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Legendary garden row not without woe

This painting by Ogden Pleissner depicts the Grace Court gardens that stood behind Stephen Olsen's Remsen Street home before an apartment building was constructed in the early 1960s.

Pre-Landmarks Encroachment Scarred Grace Court Treasures

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Surely, the gardens of Grace Court are some of the most stellar open spaces in all of Brooklyn Heights.

Through their claire-voie fence we see them: A profusion of foliage, flowers and artful landscaping and glimpses of verdant lawns on side-by-side lots an eye-popping 180 feet long. The historic homes for which the gardens serve as rear yards are situated all the way down on the sidewalk's edge on Remsen Street.

Imagine how much more breathtaking the gardens would be if they formed one uninterrupted stretch of gracious greenery – instead of two unequally sized spans separated by 1960s apartment building 45 Grace Court.

Former Heights resident Robert Z. Aliber remembers how gorgeous the garden was before it was broken in two by the construction of a six-story, 33-apartment building in the prized rear yards of 40, 42 and 44 Remsen St. – and how neighborhood residents felt about the developer who hatched the plan.

Robert Aliber. Photo courtesy of the Center on Capitalism and Society, Columbia University."

“People were pissed,” Aliber, a distinguished economist who now lives in Hanover, N.H., bluntly told us. “The gardens had been there since the Civil War. There were 13 of them.”

Eye on Real Estate has been looking into the value of open spaces in the Heights, a neighborhood of historic – and hugely pricey – real estate where preservationists strive to protect each sliver of light and air, and developers look for ways to do as much building as the law allows.

Take a look at some of our other online pieces, if you missed them, about the neighborhood's open spaces.

The fight to keep the Remsen Street/Grace Court gardens intact took place in the years just prior to the Heights' designation as New York City's first-ever city Historic District, in 1965.

Aliber and some of his neighbors brought a state Supreme Court case against the developer, Remsen Street Company, for its plan to combine big chunks of the three gardens into a construction site for an apartment building.

Present-day view of the Grace Court garden scene painted by Ogden Pleissner - 45 Grace Court stands there now.  Photo by Josh Ross

He had moved to 44 Remsen St. in 1959 with his wife and child; their second child was born during their stay. They lived up a flight of stairs in a two-room apartment.

“The 'music room' had beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows,” he recalled. “We had access to a deck and the garden. We shared the garden with the people on the ground floor. We had a sandbox and the children played in it.”

A half-century after its destruction, he recalled his back garden was “lovely,” and made us wish we had seen it.

“It had marvelous azaleas along the Grace Court fence. And behind our house was the oldest elm tree in Brooklyn,” said Aliber, who at that time was an economist for the Commission on Money and Credit, whose office was on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a few blocks from St. Patrick's Cathedral.  

The elm, which dated back to before the Revolutionary War, suffered “mutilation” during the apartment construction and was later removed, according to the second edition of  Clay Lancaster's book “Old Brooklyn Heights: New York's First Suburb.”

Lush summer greenery of Grace Court gardens seen from on high  Photo by Rob Abruzzesse

The trouble started when the owner of 40, 42 and 44 Remsen, whom Aliber recalled as “a faceless corporation,” got the city's go-ahead to use most of his garden as a development site.

“It was theft,” he said. “I rented the whole space. They were taking away part of the garden I was paying rent for.”

Brooklyn state Supreme Court Judge Edward G. Baker dismissed the plaintiffs' complaints against the developer in 1961. The judge ruled that complaining tenants had rights to light and air through their windows, according to an online summary of the decision. But there was going to be a space of 60 feet between their windows and the new apartment building's rear wall, which would be sufficient to let the sunshine in, he ruled.

Aliber left the Heights in 1961 because he got a job that was “good for my career,” on the research staff of the Committee for Economic Development in Washington.

Present-day view of the Grace Court garden scene painted by Ogden Pleissner - 45 Grace Court stands there now. Photo by Josh Ross

He went on to become a professor of international economics and finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business from 1965 to 2004, with expertise in changes in cross-border capital flows and currency values, and the efficiency of the currency market.

As a professor emeritus, he devotes his time to writing. The Financial Times chose “Manias, Panics and Crashes,” a book he co-wrote, as “one of the best investment books of all time.” He also wrote “Your Money and Your Life: A Lifetime Approach to Money Management,” a personal-finance how-to.

“Once every 10 years I come to New York City – and I visit the Heights for the nostalgia,” he said.

“The Heights looks splendid,” he said, praising the fine shape the Promenade is in.

As far as he's concerned, though, there is an eyesore in the neighborhood – the apartment building he unsuccessfully fought.

“It's a travesty,” he said bitingly.

Plans to construct 45 Grace Court also withstood a lawsuit in which owners of neighboring properties alleged zoning violations. In 1963, the state Supreme Court's Appellate Division, Second Department affirmed an earlier judgment, ruling that the development plans conformed to zoning regulations that were in effect when they were approved.

Now that Brooklyn Heights is a landmarked neighborhood, could a developer ever take another bite out of the beloved gardens?

Garden detail at 42 Remsen St. Photo by Rob Abruzzese

“Over the years a few developers thought of building on those lots or building extensions [onto the houses there] and none were willing to move forward,” a source told us. The reason? “Fear of the Brooklyn Heights Association,” said the source, who declined to reveal the developers' names.

Donald Brennan, a member of BHA's board, said there's a “zero probability” of new construction on the Grace Court end of the garden lots.

“From a landmarking perspective, I would be very surprised if anything would ever be allowed to be built in the gardens,” he said.

“Those gardens contribute to the quality of life, not only of the people who possess them,” said the founder and principal broker of Brennan Realty Services, who lives at 26 Remsen St. and owns the house at 24 Remsen St. as an investment.

“The uniqueness and openness they create is a benefit to all the neighborhood,” he said.

Brennan's properties are at the western end of the block, where there are buildings in the rear instead of gardens that run all the way to Grace Court.

At 24 Remsen, he created a 15-foot-deep back garden by removing a non-historic extension from the house. At 26 Remsen, he removed an extension from the house which occupied 50% of the garden – and created a 25-foot-deep garden.

“I want to point out that it's very rare that someone removes square footage from a house,” he said. The increased light and air in the back rooms of the two properties adds “tremendous value” to the square footage that remains, he said.

At 24 Remsen, which is divided into four condos he's offering for sale, the first deal just closed at $1.73 million for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit.

Brennan, who had an architecture practice for many years, lived at 45 Grace Court when he first moved to Brooklyn Heights in 1994. He found the building “jarring aesthetically” but sublet a studio there.

“I lived there because it was what I could afford,” he said. “As an architect, I always thought it odd and unfortunate the building was put there.”

Stephen Olsen, who lives in a duplex with wife Cristina Delgado at 42 Remsen St., feels it's too late in the game for him to regret that his building's garden was carved up to create the site for 45 Grace Court.

Stephen Olsen's garden at 42 Remsen St. is a summer oasis. Photo by Rob Abruzzese

“You can't look back,” he said.

He knows what his garden looked like when it stretched all the way to Grace Court; there's a painting of it by artist Ogden Pleissner that the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased in 1932.

The painting is in a book Olsen found at the Strand many years ago. He likes fly fishing, which is why he was looking for books on the artist in the first place; Pleissner is a noted painter of sporting scenes.

Though the lot behind his house was shortened, nevertheless it's 120 feet deep, while most Brooklyn Heights lots are 100 feet deep. His garden gets enough sunlight to grow roses. A towering 70-foot Blue Atlas cedar partly obscures the view of the back wall of 45 Grace Court. The “extraordinary bird life” includes cardinals, mourning doves and finches – and sightings last year of a red-tailed hawk.

“Otis Pearsall always tells me I should get the garden owners together to sign a compact or deed preventing any further development in the gardens,” Olsen said.

The Heights' preeminent campaigner for historic preservation created an easement that gives the New York Landmarks Conservancy the perpetual right to forbid “topographical changes” or new construction in the garden of his carriage house at 151 Willow St., as Eye on Real Estate recently reported.

Garden detail at 42 Remsen St. Photo by Rob Abruzzese

Olsen thinks it would be hard for a developer to get the ball rolling on any new construction on the Remsen Street garden properties given their multifamily use. “Getting decisions made – just getting agreement – would be extremely difficult,” he said.

Beyond that, he thinks the owners would not want to give up their distinctive green space.

“The gardens add to the value of the properties,” he said. “They make for such incredibly unique homes.

“I couldn't imagine living without a garden,” said Olsen – whose strategy for picking out plants is “keep it pretty, so it's easy and doesn't dominate your life.”

Stephen Olsen in his garden with his dog, Belle. Photo by Rob Abruzzese

A resident of 45 Grace Court called the past fight against its construction “ancient history” and said the building's garden draws compliments. The head of the co-op board could not be reached by deadline.

* 75 Henry St. and 65 Middagh St.: In the Heights, even the open spaces that are short on good looks boost the values of surrounding real estate.

Take the concrete-walled parking lot on Henry and Middagh Streets, which is used by residents of 75 Henry St. It provides a view corridor to Cadman Plaza Park for the new condo building under construction at 30 Henry St., the former site of Brooklyn Eagle offices.

And on the Middagh Street side of the development – which has views of the Brooklyn Bridge – the presence of a parking lot at 65 Middagh St. is another lucky break.

“There aren't many of these open spaces in Brooklyn Heights,” said Deborah Rieders, associate broker at Corcoran, who's marketing the condos at five-unit 30 Henry. “Typically, if there's open space a developer will snap it up. These are rare and valuable boosts to light, air and privacy.

“I wouldn't be able to quantify it, but these views make the property extremely valuable and appealing,” she said.

Four of the five units are in contract, at their asking prices, with the costliest being the $4.95 million penthouse. Expected occupancy is November.

The air rights from the 75 Henry St. parking lot may have been used to build the co-op tower, with little or no buildable square footage left for a would-be developer.

David Grillo, the co-op's manager, said as far as he knows, 75 Henry's board has never discussed the subject of selling the parking lot: “No one's ever brought it up.”

The parking lot at 65 Middagh lends extra light and air to properties all around it: The side of the condo building at 20 Henry St. that was the Peaks Mason Mints candy factory, the back apartments of 80 Poplar St. – and the rear units of condo conversion 72 Poplar St.

Rendering of 72 Poplar St., a condo conversion that will get extra light and air in the back from a Middagh Street parking lot. Courtesy of the Daten Group

“It certainly makes it more appealing to buyers to have a view of something other than another person's windows,” said Craig Rosenman, vice president of acquisitions at the Daten Group, which is turning the century-old former 84th Precinct building at 72 Poplar into 13 condos.

“We'll be able to get a slightly higher price for the units as well as hopefully have an easier time selling them,” he said.

The marketing of the condos is expected to start in September. The asking price will be $4 million for a 3-bedroom unit – with a rear garden. Occupancy is expected in first-quarter 2014.

* 45 Monroe Place: The state Supreme Court's Appellate Division, Second Department courthouse at 45 Monroe Place has a parking lot that holds pride of place on a prime location on Pierrepont Street.

The lot is city property, Court spokesman David Bookstaver told us.

The Department of Citywide Administrative Services didn't get back to us by deadline about whether the city would ever consider selling the parking facility to a developer. But the president of the co-op board next door at 161 Henry St. had plenty to say.

Ten or 15 years ago, there was talk of a plan to expand the courthouse into the parking lot, but it never materialized, Donald Pandina recalled.

“I hate to raise the specter of using the parking lot for development – I don't want to give anybody any ideas,” he said.

“Our building would frown on it. It's something I hope we'll never have to deal with.”

** What privately owned open spaces in Brooklyn Heights do you cherish – or worry about? Are there any with a wow factor that we should mention? Are any causing you anxiety, like the parking lot at 295 Hicks St. that now belongs to a developer?

Drop us a line at letters@brooklyneagle.com and tell us what you're thinking.

July 31, 2013 - 10:00am


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