AIA Guide, and "lacks any depth in architectural detail; it is flat as a stage backdrop...". He further insightfully adds that the "1950's one-story ranch-house building that (that 125 replaced) though certainly a curiosity in the Heights, ought to have been preserved as part of the Historic District". Based on this "Krogius Standard", most every structure standing in the historic district, no matter how visually jarring, out of scale or inappropriate to the historic district should be preserved, simply because it is there. Gracious, the man exudes a perspicacity, and acuity wildly in advance of his times.

In New York 2000, by Robert AM Stern, considered to be the definitive historian of NYC architecture, he states "More remarkable, in a way, was Joseph Stella's 125 Joralemon Street, between Henry and Clinton Streets a three-story, 1,700-square-foot house that replaced a tiny, distinctly suburban, red brick house from the early 1950's designed by Morris Rothstein. With its red brick and stone-trim cladding, triplets of round arched windows, and a central gable, the new house was also intended to relate architecturally to C.P.H. Gilbert's Daniel Chauncey house [1891], next door at 129 Joralemon Street, for which it now resembled a carriage house."

Stern continues in New York 2000, regarding 21 Grace Court Alley, (recipient in 2003 of Awards for Design Excellence from both the New York Council, and National Council of The Society of American Registered Architects, and in 2006 The California Council of the Society of American Registered Architects), "Stella's 21 Grace Court Alley, a scaled down version of 125 Joralemon Street, also resembled a carriage house replacing a small, two-story, mid-nineteenth-century brick stable located at the terminus of a quiet mews that had once served houses on Remsen and Joralemon Streets. In order to fit in with the scale of its neighbors, Stella cleverly designed the house to appear twice as wide and one story taller than its predecessor, a fiction necessitated by zoning that prevented additional square footage on the site. In fact, the new house was the same size as the one it replaced: half of the new facade was false. A garage door on the first floor led to an outdoor entrance court, and second-story window openings were left unglazed to offer views from an open-air terrace behind them. The third floor provided new attic space that did not count as floor area. Round arched windows and a gabled roof allowed the house to approach the charm of its setting".

A close reading of the Brooklyn Heights Historic District section in New York 2000 could conceivably lead the reader to conclude that Joseph Stella's 125 Joralemon Street and 21 Grace Court Alley were probably the most successful buildings constructed in the Brooklyn Heights Historic District during the period that the book surveys: the Bicentennial to the Millennium. One would hope that the dilettantes, poseurs and pretenders to architectural insights, perched upon their bully pulpits of the moment would keep Robert AM Stern's five volume series covering NYC architecture close at hand, before expounding their pompous, superficial, ill-informed pronouncements.


Anonymous said...

Very well put!

Anonymous said...

As Pound said of Eliot, so too are you sweet Joseph, il miglior fabbro.

Anonymous said...

excellent points and the details are more precise than somewhere else, thanks.

- Norman

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