By Phoebe Neidl
BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — It has been seven years since the residents of 177-179 Columbia Heights realized that the facade of their building was a work of art.
In 2005 they discovered lavish ornamentation adorning the first two floors of their 29-unit co-op building in an Italian design technique known as sgraffito. The pictorial of fruit, flowers and mythical creatures, which dates back to 1920, was faded and water-damaged and had been hidden under a coat of yellow paint for decades.
Despite the desperate condition of the unexpected find, the co-op board felt it had something special on its hands and was resolved to salvage it. They have finally succeeded.
“It feels wonderful to have finally finished the restoration,” says Joe Levine, a building resident who spearheaded the research into the facade after its discovery. Levine accepted an award for the restoration on behalf of the building from the Brooklyn Heights Association at its annual meeting in February.
“Actually the restoration work itself took less than six months,” he told the Eagle. “What took all those years was for the board to figure out how to pay for it. And as board membership changed, we had to bring new members into the loop and start the discussions all over again.”
After finally re-mortgaging the building to raise the more than $300,000 for the restoration, in July 2011 the co-op hired art restoration experts Gabriel and Lucia Popian, a Romanian-born couple who have restored sculpture, art and architecture all over the world, including at the Vatican.
The sgraffito restoration now complete, the embellished facade stands in striking contrast to the other buildings on the street, and has become an eye-catching novelty in the neighborhood — fulfilling what was most likely its original purpose.
Alex Herrera of The New York Landmarks Conservancy, who was the first to identify the design on Columbia Heights as sgraffito, speculated at that time that it might have been done “to give the building more prestige, to look high-class.”
According to Gabriel Popian, the sgraffito technique, which involves putting down layers of plaster in contrasting colors, and then making the design by scratching away at the top layer, was developed during the Italian Renaissance. It was a cheaper alternative to carved or etched marble but became a form of mural art in its own right. Its use spread throughout Europe and it gained popularity in England in the 19th century.
“Probably this may be the most logical link for Columbia Heights’ sgraffito,” he says. “A lot of commerce was done with England. I [would] not be surprised to hear that the sgraffito idea was imported from England. Many local artists were trained in Europe at that time, being infused with neoclassical art forms.”
Department of Buildings records show several alterations were filed for the property in 1919, soon after it was sold by the longtime owner, Matilda S. Mygatt, to Studio Apartment Company, Inc.
The Sept. 12, 1920, issue of the Brooklyn Eagle published a small article on the building. It was at this time that the two separate buildings at 177 and 179 Columbia Heights were converted into the single 27-unit building it is today. The architect, Lathrop Finlayson, is quoted in the article: “Not only were these two houses like all the others on the same street but they were much shabbier and uglier. They were two separate houses with fronts of dull green sandstone. We turned it into a double house, architecturally treated as one.”
The stoops were removed and the central entryway that unifies the building was added. The term sgraffito was not used, but the article mentions an “artistic and individual façade” that was “attracting considerable attention.” A photo published with the article shows the sgraffito.
Sgraffito is not a common design technique in the United States. There are a few other known surviving examples of sgraffito in New York City, such as at the abutting Booth and Shubert Theaters, and the landmarked Belnord Apartment Building on the Upper West Side.
Exactly who was responsible for originally creating the Columbia Heights sgraffito remains a mystery, for now. “I’m envisioning a folder somewhere in the city archives that holds the actual permit from 1919, which could give us a whole lot more clues,” Levine says.
Whoever it was that created the sgraffito, the Popians were very impressed with the level of their craftmanship.
“The work needs to be done very fast with extreme precision while the cements are still uncured,” explained Gabriel Popian. “The work has embedded in its execution the artistic touch, the intensity of creative act, and the passion of keeping a fresh and alive vibration to the texture and color strokes.”
They also believe that there may have been two different craftsmen who worked on it.
“During the work we discovered that the upper and lower murals differed in craftsmanship… The facade has two different styles,” Popian explained. “The upper mural is adorned in an Imperial-French Neoclassic style, developed during the Napoleonic era. Heraldic eagles, urns, stylized floral wreaths, angel heads, and rope-like borders are seen. The lower facade is more pictorial, figural, and allegorical. It is designed with an infusion of Romanesque floral and fruit decorations and Italian Renaissance-revived mythical characters.”
The work would hardly have been possible without the help of a photo from the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection. The picture was taken in 1920 for the Brooklyn Eagle when the façade was brand new. Using a high-resolution copy of it, the Popians were able to “decode all the decorative details” and recreate portions of the sgraffito that had been damaged so badly they had all but disappeared.
“It amazes me that that the photo was taken when the work was new, and that it was preserved and just waiting for us in the library,” said Levine.
In addition to restoring the sgraffito itself, the Popians had to address structural repairs to the facade. Sgraffito is more often found in warmer, drier climates, and the water damage it was susceptible to by being in the northeastern U.S. was compounded by flaws in the way it was originally mounted.
The sgraffito had been attached to a brick wall, which was in turn attached to the original sandstone facade. Moisture leaking between the two walls accelerated the damage, not only to the sgraffito, but to the entire entryway that had been constructed to unify the building back in 1919.
The Popians added waterproof leaded copper to fortify the restoration, ensuring that the sgraffito will last for generations to come.
“We attempted to infuse in our work the same amount of love, enthusiasm and passion as the original craftsman did,” Popian said.