Scaling the Heights: Rare assets of light & air

The sunrises are really something at Jean-Paul Noens' house, even though it faces west.

The long rear yard behind his historic house at 115 Columbia Heights lets the dawn right in through the back windows.

“When the sun rises, the whole house is lit up,” said Noens, who picked out the Brooklyn Heights property in 1997 and uses it as his primary residence. “I'm fortunate to have a corner house, so I get light the entire day.”

The lot on which his house is situated runs 101 feet along Pineapple Street, with enough room for a garden and a cobblestone driveway.

The lovely yard is a prime example of prized open spaces in private hands that lend extra light, air and views to surrounding buildings. Eye on Real Estate has been examining these rare spaces and their value to the neighborhood in a series of stories. See our most recent story– which shared the reminiscences of Robert Z. Aliber, a former Heights resident who fought 50 years ago to keep a chunk of Grace Court's iconic gardens from being used as a site for a 1960s apartment building.

At Noens' home there's room to spare out back even though a prior owner put an addition on it.

“We believe it was built between 1880 and 1900,” said Noens, who knows things like that because he's interested in the history of the nearly two century-old home. He is only its sixth owner.

Neighborhood residents who spend a lot of time looking at other people's real estate have probably noticed that the red brick facade of the back appendage doesn't quite match that of the main house. Workmen “were more plentiful with the mortar” near the end of the 19th century than when 115 Columbia Heights was built in 1835, he explained.  

The rear yard of 115 Columbia Heights, at left, an oasis of light and air. Photo by Natalie Ingle

Land-marking precludes him from building any further extensions on his home – “Exterior-wise I can't make changes,” he said. But Noens, who once told he thinks of his residences as “museums,” wouldn't want to mess with any new additions even if he could.

“It's my favorite of my houses,” said Noens, who owns an air freight business, International Logistic Services.

What's the dollar value of the light, air and serenity his ample yard affords him?

“I have no idea because I haven't put the house on the market,” he said.

Nor does he intend to: “I'm in it for the long haul,” said Noens, who grew up in Astoria, Queens. “I would never sell the Columbia Heights house. I really love Brooklyn Heights.

“You get the best of both worlds. You can go to Manhattan to do what you have to do, and be in the tranquility of a place that's guarded and reserved.”

The creation of Brooklyn Bridge Park nearby “added a little traffic,” he said – but he doesn't mind. “It's great for Brooklyn and the city that they're doing all these beautiful things,” he said.

When he chose the house, a rear yard was on his list of must-haves: “I was married with two small children. I thought it advantageous for them to have a yard to play in,” he recalled.

Noens bought the house from the late Martin Segal, an important figure in the city's cultural scene who was chairman of Lincoln Center from 1981 to 1986.

Its rear yard of course lets extra light and air into the back of the rental apartment building next door, 113 Columbia Heights. Both it and 111 Columbia Heights belong through LLCs to real estate investor Peter Yatrakis and his son Demetrios.

The yard also adds to the open space surrounding the freestanding 1830s house at 13 Pineapple St.


* 25 Remsen St.: The gold standard for Brooklyn Heights private gardens is, of course, the stunning spread of trees, flowers and lawns on Grace Court. Even with an apartment building eating up part of the space, the Grace Court gardens are breathtaking.

But another verdant venue with a style all its own has also captured a piece of our heart. It's on the opposite side of Remsen Street from the historic homes for which the Grace Court gardens serve as rear yards.

Charm and whimsy are the order of the day in the garden at 25 Remsen St. Photo by Lore Croghan

The charming garden situated alongside 25 Remsen St. is a mini-wonderland of statues sprouting among potted plants, graced by a long-gowned classical maiden, a birdbath – and much more.    

It's a sculptural version of the Peaceable Kingdom, with many canines in the statue menagerie alongside dainty fawns, a pair of regal lions on twin pedestals and a red fox poised to pounce.

Lions in the statue garden at 25 Remsen St. Photo by Lore Croghan

There are winsome dogs with sticks in their mouths, and dog statues diving into the earth with only their hindquarters visible. We've seen small children on walks with their parents stop in front of the garden's claire-voie fence to wave to the dog statues inside.

The garden's dose of gentle whimsy, a rare sight among Heights homes, is all the more endearing because this co-op building on the corner of Montague Terrace is serious real estate. An apartment there recently sold for $1.575 million.

A beloved resident, the late Patricia Molohan, created the garden.

“She always loved pets,” recalled Marc Agger, a former resident of the building.

Dog statues in the garden at 25 Remsen St. Photo by Lore Croghan

Her husband, Jerry Molohan, continues to live in their ground-floor apartment with the statues out in the garden for company. He's a “very august man,” Agger said, a Jehovah's Witness who stood up for his religious beliefs as a conscientious objector during World War II and consequently was incarcerated in Leavenworth federal prison.

A March 1943 affidavit from fellow Jehovah's Witness Homer W. Hunter, posted online by the Kansas Historical Society, offers a glimpse of the tribulations that beset Jerry Molohan during that era.

They and a third man, all ordained ministers and representatives of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, were set upon by a mob in the town of Sedan, Kansas, the affidavit said. An American Legionnaire was one of its alleged leaders.

Molohan and his two fellow ministers were beaten by the mob. He and one of them were “somewhat injured” and the third man's “face and head were badly bruised,” said the sworn statement, which was sent to then-U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle.

We tried to reach Molohan, hoping he would give us a garden tour and reminisce, but he wasn't at home.

As for more worldly matters, the garden lets in an extra dose of air and light that benefits the co-ops on the back side of 25 Remsen and the apartments with west-facing windows at 33 Remsen St., a rental building that has belonged since 1991 to Yuco Realty.

The statue garden sits at one end of a corridor of rear yards that stretches the full length of Montague Terrace. The other end is a fenced-in enclosure next to 62-64 Montague St. The corridor is graced with tall trees.

* 77 Willow St. and 104 Hicks St.: There are two view corridors on either side of Pineapple Street between Willow and Hicks Streets, both with trees standing like sentinels behind opaque fences.

The enclosure behind 77 Willow St. improves the view out the back windows of neighboring 75A Willow St., a five-story brownstone that sold last year for $3.075 million. The vista is also enhanced by the beautiful carriage house across the way at 31 Pineapple St.

Light and air behind 77 Willow St., left, as seen from Pineapple St. Photo by Josh Ross

“You get extra light,” said Sam Ahmad of Creative Renovations, who's in charge of remaking two-family 75A Willow into a single-family home. “And look at that view; you feel like you're in France or Italy.”

He agreed the view is valuable but explained, “You can't put numbers on it. It's the face of how old and historic this neighborhood is.”

The open space on the other side of Pineapple, behind 104 Hicks St., is splendid. But the owner  of the rental apartment building apparently doesn't want it to seem too inviting.

There's forbidding barbed wire on the fence behind 104 Hicks St., as seen from Pineapple St. Photo by Josh Ross

The vine-covered fence is topped with forbidding strands of barbed wire, something we don't often see surrounding Heights homes.

“Look if you must – but keep your distance,” is the message it sends.

We wanted to ask landlord Sguera Properties what's up with that, but didn't get a call back.