By John B. Manbeck
Special to Brooklyn Deaily Eagle
Everett Ortner, the Brooklyn preservationist who with his wife, Evelyn, helped re-invent Park Slope, died May 22 of a heart attack and complications from a fall on May 3, according to his spokesperson, Joann Chan. He was 92 and died in New York Methodist Hospital.
After co-founding the Brownstone Revival Committee of New York in 1968, he worked in the 1970s with the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, now National Grid, to develop the Cinderella Projects that promoted Brooklyn’s historic communities. Cinderella grants helped to install gas lamps, assisted in renovations — some based on the suggestions of Evelyn Ortner — and underwrote a series of Brownstone Fairs and films including “The Brownstones of Berkeley Place" and “The Brownstones of Brooklyn.”
When I interviewed Everett Ortner in 2010, he commented, “Brownstones were acceptable but certainly not fashionable.” The Ortners once were offered two houses on Sixth Avenue for $25,000.
At the time, malaise and abandonment swept Park Slope from Fifth Avenue to Prospect Park. Realtors approached glorious brownstones and sandstones primarily to reconfigure them into rooming houses or to demolish them. In 1963, the Ortners purchased the 1886 Elsie Hinkins home at 272 Berkeley Place for $32,000, which remained original and pristine throughout their lifetime. Within the past five years, Ortner was offered over $4 million for his home.
Ortner, born in Lowell, Mass., into a middle-class household, moved to Brooklyn, where his father sold medical supplies. As a graduate of the University of Arkansas, a first-class school with “reasonable rates,” Ortner earned a degree in humanities and skill as a writer. But that was 1939 when jobs were scarce and a war was just around the corner.
He fought in France and Germany, emerging from World War II as a lieutenant, having spent seven months as a German prisoner-of-war.
After his release, Ortner returned to New York where he found the publishing field had opened and editors willingly hired returning G.I.s. He eventually landed on the editorial staff of “Popular Science“ magazine and a career that allowed him to travel, write stories, take pictures and have a wonderful life between 1953 and 1985 when he retired as editor-in-chief.
The Ortners had lived in Brooklyn Heights in the 1960s, where brownstones were selling for $35,000 and up. Park Slope houses were from zero and up. In 1963, the Ortners bought their brownstone and proceeded to work on a program to promote Park Slope.
They contacted new Park Slope residents in 1965 — Ortner recalled that there were 40 of them in total — to ask them to encourage friends to invest in a resurging neighborhood. None of the newcomers ever complained. Houses they bought for $20,000 now bring in millions.
In 1972, the brownstone revival was taken one step further. Funded by Brooklyn Union, Everett Ortner founded a “Back to the City” movement, a national drive to promote urban revival. A weekend program drew 250 representatives to New York from 81 cities—all looking for programs to bring new life to dying American cities. Both Ortners went international in 1998 and founded an exchange program for French and American volunteers to work on preservation programs. In 2010, an interview with Everett Ortner was recorded by Brooklyn College for its Archive Library.
As Everett Ortner said, brownstones and sandstones are not distinctive to Brooklyn but they make Brooklyn distinctive. We know what happens when no one cares: a city dies. Everett and Evelyn Ortner made sure it didn’t happen to Brooklyn.
Evelyn Ortner died in 2006. The Ortners had no children but have relatives in Cleveland, Ohio; Westchester, NY; and Delray Beach, Florida. Funeral plans have not been finalized. Evelyn Ortner is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery.